19 March, 2017

Paddling the Barwon - Part 1

Several times over the years, I have been asked for advice on paddling on the Barwon; what are the conditions like? Where are the best spots to paddle? Where to launch? How deep/shallow is the water? So I thought it might be a good idea to give a brief description of the sections I have paddled to date and to add a few photos for demonstration purposes.
Before paddling however, it is worth knowing what conditions are like on the day. Below is a table listing some potentially helpful websites:

paddling conditions (Inverleigh to Barwon Heads)
rapid grades (if any)
current river heights
some river access points
safety information including weather conditions, fire danger
estimated paddle times*
tips on safe paddling practises
Weather information and river heights
Event details and river closures
Event details and river closures
Barwon Heads tide times

Victorian duck hunting dates and locations
* paddling times may vary depending on river height in some sections

Over the past four years at one time or another I have paddled most sections of the river from about 1km upstream of Bell's Bridge, Inverleigh, downstream to Barwon Heads. At this point, I have not attempted to paddle further upstream and am not sure how far the river remains navigable by kayak. Below is a brief description of each section I paddled as I have found it at the time.
Inverleigh to Pollocksford
From Bell's Bridge for about 2km downstream to a small weir the river is relatively clear of obstructions and easy to paddle with no rapids.
Above the weir, November, 2014
Below the weir conditions vary, with rocky, reed-lined sections interspersed with long stretches of clear water. During periods of low flow, regular portage is necessary, sometimes for a few hundred metres.
April, 2016
We did not encounter any significant rapids. Higher water levels would reduce the portage required but increase the number and size of rapids encountered (grade II to III according to the Waterways Guide). The guide also estimates a travel time of around 4-5 hours. With low water levels (April, 2016) we took 6 hours to cover the distance from Bell's Bridge to Murgheboluc - around 8km short of Pollocksford.
With the exception of a vaguely-remembered paddle around 30 years ago, I have not paddled the section between Murgheboluc and Pollocksford, but expect it would be similar to the section immediately upstream.
The surrounding countryside is privately-owned farmland with a fringe of eucalypts lining the river.
Pollocksford to Merrawarp Rd
We paddled this section of the river - also with low water levels - in early 2013. Once again there were minimal to no rapids, however there were significant obstructions in the form of several dozen fallen trees which either impeded our progress or required us to carry the 'yaks either over or around them, significantly slowing our pace.
Low water levels downstream of Pollocksford, February, 2013
With higher water levels, many of the trees would be submerged, making for easier paddling, but I imagine some portage would still be required. Water levels varied between ankle-deep shallows and deep sections which were easy to paddle.
Lots of obstructions, February, 2013
I have regularly paddled the lower 2.5km of this section which is an easy paddle with minimal obstructions at any time of year. A further kilometre or more upstream of this is also a relatively easy
paddle, however low water levels do increase the number of obstructions. On the occasion we paddled this stretch we took about six hours to complete the trip.
February, 2013
During periods of low water flow, the river surface at some points can become clogged with Azolla, a surface-growing species of water fern, which can impede paddling. As with the previous section, the surrounding land is privately-owned land which has been cleared for farming purposes.
Azolla bloom above Merrawarp Rd, March, 2015
Merrawarp Rd to Baum's Weir
I have paddled this section of the river many times. Even when the river height is low, this section provides easy paddling with minimal obstructions in the form of fallen trees and branches - many of which are submerged. No portage is required at any stage.
Below Merrawarp Rd, February, 2015
Once again, during periods of low water flow Azolla blooms covering several hundred metres or more may slow paddling speed. As a general rule, I would take about an hour to paddle between the weir and the bridge.
It is not uncommon to see people fishing either from the bank or from kayaks on this section of the river and for some distance upstream of the Merrawarp Rd Bridge. Once again, the land to either side is mostly given to farming, with the Barrabool Hills rising above the south bank as you approach the Geoff Thom Bridge on the Geelong Ring Road.
Under the Barrabool Hills, September, 2014
From this point, the river enters the outskirts of Geelong and bare hills give way to houses and parkland.
Baum's Weir to Fyansford
Between the weir and Fyansford, the river flows over a basalt (bluestone) base and is generally shallow and rocky for a distance of about 1.5km. Much of the water is diverted into the water race constructed for the Barwon Paper Mill in the 1870s. Whilst the mill no longer uses it as a power supply, the water still runs via the race making levels on the river bed too low for convenient paddling at most times.
Bunyip Pool looking upstream, November, 2013
The exception is during periods of flooding when more experienced paddlers often brave the torrent which pours down over the weir and through Buckley Falls in order to ride the rapids. A second smaller weir also dams the flow of the river immediately upstream of the Bunyip Pool.
In flood. Looking upriver from the Bunyip Pool, January, 2011
I have not currently tackled this section, in part because there is pedestrian access along both banks throughout this section which is predominantly parkland.
Fyansford to Breakwater
This section of the river is wide and free of obstructions, its water level being regulated by the breakwater. Above Queen's Park there is little traffic however, below this point and particularly through the "rowing mile" the river is heavily used during much of the year for rowing, water skiing, dragon boating, canoeing and of course kayaking.
The Barwon above Queen's Park, September, 2014
During the summer months the river though Geelong is often closed to the public so that competitive water sports can be conducted. It is advisable to check opening times before paddling to avoid disappointment.

