For most Australians, mention of the Yarra River likely brings to mind the opaque sludge that wends its way through Melbourne’s central business district. But the river didn’t always look like that, and if you follow it upstream towards its source in the Dandenong Ranges, the vista is one of verdant bush, clean air and bubbling cold rapids.
This is the part of the Yarra on which we are going tubing – that is, rolling down the river on little more than a tyre tube.
We’re on the outskirts of the lush green bush town of Warburton, and our hosts are Richard and Simone, who run the Warburton Motel. They bought it pre-pandemic and renovated the tired old country motor inn to a spruced up, activity-oriented getaway with a community vibe, and gorgeously restored 1966 bathrooms. The adventure arm of their business, Bike and Hike, is literally run out of their garage. The key conceit is that it’s more enjoyable to take a long walk, ride a long way – or, in our case, float down the river in one direction – than it is to hike there and back again, or repeat the same section of river over and over, lugging your tubes back up the dusty bank when you want another go.
Of course, you could go tubing on your own. While driving us upriver in his van, Richard points out intrepid children doing precisely that: pushing off from the bank behind a row of tents in the riverside camping ground and tumbling down the rapids.
Getting set up to go tubing yourself could be as simple as getting your hands on an old truck tyre, but if you were going to fork out for some specialised kit, you’d be looking at about $120 for the 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 advantage of doing it with a company like Bike and Hike, though, is not simply that they have all the equipment so the cost is lower for a one-off ($47.50 per head), they’ll also do the leg work of driving you a solid way upstream, so you can just focus on the fun bit: paddling downriver.
Pushing off from our launch point (a nondescript clearing near the river road) I quickly realise that steering is going to be a challenge. The current catches me and immediately pulls me downstream, but reclining in a bouncy rubber raft is not the best posture for paddling – a lesson I learn after accidentally splashing cold water in my own lap and crashing straight through some overhanging, cobweb-covered branches. Whoops.
It takes me about half the ride to get the knack of it, paddling on one side of the tube and making strategic use of spinning in circles in order to manoeuvre around obstacles. Once I can direct myself away from the snags and overhanging branches without completely spinning out, I’m able to start appreciating the beauty of the river itself. And it is lovely. The trees are huge and majestic. My companion points out a sacred kingfisher, diving in the rushing water for prey. A little further on, a pair of rufous fantails start swooping around us, snapping up insects. And then I have to start frantically paddling again, lest I crash into a fallen tree. (My advice: wear shoes.)
We’re on the water for about an hour and 20 minutes, though the time flies. We’re happy, drenched and buzzing with adrenaline when we climb out – twice, in my case, once unsuccessfully.
With Warburton only 90 minutes from home, we could have driven up and back in a day, but we decided to spend the night instead. The town has a range of pub-style accommodation at the also recently renovated Alpine Retreat Hotel (from $176 p/n).
It’s not a huge town, but for those who aren’t particularly water-oriented, there is a beautiful bike trail that starts off the main drag and runs all the way to Lilydale following the old train line, and a gentle riverside walk for the less energetic. For the drive back the next morning, Silva Coffee Roasters does a coffee tasting (like wine tasting, but instead of putting you to sleep it makes you really wired).
The town is also full of quirky vintage and trash-and-treasure stores that haven’t yet been totally picked over. I browse through, eyes peeled for old truck tyres.