Martuwarra: River of Life. Photo Lachie Carracher


The collection of tree trunks in the canopy looked like a gigantic nest, as if an enormous, winged creature had set up camp in the melaleuca forest ten metres above us. But no bird, not even a dragon, could have deposited this level of debris in the treetops.


This was the handiwork of the flood waters of Martuwarra, the Fitzroy River catchment, which swelled in January to form the largest floods ever recorded in Western Australia.


Even here, at the headwaters of the watershed, the flooding was almost beyond belief – contemplating the power of the water made you wonder what it looked like further downstream, where literally billions of litres of water rushed in the weeks following New Year’s Day.


We had some idea.

Braving white water amongst the granite. Photo Ian Bool

That very morning, a plane had flown our team of eleven across the lushness of a Kimberley wet season, over a floodplain which stretched to the horizon.

The team had been carefully selected by the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council (MFRC), a collective of representatives – ranging from senior elders to young leaders – of Indigenous Nations which was established in 2018 to maintain the spiritual, cultural, and environmental integrity of the catchment.

In organising this trip, the MFRC had tasked us with investigating and sharing the journey of an expedition which sought to raft from the headwaters of the catchment at Kupungarri/Mount Barnett to Fitzroy Crossing, one hundred miles away.

As we flew, eyes pressed to the glass of the light plane, there came upon us a collective realisation: this would be the first expedition down through the catchment since the deluge. What was to be witnessed after such powerful flooding?

SeanClement and Simon Blake charting a line in the Phillips Range. Photo Ian Bool

In amongst the trees, with the night falling quickly, expedition leader Lachie Carracher called a meeting and we all assembled next to the campfire.

Standing by the flames were the chief members of the team, young leaders of the MFRC: Hozaus Claire, Deandre Gunn, Rhys Brooking and Nelson Baker.

They were joined by Mark Coles Smith, actor and artist, who also grew up on the banks of the River; ecologist Ian Bool, who had worked extensively on fauna in the central Kimberley, and Environmental Scientist Donny Imberlong, seed collector and photographer who was born and raised in the north-east Kimberley.

Rounding out this fellowship was Sean “Tank” Clement, Franklin River guide, and experienced outdoorsman Simon Blake.

All came from different backgrounds but shared a collective memory of the recent, unprecedented flooding and the images that followed in its wake: wildlife and livestock fighting for higher ground as the waters rose around them, the homes of both town and homeland communities inundated and destroyed, the iconic Fitzroy Crossing bridge – 15 metres high – overwhelmed by the flood waters and partly washing away.

As everyone gathered around the fire, Lachie drew a mud map and described the route to be taken, the concerns and the rapids, drawing on his experiences from eight previous trips through the catchment.

“The important thing to remember is how extremely remote we are going to be,” Lachie explained. “Once we push away from the bank, all going well, we’ll be out of contact for a fortnight.”

“So, we could perish out there?” someone asked.

“Most definitely,” Lachie replied.

The night passed to the song of azure kingfishers. In the morning, everyone without fail packed their gear into the rafts and then we pushed them into the current, departing into one of the most remote places on the continent.

Expedition Leader, Lachie Carracher finds time to meditate on the rapids ahead. Photo Jackson Gallagher

The ephemeral and ever-changing nature of Martuwarra makes it difficult to talk of the catchment in singular terms when there are so many feeders, so many tributaries that run out of the range Country.

Originating in the Kimberley Plateau and emptying out into the Indian Ocean, the landscape through which it runs is hugely varied. However, if one were to split it into sections for this particular expedition, it is perhaps easiest to consider four sections based on its geology. The region is, after all, home to some of the oldest rocks in the world.

Beginning at Kupungarri/Mount Barnett, the water cuts through sandstone, an area known as the Phillips Range. It then moves in a wide arc through the central Kimberley, passing through paperbark forests, and down towards Moll Gorge. From there, the flow runs through the Badlands – segmented wetland forests – which dissect an ancient shale bed. Then, the waters literally drop down into the Wunaamin Miliwundi sandstone formation of Bunjay/Sir John Gorge, known to some as the ‘Grand Canyon of Australia’. Here, the flow passes through the amphitheatre-like Dimond Gorge, then finally meanders into low lying granite country and Danggu – the incredibly deep and visually startling Geikie Gorge – the gateway to the town of Fitzroy Crossing.

