We have just returned from a lovely weekend in the Hunter Valley. Our friends at Balloon Aloft (i.e. Matt & Nicola Scaife and the team) arranged a mini fiesta of 18 balloons. Having been Total Fire Bans in the region all of the week leading up to the event, we were lucky that the weather cleared (although a bit smokey) and we had perfect conditions.
Matt called a task each morning, both of which were in the centre of the valley, at Hope Estate winery. I was flying really well on both mornings and managed to fly right over the middle of both crosses. Unfortunately my throwing was a bit off and I ended up getting 4.5m (4th) on the first morning and 48cm (2nd) on the second morning.
James had told me that he didn’t want to go for a fly on the weekend and that he wanted to retrieve. However, next thing I knew on Saturday morning he had jumped into Sean Kavanagh’s basket and was flying with him. Then on Sunday morning, he jumped into Dan Gillespie’s basket and was off again. It is great that he is getting exposed to other pilots and the way they fly.
We just got home from a lovely long weekend down at the farm in Binalong. The weather was amazing and we managed to get 2 flights in.
On Saturday morning I took James for a flight. The winds were the typical Spring Westerlies, so I decided to mix it up a bit and we took off from closer to Harden than we would normally do. I set myself a few practice targets and managed to get close to all of them. A couple of them were within 2 metres using the logger.
On Sunday morning, I had planned to do a solo flight with my bike strapped to the side of the basket for retrieve, but my cousins asked if they could come out for a flight so I managed to score a retrieve crew. The flight was pretty nondescript, flying straight down one of the main roads in the area and landing next to the house of one of my other cousins.
It was nice to get back in the air again. We (James and I) are planning to head up to the Hunter Valley on Sunday. The weather is looking pretty good at this stage, so will be great to get some more flying in.
I have just returned to Sydney after spending 3 days paddling down a 125km stretch of the Murrumbidgee River in southern New South Wales. The Murrumbidgee flows from the Australian Alpine region, past Canberra and then heads West across New South Wales. After flowing 900km, it eventually meets up with the Murray River near the South Australia/New South Wales border.
I had been planning to do this section of the river for a couple of years. Originally I had planned to do a 7 day stretch of the river on my own, but never managed to find a convenient time to do it. So when Scott, a mate of mine that I used to work with and do a lot of paddling with, put his hand up to join me on a multi-day paddling trip, I started planning a 4 day version of the original trip.
Day 0 – Logistics
Wednesday 11 September 2013
With any kayaking trip down a river, which is essentially a one way trip, there is a fair bit of logistics required around the vehicles. You need to leave one at the end point so that you can get home. So for this reason, Scott and I organised to meet in Wagga and spend the night in a cabin at one of the caravan parks on the river.
On the way to Wagga, I stopped off at Wantabadgery Reserve, the planned campsite for our second night, to stash a food cache consisting of a jerry can of water and some extra food (mostly snacks and booze).
Once in Wagga, after a few drinks and an excellent meal (yes, in Wagga) we settled in for the night in our cabin, which was about 1 star rating above having bed bugs. Knowing that we were going to spend the next few nights sleeping on the ground, it was survivable.
Day 1 – Gundagai to Limekilns Reserve (plus a bit)
Thursday 12 September 2013
The next morning, after I had finished an early conference call for work, we packed all the gear and squeezed both kayaks onto the roof of my car. We then headed an hour back up the road to Gundagai. We found a reasonable spot on the edge of the golf course, under the historic Gundagai railway bridge, that we could get all the gear to the river’s edge with minimal effort. Not wanting to leave the car in the middle of nowhere, I drove the few kilometers into the center of town, leaving the car in a well-lit would remain safe for the following 4 days and then jogged back to the river. On my return I found Scott had managed to squeeze in all his gear into his boat (which I have now dubbed the “Tardis” because of the huge amount of stuff he seemed to be able to squeeze into it) and proceeded to stuff my pile of multi-coloured dry bags into my boat.
After a couple of false starts, because of the need to find various items that were in the bottom of our various bags, we were finally on the water. It was a beautiful sunny day and the water was not overly cold. We soon discovered that the water was flowing at about 9kmh, so even without paddling we were moving at a reasonable speed down the river.
