Whitewater Kayaking Progression: Getting Started in Sydney


Whitewater kayaking is one of the trickier sports to get into in Australia. There is a ton of new gear to use, a bunch of weird language getting thrown around and heaps of hard to learn safety skills. One of the worst parts however is not knowing which rivers are safe for beginners and what levels you can and should paddle them. The list below is what rivers I like to take beginners on and some notes on each trip. I have tried to describe how each river is a step up from the last and my rationale for exposing new paddlers to them in that order. I have included links to each river description and gauges where I can.

Part One deals with getting started. How to get on the river and which rivers to start with. Part two will deal with learning some more skill and being a competent rescuer.


Pool Session

Before you set foot on any river, it’s important to familiarize yourself with all the gear and some basic skills. Contrary to what some paddlers believe I don’t think you should be learning to roll in this first session. UNSWOC regularly runs these session every second Tuesday night at the UNSW pool.  The most important skill to practice is the wet exit.

We usually cover:

Personal Gear

Carrying the Boat

Types and Parts of a Boat

Getting In and Out

The Wet Exit (Getting out of a boat underwater)

Forward Strokes

Sweep Strokes

High and Low Brace

The safe paddle Box

And if we have time we move onto using the hips to rotate the boat

1454914_647337418643287_813302573_nBarrington River (Grade 2, with a soft Grade 3 Rapid)

Bindera to Rocky Crossing

Why? Now it’s time for your first river. I strongly recommend the Barrington River if you are Sydney based. If you can’t get to it for whatever reason the Murrumbidgee section described below is a good candidate.  Why the Barrington and which section? Firstly the Barrington River had a friendly guide service, Barrington Outdoor Adventure Centre which I recommend you use for that first trip if you’re not with a club or some more experienced friends. They also offer gear hire in case you don’t have everything you need.

The physical character of the river tends to have nice easy rapids followed by large pool to collect all the people and gear, fantastic for a starting out paddler.

Section? If you are one your own or aren’t super happy in the water, I would start with the lower section, from Rocky Crossing to Barrington Bridge (a word of explanation, typically the higher sections of a river are the more difficult). If you go on a trip with me or another experienced boater, they will probably want to start you on the Bindera to Rocky Crossing section. A good alternate take out exists at the Cove, which skips a lot of flat water at the end of the day.

Levels? The perfect level is 0.55. Paddle it from 0.4 to 0.6. Above that it’s still good, but gets a bit scarier 0.7 would be ok if you have a few experienced paddlers taking care of you.

Some more good rivers at this ability level?

Murrumbidgee Grade 2/3 section

Shoalhaven Lower Section

Lower Nymboida Grade 2 Section

More Pool Sessions, Learning to Roll

You’ve paddled a river or two, it’s time for another set of pool sessions. These ones have a new goal, learning to roll. I like to teach the roll after a few rivers, cause it means you build good bracing skills an learn some proper paddling before you get into the nitty gritty of rolling. UNSWOC once again runs pool sessions with this aim, and you can do courses at Penrith Whitewater stadium.

Which roll? The “Sweep “ or “Screw” roll is the best to learn.

Practice? Now is the time to head to the Beach and take up kayak surfing. A playboat is best, but a creek boat will do. The surf is a great place to build confidence and work on that roll. Paddling out may be hard at first, but you’re secretly learning how to punch holes and boof the whole time.

Penrith Whitewater

It’s time to head to beloved penrith, where the water runs even if it hasn’t been raining. Here are a few notes for your first thrashing day out at penrith.

  1. Take a creek boat.
  2. Warm up in the bottom pool, practicing eddying into and out of the bottom drop.
  3. Start from half way down at first, the first two drops can be the trickest for new paddlers.  Once you have a few half laps under the belt go for a full one.
  4. If you’re feeling super competent, take a playboat for a spin around the course.
  5. Focus on getting good eddies. Proper technique is key here.
  6. Penrith is the place to try new skills, as it is a relatively safe environment.
  7. Don’t worry if you swim, I’ve seen some pretty good paddlers swim at penrith after a long day.
  8. Say  Hi to everyone in the eddy, you may meet some new friends.
  9. Penrith has something like 14 Grade 2/ 3 rapids in a row. That’s almost as many rapids as the whole Bindera to Rocky crossing section of the Barrington and they are all bigger. If you paddle 5 laps, that’s 70 rapids. A HUGE day out on a river. You will get super tired and it’s better to get out early than get hurt.  You should have seen me after some 20 laps one day.

I’ve included a map of the rapids, so you can tell what the hell everyone is talking about. Penrith-Whitewater-Stadium-Course-Map
Upper Barrington

Shoalhaven River, Powerlines Section

Why? Despite the rapids on this section being much bigger than anything you’ve paddled so far and this section being a long day out with a fun walk at the end, this is a great step up. The reason is the drop pool character of the river. Large rapids are formed over reefs, and are followed by large pools. Consider portaging the big three rapids; Pimple, Double Falls and Rodeo falls, but run them if you are feeling good. Use the lower put in it skips a lot of trees in the river and still gives an adequate warm up. Watch out for the first larger rapid, Frustration Falls. It should be scouted.  Enjoy the walk out, it tops of a usually amazing day with views of the sunset over the gorge. By now you should be feeling like a real kayaker.

Upper Kangaroo River

Why? Although some would consider it an easier section of river than the Shoalhaven Powerlines section, don’t take it for granted cause it can have a sting in it’s tail. This section is far more continuous than any of the rivers presented so far and should be paid special attention to at high water where it is easy to lose a paddle or boat quickly. Low water levels should be treated with respect too as the Boulder Pile nature of the river bed can cause foot entrapments or boat pins easily.

Allyn River

Why? You are now officially a whitewater kayaker and should be learning some more safety skills. The Allyn is a good place to try out creeking for the first time and start looking at running some drops. Be careful with a few of the holes and be sure to set shore rescuers. Stop at the first road crossing. After that the fences become difficult to handle.


2 thoughts on “Whitewater Kayaking Progression: Getting Started in Sydney

  1. You say “the Murrumbidgee section described below is a good candidate.”… I don’t see this section described?

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