This piece was penned at the Shallow Crossing nature writing retreat earlier this year, on the magnificent Clyde River – Bhundoo – after a week’s immersion.
We drag our kayaks to the boat ramp, awkward in our life vests and rolled-up jeans. Afternoon light plays on the water, inviting us in.
I launch my companions first, slipping on the mossy cement as I clamber into my own boat and push off with the paddle. Tipping and tentative at first, we break the surface, and then we’re paddling upriver, sun in our faces, sun off the water. Bonsaid trees lord over golden rocks, swallows dart, and beneath the clear shallow water, the tide flattens green fern over riverstones.
We’re against the tide and into the wind but paddling is effortless amid beauty. The surface ripples and ruffles, while deeper eddies run still. Here and there, the river branches off into dark streams and rivulets and I would follow them all. Overhead, trees cast their reflections, just as they have for millennia. Here, I can believe it. The flash and gleam of light, the plop and bubble of others, below – the constant play of a world within a world that knows its own secret.
Trees have come down, in flood, and risen again, sending up fresh saplings at right angles to their discarded trunks, who they were before. All the time the river, the rise and fall, the turning tide.
We round the bend below our retreat and catch a glimpse of our host high above, captain of the ship, on deck to make sure we have not capsized, or given up – and then he is gone. He wants to be sure we see this place as he does. On cue, the lyrebird sounds from the dense scrub below The Escape, its call as complex and joyful as the scene it has helped to set.
We reach the crossing, the line at which we have been gazing all week, the sound by which we have set our horizon. Water rushes over river rock, and the cement dip of the gravel road, which disappears up around the bend. It’s the road we must all take tomorrow, returning to our own lives. We turn our backs on all that for now, and drink in the river, wondering why we did not get out on it sooner.
We return on the current, breeze on our backs, and life is this, only the occasional dip of a paddle to keep us on track. Two pine-clad islands signal the turn before our boat ramp, and the shallow pools where fish spawn. It’s too soon to land. We paddle on, buoyed by the tide, to see what is around the next bend.
A hawk follows, above, as we pass over rainbow riverstones. Everything is mirrored, either side: twice as many trees, two of each of us. The world above is the world below; we are in the water and in the trees, in-between and everywhere. Nowhere. Here, there is all the time in the world. It’s easy to forget.
This is Yuin country. An eel made this river tens of thousands of years ago – Bhundoo. Our heads are full of this story and others, our tongues still rolling over the words we have learned – new to us and older than anything we know. Our bellies are full of oysters, scallops and king fish, and produce from the land. Bhundoo is one of the cleanest rivers in the world. I feel whispers across the water, over my wet forearms, and stop paddling to listen.
But we’re here to find our own stories. The light is going, and we turn for home. I exit first, side-on the boat ramp, paddle across the bow onto land to steady me, and I’m out. My skills are applauded, and then I’m sliding on the slippery moss, back into the water, all pretence of grace gone amid squeals of laughter. Still, we drag our yellow vessels across the grass and return them to their racks pumped and victorious, and raise our fists above our heads.