What do three men, a mad Russian with nearly no English, three metre floods, a helicopter, an extremely remote and treacherous river and a tiny but heavily laden bucket raft have in common? All featured in an adventure that all involved will remember as ‘The Franklin Fiasco’
Like all great adventures, this trip had its genesis in a fairly innocent phone call. It came from a mate of mine, Rowen Privett, an outdoor education instructor I’d met through work. His devious chuckle gave away the fact that he was about to ask me to do something dangerous.
“Mate, I’ve got a great trip organised, do you want to come along?”
“Sure” I replied without thinking, “Where are we going?”
“We’re gonna’ paddle the Franklin River in Tassie, it’s a real epic”
“Yeah, alright,” I repeated. “How much is this going to cost me?”
He responded with an extended chuckle, like that of a used car salesman, and that was that. A cold winter’s night phone call and thoughts of the massive adventure six months later were placed well and truly in the back of my mind.
For the rest of the year Rowen was planning and scheming and organising the trip, sometimes sending out notes for our benefit and calling with queries and questions. By years end, right at the beginning of the festive season, it was almost done, though I had given no further thought to how big this trip was.
Rather than confront the ins and outs of the adventure, I got on with celebrating and drinking too much beer. On top of this, it transpired that I needed to find a new place to live in the time between New Year’s Eve and the departure to Tasmania on the 4th of January.
To say that the deadline was close is an understatement. The last things for the trip were shoved into my red dry bag at 1am the night before the ferry left for Tasmania. It had been a mad way to prepare for such an isolated and wild expedition.
My mum was visibly worried as I packed her car early next morning. We were to meet two of the other guys at the ferry. Disturbingly I could see where she was coming from, but dared not reveal my concerns to her lest she have me locked up. After reading various accounts of other trips that had been done, it was no wonder I was experiencing some premonitions of disaster.
All I could do was promise Mum that I’d come back and hope the lads had covered all of the bases, it was their expertise that would make or break the trip.
DAY ONE – SLOW BOAT TO TASSIE – JANUARY 4
Believers in bad omens would have turned the car around after we met a violent thunderstorm while driving up Beach Road to the ferry terminal. There had been much flooding all over the world of late, so it seemed that everything associated with water had negative connotations lately, or maybe I was just paranoid.
We arrived at Station Pier not long before the other two guys, who were inconspicuous in a bright yellow Land cruiser known colloquially as ‘The Bongo’. My friend Rowen Privett, aka Soy Boy, was behind the wheel. He was the main brains behind the trip and the one who’d laughed at me down the phone six months before; he was a veteran of many an adventure and we’d been on a few trips already.
Sitting beside him was Dave Matters, another keen paddler and experienced outdoor education guide. Between them they provided the know how and experience that would see us conquer the river, and in them I placed my strongest faith.
When they pulled up there was a slightly tense feeling, some quick laughs and desperate placating of the fears of my mother, who was now certain that I was going to die and threatening to cause a scene. I kissed her goodbye and we climbed aboard the Bongo to place it on the ship.
After following a long line of cars through various checkpoints we were soon seated in somewhat palatial deck where we would spend the day journeying to Tassie. I spent twenty minutes on the phone cancelling gas and electricity services at my old flat, as well as apologizing to my flatmate for the state I’d left him to deal with before the moving out date: what deadline? I thought to myself.
We departed without fanfare, the three of us chatting vaguely about the trip ahead and checking the maps for the descriptions of the rapids and nasty sections of the mighty Franklin River.
The Spirit of Tasmania eased its way steadily along the bay, past the suburbs I had lived in and the world I knew so well. We passed the beaches where I’d lain the previous week and relaxed and slid by salubrious houses of Sorrento and Portsea.
We leaned back into comfortable chairs, drank good coffee and stared at the wide, frothy highway that extended behind us to the dim horizon. I felt like someone who, as a traveller and explorer, was leaving home and sliding headlong into an unknown world, beyond the consciousness of many of my friends and family.
Thankfully the sea remained calm throughout the long voyage. I bought a book for the downtime we were sure to experience on the river, Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide. I thought it sounded appropriate but the other lads winced when I showed them the cover, feeling that I was tempting fate a little too much. With all of the premonitions of disaster I’d had I thought that it would be alright to throw a curve ball back at the looming figure of fate.
The ship sailed into Devonport just on dusk and headed into town to get some supplies. As we followed the directions given us by a strange man in an akubra hat we were all swivelling and craning our necks to take in the new environment. It was all very green and very wet.
“Hey Mate!” someone yelled to us as we passed by, “you’ve got your lights on!”
We looked to each other, then to the dim light outside, before bursting out laughing.
“Yeah mate, we know,” Rowen said, “it’s nearly bloody dark!” Tasmania was starting to feel not quite right.
We grabbed a quick curry and headed for the town of Deloraine, where we would meet another member of our party. The ghost town disappeared behind us, the night was green and silent and the pace of the world seemed significantly slower. A sign on the roadside read ‘COME AND SEE THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF FERRETS!’ We burst out laughing again.
We were to pick up Simon Wood, a keen white water paddler who had flown in to Launceston that afternoon. He had been waiting in the Deloraine pub for a while. Passing the time as we shopped and messed about . The light drizzle had become constant and was getting heavier. Little did we know that this should have been an ominous sign.
Dave admitted his nerves to me and carried the look of a man going to a war, but instead of sharing his fear I was overwhelmed by just tiredness and looked forward to bed.
The Bongo jittered its way through the black and slippery night, the noise of the engine eliminating any chance of conversation. Outside we climbed an invisible mountain range and passed through anonymous hamlets with strange names.
The sight of two possums shagging in the middle of the road caused an outbreak of hilarity, but mostly our minds were on the river. For the boys it was the culmination of a dream to paddle such a famous and epic stretch of water. For me, it was a chance to break up a long summer holiday and do some white water rafting.
After a longer than expected drive and some concern about fuel, the Bongo rattled its way into Derwent Bridge, a sleepy little hamlet where some accommodation had been reserved. This was also where we would meet the final member of the party, Leigh Privett, who was Rowen’s father and an accomplished and active mountain runner and outdoor man.
As we drove into what passed for the town Leigh emerged from the darkness and beckoned us to be quiet. He told us that the manager of the accommodation had baulked at the thought of so many sharing a cabin so had found us better digs up the road. We drove a short distance and were shown to a tiny wooden hut in the middle of a desolate waste ground. It was an appropriate venue for the first night, vastly different to the comfortable lives we had left behind us. In the light of the Bongo’s headlights we made our beds and retired to the tiny lodge, wedged in with little space for four grown men. I fell to sleep quickly.
