Life of a river guide

Gray Stride, Nymboida
Nymboida river guides Dan Burt (left) and Gray Stride lost thousands of dollars of equipment during the Liberation Trail megafire. Photo: Ben Belle

To paint a picture of the river, you paint it in sections. It’s a journey. At the top end of the river, it’s beautiful little mountain streams, a lot of granite rocks, overhanging trees, steep terrain. Most of the tributaries are quite small. They all flow into and become the Nymboida River. Once you’re in the Nymboida, where rainfall has gouged a valley through the top part of the mountain, you start getting beautiful big granite gorges. You get rocks up there the size of houses. Lots of waterfalls. But also areas of total tranquility, beautiful pools completely surrounded by sheer cliffs. The fish, the platypus, the birdlife up there is astounding. 

As you come down, suddenly all the big rocks disappear. It becomes wider. Beautiful vegetation down by the river. You’ve got button-grass growing in the middle of the river. You come to a section and there could be eight or nine different ways to go. Every way is like a little journey through. Then eventually you come down onto the flats into farmland.

Being a river guide brings a wealth of emotions.

I’ve gotten so many different things out of it. The biggest is seeing the change in people’s ability. Everyone has their own little journey on the water. Most of it is mental. The ones that stick in my mind are little moments, like seeing a child achieve something they never believed they would be able to achieve. I’ve taken someone who’s spent their life in a wheelchair down the river. Seeing the expression on their face, going along the bank exploring. It doesn’t matter if I’m paddling a section that I’ve paddled 500 times before, I still get something out of it every time.

In 2008 I tagged along on a trip with a paddling friend and fell in love with the Nymboida the day I arrived. That was it for me. I started coming up here more and more. People found out I had qualifications. I got an offer of some work up here. I grabbed it with both hands. I went home, packed up my business and 14 days later, I was here permanently. Nowadays I do part-time work for Nymboida Camping and Canoeing, as well as running my own business doing training and instructing on the river. I work mainly from the junction of the big Nymboida and the little Nymboida all the way down. That’s approximately 80 kilometres of river. 

The Canoe Centre is located at the base of the Nymboida hydropower station on a little flood creek called Goolang Creek. We had quite a large release of water coming off the Nymboida into Goolang Creek, which made it a very attractive whitewater paddling creek. From when it first started being paddled, within about eight years it was formally turned into a paddling centre, and from then on it was the hub for junior training and competitions and senior competitions right across the east coast of Australia. I’ve spoken to people from overseas who know where Sydney is, they know where Brisbane is, but they also know where Nymboida is. The amount of visitors that place used to get was in the tens of thousands every year. 

In 2011, we got two major floods, within two weeks of each other. That caused damage to an area of the power station, and the company decided to close it off. They basically locked the gate, walked away from it, and the water running through the Canoe Centre, one day it just suddenly stopped. 

Since the closure, things died for many years. We really struggled. The Centre lost 95 percent of its business. I had just taken on directorship, just before the power station closed. We had to rebuild everything. We made a rough five-year plan. It was purely locals, and we all worked for free and kept it afloat. There was no more kid paddling and small activities on Goolang Creek – we had to take our whole business out onto the Nymboida. By 2018, we were looking pretty confident. Our name was getting back out there, some of the big schools and groups were hearing about us again, our bookings started coming in. We had a fleet of 20 canoes, 15-20 kayaks, another 15 kayaks that we hired out to whitewater paddlers. We were excited about what the next few years were going to hold. 

Then in the middle of 2019 we suddenly didn’t get any rain. Instead of this beautiful big 40-metre-wide river, it was just trickling between the rocks. The big spring-feeds that come off some of those smaller creeks, they’d all dried up. The button-grass plains up in the mountains had dried up. Then the fires started popping up. You’re in an area that had not really seen a big bushfire for three, four generations. But still, it’s the Aussie bush, you get fires. They weren’t that big. Come August 2019, the fires popped up again, and this time, they were a bit worse. They started getting closer. We had a big one up at Rappville, which took out a community. It was shocking. I felt for the people of Rappville, for what they’d gone through, and we tried to help them. But here we were 150 kilometres away, we thought, It’s not going to happen to us.

we thought, It’s not going to happen to us.

