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Thunder cracks through the silence and a deep, meandering rumble echoes into every corner of the valley. Ominous storm clouds have been brewing overhead all afternoon and the buzz of electricity in the air is palpable.
Sitting in my bright red kayak on the waters of Lake Yarrunga, there is little to protect me from the oncoming storm and I realise, it’s time to hustle if I am to reach my campsite before the onslaught of rain. Since pushing off from the banks of Bendeela this morning I have spent a leisurely four hours paddling between the banks of Kangaroo Valley in the southern highlands of New South Wales.
Lined by the mottled trunks and blue-green foliage of eucalypt, this area is a quintessential snapshot of the wild Australian, and to my delight it is teeming with native fauna. Wombats and kangaroos have already passed me by on my exploration of the valley but it was a persistent rustle in the bushes that piqued my curiosity.
Sidling closer to the bank I noticed a mound of golden spikes snuffling through the undergrowth; an echidna on a foraging mission for his morning meal. Though widespread in Australia, echidnas are rather elusive creatures and I counted myself lucky to see one at such close range.
Momentarily his long snout and beady eyes emerged beneath the cautionary armour and he trundled forward through the undergrowth; his quick movements sending an undulating ripple down his spiny back.
Another loud crack jolts me back to the present and my current dilemma.
The sharp sound is closer this time and, with the dark clouds becoming increasingly menacing, I pick up the pace, swiftly cutting through the water with a strong tail wind egging me onward.
Around a final bend, a lush corner of green sheltered by eucalypts comes into view and I know I have reached my home for the night. Frantically, I set about erecting my tent, being sure to secure the waterproof layer, and dive in just minutes before the sky opens up and heavy bullet-like raindrops begin to batter the canvas roof.
A short time later the rhythmic drumming subsides to a gentle pitter-patter and dappled light filters through the tent. The storm has passed and the valley is doused in a warm halo of orange light; the river a thread of molten gold between the trees.
Night falls quickly and the inky band of the star-studded Milky Way soon masks the remaining streaks of orange.
Back in my cosy forest cocoon, the sweet scent of eucalypt fills my lungs I am lulled to sleep by the melodious sounds of the Australian bushland – the hoot of a distant owl and the gentle crackle of wet leaves.
I awake early, the chorus of the bush now quiet in slumber. The crisp air is chilly and I settle into my kayak and glide off from the bank. The sky is still painted a deep purplish-blue, but I am eager to explore Yarrunga Creek, a tributary that feeds off from the main river passage.
Craggy sandstone cliffs encroach on either side of the narrow channel funnelling me onward. Delicate white flowers garnish the mirror-like water. Each stroke of my paddle sends them into a flurry as a cascade of ripples reverberates across the surface.
Around another bend and I am met by a mysterious sight. A forest of ashen trees are scattered through the waterway, their leafless talons piercing the dimly lit sky. A thick, ethereal mist caresses and encircles the bare, silver trunks.
With the creation of Tallowa Dam in the 1970’s, the end-point of my kayaking venture, the river system flooded to form Lake Yarrunga leaving the low-lying trees partially submerged. I imagine this area was once shaded by a vibrant canopy of foliage, interwoven with the soundtrack of birdsong and rustling leaves. Now I find myself in a strangely surreal scene of naked trees that seem from another world.
A chill runs down my spine as I paddle silently through the eerie network of trunks. Reflections of twisted branches move in the ripples playing tricks on my eyes, like bony fingers clawing and grasping toward my boat.
Hidden below the surface, collapsed trees lay as unseen obstacles in my path and I am careful to navigate them.
The faint blush of sunrise glimmers off the calm water as the first rays of soft golden light peak over the treetops. It’s not long before the swirling mist begins to dissipate and the birds emerge from their forest hideaways.
A flash of cobalt blue darts through my periphery. A nimble kingfisher flitting frantically from branch to branch, a flurry of iridescent feathers and orange breast. Black cormorants stand poised like feathered statues with wings out stretched waiting patiently for the warmth of morning.
After an hour drifting between the mystical tree trunks, now far less spooky in the morning light, I turn reluctantly to continue my passage onwards. The pathway through the trees leads me around the serpentine curves of the tributary and back toward the main channel.
A persistent wind whips across the valley and small wavelets rock my kayak back and forth as I emerge from the creek. This final stretch will be a far more gargantuan task than my leisurely adventure yesterday.
After a gruelling two-hour paddle into the wind, holding onto overhanging branches to avoid being flung backward while I rest, I round a final bend to see the red buoys of Tallowa Dam approaching.
Clambering ungracefully from my trusty steed I stretch my arms, now feeling decidedly more like jelly, and collapse onto the sun-drenched bank, exhausted but content.
Enveloped in a warm glow, my face covered by my wide-brimmed hat as I wait for my pick-up, the now familiar sounds of the bush are intensified. Dazed by the warm midday sun I drift into daydream filled with the curious gaze of an echidna, flashes of cobalt blue and the eerie spires of a forgotten forest.
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