DAY TWO: DERWENT BRIDGE – COLLINGWOOD RIVER – JUNCTION OF FRANKLIN AND LODDON RIVERS
Woke early and moved slowly, we’d all slept fitfully as the moment drew nearer where the wet part of the trip would begin. We made the drive to the put in point, which was where the Lyell highway crossed the Collingwood River. The drizzle had kept falling steadily and you could understand why the place was so green.
We packed our gear carefully and mentally ticked off all the requirements. Our personal gear, or everything that we would use for camp and sleeping, was to fit into large dry bags, which necessitated a fairly light approach to packing. We had only one set of dry clothes for camp and it was strange to take such a small amount for ten days. The weight of the raft would be incredibly important.
It took a while to get all the gear together and inflate the raft; all the while the nervous tension was becoming more evident as swearing and sighing increased in frequency. Once everything was laid out we got into our paddling gear and the tremulous hiss –hiss – hiss rhythm of the foot pump heralded the inflation of the raft.
One slight change to the plan was that Leigh would not join us for the initial two days, his place in the raft taken by his friend Boris, a crazy man from the wilds of Russia who made his living poaching caviar and selling it in Moscow. They had formed a fast friendship during a mountain racing series and thus it transpired that he would get some white water experience with us. The plan was that Leigh would run in to Irenabyss camp via Frenchman’s Cap on the second night before swapping with the unconvinced looking Russian for the remainder of the journey. This decision would prove important as the trip unfolded and be risky for a couple of members of the group.
The backdrop for the trip was already amazing, setting Tasmania apart as a place of real and stunning natural beauty. So unreal was the environment that it seemed contrived, like a scene constructed by a set design crew for a blockbuster movie. Our senses readied themselves for the barrage of beauty that we’d be subjected to along the 110 kilometres that lay ahead.
We began carrying gear down to the Collingwood River, which looked tranquil and inviting. The journey was to be undertaken by an 11 foot Dolphin raft with three bodies as the engines, as well as two kayaks of the creek boat style. Within these innocuous and small looking craft lay our hopes of getting down the river.
We ate lunch and went through a safety briefing for the raft, which Rowen translated badly into Russian by using hand signals that covered the basics. This done, we hit the river and began the journey. The guide books told us that a level of 0.8 metres at the bridge meant low water, while 1.2 indicated a high water level on the Franklin. As we set off, the gauge gave the level at just under a metre, though the drizzle was some concern. We didn’t really need much more water than this, especially with the gorges and bug water ahead.
In no time we had entered nature’s art gallery, as if the cliffs and stunning vistas were a secret place that she’d created to show off her finest wares to only the most intrepid. The Collingwood treated us gently, providing only a few grade 1-2 rapids that got the heart pumping a little and helped us sort out the manoeuvring of the raft. A couple of pour over rapids saw the quiet Russian screaming like a school girl and seemingly endless bailing of the raft, an activity that we would spend a good deal of time engaged in over the next eight days.
After three hours of serenity and drizzle we reached the junction of the Franklin River and left the Collingwood behind us, thankful that no carnage had befallen us yet. Immediately the river changed, with clear water giving way to the darker from a distance Franklin whose waters ran the colour of strong tea or weak coffee. The waves of the rapids became larger and the currents swifter as it hurled us towards the gorges and chasms that were rolling around in the back of our minds like nemeses.
All day, even on the Collingwood, we were surrounded by lush and stunning rainforest and starkly dramatic rock formations that would plunge swiftly into the water or tree line. Rapids would be interspersed with slack pools that offered you the chance to look around and take in the natural magic. We coasted above bronzed boulders that slid harmlessly beneath the surface, placed there at by the whimsy of the floods sometime in history.
The sensation of meeting the Franklin was just like merging with a major arterial road. Unlike the Collingwood, whose rocks stuck out all over to block the progress of a raft, the Franklin hid her rocks under the surface. The first rapid that was marked on the map was ‘Sticks and Stones’, which had me nervous. It was relaxing to see the routine that would guide us through the next ten days when we came to a rapid, which went like this: Pull raft into bank, get out and scout it paying particular attention to ways of dying, then either run if happy or portage (carry stuff).
Using the same method, we passed the next rapid, named Gordon Gate, which was a little slippery, and the Boulder Brace, which was fairly straightforward and made easier by the ability of the kayaks to scout a rapid before the raft.
The rain continued to fall as we passed Angel Hair campsite, where we’d planned to stay but decided not to after another group had beaten us there. They were a larger party from the Army, travelling in two enormous boats powered by ten of Australia’s finest. We would bump into them from time to time.
Not long after we came across the appropriately named Log Jam, which was my first experience of both a rapid that would certainly kill you; it needed a major portage. We unloaded the raft and began ferrying the gear over and around the large slippery rocks that lay in our way. It was tough going, as the neoprene booties we wore on our feet offered minimal grip on the wet rocks, resulting in scrapes and spills that were far from graceful; thankfully there were no girls watching. Rowen informed me that most injuries on trips like these, especially on the Franklin, occurred during these portages. I could easily understand why this was the case.
After an hour or so we finished and paddled a short distance to our campsite, which stood on the riverbank above the junction of the Loddon and Franklin rivers. We were slightly knackered but very satisfied with our achievements and relieved to get the first day on the river out of the way.
Personally I was feeling the cold and looked forward to getting into some warm gear. The campsite was light on for dry ground but offered sufficient flat areas for the five of us to sleep. To save on gear we’d decided to forego tents in favour of bivvy bags and tarps to keep any rain off. We ate well and warmed up with hot drinks before retiring fairly early to the sound of the two rivers rushing by. The rain had thankfully ceased and my last view as I brushed my teeth was of the gentle rapids that lay on a bend in the river below our camp. I felt becalmed by our surroundings and permanently stunned by the beauty of the vistas that lay in all directions. We all discovered sleep quickly.
Only until 3am of course, when the pissing rain forced us to action stations to keep our gear as dry as possible. We lowered the tarp but still the rain fell down hard, saturating the ground beneath us. Little did we know that this rain was feeding the river and making it swell, making it larger.
DAY THREE: JUNCTION OF FRANKLIN AND LODDON – HUON PINE CAMP
There was no real indication as we emerged from bed, our gear all wet after a damp night under the tarp, that this day would be so massive. The plan we’d discussed had been to run swiftly through to the Irenabyss camp by lunchtime, where we would walk up to Frenchman’s Cap and meet Leigh. Boris would then swap places and we would continue our merry way down the river.
