Kayaking the Coorong, SA

A couple of hours south of Adelaide lies the coastal wetland of the Coorong and the mouth of the mighty Murray River. Safely tucked in between the Fleurieu and Southeast regions, the Coorong National Park stretches 140km along the coastline and in 1985 became a Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. The area holds spiritual significance to the Ngarrindjeri people whose name for the Coorong is Kurangk, which means ‘long narrow neck’ and refers to the stretch of water and sand dunes that separate the main coastline from the Southern Ocean. The history of this region is fascinating and Coorong Country is a great place to start if you’re wanting to learn more.

The slower pace of kayaking is one of the best ways to soak up the wildlife and appreciate the magnificence of the Coorong National Park, while also keeping your footprint light within the pristine environment.

A sign, partly submerged in the water, reads Coorong National Park.

The saltwater lagoons within the Coorong National Park span the coastline for 130km.

From the Goolwa Barrage, the park extends along the Younghusband Peninsula and is known for its network of channels, lagoon and extensive coastal dunes.

We were keen to test out the gear-carrying potential of a new inflatable kayak, so a short overnight trip was planned in the Northern Lagoon from Hindmarsh Island to the Younghusband Peninsula and return. On an overcast, “what happened to Spring!?” day in November, we launched from the Mundoo Channel boat ramp and paddled in the channel past the holiday houses toward Bird Island. A north-westerly wind was blowing rain across the landscape behind us and we wondered if it would reach us before we had a chance to cross the Coorong Channel and make camp.

An inflatable kayak, partly packed with gear, sits on bitumen near the water.

Loading our gear into our inflatable kayak at the Mundoo Channel boat ramp.

Kayakers have to share the main channels with powered boats. This makes bright clothing and gear important so the kayak can be seen, especially in weather where visibility is impaired. We found that many of the bigger boats powered right past us, requiring a frantic paddle to turn perpendicular so as to avoid a swamping from their wake! Most of the little dinghies slowed right down and waved. Maybe there’s some truth in the saying about the size of your boat being inverse to the size of your…!

Some navigating was required to set a comfortable course between the channel markers and shallow sections, as well as the boats when they passed. Occasionally, we considered getting out and towing the kayak but it was definitely more appealing to remain seated rather than step out into the slimy, murky shallows. The water level in the Coorong lagoons can depend on the season and management of the barrages. Once you are closer to the Southern Lagoon, the wind becomes the biggest influencer over conditions and the level of strength you need for paddling.

The back view of a person, sitting in the front of the kayak, paddling out across the lagoon.

Finally on the water and keeping safe with a high-vis shirt and trendy legionnaire’s hat.

The strong north-westerly made for an exciting and choppy crossing of the Coorong Channel, leaving us covered in salty sea-spray flicked up from the paddles. It was a relief to be sheltered from the wind once we reached the lee of the dunes on the northern side of Younghusband peninsula.

We continued south-east past the Barker Knoll boating campsite, where a large group was camped on the shore with swags and a dinghy. G’day was shouted and we lamented with them about their swags in the rain before continuing on to find a quiet spot further down. 

A close up of the edible plant, pigface, growing on a sand dune.

The Coorong looks like mostly scrub from afar, but in the right season a variety of flowering plants, like pigface, can be found. 

Leave no trace’ camping is allowed for kayakers along the shore and foredunes of the Younghusband Peninsula. We found a place set back in the dunes and away from the wind, although the occasional swirling blast did whip through. Being somewhat out-of-place among the usual Coorong scrub, it was strange to see a large pine tree at the back of the site. After speculating about how it came to be there – a cone dropped by a bird, or perhaps a shack was buried in the sand nearby – we held a gear relay to move our camping gear and kayak up from the shore. 

A man stands near a hiking tent and kayak, amongst the sand dunes near a lagoon.

Camped among the dunes, the camera doesn’t quite capture the feeling of serenity… or the number of mosquitos.