We cruised down the river for a couple of hours before finding a nice, cow free, beach for a lunch and coffee stop. This was an excellent opportunity to test out the efficiencies (well inefficiencies) of our gear packing. To make lunch and coffee seemed to involve unpacking the entire contents of our boats to get all the bits and pieces we needed. However it was worth it, because one of the things I learnt many years ago was taking good coffee (and a mug that acts as a plunger) makes a world of difference.
With full bellies and caffeinated blood, we pushed on for the afternoon to our planned campsite. As the afternoon went on, the wind began to pick up and by the time we got to our planned campsite at Limekilns Reserve, the wind was really blowing. After a quick survey of the campsite, we decided that it was too exposed to the wind and we decided to push on a bit to find a more suitable spot.
A couple of kilometers down the river, we found an idyllic beach on a bend in the river. It provided good shelter, soft sand to pitch the tent and plenty of firewood to start a small fire. After chilling the bottle of wine I had purchased at the last minute (and that fitted nicely in the nose of my kayak) in the river, we sat on the bank, watching the sunset with our drinks. Scott had a feeble attempt to catch a fish with the drop line he had packed. It still amazes me how much stuff he had in his boat.
With the temperatures dropping quickly, we were happy to crawl into our sleeping bags around 8.30pm and enjoy our soft beds of Thermarest and sand.
Day 2 – Limekilns Reserve (plus a bit) to Green Flat Reserve
Friday 13 September 2013
The weather forecast for Friday had been for a cold front to come across NSW and they were expecting rain; however we awoke to a beautiful sunrise and blue skies. It looked like it was going to be a stunning day for paddling. As we were having a slow breakfast, waiting for the air to warm up before hitting the water, the wind started to pick up. After packing everything back into the boats, we hit the water and headed downstream. The wind proceeded to get stronger as the morning progressed and just before lunch time we could see the clouds rolling across. When you spend all day staring at the sky, it is really cool to watch the weather change over a matter of hours.
The plan had been to camp at Wantabadgery Reserve, where I had placed the food cache a couple of days earlier, but since the river had narrowed and the current had sped up, it looked like we would be there by lunch time. Knowing that the next day was going to be the longest day of paddling (40km) we decided to have a long lunch and then push on further down the river. Plus when we arrived at Wantabadgery Reserve, it was full of Grey Nomads in their caravans, so we decided to go somewhere a bit more remote.
As we were having lunch we were greeted with a light rain shower, but it looked like most of the rain was heading to the South of us and the worst of it would miss us. We decided that we would stock up the food and water supplies and continue on our way.
About an hour later the clouds got darker and it started raining much heavier. We decided that there was no point in stopping in the rain and setting up camp. We were warm in the kayaks and it didn’t really matter if our paddling clothes got wet, so we pushed on.
An hour or so before sunset we got Green Flat Reserve, which was a campsite mentioned in the trial guide. It was not the most picturesque spot and did not permit fires (and had no firewood), but at that point we decided it would do. In a lull in the rain we pitched the tent and made a makeshift shelter with a tarp, a paddle, some string and a lot of duct tape (I had a bit of a Macgyver moment). Not wanting to spend too much time in the rain, we promptly cooked and ate our dinner, then bunkered down in the tent. After a long day of paddling, we both tried to read for a bit but were asleep by 7.30pm.
I have decided that doing a trip like this is a bit like having jet lag. Since your daytime is dictated by sunlight, you tend to go to bed early and wake up early. Going to sleep at 7.30pm also means that you also spend many hours in the night snoozing and listening the sounds of the bush at night.
During the night, the rain became very heavy; we had thunderstorms and howling wind. At about 1am we discussed the idea of doing the next two days of paddling in one big day. The idea of putting up a wet tent again for the sake of saving a few extra hours of paddling really didn’t excite us. However we decided that we would wait and see what the morning looked like.
