Rafting Australia's North Johnstone

  |  Gorp.com

Most people know Australia for its Great Barrier Reef. Just inland, however, is another World Heritage Site accessible only to river runners. Coursing through more than 450 miles of World Heritage rainforest, the North Johnstone River, which dumps into the Pacific just south of Cairns, offers paddlers something no other river in the world does: a trip through one of the most ancient rainforests in the world.
Earning World Heritage status in 1988, the rainforest flanking the North Johnstone has evolved unmolested for more than 130 million years, escaping the ravages of ice ages and volcanism that plagued other parts of the world. Some individual trees you'll pass on the river are more than 3,000 years old.

Trips start at an old converted dairy farm at Mulgalli Falls, a long boomerang's throw south of Cairns. After scones and tea, guests are whisked away in a helicopter to the put-in. Between trips, the chopper drops food supplies at pre-established campsites along the 50-mile section of river, leaving rafts light and maneuverable for such Class IV-V rapids as Black Ass Falls, the Berlin Wall, Mineshaft and Mordor. One of the river's more aptly named rapids is Snake Falls, so named for two giant pythons found coiled on a rock at its entrance.
The trip is also replete with waterfalls, including 150-foot Stairway to Heaven, an aboriginal burial site. Natives buried their dead at its base so their spirits could ascend to heaven. Flora and fauna-wise, expect what you would expect to find in the world's most ancient rainforest. It's the home of everything from bird spiders that prey on birds to water dragons and saltwater crocodiles, which reach lengths of up to 23 feet and come equipped with three tons of closing pressure per square inch of jaw. Botanists will marvel at such oddities as cicada palms, which grow only two feet every 100 years; flowering ginger trees; and the inevitable Stinging Tree, whose heart-shaped leaves contain needle-sized capsules filled with more than 20 poisons, 12 of which have no known cure. And by the end of the trip you'll be well versed in the local technique of removing leeches: simply scrape them off with an upward movement of your fingernail.
Don't let all of this scare you, however. The river is a jungle gem, and is safely navigated year in and year out. In fact, the time passes so quickly that before you know it you'll pass the confluence of the Beatrice River—above which lies a secret aboriginal site known as Frog Cave—and negotiate such rapids as Mushroom, Rooster Tail and Champagne Falls, all caused by ancient, ancient lava flows. Then you'll cross the World Heritage boundary and float the flats to the Nerada Tea Farm, where, in true Crocodile Dundee fashion, you'll celebrate your jungle run with a ice cold can of Fosters.

PRACTICALLY SPEAKING

Difficulty: These are Class IV-V rapids, but the river's water volume, smaller than rivers like the Zambezi, makes it a more technical challenge, with much more rock dodging.
Price Range: The helicopter shuttle brings the price up. Expect to pay upwards of $1,000 for a 5-day trip.
Best time to go: Depends on rains. In drought years, the vegetation soaks everything up, leaving little trickling down the waterway. Best chance for favorable flows: April - June.

Published: 8 Jul 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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