The weather was worsening rapidly with frequent showers and low cloud had turned the water a dull grey. The slightly oppressive conditions are typical of a late spring day around the Coorong and within our more sheltered position, a thick cloud of mosquitos descended upon us as we set up the tent. The insect repellent containing picaridin worked well to keep them at bay so we didn’t have to bring out the heavy-duty Bushman, but we had it ready just in case the mozzies were extra hungry!

A tiny sand ant crawls over bark, sticks and vegetation on a sand dune.

Not a mozzie but a curious little sand ant.

It was time to bunker down in the tent, cook dinner with our Trangia stove and have an early night. On this short trip we decided to break away from the usual diet of instant pasta, and stretch the budget to include a couple of Back Country Cuisine meals. The Beef Stroganoff and the Cottage Pie were surprisingly filling, and dinner was complete with a serving of Apricot Crumble and a mug of lemonade. A bottle of soft drink makes a welcome change from plain water and has become a staple inclusion on trips when temperatures are cooler and the extra weight can be justified. 

A cooking stove sits next to empty cups, water and a full dry sack.

An efficient and neatly set out ‘camp kitchen’. The empty mugs are eagerly awaiting to be filled with hot tea from the Trangia stove. 

By morning the weather had cleared, heightening morale among the crew of the SS Inflatable!  The lagoon sparkled, and the brilliant sunshine warmed the damp sand beneath our feet. A breakfast of tea, muesli bars and long-life cheeses was enjoyed in the scrub, before hauling the kayak back to shore and loading it up for the return journey. If you’ve got a spare hour, follow the signed trails at Barker Knoll and Godfrey’s Landing to take a walk across the dunes from the Coorong lagoon to the Southern Ocean. It’s about 2km return and a great way to stretch the legs before hopping back into the kayak. 

A waterproof bag rests on a tent, set up on sand dunes near a kayak with the lagoon in the distance.

A clear morning and a brilliant day for kayaking. Mundoo Island can be seen in the background on the other side of the Coorong Channel.   

Although the wind had stilled, we stuck close to the dunes before heading across the Coorong Channel toward Bird Island. This crossing is quite exposed and can be difficult in certain wind conditions. Sometimes a portage is easier to avoid being blown east into Mundoo Island. In this instance, head west along the shore of the Younghusband Peninsula before crossing the Coorong Channel.

An orange and grey kayak sits on a sandy beach next to tall sand dunes.

Kayaking allowed us to appreciate the quiet, pristine environment at the Coorong.

The conditions of the return journey were in vast contrast to the choppy waters we paddled through the previous afternoon. The weather was beautiful which made for an enjoyable and (mostly) flatwater paddle back to the Mundoo Channel boat ramp. Passing Bird Island, the pelicans were out and about, as well as numerous wading birds. The Coorong provides an important habitat for wildlife, and kayaking via the myriad backwaters that form the wetlands is ideal for bird-watching.

A pelican floats along the slightly choppy waters of a blue lagoon.

It’s heart-warming to think that every pelican in the Mundoo Channel could be a distant cousin of the famed Storm Boy character, Mr Percival.

This overnight trip can be taken at a leisurely pace and is achievable for kayakers of varying experience. In inclement weather, however, a stronger skill set may be needed to negotiate the channels. Paddling time can be between 1-3 hours in each direction. Self-sufficient camping along the Coorong lagoon is straightforward and a camping permit can be obtained from the NPWS website. Just don’t forget to pack the essentials below and always respect the environment.

Useful links and info

The Coorong National Park Office are usually very friendly, and happy to provide information and assistance. Phone: (+61 8) 8575 1200

National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) – Coorong National Park

Camping permits are necessary the Coorong National Park and can be purchased through the NPWS Book & Pay

A selection of Coorong National Park maps can be downloaded from NPWS here.

This NPWS map shows the area around Bird Island and Godfrey’s Landing where we paddled. 

Paddle SA has a useful website with kayak trails and information for inspiration and trip planning around South Australia. 

This Water for Future factsheet provides an interesting outline of the ecological features of the Coorong, and the environmental challenges it faces.  

What kayaking adventures have you done?