Day #51 : Pooncarie Township
Pooncarie is an appropriate last stop for the Darling traveler. A transition from the dry, red-soiled outback into surroundings more familiar to most of us who cling to the coastline. The pub is a classic Aussie hotel which served the best steaks on the Darling while the Pooncarie general store offers an excellent range of food, provisions and accessories. Road traffic through Pooncarie was constant with convoy after convoy of caravans and campers stopping to refuel and enjoy a beer at the front bar. We stayed two nights preparing ourselves mentally for the last section of the paddle. The feeling was bittersweet. The daily task of paddling for 5-6 hours was becoming as much a duty as a pleasure but after bonding with the river for seven weeks neither of us was looking forward to the end. We would be glad to make it to Wentworth, but sorry the adventure was over.
D. is a man who doesn’t like surprises and was keen on our rest day to walk the couple of kilometres down the main road to check conditions at the weir and thereafter formulate a range of possible strategies and scenarios for the portage the next morning. Chatting to a couple of locals in the public bar we were warned about entering the adjoining property but were lucky that Trisha pulling beers behind the bar was a co-resident and gave us permission to wander down and have a look, along with some useful advice on how to talk “Mouse” down in case he decided to enforce his property rights. We were able to see the weir and its surrounds without having to meet the fabled Mouse however D. decided it was best he settle the matter man-to-man and after walking past an increasingly threatening series of signs warning-off uninvited guests, announced he would knock on the front door and ask permission to portage the weir the next day. W. was appalled.
“I don’t want to knock on his front door. And what do we do if he says, ‘no’? You’ll tip him off and he’ll be waiting for us tomorrow with a shotgun.”
But D. as always was adamant the irrefutable force of logic would trump Mouse’s irrational territorial claims. He had set his mind on a reasoned, scientific exchange of facts and now saw no other option.
“How can he refuse such a reasonable request? I’ll go talk to him and explain the situation.”
W. found a comfortable spot out of range under a tree and sat watching as D. strode confidently through the final gate and disappeared over a rise towards the homestead. Fifteen minutes later W. was brought out of his Darling idyl and looked up to see D. approaching, a look of disappointment on his face.
“You’re alive. Is that a good sign?”
“There was nobody home. I was going to leave a note but couldn’t find anything to write on.”
“You really don’t want to paddle to Wentworth, do you?”
“I think Mouse is misunderstood. I’m sure once I explain things he’ll be reasonable.”
“I’ve heard a lot about Mouse today, but you’re the first person to describe him as ‘reasonable’. The man has ‘KEEP THE F**K OUT’ written on his gate. Can we go now?”
Back at the pub the locals shook their heads in amazement at D.’s bravery. Apparently Mouse was out of town “buying goats”.
But D. just couldn’t help himself. “When’s he getting back? I really want to talk to him.”
W. had had enough. “Why don’t we send him a postcard from Wentworth? ‘Dear Mouse, hope you got some nice goats. We trespassed on your property twice.'” D. thought about it for a while and agreed it was a good idea.
Day # 52: Pooncarie Township to 21kms downstream
We launched our boats at the same time the next morning at the point on the river closest to the pub in case we needed to help each other portage the weir and paddled the 2-3 kms downstream in about 20 minutes. We were able to land about 50 metres upstream on a gently sloping bank. The Pooncarie weir itself is a modern construction with a drop of about a metre and a half when we passed. Immediately downstream on the left bank is a lower flat section, a perfect place to relaunch. We were surprised to meet a friendly gentleman there fishing for yellowbelly. He quickly sized up the situation and looked over his shoulder nervously.
“Does Mouse know you’re on his property?”
“Yes, and No. We wanted to talk with him but he’s out of town”
“Yeah, buying goats”.
The unasked question hung in the air for a minute before our new acquaintance spoke.
“I’m mates with Mouse. Been fishin’ here for years”.
Of course D. was chomping at the bit to say something. In his mind the whole Mouse incident was still unfinished business even though we were past the weir and had almost made a successful getaway.
“You don’t have Mouse’s phone…….”
But he was interrupted by the noise of W.’s kayak sliding across the rocks and plunging back into the Darling. He waved over his shoulder and began paddling downstream without looking back.
After the weir the river was narrow and intimate with red gums overhanging for the first ten kilometres. As always at the downside of a weir the current ran a little so the first day back on the river, always the most difficult of any section, was a little easier than it had been upstream in wider parts. The river continued on much as it has above Pooncarie and there was little to comment on other than the large number of emus and grey ‘roos we spotted on the banks.
As for every other first day after a stop in town our aging muscles tightened up and our motivation began to fail quickly so when W. spotted a wide high white sand bend at lunchtime only 26kms downstream of Pooncarie it seemed too good to pass by. D. arrived about half an hour later and was also happy to take advantage of such an attractive campsite. The whole way we had only taken a single rest day on the river so it made sense on the last stretch to Wentworth to enjoy some relaxing time in the wild.