We didn’t need to see the river to know that it had risen, because the noise was evidence enough, though it was still surprising to discover how much nastier it looked. The innocuous little rapid we could see from our camp was now a raging wave train. I sensed that things had just become a whole lot more serious.
I couldn’t put off my first outside poo any longer, so I grabbed the trusty poo tube and headed up the hill to find a suitable spot. Behind the camp the hill rose sharply towards a ridge, so the going was hard for me even though it was becoming a little urgent. It was probably the nicest place I had ever crapped until that point, like stepping into a wilderness photograph just to snap one off.
When we broke camp I was horrified to discover that my bivvy bag and sleeping bag were now quite wet – waterproof my arse!, I thought. The rain began to fall again and we moved quickly to avoid exposing more gear to wetness.
We pushed away from the bank about half an hour after the Army group had gone past in their big boats. There were no marked rapids for the first few kilometres but even then the going was tough in the bigger water. Waves would crash over the side and fill the boat quickly, making it bloody difficult to manoeuvre with three people and all of the gear, something akin to steering a hippopotamus using icy pole sticks. We had a very quick ride down to the first rapid for the day, Nasty Notch.
It swept around a corner with amazing power and speed. We scrambled through thick rainforest and over slippery rocks to get a better view of what was coming, but didn’t need to look for long to know we would be portaging this one. There were a couple of massive holes, or keepers, boiling furiously and just begging for a small raft or lone swimmer to try and get through. The portage began.
Once again I was reminded by Rowen that most injuries on the Franklin happen on portages, though it was unnecessary after I’d slipped over seventy five times before we’d started to human chain the gear around. We worked for an hour, our efforts often interspersed with minor breaks as we became mesmerised by the power of the water and the wildness of the scene. It certainly reminds you that you are an insignificant player in this natural world, here only at Mother Nature’s pleasure.
The water boiled and thundered, rust coloured and angrily exploding into haystacks like grenades had been tossed in. The noise was big and confronting, like standing at the centre of a lion’s roar. Several times I caught myself looking up for a helicopter that seemed to hover above my head, only to realise it was the mechanical sound of the rapid snarling at us.
We soon reached Deception, or Descension Gorge depending on which sign you read, which was the final set of rapids before Irenabyss camp. After pulling the boat into an eddy to scout, we soon realised it looked dodgy- a couple of nice holes and no room for error. As if on cue, the rain became heavier and a slight mist came in to make the scene all that more menacing; we started scouting river left.
In no time we were in thick jungle above the river trying to see what was around the corner. After twenty minutes we all emerged, breathless, on top of a large rock that gave a view of the next section of the rapid. It looked even worse than we’d imagined – we’d have to punch through a large stopper and manoeuvre the boat to miss an undercut rock on river right. The way that the boat had handled earlier in the day gave us no confidence and we decided to portage again. The kayakers, Dave and Simon, had been scouting ahead for us all day and managed to sneak down into the gorge a little without incident, but the raft was a very different proposition indeed.
By now it was three in the afternoon and what had been envisaged as a half day pleasure cruise was becoming something of an epic.
Before we could unload the raft we paddled it down to an eddy on river left, aided by some extra muscle in the form of Dave Matters. After this we could line the raft a short way before emptying it, a move that would save us a good deal of haulage of gear.
To say that it was crucial we hit the eddy is something of an understatement. If we missed it, we would be forced to run the length of the gorge semi-blind in a boat that would be full of water after the first corner. The probable result here would be to capsize near the undercut rock and have four swimmers praying for some luck. Yay! Dave and Rowen adamantly agreed that the eddy was extremely ‘makeable’… but any rafter knows that there are no certainties in this game.
Meanwhile, the rain continued to fall, all the while varying between gentle drizzle and pissing down. Apart from being uncomfortable and cold, it also meant that the river monster was continuously being fed, swelling like the fat man from Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. We boarded the boat and considered our plan.
The trip would be a brief one, albeit through a fairly decent hole. We had to shave a rock on the left and make good pace without getting caught in the stopper to be certain of reaching our destination. We pushed off, all grim faced but determined to make the plan work.
The boat went so close to the rock that I could have kissed it on the way past, but after this it went slightly pear shaped as we were spun around and went through the stopper backwards. We emerged and spun again, paddling like crazed men, but the force of the recirculating water was too much and we were dragged back into the boiling hole.
After more frantic paddling we broke free and looked downriver for the safety of the narrow eddy. Simon threw us a line but Dave threw it straight back out, putting his faith in the power of we humble paddlers. Rowen had so much faith that he launched himself, extreme adrenalin junkie style, out of the boat and onto a rock to save us going further down river. We had made it, though the look on Simon’s face indicated that it hadn’t looked terrifically professional.
We continued to portage the gear for about an hour but the going was so tough that we only made it about 150 metres downriver. It was pissing down by now and everyone was feeling very tired and cold. At 4.30 we had the inkling that time was against us and went back to get the rafts and kayaks. It was the first time we entertained the idea of not making our intended destination of Irenabyss camp.
This was a frustrating proposition, as the campsite and all its comforts lay only about a kilometre downstream. We broke for lunch and decided to consider our options, squeezing into a small cave by the river to escape the rain and laugh at our predicament. Boris, who by now had a massive tear in the arse of his wetsuit, was visibly shaking with the cold – understandable considering his complete lack of thermals and exposed buttocks.
By the time we’d moved the raft and gear to the right area it was 5.30pm and the chances of reaching Irenabyss had become remote. Rowen had scouted a potential campsite in case of emergency, though it was fairly rocky and uneven. We decided to push on until six and see where we were. Dave went further downriver to scout as far as he could while we continued heaving and dragging the raft across the rocks. A little after six Dave returned to report that he wasn’t sure what was around the next corner. With no certainty that there would be no more portaging we pulled up stumps and began hauling gear back to the, ahem, campsite. In the end the risks outweighed the advantages and we thought it best to stay put and be uncomfortable than sacrifice a life to the river.
Camp was set up slowly; we changed into our warm gear in some kind of trance. It all seemed too unreal and disjointed, like it was happening to people other than ourselves. Strangely I wasn’t disheartened though, because when you put yourself in the way of adventure you need to accept that the choice of adventure will ultimately not be yours, instead determined by the elements of nature. AT least that is how I looked at it.
Thankfully the place Rowen had chosen was dry, courtesy of an overhanging cliff, but wasn’t very flat. Boris immediately went to work setting up his bed in an extremely precarious position on top of a large sloping rock. Despite our best efforts, he wouldn’t be coaxed away from the dry spot no matter how uncomfortable or downright dangerous. We half expected him to go crashing down in the middle of the night. Meanwhile, Simon and Dave had erected the tarp and used the raft as shelter from the rain, but the sloping and wet ground didn’t look very inviting at all.
