River sledding

A Pacific black duck joins my guide Georgia Lynch in welcoming me to the Thredbo River!
A Pacific black duck joins my guide Georgia Lynch in welcoming me to the Thredbo River!

OK, I'll admit it. Apart from being my trademark, my tattered Akubra is my security blanket. Whenever I'm without it, I feel naked. But not today. While I've temporarily replaced my hat with a safety helmet, the remainder of my body is layered with two full-length wetsuits, a hardcore spray jacket and a personal flotation device. It's pretty hard to feel naked with this much gear on.

You could be excused for thinking I'm about to take a plunge into the Arctic Sea, but instead I'm all prepped for my debut sledding adventure in the New South Wales Snowy Mountains. Now, normally in these parts the only sledding action you'd expect to see at this time of year would be Santa's sleigh being drawn through Jindabyne during the annual Christmas Carols. But this is no ordinary sledding. This is river sledding. And as I splash (read: waddle nervously) into the Thredbo River at Thredbo Diggings, the bone-jarring cold on the few exposed bits of my skin makes me wonder about this being a summer pursuit at all.

After a record season, the river is laden with snow melt and unfortunately (foolishly?) I've chosen a most unseasonably cold day to embark on my maiden sledding adventure. ''Sledding'' is a bit of a misnomer. It's basically a hardcore version of li-lo'ing.

Firstly, the water is colder. Georgia Lynch, my energetic twenty-something guide, reckons it's about 10 degrees and my fellow sledders Stuart and Suzanne from Melbourne reckon it's in the low teens. I'm not sure of the exact water temperature, but my car thermometer indicated just a few minutes ago that the air temp was a teeth-chattering 8 degrees. That's cold by anyone's reckoning. And, secondly, I can expect a lot less drifting. ''The sleds are purpose designed and built in New Zealand for running river rapids,'' explains Georgia, who adds, ''which is good, because that's exactly what we are going to be doing.''

So dressed more like entrants in some bizarre Sumo wrestler impersonation competition, we unceremoniously belly flop onto our heavy-duty air mattresses. Incredibly, my sled has survives the first test of the day - taking the weight of my post-winter girth. If it can handle that, it can handle anything the river can throw at it - hopefully.

We start at a gentle pace, but as we round the first corner the flow rate picks up a bit. Spread-eagled on the sled like some sort of cross between a mating praying mantis and frog, mid-hop, I hang onto the two handles at the front trying to balance. So far so good.

Then we hit the first rapids. While the others take a much more gung-ho approach and pay for it with a dunking-induced ice-cream headache, I somehow follow the right line and come through both the aptly-named Devil's Elbow and the Washing Machine relatively unscathed.

''This next one is the Coffin,'' yells Georgia, whose voice I can just hear over the roar of the water as it gushes through a tight squeeze. ''It's so named because of its dimensions, not because of anything macabre,'' she says in a reassuring tone. ''Oh, and it's also the only grade three on today's trip,'' she adds. Sure, I've easily rafted and paddled through grade three rapids before, but never sledded!

The others take it on first and all make it through unscathed. Determined to keep intact my record of not being tossed into the river's icy waters, I slowly paddle along the right line and then, as I approach the Coffin, hang on for grim death as a surge of water cascades me into the middle.

Ouch! My sled has been washed sideways and is wedged diagonally across the Coffin. While the sled isn't going anywhere fast, unfortunately I do, straight into the swirling white water. Bouncing from one side of the Coffin to the other, I get an idea of what a pinball must feel like. At least my winter coat has come in handy for something, providing me with much needed padding.

''You didn't have to try and impress us by coming down without your sled and backwards ,'' Stuart laughs as I haul by sorry body into an eddy to catch my breath and my sled, which finally washes out of the Coffin.

Next up is Rock City, a maze of rocks where, no matter which line you pick, you are likely to end up coming face-to-face with the bottom of the river.

As I bump like a dodgem car through the last of the rapids sans sled, Stuart quips, ''The fisheries department will issue you with a fine for damaging the rocks.''

Eventually, the sun breaks through the heavy cloud and, as we float down some of the slower stretches of river, the water is incredibly clear - it's also sparkling with tiny flecks of gold. Not from the precious metal that gave the Thredbo Diggings its name, rather pyrite (fool's gold) which litters the river bed. Georgia reckons some days ''it's so clear and we drift so slowly you can see platypus frolicking in the shallows and brown trout swim beneath you''.

We don't see any today, but I suspect my racing heart beat, which I can see pumping even through my wetsuits and life vest, has something to do with that.

Near Bullocks Flat, we drag ourselves out of the water.

We've done it. High fives all around.

A golf buggy whisks us back to the our base at Lake Crackenback resort, where despite being early summer, it's hot chocolates all around.

If you have a sense of adventure and are a competent swimmer, this is an exhilarating way to spend a hot summer's day. I guarantee you'll feel refreshed at the end of your experience. Just check the weather forecast before you go. Oh, and take a tube (or two) of Dencorub - it could come in handy.


Give it a go: Lake Crackenback Resort operates a 3.8 kilometre river sled adventure along the Thredbo River between Thredbo Diggings and Bullocks Hut, several times a day from November – May. Cost: $65 pp, includes all gear and guide. You don’t need to be a guest at the resort to participate. To book, call 1800 020524 for more information:  www.lakecrackenback.com.au  Lake Crackenback is located on The Alpine Way between Jindabyne and Thredbo. No experience necessary as your guide will teach you how to use your sled, how to read the river and how to fall in without hurting yourself (well, sort of!).

Kid Friendly: I wouldn’t recommend it for children aged less than ten unless they were extremely competent in the moving water and the river level is a bit lower (and slower)  than during my sled adventure. Check the latest river conditions when booking.

Tim's Tip: During school holidays the sled adventures often fill up, so book ahead to avoid disappointment. Oh, and try and pick a warm day!

This story River sledding first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.