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Diary Excerpts

Excerpts from the diaries of selected Power Dinghy expeditions in various parts of Australia.

THE FLOOD, MUD & BOATS EXPEDITION

At 780 kilometres in length, the Murchison is Western Australia‘s second longest river (after the Gascoyne at 804 kilometres).

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The Bus was turned around (7 point turn), the generator was fired up, the boats were unloaded and breakfast was cooked. Mosquitoes were plentiful and persistent. As dawn broke the extent of the river could be more clearly seen. Brent “could not believe the size of this and where we were starting from”. The river was about 100 metres wide and two metres deep – and this was 400 kilometres from the ocean!

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Back on the water Greg was keeping close to the bank when he clipped an obstacle. The motor was not the one usually fitted to that boat and it did not have the usual restraints attached. It kicked up violently, nearly ending inside the boat with Greg and Brent. Brent was no help at all, laughing himself silly, as Greg fought desperately to save the motor from drowning. In the attempt to stop the motor going overboard he nearly went in the water himself. The boat careered crazily all over the river nearly hitting everything in sight before Greg got it under control and onto the bank. A bit of rope was used to secure the motor more securely and they took off again.

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The psychological importance of a successful rendezvous at the first checkpoint cannot be underestimated. There’s a lot of river out there and not many roads to civilisation! The boat crews found Billabalong Station. The support crew found the Station. Unfortunately their timing did not coincide – there was no rendezvous.

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The sky was dark. A huge storm was brewing in the south west. First came the lightning, then heavy rain. On the water the boat crews were cold. The wind that accompanied the heavy rain, coupled with the speed of the boats, introduced a “wind chill factor” with which the boat crews were not adequately dressed to cope.

Epton’s last words to me were, “Don’t get bogged!”. The rain had turned the top 100mm of the road into mud and The Bus was slowing down. I gently glud (I’ll leave the reader to ponder the validity of this neologism – Ed) the gear stick into 3rd and floored the bastard – which didn’t really change things. The Bus was sliding from one side of the road to the other with the wheels spinning all the way. Every time I tried 4th gear it went sliding around like an 8 tonne “epileptic jellyfish in a bucket of mud”. This continued for at least three kilometres.

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The track was like a river. The crew in the 4WD continued towards the Murchison River. Water spread out for as far as the eye could see. Tony and Kim decided that “we have to get out of here”. The amount of rain falling could isolate the area for days. They considered that the condition of the track would make it extremely difficult if not impossible for the 4WD to make two trips to pick up the four boats and crews – they would have to be transported in one go. The vehicle was slithering all over the track. With each long pool of water the doubt over getting through to the river increased. The slippery surface was made worse when a herd of horses shot out from the scrub onto the track and persisted in running along in front of the 4WD, cutting up the track more. They refused to deviate from the track and Tony could do nothing but keep the vehicle moving in their wake.

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Further upstream the boat crews entered masses of ti tree extending for many kilometres. Greg reckoned that these “were the best ti-trees I have ever seen”. For Brent it was “absolutely fantastic”. It was difficult keeping the boats on the plane finding a path through the thickets. Adrian reflected that there would be just as much difficulty getting through the trees on the return journey.

The heliograph (signalling mirror) was very effective in getting the attention of the boat crews.

The further upriver from The Loop the boat crews pushed, the bigger and stronger the rapids became. Greg reflected, “the rapids were hard to get up and heaps of fun. We got stuck on a rapid, there were a few hairy moments”:

Blasting over rapids and through ti trees the boat crews made extremely good time. Out of the cliffs and on the coastal plain.

The Murchison River above Milly Milly is ephemeral and its navigability to power dinghies, or even paddle craft, is questionable. The first Murchison River Expedition in 1994 started at Milly Milly crossing and finished at the Galena Bridge on the North West Coastal Highway – a distance of approximately 400 kilometres. The 1995 Murchison Gorges Expedition covered from Galena Bridge to Hardabut Rapids (14 kilometres) and then powered upriver 55 kilometres from Kalbarri to The Loop. This left approximately 56 kilometres between Hardabut Rapids and The Loop un-navigated by power dinghy. In respect of reducing the distance to be navigated, this 3rd Murchison River Expedition was not very successful – only 10 kilometres was covered. However, the remaining distance is constantly decreasing. The last 46 un-navigated kilometres of the river present the greatest difficulty because of inaccessibility, however, it is merely a matter planning and waiting for the right water level. Hopefully, the crews of the yet-to-be-organised 4th Murchison River Expedition will power down the remaining distance and successfully conclude what will be the first ever navigation of the Murchison by any type of craft.


