action-story | 5th Apr, 2005

Ross Atkins: Living and working on a best kept secret

Ross and Marg Atkins started Paestan Canoe Hire at Winnap, north of the Lower Glenelg National Park, ten years ago. What began as a small venture of four canoes has now grown to a fleet of over 80 canoes and kayaks, catering for schools, families and small groups.

The 50km paddle from Moleside Camp to the mouth of the river at Nelson takes canoeists through Lower Glenelg National Park over three days.

Here, the Glenelg River cuts through spectacular limestone cliffs until it winds around into Nelson and flows into the Southern Ocean. Small campsites dot the banks of the river every 4km or so, providing welcome respite and a place to cook up lunch or camp overnight.

Gazing out to the mouth of the Glenelg, Ross recalls how the river has changed over the years. A combination of lack of flow from the river and tidal action from the sea has lead to a build up of sand at the mouth. “I haven’t seen it like this in the 25 years I’ve been here.”

The Glenelg River mouth closes occasionally, as sand bars prevent the river from flowing into the ocean. The rise in water level caused by the mouth closure floods the boatsheds on the banks of the river. Ross describes how, a few years ago, the Department of Natural Resources blasted the mouth of the Glenelg to prevent the mouth closing. “Before that, the channel was regularly opened by NRE, otherwise the locals would get to it with spades.”

These days, the Department of Sustainability and Environment and Parks Victoria have established a trigger level to open the mouth artificially. Until the water level reaches that point, the mouth is allowed to close naturally.

However, to see the biggest threat to the Glenelg River, you need to travel upstream. “The mouth is a problem, but it’s localised – the bigger problem is the amount of silt and sediment running into the river from above Casterton.”

The build up of sand is turning the once flowing Glenelg River into ‘just little pools’. “It means that, in about 10-15 years, we’re really looking down the barrel of the river becoming a creek all the way down to Dartmoor.”

Ross has been working with the Glenelg-Hopkins Catchment Management Authority (GHCMA) to measure the movement of the sand ‘slug’ from the upper reaches of the river. They have found that the sand is travelling downstream at the rate of about a kilometre a year.

Ross says that the river desperately needs to be flushed out, to prevent the sand building up any further. “Mother Nature needs to rain for three years and the water needs to be redirected into the river to flush it out.”

He feels that we have a responsibility to do something to improve the health of the river. “Since we caused the problem, we’re duty-bound to try to solve it.”

“I think we’ve gone past the point of letting Mother Nature sort it out”

However, removing the sand from the river is problematic. “You take too much sand out, you let a lot of water through and open it up for more sand to get in.”

Ross says that the underground water sources which feed into the river are also being taken out at an unsustainable level, adding to the pressures placed on the river. Big water users, such as the dairy farms and blue gum plantations surrounding the river, are drawing from the groundwater.

This has lead to a 3-4 metre drop in the water table near the river’s source in the Grampians. With a fleet of 80 canoes, Ross says he feels his business has reached its full potential. “Because the river has only 12 canoe camps, we’re restricted in the number of people we’re putting down the river. Tourism numbers are also regulated with permits.”

Ross believes the small fishing town of Nelson has reached its optimal level of tourism. “In summer and Easter, everything is booked out.” He describes how the town lies far enough away from the big cities to escape most of the pressures placed on other coastal towns. Out of season, locals have a chance to recover from the busy season and to revel in their sleepy fishing village.

Ross says he is happy to be working and living beside what he hopes will remain one of the state’s best kept secrets.

Written and edited by Anna Boustead, April 2005