Risking saltwater crocodile threats and tusked feral pig encounters, John Guilliatt completed a solo first SUP descent of the remote South Johnstone River in Australia.
Here in Far North Queensland, we have more than our fair share of whitewater rivers – several of which are perfect for stand up paddleboarding. Due to the topography, most of these river runs are a short and exciting grade (class) II-III water. There are, however, a half dozen sections perfectly suited to expedition paddling and multi-day trips.
I have been aspiring to paddle the South Johnstone River for quite some time. While it has a couple of put-in points located within the grade IV+ upper reaches, I had heard of a fishing trail that leads into the river farther downstream – affording at least 15 kilometers of grade II+ water.
The take-out was, however, a bit more of a problem. In recent years, the land use along the banks has shifted almost exclusively to banana plantations. Due to the threat of Panama Disease, the majority of take-outs in these areas are now quarantined. Public access points, like bridges, are limited and even further downstream.
Complicating paddling matters further, the South Johnstone River contains a high population of saltwater crocodiles. Since their species had hunting protections during the 1970s, their range and number increased exponentially. The rapid expansion of saltwater crocodiles is currently augmented by the parasitic symbiotic relationship with feral pigs. A massive increase in feral pigs provides crocodiles with a ready and steady source of food like never before. This new factor not only increases the crocs numbers but also their size. More importantly, crocs are now encouraged to venture upstream into areas they previously could not survive in.
The crocodile situation on the South Johnstone creates a major issue for recreational river runners. Crocs and paddlers now frequently share the same water, which is certainly risky for the latter group. I have heard stories of kayakers experiencing close calls with crocs, including a group that was chased out of a pool by one of the big beasts just last year! Fortunately, there have been very few croc-SUP encounters. I do feel less like food standing and paddling on a large board rather than sitting at croc jaw height in a kayak.
A chance meeting connected me with a landowner who was kind enough to grant me a takeout point on his property, turning the trip from a pipe dream into a possibility. To make the trip a reality, I had to find a useable put-in. I spent a weekend finding, reflagging and clearing vines and the stinging plants of the rainforest attempting to overtake reclaim the trail. After an hour and a half on a steep and slippery trail, I managed to create access to the South Johnstone.
I wanted to run the river with a crew, but I had no takers due to the difficulty of access and, of course, the crocodile threat. This left me with two options: cancel the whole trip or plan a solo run. I would never consider a trip into this area alone on a kayak, but a stand up paddleboard provided an interesting opportunity; the extra observation height and freedom of being able to jump off at a moment’s notice created a sense of safety that simply doesn’t exist on a kayak.
Additionally, while considering croc safety, I remembered tales told by a friend of mine who kayaked in parts of Papua New Guinea: on several occasions, he was able to ward off a threatening croc by standing up and lifting his paddle high. He even forestalled a crocodile attack by igniting a flare.
I included this knowledge in my safety plan – paddle conservatively, have my beacon on my person at all times, and keep a knife and smoke flare similarly within arm’s reach.
A friend drove me to the put-in on the scenic Palmerston Highway one early misty morning. After getting dropped off at the trailhead, I began my descent towards the river. The steepness, low light, and occasional wrong turn made the going slow, but after almost two hours I broke out into the open sky on the bank of a perfect grade II section of the South Johnstone River. The water level was perfect!
As I inflated my board, I noticed several bleeding scratches on my arms and legs. I remembered the several hang-ups I had with wait-awhile spines and barbed wire vine. I felt so glad I had my tough and durable Hala Gear, which is so well-suited to some really harsh treatment. I loaded the Atcha 9’6″ and finished gearing up, grinning all the while.
Not before long, I was paddling the first rapid and getting used to the extra weight of the pack on the bow. I planned my lines by looking ahead with excitement and apprehension – would there be a crocodile? If so, how would the beast react to a stand-up paddler on its home pool? I double-checked I could easily reach my knife and flares, then relaxed into the flow of this amazing place.
There is something quite hypnotic about paddling a river by yourself with no distractions: settling yourself into a comfortable paddle stroke, tuning your body to the board movements, running another sweet long rapid, dodging low branches, carefully picking your way over the shallow stones and watching the catfish, perch and black bream dart from your shadow.
The views were spectacular with vistas of the forested gorge and small waterfalls. The sounds constantly drew your attention from the birds to the echo of the next rapid. I heard the occasional dingo call in the distance and on two occasions I heard the sounds and shadowed movement of a cassowary. A sound that gave me a start on many occasions was the surprisingly loud splash of a bearded water dragon leaping off a rock or limb and landing in the water.
I noticed several “feral pig” signs on both sides of the river banks. I could see large areas that have been plowed by the pigs as they had foraged for roots and small creatures to eat. I saw over a dozen pigs, some of which were tusked and massive. One even frightened the hell out of me as he leaped off a ledge into the water and grunted as he ran back into the forest!
As I moved further downstream, my mood changed and I became more focused. The shallow, clear, free-flowing SUP paradise I had been enjoying was slowly changing. There were still fun grade II rapids, but the pools were becoming longer, deeper and darker between them.
I drifted quietly into each pool and scanned the banks ahead for any movement. I found I was paddling faster as I cruised inches from the bank in case I had to jump off in a hurry.
I did take the time to check every sandbank and beach for any sign of crocodiles, slides, or footprints – but saw nothing that would indicate the presence of one.
As I floated downstream, I rounded a bend and could make out a large glade of mown grass. The end of this fantastic paddle was in sight, with my kind friends waiting for me.
Many thanks to them and especially to Jason for making this adventure possible. Thanks also to the folks at Nucifora Tea for allowing access to the put in. This South Johnston trip was a true epic SUP adventure in every sense of the word. Next attempt I will slow down the pace and really enjoy it!
John Guilliatt is an international ambassador for Hala Gear.