The "rowing mile" September, 2014
I would generally take around 1.5 hours to cover this distance. The land to either side is public property with a walking/cycling track forming a continuous circuit (about 18.5km) around this section of the river. In some sections houses and in others some industrial buildings overlook the river.
Breakwater to Tait's Point
Continuing downriver, portage is necessary to cross the breakwater  or it may be a convenient point to start or finish a paddle. About 1.75km downstream of the break is Goat Island where the river divides briefly around a small piece of land about 250m in length. The island is crossed by the Ovoid Sewer Aqueduct. Built between 1913 and 1916 to carry Geelong's sewage to an outfall at Black Rock, the now decommissioned pipe is in a dangerous state of disrepair and passage underneath - either on land or water - is prohibited, with buoy lines crossing both river channels either side of the aqueduct.
Near the Geelong Water Ski Club, January, 2013
A further 1.75km below the aqueduct are the club rooms of the Geelong Water Ski Club who hold events on this section of the river which may therefore also be subject to closure at certain times.
About 8km downstream of the breakwater is a second break, commonly called the Lower Breakwater for obvious reasons. Portage is necessary here also, however access to the west bank is relatively easy both above and below the break through gaps in the reeds at the river's edge.
River above the Lower Breakwater, January, 2013
From the Lower Break, the river continues through a formed channel for almost 2km before flowing into a branch at the western end of Lake Connewarre. Whilst finding the lake is easy when paddling down river, I recommend using a GPS and marking a waypoint or two at the mouth of the river channel (I do this at home using Google Earth as a guide), to make sure you can find the channel again coming back upstream. There are numerous nooks and crannies which can make finding the river channel quite tricky when heading upriver.
The Lower Breakwater, January, 2013
By this point, the river which at Breakwater flowed through light industrial and semi-rural farmland has become both tidal and saline. The tree cover found above Geelong is mostly absent and thanks to the breakwaters, the river is wider and deeper. Downstream of St Alban's Park, the river channel becomes mostly lined with reeds which block much of the view of the banks to either side. To the left is Reedy Lake which is not naturally accessible from the river and to the right is more farmland.
Below the Lower Break, the river channel is completely reed-lined with swamp to either side.
After entering the channel and the reeds, it is less than a kilometre across the narrow western-most branch of the lake to Tait's Point. The water level in the lake is naturally quite shallow in places depending on tides, meaning some portage through shallow water may be unavoidable. The lake bed is soft and muddy which further complicates the issue. I have it on good authority however, that a seal was seen as far upriver as the Lower Break, meaning that it is - under some circumstances at least - possible to cross the lake without resorting to lugging your vessel. In total I take about 3 hours to paddle this section.
Approaching Tait's Point, February, 2015
This part of the river also includes both the Lake Connewarre Wildlife Reserve and the Lake Connewarre State Game Reserve, meaning that game hunting is allowed along some parts of the river, Reedy Lake, Hospital Swamp and Lake Connewarre during duck hunting season (generally from the 3rd Saturday in March to the 3rd Saturday in June).
Tait's Point to Barwon Heads
The lowest section of the Barwon is quite different to the upper reaches, being a marine environment, with quite different bird life in evidence. Between Tait's Point and the river channel at the south east corner of the lake, the water level continues to be quite shallow in places.
Lake Connewarre, February, 2015
Where the lake flows once again into the river, there are numerous sandbars and small channels which make it difficult at ground level to see which is the correct path to take. Once again I would suggest pre-loading some waypoints into a GPS device to make it easier to find the river mouth at the bottom end of the lake.
Sandbar near the bottom of Lake Connewarre, February, 2015
Once back in the channel, the land to either side is flat, swampy and saline and the banks are increasingly lined with mangroves, however there are no obstructions and the water level is suitable for paddling. See also the above comments about duck hunting season.
Mangroves on the bank, October, 2014
More of a concern along this length of the river can be tide and wind conditions which can make paddling in either direction hard work. Check weather reports prior to going out.
Closer to Barwon Heads, there will be increased traffic as this part of the river is popular with those fishing from small motor boats and with occasional jet skiers. Once past the boat ramp on River Parade, there are channel markers along the river for the boating traffic. Outside the channel, the river rapidly becomes too shallow even for kayaks, with sandbars and mudflats blocking passage, particularly at low tide.
Once at Barwon Heads (a trip of around 2.75 hours), whilst it is possible to paddle past the bridge, caution should be exercised as the current can be strong, particularly with an outgoing tide. As you approach the river mouth, the water can also be quite choppy in windy weather.
Barwon Heads Bridge, October, 2014
In the second part to this post is a list of access points from which small craft such as kayaks and canoes can be launched. The post can be found at Paddling the Barwon - Part 2.


  1. Hi Jo, I am commenting here since this relates directly to questions I asked about navigating the river around Lake Connewarre, but both this and your second post on the topic of launch points to the river will be a great resource! I'll have to bookmark them for when I'm next down there. Lovely descriptions and the links to images, which you provided were great!

    1. Hi David, glad it is of interest and yes, hopefully it will be helpful. I had someone mention recently that they couldn't find much information about paddling on the Barwon, so hopefully this fills some gaps.
      When it comes to launching points, I thought it might be helpful for people to know what they're in for! My idea of a steep bank may not be the same as someone else's idea.

  2. Yes finer details can always been added, discussed, debated and refined... But a starting point is needed for rank amateurs like me who find first hand descriptions like this inspiring and informative. I think you have enough content on this blog to produce really great book!

    1. Lol! I'm still waiting for the publishers to come knocking on my door!! And thanks again. Let me know how any future paddles go!