If there is one race to do this year, it is the Gregory River Canoe Marathon hosted by the North West Canoe Club.
This year keep April 30 and the days surrounding, free to cover your 4WD in the red dirt and dust of outback North West Queensland.
The Gregory River 40km downriver race, full of winding corners, rapids, friendly campers and tree logs you play limbo with makes for a truly Australian experience and one you need to put on your paddling bucket list.
The history of the race could not be more true blue.
Four members of the North West Canoe Club wanted to paddle from the Knobbies to the pub and with their success the Gregory River Canoe Marathon race debuted a year later in 1976.
Since then, the race has seen as many as 250 paddlers on one start line to take to the challenge.
And what is so promising about this race is despite the heat, the grade two rapids and the range of paddling abilities, the dropout rate is low. (I saw a guy paddling down one of the easier rapids with a beer in his hand.)
The most people to call it a day in one race is 20 out of 154 back in 1987.
The flow of the water, the adrenaline rush, the great team support, the quality of boats available for loan and friendly safety crews are to thank for this.
If you are an accomplished paddler and are going for speed then that is great.
Grab a partner and set your goal to this… $2000 is being offered to anyone who can complete the course in under 2 hours, 43 minutes and 23 seconds, a record set by Matt Flower and Chad Meek in 2001.
Prize money is also up for grabs for the first across the line in both individual boat categories and team events.
There is also a 20km Short Race category which you can compete in a single, double or team.
While I did the 40km race, I sent the rest of my camping crew down the river as my carrot.
They jumped in a double Canadian Canoe that was kindly lent to us last minute by North West Canoe Club, as I turned up unprepared, entering the race the night before with four other people and no boats, just hope from an email sent a few days prior when boarding the plane.
This was a ‘YOLO’ trip for sure and we were prepared to go just to watch this race go down, because not only are you going to the inner edge of Queensland for possibly the best race of your life, you are also going for the good vibes, the road trip, the camping under the stars (I have never seen so many shooting stars), the switching off (no reception, no power), the new mates and connections (these people are so happy to have you come to their part of the world and get you down their river) and to be Australian.
Because even if you do not race the river, you are part of one of Australia’s longest running canoe marathon events in the reddest dirt, on the most beautiful pale green water, with scenery you will not see anywhere else.
If you are ready to make the journey to the Gregory, make sure you check out the events held in that part of the country before and after.
Practise races are held in the weeks prior to The Gregory River Canoe Marathon at Lake Moondarra.
My experience at the Gregory River Canoe Marathon opened my eyes to a whole world of paddling I have not been exposed to, and wish I had earlier.
And following this great race is another, The Barron River 50 (Mareeba to Kuranda) held the second weekend of May.
Rapids are great. Navigating is great. After paddling down a lane and around surf cans for years, dodging trees, whirlpools and dropping single file down a rapid was refreshing and crazy.
As you are scraping down what I was calling water falls, you are then challenged to paddle long stretches of flat water under the harsh sun with motivation that the rapid ahead that was once ‘scary’ to begin with now was your saviour and break.
All you had to do was not fall in but if you did you could cool down, but not for too long because crocodiles are real.
And I was never alone. From the start I was lucky enough to buddy up with an experienced series racer. I wash rode and he helped me when I had no clue what I was doing.
Also to my great surprise I came across a team mate of mine from Junior World Championships. I spotted him from a distance, thinking surely it couldn’t be.
This guy was in an inflatable double raft you might use in your swim pool with a plastic paddle going for 40km. Of all the places to catch up with an old friend, you don’t think it will be in the middle of Australia.
He and his brother were going for it but unfortunately had to pull out due to equipment failure but in any case they had a ball!
Crossing the line, winning the Open Women’s event I was immediately greeted by my wash leading mate, fellow competitors, an interview, a BBQ, a sweet winners cheque and the crowd cheering sitting on the banks and floating on anything inflatable.
I literally met the event organiser down river the day before attempting one of the baby rapids on a blow up giant pink flamingo with my friends in tow on blow up logs.
That could be one the best first impressions I have ever made. After the race, we celebrated with awards and by making new friends with the locals before packing up the boats and heading to the pub.
The pub is also the hotel, the gas station and one of the only places you will find a phone, ice or anything cold because they have electricity … and you don’t.
With my crew, all proud of our efforts we celebrated with a well deserved ice cream, eating it as fast as we can before our prize melted in our hands and not in our bellies.
Thank you to everyone who made it possible for one of my most memorable paddling experiences within my beautiful country and state.
I hope again to paddle the great Gregory River Canoe Marathon but in the mean time I urge everyone to go to www.northwestcanoeclub.org.au or to the Gregory River Canoe Marathon Facebook page and start planning one for the best races you might ever do. Ever.