We ate a swift dinner and discussed our options. Rowen used the phone to let people know we were okay, but refused to be goaded into ordering pizza. Leigh’s situation was of real concern now, as he would have arrived at Irenabyss with what we suspected as limited gear and no way of contacting us. We could only hope that the Army group would find and look after him for the night if needed.
At 9pm we headed to bed, exhausted. My sleeping bag and bivvy were all very wet and the thought of spending a sodden night under the raft was far from exciting. Simon had set up his bed down near the river in order to stay dry and Rowen had sought out and found a cave that he was convinced would be drier than under the tarp. I moved up to share the cave with him, but on arriving discovered that ‘pretty much dry’ was not what I’d expected. Despite the rhythmic dripping from the rocks above, we all drifted off to sleep quickly; and so ended the epic day with a capital ‘E’.
DAY FOUR – HUON PINE CAMP
We all took the opportunity to sleep late, knowing that the river would prevent us from any travelling this day. The only one to depart from his bed early was Dave, whose keen interest in photography would see him rise early every morning to capture the beauty of the river in all its guises. At 9.30 everyone stirred, sopping wet and camp weary, to discover the river had risen further overnight. In fact, Simon had feared his bed would be washed away so was forced to relocate.
It was a sight to behold; an angry serpent of death that frothed and bubbled like a lunatic. There was no doubt about the rest day now; it was amazing we had slept that long as the river roared so loudly as to make us shout to be heard over breakfast. A couple of faces wore grim and ashen expressions while others were incredulous that we should find ourselves in this predicament. Although adequately prepared for such a raging flood, the brochure can’t really capture such a moment like this.
We already faced a couple dilemmas. As anticipated, our bite sized bucket raft was very hard to control in the unforgiving high water. Not being a self-bailing raft, the Franklin’s feisty waters filled our craft during the early stages of any decent rapid and from there we were pretty much obeying Obi Wan Kenobi and ‘using the force’. Before the trip, we knowingly accepted this as a distinct possibility. It was simply the only raft we had and besides, it was a novel approach to the expedition.
They say that it rains 300 out of 360 days on the infamous west coast of Tasmania. Therefore, if the bad weather persisted (as initially forecasted), and the level remained high, it could make some very dangerous and tricky sections ahead for our ‘bath tub’. Considering this, we were worried that we might not have time to finish the entire journey.
Rowen and Dave went to scout further down river but after a couple of hours searching and dangerous rock bouldering received no joy at all. The bank turned to sheer cliffs and with the volume of water it left little choice but to sit back and read a book.
We considered our options over muesli. Irenabyss camp was only a kilometre or so over the ridge, but the way was blocked by steep terrain and thick rainforest that would require the portage from hell. As per many expeditions, one option was simply stop and wait for the river’s fury to subside. Last option was the arduous portage and a 20km trek out to the Lovell highway, all the while dragging our gear and ourselves along the way. Fuck that, we thought. It was simply inconceivable how much that would hurt.
On a positive note, there are certainly worse places you could have found yourself stranded. We sat around, drinking coffee and tea and passed the time as best we could. The rain came and went, we explored the rainforest above our camp and I knocked off a few chapters of my book. Boris, who was clearly not enjoying himself, only emerged to eat and to go to the toilet, the rest of the time remaining inside his bivvy bag atop his crazy Russian eagle’s nest.
Dinner became lunch and we waxed lyrical on all subjects whilst astride the massive granite rocks that lay above the river. To our joy the river slowly receded and the rain periods became less frequent, helping the optimism rise within our ranks. Tomorrow we would be going to Irenabyss any way that we could, though it was fairly certain that we would not go the full distance of the river now.
There were too many variables that counted against us as we sat down to nut it out again after dinner. There had still been no word on Leigh and that meant we would be a paddler down. Apparently there was the chance of more flooding in a few days, which would be made more serious further down in the bigger rapids. The performance of the raft in big water was still weighing on our minds and looked to have sealed our fate. It was a low moment on the trip to think that it may have ended so soon after starting.
It was decided by most that the wet sleeping quarters were far from satisfactory, resulting in a number moving higher up into other caves. So it was we all climbed into wet sleeping bags and bivvys, hoping that the night time might remove some of the roaring torrent and deliver us a miracle. The last thing I remember thinking about before sleeping was glow worms and frothy water.
DAY FIVE: HUON PINE CAMP –FINCHAM’S CROSSING
We woke to brilliant sunshine and the roar of the river, which seemed quieter than it had been the night before. There was no real attempt to move quickly; instead we all enjoyed the warmth and sanctity of our respective caves and perches. Eventually our hand was forced by the sound of insistent whistling coming from the main camp.
The scene that lay before me as I scrambled down the rock face was excellent. Three smiling faces and all the gear spread over rocks like a Chinese laundry had been opened in the wilderness.
The mood had lifted considerably. We bathed ourselves in welcome sunshine and made ready to get to Irenabyss camp, now that the river had dropped to a level more like it was when we ran out of daylight. It was still flowing hard, but now at a level that would not result in seemingly certain death.
We portaged the last section of the gorge and loaded the boats, reassured by the fact the river had dropped even further as we had done so. We were soon away and it felt good to be back doing what we’d intended. The steep canyon walls slid by and we left the contemptible Deception Gorge behind us as we had started it, with Boris standing up bailing the boat, his arse sticking proudly from the enormous hole in his wetsuit and held tight with the aid of gaffer tape. I hoped for his sake that he didn’t need to use the poo tube urgently.
Irenabyss was, as promised, a large and deep pool, tranquil as hell and hard to marry to the madness that had held us ransom for the last day and a half. No one was camped there and it was bathed in gorgeous sunshine. We pushed on towards Fincham’s Crossing, where there was a shorter track located for the walkout that now seemed almost assured. It was sad to think that this was probably our last day.
The paddling was mostly very easy, interspersed with adrenalised rapids and nasty bends that kept us honest. Vast mountain ranges loomed huge in the blue sky above, with dramatic chasms and spitting waterfalls breaking the glorious monotony of the scene. This was much more like I had envisaged when daydreaming about the trip.
In no time we saw cables spreading out across the river, the sign that we’d reached our intended camp at Fincham’s Crossing. Apparently it was named after the surveyor who’d come up here years ago, situated at the place he crossed the river funnily enough. History aside, we looked forward simply to a dry campsite and a chance to spread our gear out.