THE MURCHISON GORGES EXPEDITION

As David and Tony crested a hill in the Landcruiser they saw a huge rapid that stretched as far as they could see in both directions, up and down river. The Hardabut Rapids, fourteen kilometres down river from the Galena Bridge at the edge of the Kalbarri National Park, are about four times as wide and six times as long as anything on the Avon River

The flat water approach gave those in the dinghies no idea that they had hit such a substantial obstacle. It drops about forty metres over its 1200 metre length in a confusion of raging, white-flecked, brown water. The massive volume of water charging through innumerable drops, falls and shoots was difficult to comprehend. The speed of the water was frightening. Estimates varied from twenty-five to thirty kilometres per hour. The roar of the water could be heard over the outboard motor. On land it could be heard before one got out of the vehicle. The earthy smell from so much mud and silt in the water was immediately obvious. Spray pumped out from dozens of points.

There was no safe route through this awesome spectacle. In fact, there was no defined route at all. Even if one could select a course through the extended length of the mighty Hardabut Rapids it is doubtful that one could line up or even remember each twist, turn, drop and shoot.

Known by some as The Washing Machine, at peak water level the Hardabut Rapids are frightening. The puny power of an 8hp outboard motor, or even a 10hp, was no match for the river. Coupled with the wildly aerated water it was a case of the river taking the boat where it wanted rather than a driver negotiating a route through.

The power of one huge seventy metre shoot on the far side of the river was awesome. This speeding freight train of water with a huge stopper rock and a four metre hole at the bottom could only be seen clearly through the binoculars – and had to be seen to be believed. It was through here that all five dinghies were drawn. Remarkably, one got through with little difficulty – by going over the rock.

The Hardabut Rapids are difficult to compare to any rapid on the rivers in the south of the State. These southern rivers are like a water pistol in comparison to the Murchison in flood. On the Murchison the obstructing rocks were the size of houses. The drops were bigger than the boats and the volume of water going over them was enormous. The powerful back swirl trapped boats and bobbed them about like corks, spitting them out randomly.

The passage of the five boats through Hardabut was a moving disaster. Boats were tossed around like matchsticks in a maelstrom. The power of the water forced the nightmare downstream. Crews were thrown from the inflatables into the boiling, brown water.

According to Bill the rapid had “the eyes of a tiger and the soul of the Devil. It looked real wild”.

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Kim Thorson had the forethought to erect a shelter at the rear of The Bus that provided shade for the crew as they returned. “Staminade and glucose tablets were going down as fast as the crews were”.

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When things are going wrong, when people have just been through adversity, when it’s hot, when the terrain is challenging, when the work is tough and energy sapping and when everyone is tired, it’s a recipe for disaster. A number of things can prevent total disintegration of the unit. Among them, and paramount, is prior selection of the right personnel. Good leadership is important but the thing that is most effective, and certainly the quickest acting, is to satisfy the inner man with good food. Phil and Kim provided this. Not just good food, excellent food – as good as one could wish, quality restaurant standard and plenty of it. So important! Contemplation of the results of all the problems the Team was experiencing and poor food was disconcerting! Arguments, disagreements, tensions, dummy spitting and discombobulation. How important was Phil and Kim’s catering and cooking? Very!

“The Murchison makes the Avon look like the last day of the Blackwood.” – Shane Kelly.

“I’ll never worry about going down Emus again.” – Cliff Hills.

“The standing waves were so big I couldn’t see the boats in front.” – Cliff Hills.

“Nothing on the Avon will ever worry me again.” – Bill Breheny.

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Scott Overstone’s fitness and Cliff Hills’ persistence made the task easier. It still took four hours.

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The colourfully stratified cliffs were magnificent and in some places were almost perpendicular. Lunch was eaten in the shade of a gum tree at the base of one of these sixty metre cliffs.

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Tony, David, Scott and Bill in the Landcruiser had followed the boats nearly to Murchison House on a different track but had to return after getting bogged. On the return journey they snapped the left rear springs and severely bent the right rear springs of the 4WD Landcruiser.

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“Bocky asked if we had enough fuel to get to Kalbarri. I said yes but I was lying.” – Kim Thorson. About a kilometre from the Caravan Park the motor began to miss and splutter. Kim elevated the tank to get the last precious vapors into the ailing motor.

