#EastGippsland #SpoofOnDeathOfARiverGuide #RiverCulture

Birth of a river guide

by Robbo Bennetts
first published in Australian Whitewater, Spring 2004

Shotover River, NZFlash back to The Toilet. Shotover River. Queenstown via Skippers Canyon, New Zealand. January 1995.

A thin line of thrill seekers snakes its way above the river around The Toilet. Those of us in the advance party look down from our vantage as our guides either R1 or line their rafts through the rapid. Our hearts rise as we watch a guide flip and disappear under his boat. Our hearts rise again as we watch Moses, an American guide, line his raft in much the same way as you would be taken for a walk by a rottweiler chasing a cat. Moses holds grimly on to the line as he bounds from boulder to boulder after the raft. Then, with a sudden jerk forwards, he is flying horizontally through the air. From our vantage it looks like he is going to spear into a big rock. But he reappears a moment later, none too happy.

Shotover River, NZ.There were several companies on the river that day and there was a traffic jam at The Toilet. A flotilla of passengerless rafts squeezed into a tiny eddy below the rapid. More rafts were arriving. It was time to lash. My guide held on to the "Oh Shit!" line. Another punter and I jumped on, paddles in hand. Suddenly a renegade raft came from nowhere and bumped into the flotilla. Our raft was nudged into the current. Our guide couldn’t hold on. I watched him hesitate. I could read his mind. One raft, it calculated. One guide. Two punters (unknown quantities). Two paddles. Seconds away from being swept into Mother Rapid, a gnarly grade 4.

I saw the terror in his eyes the moment before he let go and jumped over to us. In that split second, I knew I too wanted to be a river guide.

I said, 'Back paddle!!!' two river cats

Fast forward to converted nunnery. Omeo, East Gippsland. A Monday morning, six and a half years later.

My dream to become a river guide was about to come true. Thirteen wannabe guides and three real guides crammed into a pokey loungeroom for introductions. We were here for the five day course conducted by a very reputable rafting company. We were a motley crew of river junkies who, in the main, already worked in the outdoors. (Why is it that so many boat people have private school educations?)

Our leaders - Tank, Spanner and FA - were soon kitting us out with thermals and cags. We were about to paddle the Mitta, and the water temperature was a chilly 4 degrees. After learning how not to blow up rafts we bussed around winding roads up to Bindara Creek. Here, we plunged immediately into the water after Spanner, and had a customary swim. (Spanner was unable to come up with a plausible explanation for this bizarre ritual.) The males among us emerged lesser men than we were before.

Now, soaking wet and freezing cold, we piled on to the rafts and headed downstream in convoy, taking turns to steer. I soon discovered that there is a vast difference between being captain and being first mate on a raft. When you are first mate, you snap to command: "Port! Starboard! Captain's coming! Scrub the decks! Man overboard!" But when you are captain, it's: "Paddle left please … um … I mean right … no, stop … sorry, left."

This was how we negotiated Lose Your Lunch, Bump and Grind, Graveyard, Big Stopper and Dislocation. Somehow, we bumped and ground and bailed our way to Black Duck Hole. Here we pulled the rafts up out of the river and staggered up the yak track to the waiting bus. Embarrassingly, I had been the only swimmer, not just on this first day but for the whole week. And when I fell in, I broke every rule in the book by leaping off the bed of the rapid back into the raft like a frightened jack-in-the-box.

Tuesday morning. We bussed back up the winding road and paddled the section between Black Duck Hole and Hindmung Bridge. This section included S Bend, The Waterfall and Gobbler. As they had the day before, our leaders took turns to crew the rafts and paddle a kayak. We began to realise they weren’t just pretty faces. We learned from FA (who had guided on the Colorado for about 137 years) the meaning of "native eye" and "river wa." We learned the importance of dancing with the river and not wrestling with it. We learned how to draw and pry and reverse ferry glide. But still we wrapped around rocks and got stuck in holes, all the while crying feebly, "Paddle left please … um … I mean right."

Day 3 was scary. We did rescues. We set up scenarios in Bindara Creek, a crazy little chute of water that rushes down a steep gully. Some maniacs actually paddle this creek in kayaks. First FA, then Tank did their best impersonation of foot entrapment victims. They immersed themselves in their dry suits in bitterly cold water for twenty minutes or so while we tried to figure out where to lob throw ropes and how to set up snag tags. We managed to drag FA to shore, but Tank had to save himself. They both emerged lesser men than they were before.