For every trip we set a number of “aims”. And one on this trip was to catch a good yellowbelly. Of all the fish we’d caught upstream we hadn’t hooked a single one of the elusive ‘belly, even though they constituted the main catch of most fishermen we met on the banks. We were told this was because we were using cheese for bait a lot of the time and because we were fishing from the banks in open water while the ‘belly are skulking snag-dwellers. So after setting camp, unrolling the mattress, dragging some enormous red gum limbs into a pile and setting them alight, for the first time of the trip W. took to the water in his kayak and settled in a likely looking snag directly opposite the camp. The only bait we’d been able to find in Pooncarie was frozen peeled prawns, but because we’d had a lot of success upstream with larger whole cooked prawns these seemed like a good option.
W. dropped his line directly over the side of kayak and was disappointed to see the water was no more than a metre deep. Stuck in the snag under cover of an overhanging red gum branch the padded cockpit of the boat was comfortable and W. began to snooze, watching the dragonflies skim cross the surface and admiring the broken reflections where the slow-flowing current met the protruding branches of the tangle of driftwood in which the kayak had settled. But within five minutes he was rudely interrupted. It wasn’t really a traditional bite, more a gradual tightening of the line and as W. slowly raised the rod the weight became greater as whatever it was on the other end realised its mistake and dived for cover. The $24.99 rod doubled right over and the drag slipped a little as the fish went crazy, cutting first one way and then another, fighting erratically like a silver perch but without making the usual long run of the river bream into open water. Instead the unseen adversary fought hard with its head down, looking for cover. This fish was something new, unlike anything else we’d caught on the river so right away W. knew an elusive ‘belly had taken the bait. With only four or five metres of line between the fish and the reel it didn’t take long to bring the slab-sided aquarian to the side of kayak, though its rounded paddle-shaped tail thrashed on the surface as it lay on its side seemingly unable to accept its changed circumstances. It was a yellowbelly, though there wasn’t a spec of yellow on any part of it. It showed the same pale colouration we had come to expect from the fish of the Darling. W. paddled quickly to shore so D. could admire the captured icthyan and after a minute of careful study of its features released it back into the river.
“That was a nice fish. Are you sure it’s a yellowbelly?”
“The only other thing it could be is a silver perch, and it’s not a silver perch. They’re pinheads. That was a ‘belly, for sure.”
D. quite rightly suggested returning to the snag to catch more of the elusive adversary, but W. was satisfied and after setting his line on shore below the camp and attaching a bell, trudged up the high sandbank to collapse on his mattress by the fire. D. joined him soon after, sitting in his Hobie armchair, surveying the river below.
“You see,” began W., lying in his customary position, staring at the clouds, “to the uninformed observer it seems I was only out there for 5 minutes, but there were many days of intense planning and strategising leading to this event. It would be wrong to compare this with what you call “fishing”….. where you throw out a bait hoping something is stupid enough to swallow it, relying only on the lack of intelligence of your adversary. This was a precise, targeted act. It was completely scientific. It was like an experiment in chemistry, or smashing one of those alleged “atoms” you are always on about but have never seen. The outcome was predetermined, inevitable. I sought only to catch a ‘belly. I developed and implemented a strategy with only one objective in mind….. the capture of a ‘belly. As I recall, the result was…… the capture of a ‘belly. This was not fishing, it was a game of chess. The result speaks for itself.”
D. looked dubious.
“I think you just got lucky and would rather lie on your mattress.”
W. shook his head slowly in disappointment and went to the trouble of raising himself on one elbow by means of emphasis.
“I suggest you apply the principle of your hero Occam and reassess your hasty and hurtful conclusion. Further, I name this campsite “Yellowbelly Bend” and have marked the map accordingly.” W. held up the map with the words “Belly Bend” scratched in biro at the 26km mark.
For a while D. seemed struck by the accusation of unscientific thinking until his face lit up in a smile.
“It was a nice ‘belly.”
“Sure was. Only one objective left for this trip. To make it to Wentworth”.
We caught a couple of small cod and some carp as the afternoon ran out and night fell, but nothing memorable. Goats wandered close to the camp, seeming tamer than they had upstream. After D. cooked the celebrated “Pasta of Kings” on the coals we settled for an early night and enjoyed watching the bats and the occasional flight of ducks from this beautiful and peaceful campsite, one of the best we’d found on the whole river.
We work the next day and agreed to stop for another 24 hours. With Wentworth a week away we could’t be sure there’d be another campsite as good as the one we occupied downstream. This was our last guaranteed chance to enjoy a day of relaxation on the river, in a place we knew to have its share of resident pisceans.
Day#53: Rest Day at Yellowbelly Bend 21kms downstream of Pooncarie
Day #54: 21kms – 61km Downstream of Pooncarie
Day #55: 61km – 97km Downstream of Pooncarie
Day #56: 99km – 136km Downstream of Pooncarie
Day #57: 136km – 175km Downstream of Pooncarie
Day #58: 175km – 217km Downstream of Pooncarie
Day #59: 217km Downstream of Pooncarie to 240km (Wentworth)