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Before the flambé could be served for dessert the ice cream had to be retrieved from the mobile home next door where the owners had kindly stored it in their freezer. Someone forgot to tell Bocky that it was guarded by Australia’s biggest Alsatian/Rottweiler cross. Bocky returned as white as the ice cream.

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Hauling the two boats and motors up the cliff and back onto The Bus was hard work but at least on this occasion the distance they had to be carried was only about 100 metres.

THE LAKE BOONDEROO EXPEDITION

The dancing light of David’s fire silhouetted their coffee-sipping customers, spectating on the action around the front of The Bus, the steam wafting from their cups. Brrrr, it was cold!

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The schedule was shot. Dawn had broken and the convoy was a long way short of Coolgardie – instead of at Zanthus. Not long after stomachs began to rumble.

“Stop at the next Parking Bay for breakfast”.

Great idea but the next Parking Bay turned out to be a long way up the track – about five kilometres short of Coolgardie.

It was to be the first use of the new cooking equipment requested by the chefs after the Murchison Gorges Expedition in March. Phil had also brought some new cooking utensils so it was trialling all round. However, there were no complaints after bacon, eggs and toast were served, with muesli available for those who wanted it. For the newcomers this was a chance to see how the group operated. Tony, Greg and Cliff checked tyres, oil, water, hitches, and the generator. Mike and Scott checked the load on the roof rack. John and Adrian assisted the cooks. David took head and shoulder photographs of most of the crew. Altogether an efficient operation.

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The vast expanse of country from Kalgoorlie out towards Karonie (and through which the expedition was now travelling) is known as the Hampton Plains. Salmon gums and mallee predominated around Cowarna Station and Karonie. Wildflowers carpeted the country. The vegetation in this part of the world is never truly green but the trees, bushes and groundcovers all looked robust and healthy after one of the best-ever seasons.

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Just like upstream, downstream of the road the Creek was shallow. The channel crossed from side to side and the boats were soon spread out and looked as if they would have trouble keeping together. It looked as if they would have trouble keeping on the plane!

For an activity that is supposedly water-based, power dinghy expeditions have, over the years, included a lot of walking.

After the boaters returned from their foray downstream there was still nearly half an afternoon’s boating to be had. Phil’s Malibu surfboard was brought out, a rope was found, a handle was fashioned from a conveniently shaped length of salmon gum and it was time to skurf Ponton Pool! There was an appreciative audience sitting in the shade of the camp watching the action. Greg’s lightweight boat powered by a Suzuki 8hp motor had no trouble pulling Phil up on the board. Kim Thorson (former champion surfer) made it look easy and Bocky also tried his hand. As Phil saw it: “Those guys driving the train (The Indian Pacific) must have wondered what in the hell they had come upon. Bit like a scene from Apocalypse Now except most of the time we were our own worst enemy.”

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Last experience had the “old hands” waiting expectantly for Phil and Kim’s culinary masterpiece. The plastic plates detracted not at all from the magic meal. For the first timers, the chefs’ reputations had preceded them.

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Lake Boonderoo’s water starts its journey over 600 kilometres to the north east, at the beginning of Lake Raeside, east of Leonora. The sheer extent of the Lake was difficult to comprehend. At times, when in the centre of its expanse, land could not be seen. Its maximum depth is estimated to be in excess of 20 metres. Full grown trees are flooded by its waters and can be clearly seen from the surface. Based on experience from the one previous flooding, it is believed that it will not dry up until about 2005.

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It was late afternoon. The boating was finished and it was time to relax. The setting sun provided moments of magic as it slipped below the horizon. A cold drink, a comfortable seat in front of the flickering flames of the fire, a few tall tales and life was pretty fine.

Phil decided to remove some extraneous items from inside his Landcruiser so he had enough room to sleep in it. Scott gave him a hand and describes what happened: “Phil and I had grabbed some stuff out of his 4WD and then Phil picked up the fire extinguisher. Somehow the safety pin had been removed so when Phil picked it up it went off with a bang (as they tend to do), half filling his 4WD with powder. Phil was left in a powder cloud wondering what the hell happened. He was peering through the cloud seeing me laughing my head off without any powder on me. I had heard the seal break and knew exactly what had happened and, knowing the consequences, got out of the way.”