Day 3 – Green Flat Reserve to Wagga Wagga
Saturday 14 September 2013
I crawled out of the tent at around 6am and found that the weather had completely turned (for the good). The sky was blue and there was no wind. In fact it was a perfect ballooning morning (we could have flown until 11am). I think at this point we had both mentally prepared ourselves for a big day of paddling, so we decided we would do the 54km to Wagga in one day. Looking at the distance and time, we predicted that we would be able to make it by about 5pm and have enough time for a good lunch break.
The weather was fantastic all day. The sun was beaming on the water and there was no wind all day. The river did start widening out in parts, which meant a number of long stretches of slower water. This was not too bad, because we had both got into the paddling rhythm and could go into our own mental zones and push on at a good pace.
Probably the highlight of the day was that we saw 3 platypuses at different points in the river. One popped up right next to my boat at one point, giving me the fright of my life and nearly made me flip over. Considering the only non-bird wildlife we had really seen to that point was a lot of cows, a couple of kangaroos and a fox, seeing these rare little critters was a pleasant surprise.
The bird life on the river was plentiful. I could not help think about my Dad, the avid bird watcher, and how he would have gone crazy with the binoculars, ticking off the different species of ducks, pelicans, cormorants, cockatoos, parrots and eagles. There were a lot of white-bellied sea-eagles (Haliaeetus leucogaster) living in the trees on the river banks. These massive birds stand about 80cm tall and have a wing span of about 2 metres. It provided us with a lot of entertainment watching these massive birds being attacked by tiny magpies and cockatoos when they flew too close to their nests.
After a good solid morning of paddling in the sun, we got to our planned lunch spot at Oura Beach Reserve (which was our original planned campsite) at around 11.30am. The 2 yapping Jack Russell dogs attached to a caravan confirmed our decision that we were going to push on the final 26km to Wagga that afternoon. So we decided to have a big lunch and throw out any of the excess food we didn’t need to carry. This lunch included breaking out the plum pudding and cream I had retrieved from the food cache the day before. It was like a mini Christmas lunch on the shores of the river. However, like every Christmas lunch, the desire for an afternoon snooze kicked in pretty quick.
Despite the food induced sleepiness and sore muscles, we packed all the gear (which had nicely dried on the beach over lunch) back into the boats and pushed on to Wagga.
We had spent the last two days in peaceful tranquility. The occasional cow would stare us down and the cockatoos would squawk at us as we got too close. As we got closer to Wagga, the activity on the river bank began to change. There were a lot more people on the banks of the river fishing (well sitting on Eskys, drinking beer) and even a couple of blokes doing circle work in their utes.
At around 4.30pm, we rounded the final bend and pulled up on Wagga Beach, right next to the caravan park we had spent the first night at. Considering we had just paddled solidly for 7 hours, covering about 54km, we both felt pretty good. We slowly packed all the gear into the car and checked into the nearest hotel. Once we both had a well-deserved shower, we ducked across the road to a local brewery, ate a whole pizza each, had 1 beer and were ready for a 12 hour sleep.
Thoughts on the Trip
Looking back on it, even though it ended up only being 3 days of paddling, it was a fantastic trip. The Murrumbidgee is a beautiful river and full of wildlife.
The trip was a great way for us to work out what gear we would need and not need for this sort of multi-day paddle. I think I managed to pack exactly the right amount of gear (maybe a pair of socks too many). Scott probably over catered to some degree, but his boat has about twice the volume as mine and could get away with all the extra bits and pieces.
Without knowing how fast we would be moving with fully laden boats, I had planned the trip based on the distances and times set in the guide provided by the Department of Lands. They had pretty much outlined each day to be about 30km in length. In hindsight, 40km is better distance to cover in one day, especially with the current. I thought this might end up being the case, as I predicted that their estimations would be like the suggested walking times on hiking trails in National Parks, where they cater for the lowest common denominator.
So overall it was a great trip. It has definitely got my mind thinking about future trips and interesting places we could explore.
I have also decided that after not shaving for 10 days, that I really don’t like having a beard. As soon as I got home I had the pleasure of shaving the damn thing off.
I have been intently watching the forecast over the last week. It has been switching between rain and sun for a few days. I always take the 7 day forecast with a large grain of salt, so now that we are 4 days out I can start believing it to be a bit more true. It looks like we will only get some showers at the most. Saturday is the day we are on the water the longest, which looks like it is going to be sunny.