The river level when we arrived was 2.7 metres, which offered the group some sense of achievement at the very least. From this point, the plan was that Boris would walk the 15 kilometres to the main road, while Leigh would walk in and either join us or help remove the gear.
We soon discovered that this was not actually a campsite, but in fact a helipad and gauging station that was used to measure the river level. There was little flat ground on offer, so we were forced to spread our gear over the helipad and set up camp there.
The location was stunning, as the platform stood thirty or forty metres above the river. With the sunshine pouring down and our gear getting dry quickly we began to again consider the options, desperately looking for a solution that might see us finish the trip. A meeting was called.
Each member of the group expressed an opinion and the decision was initially taken to walk out the next morning. With an unreliable weather forecast and the issues surrounding the raft, there seemed no logical choice. The spirit in the camp plummeted immediately. In vain hope, we asked Rowen to try and get an accurate forecast using the satellite phone.
He called his father, only to discover that Leigh had run into Irenabyss and became stuck there during the storm. He was not carrying much gear and the Army group were camped across the river. Leigh had spent the night freezing at the campsite with limited food and warmth. The experience had, quite rightly, robbed him of any desire to do any more rafting. This left us a paddler down.
The first forecast came back negative. Two more days of sunshine then a massive front was coming through: Rain, water, flooding: no good. This was especially important for us since the Great Ravine, the nastiest and most dangerous part of the river, was yet to come.
Another phone call was placed, this time a better forecast came back, stating that the change was mostly wind. If we got going then we could be through the ravine in time, though we’d have to ditch the kayaks and put another body in the raft. Unfortunately Boris had to go. Although a good friend, his distinct lack of warm gear and the language barrier were giving us some very grave concerns, we needed to put more factors back in our favour to consider tackling what lay ahead. We figured that the issue of raft manoeuvrability could be solved by adding another body and leaving some gear behind. It was like a huge weight being lifted off our shoulders, we felt a sense of huge relief……..the trip was alive!
After sorting gear and talking through the options we made the decision official. Boris would walk out to the road and Simon and Dave would leave their kayaks and jump into the raft. Easy.
Once the decision had been made, the afternoon was wiled away with sun tanning, paddling, photography and fishing for trout. The surroundings were unique and offered amazing views, but the place was chock full of leeches. We drifted to sleep with thoughts of nasty rapids and rekindled dreams of adventure. It had been a stressful day, and as long as we could avoid rolling off the platform and plummeting to our deaths, we could look forward to a good trip.
DAY SIX: FINCHAM’S CROSSING – CORUSCADES CAMP
All were up and moving early in anticipation of the continuance of the journey, thankful that day six would be spent paddling rather than lugging gear over 15 kilometres of Tasmanian bushland. Boris set off without breakfast, having clearly had enough of the adventure and slightly miffed that he’d been sent out like an errant schoolboy.
Today would be a 20 – 25 km paddle at least, our aim being to make it to the start of the Great Ravine by nightfall. We figured that as long as there were no more delays we would make the rendezvous with our boat quite easily. The brilliant blue sky above looked promising enough, but only really lasted as long as it took to break camp and pack the boat.
`The level had dropped overnight to just below two metres, and soon the plop of oars dipping in the water filled our ears and we were secretly thankful that the long walk had been avoided.
The river was serene; so different to its incarnation in the days before as a menacing torrent. The odd bubbling rapid with medium waves interrupted the long, tranquil pools we passed where the water barely moved. Above us the forests, which looked most un-Australian, covered the sheer cliff faces as far as the eye could see. This gave the mistaken impression that you could hike straight into the baby blue sky.
We passed rock walls as tall as office blocks and fifty metre water falls that slapped hard into the Franklin’s fluid coffers. The boys made jokes about running them in kayaks- we all told dirty jokes and sniggered as the oars clawed their way down the tea coloured highway. The wildlife began to emerge also, taking in the clearing weather and drinking the clean water. I saw my first quoll, a weird looking thing covered in spots that smelled like an ashtray milkshake with poo sprinkles.
The rapids we encountered in the first few hours were mostly fun, though some of them required careful scouting and tactics. As we became more familiar with the boat some level of bravado kicked in and we often made the decision to simply go ‘down the guts’.
The first named rapid we came to was Hind Leg Slide, a quick little chute that got the adrenalin flowing a little. Not far after this was Duck Shoot, which we ran after a brief scouting mission. It seemed the lower water was being friendly to us. The boat was handling much better with the extra muscle, especially when full to the gunnels with water.
We made good time even though the river was meandering for longer distances, forcing us to dig in and work hard to maintain momentum in slacker water. For about half an hour the rapids were only enough to fill the boat, providing annoyance value and a good cardio workout for whoever had to bail. By now it had been named ‘Tiddilik”, in honour of the aboriginal legend about the frog that drank and drank and drank and drank.
We watched carefully for Debacle Bend, as many boats had been damaged by the sharp limestone rocks, but after careful inspection we got through without incident. The Jericho Walls slid by without incident or fanfare, a testament to the fact that after six days in the amazing wildness of the Franklin we were becoming a little bit desensitised to its allure.
We rounded The Crankle, a stunning and famous bend in the river, and soon after discovered the perfect sandy beach to break for lunch. As we steadily approached the sun came out and it felt as if fate had decided to reward us for our persistence.
The feeling of the sun warming our wet clothes was uplifting, helping erase the memories of the flood from our minds. We continued downriver, planning to visit a plaque at the Dean and Hawkins campsite that commemorated the first descent of the river in the 1950’s.
We passed Blushrock Falls, a huge waterfall that tumbled more than a hundred metres down a cliff face. Around this time we also got a view across to Frenchman’s Cap, which is a major landmark in the area. Its bald hill jutted out from the surrounds, but it somehow seemed to lose its magnificence in comparison to the river we were paddling.
Our journey down the Franklin was becoming a journey through the continents, for part of the day you could be in the craggy ravines of North America, while others find you in the vast pine forests you imagine in Europe. Many times you could forget you were in Australia at all.
Round the Bend of Martins we went and reached the next marked rapid, Side Slip. Upon scouting we realised that it would, as Rowen declared, ‘be a piece of piss.’ It was a good thrill, the heart pumping and paddles flailing madly while the Franklin slapped us about like impetuous children. We didn’t manoeuvre that well but were effective, becoming more so with the experience of each rapid.
We were making good time, and early in the afternoon reached ‘The Churn’. This was the rapid that signalled the beginning of the Great Ravine and our most challenging section so far. The notes on the rapid said that it was ‘virtually’ un-runnable, and fuck me they were right. This one had it all – a big drop off, large holes and stoppers, big rocks and narrow chutes that would pin both raft and man.
