Avon Descent back after pandemic ‘gap year’ with best conditions in decade

In “bad” years, Avon Descent competitors are forced to carry their crafts over rocky sections.

This year, water levels are so high organisers of Western Australia’s famous whitewater race expect the only problem spot could be a bridge near Toodyay where headroom may be a bit tight.

Northam Avon Descent Association chairman Greg Kaeding, who won three races as part of a double kayak team in the first decade of the event in the 1970s, says the high river will make for a fast course where records may be swept away this weekend.

“Conditions are fabulous,” Mr Kaeding said.

“It might create some issues for us at Katrine Bridge out of Toodyay and the reason there is the water level might be too high that they cannot actually get under the bridge so there may be a portage there.”

William Lee is competing in his ninth Avon Descent and expects the high water levels will create a fast, record-breaking race.(

ABC Midwest and Wheatbelt: Cecile O’Connor


Kayak team competitor William Lee, who is about to take part in his ninth Avon Descent, said he was keen to get back in the water after the event was cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

He says the high water levels could mean the fastest paddlers finish the first day in about three hours.

“We should have an average speed of 18 to 19 kilometres an hour,” Mr Lee said.

“The first three paddlers normally finish in just over four hours so it is going to shave a whole hour off the time this year.

35,000 have taken to the river 

The 124-kilometre, two-day river race from Northam to Perth started in 1973 and has only ever been cancelled once, and that was last year.

In its 48-year history, 35,000 people, mostly West Australians, have taken part.

Thousands, too, turn up every year to watch, particularly around the site of the rapids.

Flooding over Katrine bridge on the Avon River in the WA shire of Northam.
Race organisers say the high river might prevent competitors from travelling under Katrine Bridge, seen here during flooding in 2017.(



Mr Kaeding said while in some years up to 15 per cent of competitors were from overseas and interstate, this year that number had shrunk because of pandemic travel restrictions.

“It is not a big international field.  The only ones are the ones who have decided to stay in WA because we have been relatively free of COVID,” he said.

New boats but the vibe is still the same

The Avon Descent has moved beyond the marathon legs to daily challenges and relays, and this year Army zodiacs, jet boats and dragon boats are also taking part.

A blue powerboat with two people onboard is driven forward on the Avon River in front of spectators.
A powerboat competing in a previous Avon Descent.(

Facebook: Wheatbelt Police


Mr Kaeding said the camaraderie between contestants had remained the same over the decades, but the boats had changed.

That was far less likely to happen these days, he said.

Gone is the fibreglass, with kayaks now more likely to be made of a more durable plastic.

“They are far more durable and it means everyone has a chance of finishing the Avon Descent rather than writing off their craft and not being able to get to the finish line,” he said.

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