Dynamic and mysterious, the Shoalhaven River meanders in chocolate froth after rain. Then the water settles into a silver ribbon that is so clear the swaying current reveals fish darting off into its depths.
Rolling hills on either side give way to thick scrub, stone-strewn foreshores and sandstone gorges. The water’s depth increases as the drama heightens. Sheer cliffs on either side begin to fill the sky.
At dusk, after a day on this river, when his stir-fry sizzles over glowing coals in a sandy fireplace, the elements reaffirm Andrew Oberg’s creed for life: this day has counted as every day must.
He follows his belief as resolutely as the water twists, tumbles and turns towards the coast. Days pass. Back in Goulburn at journey’s end, he is exhausted, exhilarated and emphatic about sifting through his GoPro images to wring out the last drop of adventure.
Andrew began going bush as a child in Cubs and Scouts with his older brother, Peter. They were inspired by their father Leon’s bubbling enthusiasm. Their grandfather, Bill, a war veteran and outdoors man, taught them fishing, knot-craft and good, wholesome life skills.
“I was never one for hanging around inside,” says the 49-year-old father of two. “We had a little house down the coast and dad would drag us around everywhere. He was always taking us camping.
“We’d turn up in the Blue Mountains [with Scouts] and dad would be the one sending Peter and I on our way – ‘Let’s go down the bottom there; let’s run out’ – a lot like I am now.”
After Peter was tragically swept off a rocky platform while fishing near Forster six years ago, Andrew lost his best mate.
“There is no way Peter would want me sitting around feeling sorry for myself,” he says. “I did for a while [but I realised] I can’t crawl back into a hole. I have a family and bills to pay. I think this is honouring his memory by getting out and living.”
Bill’s literature on the Shoalhaven River’s history of mining, landscape features, and hardships during the early 1900s, which people overcame to pursue adventures and canoeing, enthralled Andrew as a boy and endured into adulthood.
Aboard an inexpensive canoe or pump-up raft, and with likeminded mates, they head for riverine country. Leon drives them to drop-off points such as Tallong and collects them further down the river or at the centrepiece of the Shoalhaven system, Tallowa Dam.
“We have satellite phones, emergency beacons, helmets, lifejackets, first-aid kits and cover every contingency we can think of, and are in constant communication with our pick-up guy – our guardian angel,” says Andrew.
Planning a four-day adventure, they noted the rapids’ gradings from one to four depending on the difficulty of waves and negotiating dangerous rocks. Supremely fit, the adventurers wrestled their watercraft down the gorge. Andrew’s sealed hull was packed with a wok, vacuum-sealed salted beef, chicken, fresh fruit and vegetables, trail mix snacks, dry biscuits and fishing gear to lure bass and carp from the water.
Towards the end of one day, he placed his meat on top of the kayak and a sudden bump knocked it into the river. Later, he deftly sliced fillet strips from a carp he hooked, and that night’s planned menu switched from Mongolian lamb to Mongolian carp.
“Shoalhaven has clear water and a sandy bottom,” says Andrew. “The carp are not in mud holes and are very palatable, much to people’s surprise – boney, but flavoursome.”
Every outing presents nature’s mix of rain, fog-shrouded peaks, sunshine, wildlife and rocks polished and worn over thousands of years. The light and tree-filled landscape changes from green, grey, conglomerate, red, yellow and pastel brown.
At Blockup Gorge, 300-metre cliffs rise almost vertically.
“You nearly break your neck looking up in amazement,” says Andrew. “That gorge would easily be the gem of the Shoalhaven. When you sit there you feel so insignificant – it’s incredible geology.”
Wild dogs, feral cats, pigs, goats, goannas, parrots, kangaroos and waterfowl are either seen or heard, or leave their prints overnight across the sandy campsite. Koalas bark and scream in the night.
Andrew has hiked in Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand, China, Switzerland and throughout Europe, and he marvels at the tranquil magnificence of Bungonia National Park and the Shoalhaven.
“The world is an amazing place,” he says with a satisfied grin. “So much to see and so little time to do it.”