Soon again the magic ‘portage’ word was spoken. The notes mentioned a 1-2 hours on a high track. My God! A mountain goat would have had a tough time passing this one. In places the track was so steep as to be nearly vertical. We had to rope gear down for the first time to avoid taking a swift tumble into the drink. The going was hard on the mind but very good for the waistline.
Once finished we packed the raft and made the gentle amble down to Serenity Sound, a long pool that had a blackened sheen and reflected the scene above us perfectly. It seemed almost criminal to break the surface of the water with our paddles.
In no time the roar of the Coruscades rapid could be heard up river, telling us the campsite was nearby. As we got closer, we spied a magnificent eagle soaring from tree to tree as we drifted downriver – like we were being guided to safety. We pulled in to the left bank and were happy to see a real campsite for once. It had been a massive day, 25 kilometres in total, but worth the sore muscles and tired bones.
The evening was spent lounging on rocks and enjoying the postcard view, with soundtrack provided by the river. Each minute of sunset delivered a new thrill and a fresh take on the stunning beauty of the Franklin. We were all thankful to be here now, as it was so much more inviting than ‘there’.
DAY SEVEN – CORUSCADES CAMP TO RAFTER’S BASIN
Despite the comfort of the camp I slept poorly, overheating in my bivvy bag and feeling sick in the stomach. The morning saw me visit the outdoor toilet three times before we left and I felt it was going to be a long day. As I sat perched in the state of ablution, the grand white body of the eagle soared past not far above the river, wings stretched and gliding magnificently. I prayed it was a good omen for the Great Ravine.
WHAT A MASSIVE DAY! A journey through the Great Ravine would require getting past the Coruscades, The Faucet, Sidewinder, Thunderush and the Cauldron. It was appropriate then that we should begin the day with a portage – again an innocuous word but so very painful.
We carried the gear over the Coruscades rapid, taking about an hour to get the job done. The rapid was a grade 5, dangerous but alluring at the same time. Scrambling over slippery rocks was now becoming something of a habit, though I did have a couple of stacks. We paddled downriver a short distance and crossed a couple of rapids, one of which we thought was Thunderush, though this would prove to be something of a cocky underestimation of the rapid, but we’ll get to that later.
We reached The Faucet and decided to run it, carefully picking a line and going for it. It was fantastic to be among the carnage of white water. We reached the lower part and felt we could run it successfully, but it was to result in our first swim for the trip.
The boat went over the pour-over without any problems, and despite Rowen shouting instructions to us we were too far to the right. As a result ‘Tiddilik’ got nonchalantly parked on top of a 2m drop, flipped vertical and we were all unceremoniously tossed like lambs to the slaughter. The cold water flushed through my wetsuit, robbing me of the breath from my lungs. I held on to the paddle and pointed my feet downriver as the boys had instructed me to.
Below lay another boiling rapid ready to swallow us, so I headed for a small eddy on river right. The raft swept past me, where I could see Dave and hear the other boys yelling instructions to each other. I turned around and reached out to secure the raft. Rowen yelled out to Dave but there was no answer, he’d completely disappeared somewhere beneath it. This was bad.
After what seemed like an eternity the white helmet of Dave emerged on the far side of the raft, his mouth agape and gasping for air. I looked behind me to see Rowen and Simon and for now it seemed that disaster had been averted.
Laughter filled the ravine as we righted and emptied the raft. In some ways it was a great rush, but overall I had been shit-scared most of the way.
For the next half hour we ran the odd rapid while keeping a careful eye out for Sidewinder, arguing gently over whether it was a missile or a rattlesnake. Imagine our surprise then when we found it to be very manageable and ran it without incident. After an easier than expected beginning to the day our spirits were beginning to lift, which might have become confidence if we’d not bumped into Thunderush.
What a big mother of a rapid! It was insane to look at. The first section ended in a massive stopper that looked as if it could eat a twenty foot boat let alone our half sized version. It was, without doubt, certain death for anyone who ran it.
The second section didn’t look great either, requiring a tricky manoeuvre around some serious rocks that were surrounded by high cliffs that would doom any swimmer to a solo mission and a good look at mortality.
We portaged the top section as recommended by the guide book, but baulked at the portage on offer for the bottom section. If we didn’t run it then we were faced with a high and dangerous six hour portage that none of us were really up for. The other boys felt that the portage was more dangerous than the rapid which made some sense, though I did make the point that no one had ever drowned on a portage track.
I felt like it would break our own rule to run the rapid, but resigned myself to the group decision. The lads thought there was a definite line through the section, though it took forty five minutes of standing and looking before even they were convinced and could agree. Like an unpredictable jig saw puzzle, it took some time to ‘nut out’ all the possibilities. In their opinion, the risks weren’t too high and any swim appeared manageable and safe.
In the end I trusted their experience and we prepared to run it. The re-loading of the gear was precarious enough, as not twenty feet from the back of the boat lay a massive and angry keeper hole. The boat rocked and wobbled and I began to experience pangs of doubt. My sphincter tightened remarkably.
We readied ourselves and went quiet. The four of us wore poker faces like masks, knowing that this would either be all over in seconds or we’d be in the drink… a common feeling when rafting big water.
Our blades pushed away from the rock wall and we spun a half circle to position ourselves in the right part of the current. Ahead could be seen big rocks in river middle, the rock wall on river left and a motley collection of dangerous pockets and assorted rocks scattered here and there.
The paddles dug in as though we were working for our very lives. A sense of unison drove us forward on the right line – we were looking good. Our success was pivotal on stomping the correct line. The raft punched through the first big stopper, though brushed a submerged rock on the way out which saw Simon and I exit the boat with some speed in a forward direction; Oh Shit! Swimming was exactly what we hadn’t wanted to do but its all apart of the game.
Okay then – react! The boat ahead, Dave offering his paddle but I can’t reach it; legs hitting rocks, Oh Fuck! Swim to the boat and make it, Dave pulls me up and in, instructions being yelled, I dive over the gear rack and towards the front section. Rowen yelled to Simon to watch out just before we see him get pinned to a rock and hear him yell out; I stand up in the front cockpit which is full of water. Dave hands me my paddle – MASSIVE ROCK! We cross a pour over, face covered in water again, stand up and keep paddling forward. Simon appears next to me holding his paddle – ROCK WALL! We brush under, spinning again, more rapids – OH JESUS! Down again we go, more water flows in, am underwater again, we come up and I wedge my feet under the gunnels once more. YOU BEAUTY! I hear someone yell, we all start yelling, laughing, sweating and breathing hard. The rapid is left behind us and the roar recedes to a sliding whisper. YOU ARE THE MAN! Then pointing and breathless commentary comes. Elation as we talk of our experience. Relief.