It was such a nice day in Sydney today, I thought I would go for a lunchtime paddle. I also thought it was probably good idea to see if I could fit all my gear in the kayak and more importantly check it still floats.
To my surprise it all fitted (just) and the boat was not too bad to paddle. Once you get some momentum up, it glides really well with the weight. Over the hour that I paddled, I was able to maintain between 6-8 kph. So with a bit of current, we should have no problems cruising through the distance we need to do each day. I can foresee a lot of chilling out around the campsites in the afternoons.
Next week I will finally be doing (part of) a kayaking trail that I have been wanting to do for years. There is a 7 day route on the Murrumbidgee (one of the major tributaries feeding the Murray River) that goes from just below Burrunjuck Dam (near Yass NSW) and winds its way down to Wagga Wagga. I have done the first leg of the trip (see post) as a day trip. However since then I have been looking for the time or an excuse to do more of the river.
I will be doing the trip with an ex-colleague of mine, Scott, who has recently taking up kayaking and done a number of short trips with me around Sydney. It is going to be a good test of our fitness. This will be the first time Scott has done such a long trip before. I certainly haven’t done anything like this since the early 90s.
We have given ourselves 4 days of paddling and a day of messing around doing car shuffles etc. Originally we were planning to start at Jugiong (second leg of the trail) but the water levels above the Tumut River (i.e. the first 1.5 days) are looking really low because they are not releasing much water out of Burrunjuck Dam yet. So we are now going to do the last 4 legs of the trail, starting at Gundagai and finishing at Wagga Wagga. The total distance of the trip is 125km, with the longest day being the 3rd day which is about 41 km.
At this stage I have all the equipment ready and just need to sort out the food for the 4 days. We are planning to do a food and water drop at the second night’s camp site. Being our first multi-day paddle, I figure we can give ourselves some luxuries (i.e. some extra food and water) to help us work out what we need and don’t need for this type of trip. Plus we drive right passed the campsite during the car shuffle, so it would be silly not too.
Scott and I are getting together on the weekend to finalise who is carrying what and check we have everything sorted. Then we head down and spend the night in Wagga on Wednesday to drop off one of the cars.
I am currently in the US on the way to Boston for a week at our head office. I decided that on the way to Boston I would swing through Denver to hang out with my friends Chris and Anna for a couple of days. Chris is part of a new group of balloon pilots that have set up a competition ballooning club that are learning to be competition pilots. He asked if I would run a training seminar and be the director of their weekend flight. I graciously obliged.
After a 3am wake up, we drove an hour to Colorado Springs to meet up with the 14 pilots that were going to fly that morning. The winds were uncharacteristically calm and waffley, so none of the locals could really provide me with insights into what the weather was going to do. So I ended up setting an Fly In, Maximum Distance Double Drop (with loggers) and a Judge Declared Goal. I was pretty sure that whatever happened people would be able to at least get a result on a couple of the tasks.
The winds were so variable, that half the field took off in the north and the other half took of in the south. I spent an hour standing at one of the targets getting depressed that nobody was going to make it to either of the targets. But luckily some balloons eventually came of the horizon and nailed the target. It was a great morning and was really interesting to see how well these beginners could do. I think I certainly challenged them, but they coped well.
After the flight I had to download all the tracks and sort out the results for all 14 pilots and 3 tasks. It gave me a great appreciation of what the scoring team has to do at a nationals.
The seminar went well. Lots of interested people and interesting questions. They appreciated it a lot, because it is difficult for them to get any help and support of the US competition pilots.
So even though I had fun, I definitely decided that I would much rather be a pilot than a competition director.
A couple of months ago Adam let me know that Mick Thomas, the lead singer of our favourite band in the 90s, was going to be playing in Canowindra. It was going to be on a Thursday night, so it was a perfect excuse to take a couple of days off work and have a break. Unfortunately James had school and Saturday sport, so I had to leave Kath and James behind. So I packed the kayak and balloon on the car and headed West.