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spare parts, lunches, emergency rations and other unnecessary weight were dispensed with for the morning’s run on the Lake. It was planned to find the mouth of Ponton Creek.

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“When the beach landings started everyone was standing around and laughing at the efforts. Then Cliff headed off for supposedly the beach landing to end all beach landings. I could see him winding up on the horizon. There was only one gap left among the other boats. About 30 metres up the path was a rather big log. I started to move it and a few of the guys commented that he wouldn’t even get close. When he went past where the log had been he still had the motor hard into the mud looking for extra drive with sticks and crap flying everywhere.”

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Considerable effort and forethought were put into the selection of the campsite at each of the overnight stops. It was never a case of “This’ll do”. Particular attention was paid to ensuring that the site selected was the best available, in line with Kim’s firm belief that a good site for the overnight stop adds to overall enjoyment of the trip. After all, the food was fine, the experience was exhilarating, the weather was wonderful, the company was convivial; why not make the siting of the Expedition’s temporary home as good as one could get.

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It was time to give truth to the pre-Expedition publicity about boating on McDermid Rock. Adrian’s boat was lugged up the face of McDermid Rock. Scott and Adrian donned helmets and lifejackets. A small pool of water was found and the boat was launched, surrounded by a sea – of granite. It was hot work but eventually the boat was positioned behind the first of the “waves” that characterise McDermid Rock – it’s better than Wave Rock. A rope was tied to the transom, people were positioned to hold the rope, a safety rope was tied around a rock, photographers were in position, stunt men were ready – Go! We had “boated” McDermid Rock.

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As Adrian brought The Bus over the Darling Scarp the lights of the metropolis signalled the end of another successful Expedition.

Greg Barndon:
“Good time, good guys, good food, well organised, when’s the next one?”

Adrian Bock:
I enjoyed the whole shooting match. Shame there was no film in the camera.”

Phil Hargrave:
Maaate! Like, it was the best time!”

John Haynes:
“When’s the next trip?”

Cliff Hills:
“My perception is of a lake as large as Sydney Harbour.”

Mike Lenz:
“It was amazing driving over a lake with a forest underneath.”

Kim Thorson:
“Everyone on this trip pulled their own weight and it was a good team effort.”

David Whitney:
“Like being the first explorers all over again but with modern day equipment.”


THE BLACKWOOD SOURCE EXPEDITION

The reliable flow of the Blackwood River allowed an expedition to be planned along its upper reaches in late August 1994.

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The Blackwood River has its source at the confluence or conflux of the Arthur and Balgarup Rivers, forty kilometres north east of the township of Boyup Brook.

With a mean annual average flow of about 660 million cubic metres per year, the Blackwood is the biggest river in Western Australia’s south west. Measured at Winnejup Falls, about eighteen kilometres upstream from Bridgetown, the average annual flow of the Blackwood River is 300 million cubic metres. So it can be seen that the Blackwood picks up as much water after Winnejup as before.

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The adventure started at the Ualling Road Crossing – five kilometres from the Friday night camp. The old concrete crossing over the Blackwood River was partly washed out. The nearest way across the river was at Trigwell Bridge, many kilometres to the west. After over an hour of “road building” by torch light The Bus crashed over the makeshift path across the Blackwood, suffering only minor panel damage.

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Just before 8.00am the boats blasted off down the Balgarup. It was the start of a history-making trip. After the apparent progress of the boat crews was confirmed the support crew sped off to the Ualling Road Crossing and waited. And waited and waited and waited.

Meanwhile, on the water, the boat crews were tackling what was, for some of them, the toughest bit of boating they had ever done. Only seconds after passing under the Balgarup River Bridge they faced the first of the obstacles – huge clumps of ti trees. These proved to be a headache for the boat crews for the next three and a half hours. As well as having to contend with the ti trees they had to continually manhandle the boats over log jams, drag them through shallow water, lift them over fallen trees and push them through fallen branches.

The banks of the river were sloping, muddy and slippery. It was more of a creek than a river and the course was blocked by what seemed an impenetrable screen of rotting and fallen trees and vegetation.

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A carpet of intense green, typical of Western Australia’s south at this time of year, covered the country. Wildlife was plentiful with a whole host of waterfowl being seen including shags, swans and a great variety of ducks.

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The support crew had a longer than expected wait at Boyup Brook although the boats were travelling well. Some dense ti tree thickets upriver from Boyup Brook caused the delay.