We were watching then, as the weeks passed on. We got the Bees Nest fire. It was up in the mountains. When you drive up there, it’s a long way. And that distance, you really don’t comprehend the mountain terrain that’s up there. We were having smoked-in days, burned leaves and ash falling on our properties for weeks and weeks. Everyone was on edge. 

On the day that the actual fire hit, it started off as a relatively normal day, a lot of smoke, ash falling. It soon picked up and got pretty thick, a lot thicker than what we had seen before. I went to work as normal at about 8am. We got our first SMS from the fire authorities saying Prepare to evacuate at about 11:30 AM. From that point, we got everybody off the campground, evacuated back to Grafton. Then we locked up, told the staff to go home, prepare, pack, whatever. We hung around until 1:30. By that time, visibility on roads was getting bad. We still didn’t know exactly where it was coming from, and we definitely didn’t know how big or how bad it was.

When we left, I remember locking up the boat shed. From a business point of view, everything I owned was in that shed. I made a joke about one of my brand-new boats, which I’d only just bought a few weeks before. 

And then I drove out the front gate. 

It wasn’t until that night and the early hours of the next morning that we started to understand what had happened. There were reports that Nymboida had been totally burnt, end to end, that the school had gone, the Nymboida campground had gone, the police station had gone, the pub had gone. If they’d all gone, every single house would have gone, including ours. My first thought was we’d lost everything. 

I headed straight back in. The first thing I wanted to do was find out who was there and who was okay. When I got out there, everything was still alight. It was like driving into… I would never use the word ‘war zone’, because I’ve seen one of them and it wasn’t that. It was just black. You could just see the black earth and the stumps of black trees. I came around the last corner and saw a couple of the cabins belonging to the Canoe Centre still standing. Dave (Stephenson) was on site. He hadn’t slept. He’d been there the last 24 hours. He had a garden hose. I found out later he’d walked away from his own house because there was no way in the world he was going to save it. He lost everything, came down and fought the fire at the Centre and saved the office. 

Essential gear and safety equipment melted inside the shipping container. Photo: Dan Burt

The gear shed got burnt. The big gear shed, and my shed which was next door, were on dirt floors and had a small gap underneath the walls. The ash and ember attack came straight in underneath. 

A couple of fire trucks did turn up. We had one or two in the village. They did their best with very limited resources. And then we had a couple come down to the Centre. They didn’t even realise that those sheds were on fire until that fire was inside, and by that time it was too late. That shed had been chock-a-block full to the roof with gear. When we smashed open the door, there was nothing in it. It was completely vaporised. 

The next day, Sunday morning, I organised our first community meeting. Georgia (Foster Eyles) and I got together through social media, had a quick chat, and we started organising. We didn’t know what we were doing at that stage. I was pretty darn sure that we were going to have a body count. Everyone was scattered to the four winds. My main priority was to get communication happening so we could find out where everyone was.

We lost a third of the houses in the whole valley, nearly 100. On top of that, we lost 90 percent of everyone’s sheds, tractors, gear. We needed to try and clear roads, get to people’s property, but there was nothing to do it with. It wasn’t a matter of ringing up Bob next door, getting him to bring his tractor out, because Bob didn’t have a tractor anymore. It wasn’t just the fact that we had gone through something terrible, and everybody had been affected. You couldn’t do anything. There were no resources. It got down to the basics of finding everybody, and food and water. That was all you could concentrate on. 

Down at Nymboida Camping and Canoeing, we had a huge shed, mainly for school groups to do activities in during wet weather. We decided to turn that into a rescue hub. Over the next week, it transformed. We didn’t plan it, it just grew. We started getting food donations, so we started supplying food. Then we realised there’s no point in giving people food, because they’ve got nowhere to cook it. So we started cooking food. We were feeding between 30 and 70 people every day, three meals a day. We had volunteers in charge of things to help make it happen smoothly. That is very hard to do when everybody’s got their own disasters they are trying to deal with. People stepped up, for a day or two, then they had to step away.