One hundred miles, four geological formation regions.


Making camp in one of the most remote places on the continent. Photo Lachie Carracher

Within days the rafts arrived in sandstone Country. The recent deluge had left deep scars: trees literally pulled out by their roots, boulders scattered, debris on all sides.

Despite the suffocating heat – the humidity pressing in like a lead weight – everyone had settled into the rhythm of paddling, conditioning their muscles and finding their groove. Some, who had never been on a raft before, were feeling the strain but were encouraged by those who had previously braved the elements of such an expedition. All of us were awaiting challenges further downstream.

With the gradient sharpening, eddies in the River soon appeared and before long, drifting around a bend, came the bellow of the first rapid.

Running this first line of the trip was exhilarating, like entering the spray and roar of a boiling cauldron. Pushed and buffeted, the first raft threatened to flip but made it down. As the second successfully cut a path through the white water our collective howl of excitement startled a sure-footed rock wallaby up on the riverbank.

More rapids followed, in some places so strong and violent that we reasoned portaging would be the safer option.

After days of finding a way through this section the team found itself ensconced within the bounds of the Phillips Range. In modern times, this is a place rarely visited.

High gorge walls cast the rafts into shade in the late afternoon and the presence of artwork became visible from the River itself: panels of images holding significant World Heritage value, artworks which reflected literally tens of thousands of years of high culture.

The first night within the range, everyone sat in contemplation as a dinner of fresh catfish and rice was served from the driftwood fire. As he ate, Lachie mused that perhaps fewer than a hundred people alive would have passed through this section.

Ian Bool, part of previous fauna discoveries in the Kimberley, explained that the topographical complexity of the Phillips Range would make it suitable as a refuge for endangered mammals. “This is an ecologically important place,” he told everyone. “A lot of it has not been properly surveyed for flora or fauna.”

Lachie agreed, nodding. “It’s exceptional. But you know what? Just over a kilometre that way,” he pointed out over the edge of the gorge walls, “a company wants to put a mine in. Right here, where we are sitting, is a mining tenement. A potential pit, one hundred metres deep. In the headwaters of the most powerful River in Australia.”

This silenced everyone. The thought of passing through such rich Country – ecologically, culturally, spiritually, aesthetically – was shattered. Everyone went to sleep shaken as the winds pulled in a succession of short, brief storms. Rain drops thudded upon the tarpaulins all night long.

The next day, the River had risen, and we pushed the rafts back into a surging current.

“The humidity pressing in like a lead weight.” Nelson Baker enjoys some shut eye before the next section. Photo Donny Imberlong

The beauty of expeditions like this is that they become so effortlessly simple. Days pass under the same routine. You wake before dawn and eat breakfast while planning the section ahead.

Then the first rays hit and, unable to withstand the heat on the riverbank, you pile into the rafts and paddle with the current. After a time, you pause and sit in the shallows, resting, then paddle some more. Pause for lunch. Paddle. Pull up for dinner on the bank. Make fire, cook and eat. Retire to the mosquito domes.

Sleep. Wake. Repeat.

This routine saw us through Moll Gorge, then brave the Badlands, a segmented, moving mass of vegetation where we had to double back again and again in order to move forward.

Little red flying foxes, a key pollinator of the tropics, massed overhead or watched us from the safety of the paperbark canopy. On the other side of this natural maze, we were met with stands of pandanus, also known screw palm trees. Here, we glimpsed a sight of the purple-crowned fairy wren, one of Australia’s most elusive and endangered creatures. Ian Bool was rapt to see their presence after the deluge. “It’s a sure sign of a healthy ecology when you see these birds. The purple-crown fairy wren is like a River spirit, it means you’re in good, healthy Country.”