The natural high lasted approximately two or three minutes, or about as long as it took to paddle down and lay eyes on The Cauldron.
It was mean and nasty – a long and dangerous rapid. Again it would require a portage, but this time there was no option but the high track, which on first sight looked much like the Kokoda. We pulled in at Eagle’s Nest camp and lugged the gear to the bottom of the path. The steep and wild trail would require us to deflate the raft to get it through to the other side. This made the other portages look like bugger all.
The next four and a half hours were some of the toughest I have spent on this earth, challenging my mental strength and physical limits. We climbed and carried, dragged, heaved, pushed and pulled the gear over the track, which took at least twenty minutes to get from one side to the other, at least four times each. Words can’t describe the effort required to get through.
By the time the raft was through and we loaded the boat it was almost 7.30 pm. The camp was another three kilometres down the river and we paddled slowly towards it, completely knackered. The river quickly became slacker water and long, deep pools made it much heavier going. High on the slopes above we could see the brilliant sunshine, though it only teased us as we sat low on the river wrapped in the ever growing coldness.
Rafter’s Basin camp was like a five star hotel and was flat, dry and comfortable. Everyone rushed to get set up and boil water for soup, all the while getting warm gear on and reflecting on the arduous day. Darkness came quickly and we ate like exhausted men, speaking in short and quiet sentences. Ten pm saw us all crashed out and wallowing in the deep slumber of contented men. The Great Ravine had been conquered, the biggest challenge was over.
After a day like today, you gain a real true sense of why we do this. The cocktail of dangerous rapids, sublime scenery and the camaraderie among the boys, as well as the dogged intent to get through each challenge successfully all contributed to this sensation. It was one of those times in life when you are quite becalmed and in awe of what has transpired.
DAY EIGHT: RAFTER’S BASIN – BLACKMAN’S BEND
We woke to the palatial campsite and a brilliant blue sky. It was fairly early again as we were keen to get the final gorge, the innocuously named Newland’s Cascades, out of the way before the expected bad weather hit.
The heavy portages lay behind us and soon we would move from the high walled and craggy rock cliffs to the lower part of the river. We broke camp quickly and began ambling down towards our target. The trip had gained momentum now and we were well on track to finish easily.
The first marked rapid we met was Ol’ Three Tiers, a nice and tricky rapid that shook us from our complacent head room. We ended up portaging the top section and running the bottom two, which gave a nice adrenalin shot and the now ubiquitous nostrils full of water.
There were a lot of negatives about being in the front of the boat. The lack of any really secure footholds meant you were usually the first to be flung out in a rapid. You also did the bulk of the bailing when the boat was full of water and were unceremoniously drenched each time a minor wave or haystack popped up. On top of all this, you occupied the position on the pecking order reserved for hired help and common grunt labourers. Still, I wouldn’t have swapped my place for anything.
The next rapid was Trojans, a narrow drop that rested between two huge rock formations, with one of them surprisingly looking a little bit like a Trojan horse. We punched through this without worry, though I did get another face full of water.
By now the system of processing rapids had become instinctive habit. Pull over to left bank: Scout. Stand around considering lines. Consider carnage factor, is it safe to swim & check for surprises. Then either A: portage, or B: run it. Thankfully today was there was much more from column B than column A.
Soon after came the ABC rapid. This was where Australia’s national broadcaster was supposed to have lost plenty of expensive camera equipment during the protests of the dam construction in the 1980’s. It looked simple enough, but the thought of us losing all our gear caused some alarm, so the boys got out to scout while I bravely guarded the boat.
It was a little technical, requiring some deft manoeuvring and spinning our way through the waves. Another good soaking entailed, though thankfully there were no mishaps to speak of.
The blue and yellow dolphin boat slowly ate up the bends and long pools of the river, but the tranquillity ended when we reached The Pig Trough. According to the notes it was a compulsory portage, and as soon as we clamoured over the rocks we could understand why.
The river dropped away remarkably and forced itself to squeeze between a narrow and craggy chute. In the middle of the pour over, at the exact point you would need to be if you were stupid enough to run it, were two rocks that sloped into a nice sieve that would surely pin most things that tried to squeeze through, especially four goons in a ten and a half foot inflatable raft.
We began to portage over rocks on the left bank, which had us standing precariously over the top of the biggest and nastiest hole that we saw on the river, apart from the one in Boris’ wetsuit. It was an instant and roaring reminder of the consequences of getting it wrong.
We stopped for lunch at the end of the portage, and while munching away recognised the famous Rock Island Bend, subject of a well known photograph by a guy called Dombrovskis. He was an interesting guy who would go out for weeks on end to capture the Tasmanian wilderness in all its beauty. Sadly, he drowned on one of his expeditions, but his legacy was left standing there before us, looming large over our al fresco lunch.
“P-p-p-person!” Dave exclaimed while pointing at the top of the island. I swivelled and was blown away to see the figure of a man emerge from the trees that grew between the craggy rocks. He waved happily, then raised a camera to get a shot of the nasty trough. We realised he must have been a member of the army group that were on the river ahead of us.
It is always strange seeing another human being after a period of isolation; you are reminded how out of place we appear when compared to natural beauty such as that which surrounded us. We finished lunch and began packing the boat as he swam across the river toward us.
We chatted for a while about their progress as a group and the flooding. The group had seen Rowen’s dad but were across the other side of the river, which left me wondering why ten guys with half a brain wouldn’t have offered some kind of assistance when they saw he was in trouble. He also told us that they had relented at Thunderush and done the six hour high portage, meaning they all had to squeeze into the Eagle’s nest camp. We felt satisfied knowing we possibly had more balls than the army.
Before jumping back into the water he informed us that Newland’s Cascades lay only 300 metres down river, and that it was an easy grade two to three section that would present no problems. After that lay the campsite that they were enjoying a rest day at, he wished us luck and was gone.
Soon we bid farewell to Rock Island Bend and prepared for the Cascades. The boys got out and scouted the first section, deciding to run it before stopping again. This all went smoothly, and once finished we got the chance to see the rest of the section below.
It was a long sucker, with rocks popping up all over the place like a convention of nosey meerkats on the savannah. It dropped away consistently over a distance of about 200 metres and we knew that ‘down the guts’ wouldn’t be a successful ploy here.