Later that day, after gormandising on gourmet grub, we learnt knots and Z-drags (which is how you unwrap a boat from a rock). Satisfied with our day’s work we bussed back to Omeo. That night we watched some awesome Franklin slides. Then we watched a video about these Russians who rafted wild rivers in Siberia in suicidal contraptions made from space junk and spent nuclear reactors. Then we committed some quality time to choosing for ourselves noms de riviere. Bung was already taken, so I chose Mad Dog. It was one of those complex decision-making matrixes.

On Thursday and Friday we went off on a two day expedition, carrying with us all our camping gear. We ran the same sections we had run on Monday and Tuesday. Speaking of camping gear, I had made the mistake of actually reading the letter the company had posted us. It said: "All camping gear supplied." Unfortunately it wasn’t. I had previously noted among the international rafting community a propensity to walk that fine line between everything being under control and everything being totally out of control. (There is a company over west, for example, that famously drives for hours to the river before realising they have, yet again, forgotten the paddles.) Luckily, river guides are also masters of improvisation. Somehow enough "camping gear" was scrounged to at least significantly weigh down the rafts.

Steering these heavy rafts was like trying to steer a tram. I had very skilfully managed to avoid steering the most difficult sections up to date. Now my crewmates ungraciously insisted that I do Graveyard. This is a spiteful grade 3 with rocks and holes in places that make it both dangerous and technically difficult. There are a number of theories about why it is called Graveyard, but a granite tor can be seen from miles away rising up above this rapid like giant tombstones. It is rumoured that more than a few old river guides are buried nearby.

Being responsible professionals we scouted Graveyard before we shot it. Joshua (a river pro with biblical good looks who had tag-teamed with Tank) asked me what line I would take. "To the left of the first rock," I replied, "then right after the second rock, then in between the other two." All the while I was thinking, I’m gonna bounce off every rock and do big donuts the whole way down. We scrambled back to the rafts. We waited for the lead boat to disappear down the first drop. "On the job!" I barked at my crew. We eased towards the first drop. Then we bounced off every rock and did big donuts the whole way down.

Two more hell rapids and a tediously long paddle before mercifully reaching our campsite. Us wannabes erected shelters on a grassy strip above the river bank. Then we set up lines to dry out our wet gear. Our intrepid leaders didn’t have to erect shelters because they just crashed under the rafts. And they didn’t have to set up a line because they never removed their wet clothing. After dark FA played both country and western music on his guitar while a cooking detail whipped up a pot of tofu surprise. When FA finally put down his guitar, the clapping began. An ominous thunderstorm was rolling down the valley.

It pissed down all night. By morning our marker indicated that the water level had risen from 1.2 to 1.8. This is the highest level that the company rafts the river. A point 6 increment can mean that the river rises two metres in narrow chutes. I could sense apprehension. When a guide drops the magic word as a stand-alone oath, you know you should be very afraid… What happened next is too traumatic to recount here. Suffice it to say, reputations were made, and reputations were destroyed. I am just grateful that I didn’t swim again, the way the river was up.

Hugely relived to leave the last rapid behind, we chilled out as the river serpentined into the now familiar open farmland. A doco of our week together would have shown footage of us sunning ourselves on our rafts in various states of repose and undress, drifting gently to the put out. In the background Max Merritt would be crooning, "Try a little tenderness". The serenity was punctuated only by some fools practising flipping and re-flipping boats. (Only I couldn’t climb up on to mine.)

Now all we had ahead of us was the long wait for the bus, packing up and loading all the gear, the long drive back to base, unloading and unpacking all the gear, and the tearful farewells. Then we bailed. Pedestrians and sheep were knocked down in the main street in our mad rush to the local teahouse. Seven or eight lattes later, I hit the frog and ferry glided all the way back to Melbourne.

I hadn’t realised that raft guide boot camp would be so challenging. Through the week I had begun to worship our guides. These cats would rather be nowhere else than on the river. They spend 90% of their lives wet and cold. They have to put off with some clients who are real dickheads. They live out of dry bags. They sleep in the open and incorporate into their dreams the sound of relentlessly rushing water. They have to wear stripy thermals, and eat soggy damper. They live with the dread of disaster. They are highly skilled but unsung, and outrageously underpaid. Yet their energy and their encouragement of others never seem to flag.

Observing them made me realise, I haven’t got what it takes to be a river guide after all.

keep your paddle in the water we made it


Term Meaning
bony rapid full of rocks; (alternatively) horny river guide
carnage what happens when guides party
ferry gliding the sensation of drifting across the road sideways on every bend on the way home after a rafting trip
native eye no-one knows what this means
river wa no-one knows what this means either
R1-ing when the guide paddles solo (e.g. during the classic 20 second client reaction delay)
snag drag an anatomical process that prevents speedos from riding up
Z drag rescue technique; (alternatively) breathing rhythm of sleeping river guide