How many people know about the NSW Canoe & Kayak Trail network? Australia's most populous state has a well set-up paddling trail network encompassing some of its most famous - and culturally rich - rivers. Plus, most of these rivers are ideal for family-based canoe/kayak camping adventures.
Yep, it sounds pretty close to perfect for water-based explorers. Now it's just a matter of picking and choosing which one to paddle first.
HAWKESBURY/NEPEAN RIVER SYSTEM CANOE & KAYAK TRAIL
These paddles are close to Sydney and offer a choice of three separate trails - the Nepean, Colo and Hawkesbury rivers (50km, 30km and 83.5km respectively). You should aside time to explore all three, as each offers a unique experience and, with your Land and Property Management Authority maps in hand, it is just a matter of planning which river to paddle first.
Access to the Hawkesbury is the most straightforward - there are myriad put-in points accessed through public land - and this huge river is a great introduction to paddling a canoe trail, either as a series of one-day adventures or as a multiday expedition; accommodation options are plenty here - caravan/camping grounds, water ski resorts and B&Bs are scattered along the river's banks - as is a plethora of wildlife.
One thing you do need to be aware of while floating along checking out the scenery on the Hawkesbury is its popularity with powerboats and water-skiers.Obey the rules of the water and paddle on the right-hand side of the river and you should be fine; most boaters are well aware of the Hawkesbury's popularity with kayakers and canoeists and will give you a wide berth. Answer them with a wave of thanks and everyone's happy.
The Hawkesbury section of this network travels from Yarramundi to Wiseman's Ferry, over a distance of 83.5km, and can be broken down into six day-sections (Yarramundi-North Richmond; North Richmond-Windsor; Windsor-Ebenezer; Ebenezer-Cumberland Reach; Cumberland Reach-Lower Portland; and Lower Portland-Wisemans Ferry) or you could turn it into a multiday touring affair, camping at caravan parks or, as part of the Windsor-Ebenezer section, in Cattai National Park for a wilder experience.
The Hawkesbury is rated for beginner paddlers but it is still essential to check tides (best to paddle with it if possible) and winds before setting out; there's nothing more miserable than paddling against the tide or the wind; it can make what sounds like an awesome trip pretty awful.
For a family-based paddle adventure, the Nepean River section is ideal. At around 25km one-way, this makes for a great adventure, starting from an easy put-in point at either Tench Reserve at Penrith, on the river's eastern side, or from the Nepean Rowing Club (accessed by turning right before the Nepean Bridge), also on the eastern bank but a bit further up the river. This route can be paddled in either direction, as the water here is non-tidal, but wind direction will be a factor in which direction you paddle (and whether you decide to only paddle one way or opt for the return journey).
The Nepean River is also busy with (obviously) other paddlers, rowers and also powerboats/water skiers, so remember to be aware of this. The highlights for braving this busy waterway are a glimpse of the huge wall of Warragamba Dam, as well as the chance to introduce your children/family to the delights of paddling on calm water. Once you've all gained confidence on the Nepean, the more remote Colo River beckons.
The lower Colo River offers an escape from the busier Nepean and also the chance to experience an easy-ish overnight water journey. This part of the Colo is tidal so your best option for exploring this area is to follow the tide and head downstream, starting from the Upper Colo Recreation Reserve. The finish, at Lower Portland's Skeleton Rocks Reserve, is 30km downriver, meaning a two-day journey with a camp at Colo at the 16km mark. Colo River Holiday Park offers campsites and barbecue areas.
The second section - from Colo to Lower Portland - takes you through some spectacular narrow gorges and thick bushland, with plenty of sandy beaches on which to pull up for a rest or lunch. The only caveat with paddling the Colo River is to make sure you check the water level carefully; if it is too high you will have to portage around the low-height Upper Colo Bridge. If it's too low, you'll have to drag your canoe over some short sections.
TUMUT RIVER CANOE AND KAYAK TRAIL
For the more adventurous paddlers, the 95km Tumut River Canoe Trail is a must-do. With an abundance of bush campsites along the river's banks, plus the slight challenge of paddling a river classified as a Grade 1 (some small rapids) the Tumut makes a fantastic multiday adventure for the more experienced paddler.
The Tumut River is best run during summer, when the Snowy Mountain Hydro Electric Scheme releases water after the snowmelt. The trail starts at the bottom of the Blowering Dam wall and finishes where it joins the Murrumbidgee River near Gundagai.
The landscape you paddle through over the recommended four to five days comprises a mix of crown and pastoral lands. The river also allows for easy access to put-in points and for any support vehicles, with the Land and Property Management Authority maps available online showing vehicle routes to each section's finish point and marking potential overnight campsites at reserves/camp/caravan parks.
For a day trip - especially if it is family-based - a great option is to paddle the 16km/three-hour Jones Bridge Reserve-Junction Park Lions Reserve section. This follows the river as it ambles around the town of Tumut, making meals, accommodation and car shuttling from start to finish nice and easy, while still offering the canoeing experience for the young'uns without having to commit to an overnight trip.
Of course, if you're really keen - and after having finished the full Tumut River trail - you can just keep paddling, down the mighty Murrumbidgee...
MURRUMBIDGEE RIVER CANOE AND KAYAK TRAIL
This canoe trail is huge - an epic 230km - and takes you from the heights of Nanangroe Reserve (around 34km west of Yass) just down from the Snowy Mountain Scheme's Burrinjuck Dam, to the fertile farmlands surrounding Wagga Wagga. As with the Tumut River, the best times to paddle the Murrumbidgee canoe trail are from September through to March. There are seven sections of this canoe trail, so you can either break them up into day/overnight paddles, or go for the full monty of a week or more on the river, which would be our pick.
Along this trail you will find myriad riverside reserves for camping and canoe/kayak put-in, as well as some fantastic scenery. The trail passes through some true western NSW/outback landscapes and you'll move between willow and gum shadowed sections to barren and exposed parts of the river, with plenty of wildlife to see.
This trail is not for the faint-hearted, however; sections can take between five-and-a-half hours and eight hours of paddling each day, and even longer as your efforts and speed will be governed by the speed of the river's flow. Still, if you're committed to the full trail and are well prepared, you won't be disappointed as you retrace the route taken by those brilliant paddle steamers of yesteryear. And best of all - at trail's end - is Wagga Wagga, one of NSW's most famous and hospitable inland cities.
MACQUARIE RIVER CANOE AND KAYAK TRAIL
Named after Lachlan Macquarie, the last governor of the colony of New South Wales, this river forms (along with the Murray, Murrumbidgee and Barwon-Darling rivers) part of the Murray-Darling basin. The river takes paddlers through a part of NSW that offers everything from huge river red gums lining its banks, through to a wide variety of native birds and animals. Starting in the central-western NSW town of Wellington, the Macquarie trail snakes 150km northwest through the regional centre of Dubbo before finishing in Narromine.
This trail (best travelled during summer after the annual release of water from Burrendong Dam) starts at Wellington's Oxley Park Reserve and, on average, will take fit paddlers around five to six hours per day to complete. Along the way there are plenty of Crown Land reserves for camping - and where there are no reserves, nearby towns offer excellent accommodation and dining options.
A stand-out section of this trail is Bril Bral Reserve-Butlers Falls Reserve, on day three, which has plenty of sandy beaches on which to camp or stop for lunch, plus it is fast-flowing, making for an exciting day in the boat. If you can, it's well worth doing the full trail. The experiences along the way - ranging from remote bush camping to dossing down in the hospitable country towns along the river - make this a hidden gem of western NSW.