A few miles further downstream, there was a less welcome lesson on the catchment’s ecology. “Just so we’re all aware,” Lachie called out nonchalantly from his place in the forward raft, “after the flood that just went through, saltwater crocodiles could be anywhere from here on down.”

Everyone moved a little closer together, a thin layer of rubber separating us from the current – and whatever was lurking beneath.

A week in, the rafts began moving faster as the waters met a confluence. The current began to pull more strongly and we realised that we were upon the Fitzroy River itself.

But there wasn’t much time for reflection: rapids opened up before us and the rafts were forced back into the white water as we approached the biggest drop of the trip so far.

The crew in the forward raft were at the top of the rapids one moment and then were gone, dropping down into the bowl below. The rear raft quickly followed, the rapids threatening to capsize it in the flow.

Once everyone had caught their breaths, we realised we were now in Bunjay, Sir John Gorge. The magnificence of this place cannot be understated. The sheer, luminous walls of the gorge, held by the evening light, shone scarlet as we drifted towards camp.

We stayed in the canyon for some days, resting and reflecting, catching black bream and cooking them on the coals while storms drifted in to cool down the rocks on which we camped. But then the time came to leave, with the beauty of the next part of the catchment drawing us on.

At the bottom of the gorge, back on the flat water, Ian Bool stared in disbelief. “I’ve been here before,” he said. “There, on that bank, was a gigantic boab tree. It was hundreds of years old.” He shakes his head. “There’s literally not a trace of it left.”

The disappearance of the boab foreshadowed the perils of the river which are ever present. Coming out of the gorge, the rear raft became snagged in river vegetation and everyone in it was thrown into the rapids, forcing them to swim to the banks. Barely six foot deep in the middle reaches, the power of the current here was extraordinary. Within a week of leaving this section, flash flooding brought the flood markers to over 30 feet.

But this was a later concern. All we focused on then and there were the rafts, ensuring their water tightness as we drifted down into Dimond Gorge, an enormous area with a particular environmentalist history.

In the late 1990s, a proposal was brought forward to dam the gorge as a means to grow cotton through the catchment. Everything in Bunjay/Sir John Gorge and beyond – the panels of artwork, the Dreaming sites, the side gorges and ecology, the aquatic flora, in essence the millions of years of geological and biological development and the millennia of human and cultural heritage – would have been drowned beneath the waters.

All gone.

Nations along the river knew what was at stake. They strongly opposed the dam, and the fight to prevent it moulded a new environmental awareness across the broader Kimberly region.

It’s sometimes important to give thanks and across the rafts, as the fellowship paddled out of Dimond Gorge, there was a collective sense of gratitude for the actions of those who had come before us.

The elements converge during the Kimberley wet season. Photo Jackson Gallagher

After a fortnight of extreme heat and isolation, torn rafts and contemplation, limestone appeared on the banks; the marker for the bottom section of the expedition and a reminder that our trip’s end was nearing.

But the catchment was not done with us just yet.

As we entered the limestone, a low rumble of thunder sounded beyond the horizon and within minutes the most powerful rain imaginable began to fall. The sheer force of the storm made us all cheer with elation; a feeling which quickly moved to fear.

Chain lightning began to break all around, hitting rock and water alike, the rain ratcheting up another level, falling so fast and so powerfully that we could not see each other on the rafts, could not hear each other over the tumult.

And then, just as quickly as it came, the falling water stopped. In a stilled silence, we drifted on the current as the night dropped in, the lights of Fitzroy Crossing lit up before us.

Here, our trip would finish. The water that carried us, however, would keep on flowing, out into the lower part of the catchment and on towards the King Sound and the Indian Ocean beyond.

Spending time drifting down upon this water, drinking it as a means to replenish our own selves, showed us all just how important every drop is to the wider system – to all that exists because of Martuwarra.

Martuwarra, River of Life for all life, a living landscape.

Learn more about the Martuwarra Fitzroy River Council here.

Martuwarra: River of Life. Photo Lachie Carracher


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