For most Australians, the Yarra River conjures up images of the murky sludge that runs through Melbourne’s central business area.
But the river wasn’t always like this, and if you follow it upstream to its source in the Dandenong Ranges, you’ll find lush vegetation, clear air, and gushing icy rapids.
This is the section of the Yarra where we will be tubing — that is, floating down the river in a tyre tube.
Richard and Simone, who manage the Warburton Motel, are our hosts, and we’re on the outskirts of the lush green bush town of Warburton. They bought it before the pandemic and turned it into a spruced-up, activity-oriented hideaway with a community vibe, complete with magnificently restored 1966 bathrooms. Bike and Hike, their adventure division, is practically run out of their garage.
The underlying premise is that taking a long walk, riding a long-distance – or, in our case, float down the river in one direction – is more enjoyable than hiking there and back, or repeating the same piece of the river over and over, carrying your tubes back up the dusty bank when you want another try.
You could, of course, go tubing by yourself. Richard points out intrepid children doing just that while driving us upriver in his van: pushing off from the bank behind a row of tents in the riverside camping ground and falling down the rapids.
It may be as simple as grabbing an old truck tyre to get started tubing, but if you want to invest in some specialized gear, you’ll need to budget around $120 for a heavy-duty tube, at least $60 for a paddle, and between $40 and $100 for a life jacket if you want to wear one.
The benefit of doing it with a business-like Bike and Hike is not just that they have all the equipment, lowering the cost for a one-time ($47.50 per person), but they’ll also handle the legwork of driving you a safe distance upstream, allowing you to focus on the enjoyable part: paddling downriver.
I quickly realize that steering is going to be a struggle as we push out from our launch site (a nondescript area near the river road). The tide catches me and carries me downstream, but reclining in a bouncing rubber raft isn’t the finest posture for paddling – a lesson I learn after splashing cold water in my lap and crashing into some overhanging, cobweb-covered trees. Whoops.
Paddling on one side of the tube and strategically turning in circles to manage around obstacles takes me about half the ride to get the hang of it. I can start admiring the beauty of the river itself after I can manoeuvre myself away from the snags and overhanging branches without spinning out. It’s also rather gorgeous.
The trees are massive and magnificent. A sacred kingfisher dives for prey in the flowing water, as my companion points out. A pair of rufous fantails begin soaring over us, catching insects a short distance away. Then I have to resume feverishly paddling in order to avoid colliding with a falling tree. (My recommendation is to wear shoes.)
Though the time flies, we’re on the water for approximately an hour and 20 minutes. When we climb out — twice, in my case, unsuccessfully – we’re elated, soaked, and vibrating with adrenaline.
We could have driven there and returned in a day because Warburton is just 90 minutes from home, but we decided to stay the night. The Alpine Retreat Hotel, which was also recently rebuilt, offers a variety of pub-style accommodations (from $176 per night).
There is a magnificent cycling route that starts off the main street and runs all the way to Lilydale following the old train line for those who aren’t overly water-oriented, as well as a pleasant riverside walk for the less energetic. Silva Coffee Roasters hosts a coffee tasting on the way back the next morning (like wine tasting, but instead of putting you to sleep it makes you really wired).
There are also a number of unique vintage and trash-and-treasure shops in town that haven’t yet been completely depleted. I rummage through, keeping an eye out for old truck tyres.