River Home: Expedition on the Mighty Martuwarra

The North Face Adventure Grant recipients of 2021 – Mark Coles Smith, Jackson Gallagher and Lachie Carracher – recount their journey on the mighty Martuwarra during the third biggest wet season on record.

Martuwarra Fitzroy River Aerial Shot

If you look deep into the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia you'll discover a landscape defined by one of the most significant cultural and environmental ecologies in the world – the mighty Martuwarra (Fitzroy River).

While off the radar for most, the Martuwarra Fitzroy River not only runs through some of the largest remote wilderness in Australia, but also accounts for one of the highest volume and volatile watersheds on Earth. The raw power, unique hydrological systems and elaborate ecology, all contribute to an environment that is difficult to measure and even harder to maneuver within. For The North Face Adventure Grant recipients of 2021 – Mark Coles Smith, Jackson Gallagher and Lachie Carracher, this River was the setting for an unforgettable journey.

At first light on the morning of March 9th earlier this year, the team chartered a light aircraft from off the humid tarmac of Derby Regional Airport and into the low hanging rain clouds that blanketed the surrounding landscape. Between pockets of warm mist below the aircraft could be seen the signs of a country known commonly for its arid and dry conditions – now in total evidence of the wet season. A near ceaseless expanse of dazzling green vegetation carpeting the surface of what was once red soil and orange stone, only giving way to small splinters of creeks and waterways, all vying for a path towards the coast. When the plane landed onto the damp pindan airstrip of Mt Barnett that morning, the crew still had half a day of hiking and preparation upstream to contend with before the afternoon light saw them set off on a rafting expedition that would take them 400kms along the length of the Matuwarra River. From Ngarinyin country through to Bunuba and Gooniyandi nations, the expedition transitioned across 16 days, through changing geology towards the territories of estuarine crocodiles. From this point, the team traveled by any means to reach the mouth of the mighty Martuwarra in Nyikina country.

On record, March is historically not a highwater month, but Traditional Owners, Country Men and Women alike who are connected to the Martuwarra asked for a rain that could carry the crew all the way through their wilderness passage and back to the nearest road, found in the township of Fitzroy Crossing. The Martuwarra obliged with the third biggest wet season on record. In contrast to the forecasts, storm cells lashed the watershed for days, filling the river until the banks broke. From initial concerns regarding not enough water, the team was now paddling massive class 5 rapids with 4000 cubic meters per second recorded at the bottom of the steepest section of whitewater. Rapids were described as “the size of a small town”, with foam and trees flowing through the floodplains, and water lapping at the bottom of artwork up to 60,000 years old. They asked for highwater and they got just that, and some.

Words by Lachie Carracher and Mark Coles Smith, Photos by Jackson Gallagher 

Lachie Carracher on the Martuwarra (Fitzroy River)

Our River Home project that won us The North Face Adventure Grant was an experience that none of the crew will forget. From my perspective it encompassed everything I look for in a world class adventure; pre-departure doubts, the relief from finally “dropping in”, awe-inspiring landscapes, lots of laughs, complete exhaustion, and last but certainly not least a solid dose of adrenaline.

After we made it to the river our attitudes changed from “what if” to “come what may”. The weather forecasts did not look very promising when we left contact, but that all changed when we met the river. We introduced ourselves, and asked for rain, we asked for water to grant us a safe passage and to send us all the way down.

My relationship with the Martuwarra is that of friendship, reverence, mentorship and above all respect. I cannot speak for Mark's relationship, a Nyikina man whose ancestors have lived on the banks of the Martuwarra for countless generations. For Jackson, our photographer – well, I’m not sure he knew what he was in for.

Within hours of putting on the river the thunder was booming, lightning was striking. It seemed everything upstream of us was getting heavy rain, the Martuwarra appeared to be talking as we embarked on the ride of our lives, the river was rising.

The days started to blur together. We were traveling through an ancient landscape which appeared untouched by time. The rain kept coming, heavier and heavier as we continued closer to the crux gorge in the heart of the Millawindi Ranges. None of us had experienced a river of this volume. Once a little creek just deep enough to float a raft, now resembling a moving ocean, a vast body of water flowing rapidly through an extensive forest of paper bark, boabs and crocodile bark trees. Some days we would lose the riverbanks all together and resort to seeking refuge on diminishing islands in the middle of raging torrents for our lunch breaks. Having experienced this river before, I was nervous. The steeper rapids in the middle of the gorges were coming and I could not imagine what this volume of water would do in those sections.

To feel small is a powerful experience. To feel like nothing, to notice small details that would normally pass by, rhythms in wildlife, the river, the team. We were deep, we were immersed, we surrendered to the experience and I would be lying if I said we were not quietly terrified. Whirlpools were opening up on the river much larger than our raft, powerful vortexes that would suck you so deep underwater the chances are you would never come back, crashing waves 20 feet tall – we were helpless ants in the land of the giants. Undoubtedly humbled, we worked for our experience, physically and mentally.

To articulate our journey is next to impossible, the experience was powerful and we all left with altered perspectives. Our expedition delivered above and beyond anything we could have imagined.

I would like to personally thank the Martuwarra Fitzroy River council for granting permission and giving us ongoing guidance for this journey. For more information from the Council of Traditional Owners regarding the river, the continued fight for the Martuwarras Right to Life and for Indigenous management, please visit: martuwarrafitzroyriver.org.

The North Face Adventure Grant: Into the Future

Exploration can change lives. It teaches us about curiosity, playfulness, and perseverance. It instills adaptability, courage, and a connection with the world around us too.

These values don’t just propel us in our outdoor pursuits, they’re a powerful force in the world. We see it through our athletes, our partners, and even within our company.

Advocacy and nonprofit partnerships are a core part of our brand’s 50-year history. In 2010, we formalized the outdoor industry’s first grantmaking program focused on increasing outdoor participation, expanding to Canada in 2012, Europe in 2018 and now the Asia-Pacific region in 2021.

In 2022, we are proud to be launching the Explore Fund in Australia and New Zealand. The North Face Adventure Grant will continue, and will take new shape alongside our Explore Fund in 2022. Stay tuned for updates on both the Explore Fund and The North Face Adventure Grant on Instagram or Facebook, as well as more stories from our 2021 Adventure Grant recipients. 


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