Since there was no particular rush to get across to Canowindra on Thursday, I decided I would kill some time by going for a paddle on the Hawksbury River. Rather than just getting in the water in Richmond or Windsor, I decided to head a bit further North and looked for a launch spot somewhere deeper in the bush. I aimed for the Colo River, but unfortunately it was flowing a bit quick and I would have struggled to get back to the car. So I launched where the Colo met the Hawksbury. By this time it had got pretty warm, so I only paddled for a couple of hours, but it was a great chance to chill out.
After a leisurely lunch and a short snooze in the Blue Mountains, I headed across to Canowindra.
The Mick Thomas gig was great. It ended up being a fairly intimate affair, with a sit down meal and oh about 40 people in the audience. Very different from the old days of jumping around in Weddings Parties Anything mosh pit.
After a leisurely (hot) day in Canowndra on Friday, we decided to go flying on Saturday morning. It is very rare to go flying this early in the year in Canowindra, because it is normally too hot and bushfirey. However we were treated with a relatively cool calm morning. The grass in the paddocks is very short at the moment, so there was no fire risk.
Adam kindly volunteered to drive while I took his wife, Robyn, for the maiden flight of the new balloon. Adam set a couple of goals to fly to, but really it was a chance for me to get used to the new balloon.
As we took off, Adam came over the radio informing us that the car would not start. It ended up being a flat battery, so after sitting around for an hour, his mum eventually picked him up and took him back to get his car. So by the time he got to us, we had just landed.
The balloon is fantastic. I need to get used to its responsiveness (being brand new), but it was really nice to fly. I got within 20 metres of the goals, but I was not really pushing it too hard. I can’t wait to get into it solo and see what it can do.
So it was a great few days off. A much needed break from work and great to get some flying done, considering the Nationals are only a couple of months away now.
Every year we head out to Parramatta Park (western Sydney) for the Australia Day ballooning. Normally they get about 15 balloons at the event, half of which free fly and the other half give tethered balloon rides to the crowd.
This year there was a new balloon on the scene… our new racer. Late last year we decided that it was time to sell the old balloon and buy a racer. This was for a variety of reasons, but mainly because I really did not like flying the lumpy 77. It used to frustrate the hell out of me, because it just was not as responsive as the smaller and more slender race. About the same time we were thinking about doing this, a guy in Byron Bay happened to post on the Australian Ballooning Federation’s website that he was looking for an envelope and a couple of weeks later he came down to Sydney and bought it.
So with that, I put in the order for a new Kavanagh Balloons EX65 racer envelope. James (my 10 year old sun) actually came up with the original design concept. I had to tweak it a bit to get the colours to link up. So the design is one that the whole family loves.
So once the order was in, then it was time to work out a name for it. We never really bothered naming the old balloon. We just called it “The Balloon”. I think that was mainly due to the fact we were not overly sentimental about it. However since we designed this one, we are more proud of it and therefore decided to name it “Shadowfax”.
Shadowfax (“Sceadufæx” in Rohirric) was the Lord of all horses. He was a descendent of Felarof, of the race of the Mearas, the greatest horses of Middle-earth. Shadowfax was capable of comprehending human speech and was said to run faster than the wind. Originally belonging to the House of Eorl, Lord of Rohan, Shadowfax was too wild to be tamed by the Rohirrim; eventually being granted to Gandalf the White by Théoden, the then-king of Rohan.
The balloon was finished a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately I was in Brisbane on the day the test inflation was done. Kath and James went along and emailed me photos as it was happening. So Australia Day was going to be the first time I was going to see it.
All week the weather looked like it was going to be windy and rainy, however the weather gods were kind and Saturday morning end up being perfect (but warm). After a long week at work, I decided I didn’t need the hassle of actually flying, and I wanted to a chance to check out the new balloon and get some photos. So we just stood the balloon up and chatted to the crowds.
I couldn’t be happier with the design. I especially love the way the pattern came together in the top of the balloon. Considering that is pretty much all of a balloon I ever see when I am flying it, that is lucky.
So the balloon is now back in the garage for a month or so, waiting for the weather to get cooler, when we can start getting ready for the Nationals in April.
From the 4 cameras we were using over the week, we ended up with over 100gb of video. Here is the final compilation of the video. Note: The music might stop it from being viewed in some countries or devices.