The rest of the state had been burnt by the end of January. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know where we would be now, to say it in a nice way. Nymboida would still be devastated. It got the government wheels turning. We were always probably going to get something, but instead of being a little tiny-dot disaster on the map of Australia, it was now part of this huge whole-country thing. 

Nymboida Canoe Centre. Photo: Dan Burt

Initially our little village was blown apart. That connectivity we had as a community was shattered. It’s like getting a Ming vase and then dropping it. We were very lucky we had no loss of life during the catastrophe on that day. But in the weeks and months following, a lot of people decided that they just mentally could not even come back into the area. From day one, we started losing members of the community. People left, properties came up for sale. Now three years on, we’ve got people that have moved in, found their own feet, and are starting to fill those gaps. 

It’s one of the things I found and loved about Nymboida, was the community. It’s nice to see that it actually is coming back. The togetherness, helping each other out and just chatting and talking to each other. Just popping in for coffee. Someone was always there to help you out. It didn’t matter who you were. I think everyone was afraid that it wasn’t going to come back. 

Just before the fires I went and had a look at the Boyd River. It had completely stopped. Anything still living in the ecosystem was living in those dried-up holes. Then the fire came through. Environmentally, it was an absolute disaster. We got a massive thunderstorm about five weeks after the fire, in early December. It washed every little bit of soot and ash into the river system. It filled all those holes with black sludge, killed everything, wiped out the whole river from end to end. The Boyd was a bubbling cesspit. I went for a paddle in May after the fires. I paddled the last 16 kilometres of that river. And I counted every living thing I found on that river. I’ve got ten fingers on my hands, and I did not run out of fingers. 

Between Christmas and June 2022, the river system came up to what we call a moderate flood level. And that’s allowed some really good regeneration. We’ve now got cod – the eastern cod which is endangered along the whole east coast of Australia – able to swim and disperse again. We’re starting to see baby platypus out on the water this year. It would have taken decades for them to come back if we’d lost them. Birdlife is starting to come back. We’re getting trees now doing their first blossoms. We’ve seen our very first koala back in Nymboida. We had a beautiful colony of koalas up on Black Mountain, and we lost the lot. That makes everybody in the community a lot more appreciative and a lot happier to see the wildlife back in their yards. 

But we are still losing people. This is my last year here. I called in a lot of favours, and I was actually ready to go back on the water in March 2020. All my gear had gone up in smoke, my ten years of work. For employment in town, the Canoe Centre was the only business there. So I poured my focus into that. I had four school groups that were destined to come, through the ash and smouldering trees, to come and paddle. And then covid hit, and literally 24 hours later, every single person that was booked had to cancel. So we lost everything again.

Clouds Creek canyon after the fires. Photo: Dan Burt

My aim was always to show the Nymboida River to as many people as I can. The river’s changed a lot. It’s nowhere near as pretty and pristine as it was when I first arrived. The frequency of high-powered floods has just ripped the guts out of it. The majority of the river is twice as wide as it was six years ago. There are huge sections which do not have trees on it anymore. That kills a river. Every time it really gets wider, it gets shallower. The other thing is cattle. I used to paddle whole sections of this river and hardly see a cow. The water was crystal clear. I could just dip my cup into the river and drink it. Now there’s a cow across every square millimetre on both sides of the river, and they’ve absolutely trashed it. During the fires, there were thousands of fences burned. We had BlazeAid, they were gonna stay six months and ended up staying a year-and-a-half, and they still never got to finish everything. 

This was one of the places I’d said would be my last move. I was quite happy to stay and retire here and spend the last bits of my life here. But I really don’t want to start again, I don’t think I’ve got it in me. I was lucky enough to get a little house in Tassie and I’m gonna pack my bags and I’m heading out of here come this Christmas. I’m not happy to go, but I know it’s not to the detriment of the community. It’s a good feeling to walk away, knowing the community is good. Nothing’s forever and things change. You gotta be prepared to go with it.

Every day is a new river.