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The arrival of the boats at Jayes Crossing caused mild panic when three of the crews chose a channel to the south of where the support crew was waiting. The land crew was not aware of the existence of this channel. However, the boat crew stopped long enough for Kim to splash through the shallows and meet up with them. They returned to the channel where the majority of the party was waiting.

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The Support Crew travelled around to the Winnejup Falls in the 4WD and then walked down the riverbank to the rapid. The boat crews had arrived by the time the land crew arrived. All boat crews assessed the major part of the falls. Kim was at pains to ensure that there was no pressure to shoot the rapid. It was the decision of each individual driver. No undue pressure was applied. The result was that only the crew of the two “rubber duckies” decided to shoot the rapid – a wise choice.


THE FIRST MURCHISON RIVER EXPEDITION

“What are you doing next weekend? Drop everything, the Gascoyne River is in flood and we’re going to have a go at it”. “I’m in!”

The day before departure information was received from Gascoyne Junction that the water levels had dropped too far. Kim made urgent phone calls to Stations along the upper reaches of the Murchison River and plans were modified to travel Western Australia’s second longest river. The Great Gascoyne Dash became the Murchison River Expedition. Flexibility is paramount in tackling the ephemeral rivers of the North. Preliminary planning some weeks earlier also enabled the last minute switch to be made.
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The natural beauty of the river, the adrenalin pump of high speed boating in unknown waters, the knowledge of being isolated from civilisation and the certainty of being the first on the river all combined to make the start of the expedition an exhilarating experience.

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New to expeditions, the boat crews wasted 15 to 20 minutes at Manfred Station talking, stuffing around and not moving forward. They were not to know it then but that lost 15 minutes proved very decisive later in the day.

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Once again the boats didn’t arrive by the planned time. The five members of the land crew cooled off in the river — unaware of the progress of the boats, and unable to find out. Kim made it clear that a search party would not be mounted and that, in his opinion, the boat crews would not be in any danger. If they spent a night on the riverbank, then so be it. That is something that just had to be accepted on expeditions.

Darkness fell and the boat crews still hadn’t arrived — but many of the locals had. The cool waters of the Murchison and the knowledge that “some crazy boaties” were “in town” attracted about twenty of the locals to the Crossing for an impromptu party.

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Overhanging trees, partly submerged logs, narrow and winding channels (some of which led nowhere) and innumerable sandbanks were just some of the challenges presented by the fast flowing river.

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Scott and Darren were left to repair a burst radiator on the 4WD and (hopefully) catch up with the expedition at Murchison Bridge.

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The river had spread out into a vast flood plain several kilometres across. It was a real trial and error situation to find the main current. In fact, there was no main current. The river intermingled with vegetation and shallow creeks were going in all directions.

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It was still very hot and very humid. The flies were numerous and the mosquitoes were just waiting to take over when darkness fell.

A comfortable camp; the arrival of the boat crews as planned; quality meals prepared by Phil and Damien; good fortune in quickly locating the damaged inflatable; successfully fixing a serious problem with the 4WD; a visit by the Vern Barndon, the Station owner, and a rising river concluded a successful day.

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In their attempts to get to the river they punctured the sidewall of the left rear tyre. The loss of time in changing the tyre and the difficulty in finding a track to the river (many tracks had been re-aligned, new fences, gates and dams erected) decided Kim to “cut and run” to ensure they stayed ahead of the boats. This necessity to stay ahead of the boats is always a problem for the refuelling crew, made particularly difficult when the boats are unable to maintain a constant speed by which their progress can be judged.

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There were numerous water crossings along the track to Coolcalalaya. The crew in the refuelling vehicle caught up with The Bus crew just short of Coolcalalaya. There seemed to be as many gates as there were water crossings.

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Just for devilment, the crew in the refuelling vehicle sent a radio message to The Bus crew where they knew that Phil, the owner of the refuelling vehicle, would be listening.
“Tell Phil not to worry, it can fixed.”
“What was that? What can be fixed? What’s happened?”

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Static.

Closer to Coolcalalaya the river cut through the country in large sweeping curves. Twenty metre high cliffs with magnificent river gums clinging to them part way up ran for kilometre after kilometre. The occasional fence across the river was a reminder that the expedition was travelling through station country.

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Huge flocks of screeching cockatoos swarmed into the night air.

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It was a happy crew that returned to Perth, content in the knowledge that they had completed a journey that had never before been made.