The Army guys had all gathered on the rocks at the bottom of the Cascades, no doubt hoping that some carnage would follow once Tiddilik and the ‘dodgy brothers’ got moving. We use ‘dodgy brothers’ in an affectionate manner, feeling that tackling this river in our heavily laden tiny raft in high water might be viewed by some as somewhat foolhardy. There was nothing amateur about our brains trust though, they had thought of everything to best steer Tiddilik down these here waters. It was only the last minute ‘curve ball’ with Boris that almost drowned our escapade. The boys took about fifteen minutes to scout the thing properly while I bailed the boat and slouched in the foot well.
The verdict came back from the brain’s trust that it was all runnable as long as we manoeuvred the boat in the correct fashion. There were several stoppers and lots of rocks, but as long as we stuck to the plan there would be no worries at all. And yes, it was swimmable.
“Forward paddle!” came the cry from captain Rowen. Down a ledge then miss a rock – no worries at all.
“Back paddle – hard!” we slowed up with a reverse ferry glide and positioned ourselves perfectly for the next drop. Down we went to be punched in the face by water again.
“Forward hard!” Oh shit, I thought, big rock – we swept by without touching it. We were now about two thirds of the way down and looking good. Two more stoppers and we would be through the final gorge. I had perhaps thought too soon…
“Forward hard – no – now back hard!” as the next stopper span Tiddilik and changed our commands. Whoops – sideways in the stopper we went and I knew that all was lost. I had time to think of how nice it was to have a swim as I was unceremoniously ejected from the raft.
The water was cold and shocked the breath from me as before. Head up, boat beware. Too far to swim to boat – Fuck. Hang on to paddle and into safety position. Here comes a stopper, oh well, I hope I come up. Then I’m under and being buffeted and turned inside out and upside down. I hit nothing and then emerge facing down river.
“Are you right mate?” comes the question, so I nod in the affirmative. The boys and the boat head for the bank, I keep on going along with the current. One of the army group is standing on the approaching rocks with a throw bag. I clamber up and wait while the lads bail the raft. One of the group offers me a hand and pulls me up.
“Welcome to Newland’s Camp.” he says cheerfully, offering me a lollipop. Surreal.
The boat drifts downriver and we all share a laugh about it while they accuse me of abandoning ship. The army group gather to share tales of their experiences on the river and offer us advice on the journey ahead. Some of their guys had done the trip three or four times so were a great source of knowledge. They told us that from here on was a much easier time and we could afford to forego the heavier safety equipment.
It was 4.30 in the afternoon and their leader expressed the opinion that we had no chance of reaching our intended destination of Blackman’s Bend. It was like a red rag to a bull. All in all the guys chatted for about twenty minutes, but one exchange was particularly memorable.
“So what is that – a ten footer?” enquired one of their guides, gesturing towards the raft.
“Oh na, ‘bout ten and a half, eleven” Rowen replied whilst puffing his chest out. It was as if his manhood had been insulted. The army boys all looked somewhat amazed that we had conquered the hard sections of the river at high levels with a boat that size. This was one of the most satisfying developments of the trip and a great source of pride. Raft envy was indeed a mirthful thing.
Bidding goodbye, we pushed on into the late afternoon. Newland’s Cascades signified the end of the wild part of the river as far as we could see it, and now we all had the sense we were just paddling for home.
The Franklin changed in appearance and character as the kilometres slid by. The cliffs became more sloping and gentle and the distance between the banks grew greater. Past Eleanor’s Ferry we drifted, also the Royal Box, a small cave high in the cliff where you could comfortably watch the theatre of paddlers going past.
The water felt like syrup and we told dirty jokes to pass the time. The third last named rapid appeared, that of Little Fall. It didn’t look too bad, but a closer inspection and scout revealed a mean streak that forced us to use our portaging skills again. Thankfully it didn’t require a complete unloading of the raft, only some extra muscle power.
Soon after we rounded a bend and caught sight of two other rafts, a real shock to the system and further proof we were about to emerge from isolation. The army guys had mentioned a group ahead of them but we’d expected them to be much further down river than this.
They had been removing some blackberries near the bank and waved us in for a chat. They were a motley collection of outdoor education instructors who were on a training trip, and unfortunately for us had planned to stay at the same campsite. Shit, we thought. It is amazing how unwilling to share the wilderness you become in such a short time, but I’m sure we all felt a little territorial.
We told the story of the flood again and were met with muted respect and recognition of our feat. It was getting dark and we still had some kilometres to paddle.
Our unwillingness to share a campsite drove us past Flat Island Camp and on into the ever dwindling evening light. The water was tough going and there was very little evidence of a discernable current, making the kilometres even harder on our weary muscles.
Blackman’s Bend camp was again incredibly palatial and exotic looking, sitting slightly back from the river at the end of a sandy pathway. It was flat and the sand was soft, providing more than enough space for we four adventurers.
Dinner was served at ten thirty due to the late start, but all were collapsed into bed by about eleven. At 2am we were woken by fairly heavy rain which was dealt with admirably by Rowen and Dave. We had paddled so hard that by tomorrow we would be finished and lounging at St John’s Falls, where we would meet our ride. The fat lady was starting to gargle in her dressing room.
DAY NINE – BLACKMAN’S BEND – ST JOHN’S FALLS
There was no real rush to get going again that morning. There was steady rain throughout the camp so it was actually better to stay in bed. Today would mean about twenty kilometres of paddling, including the final six or so on the Gordon River.
All our gear had been saturated by the overnight rain so it was fortunate we were finishing today. Despite all the sleep we had I was still knackered and in desperate need of a beer and a shower.
We had been told that a visit to the Kuta Kina caves was a must, and spent a good hour looking for them in completely the wrong spot, bashing our way high up on the ridges above the river in search for the elusive landmarks that had been described to us by the Army group. After climbing high above the river we gave up, deciding that time was wasting away, so began carefully down climbing. Imagine our joy when we discovered that a large and sheer cliff now separated us from our raft. There was no choice but to swim for it, and it was then that we saw the outdoor education group pulling in to the bank about 200 metres further downstream… sheepishly we climbed back into the raft and paddled towards them.
The caves were significant because in ancient times they’d been inhabited by aboriginal tribes, who used the location as a kind of holiday retreat. Back during the last ice age, the climate had been much more conducive to living comfortably and there was no rainforest, instead vast grasslands stood in their place. An aboriginal tribe had used the cave as a summer residence and there was plenty of stuff for archaeologists to get fired up about, like stone tools and burnt animal bones.
Inside it was silent as a church and nobody dared speak. The amazing natural light that flooded in made the place feel ethereal, so it was no wonder that these people had continued to come back time and time again. We stood for around ten minutes in a vain attempt to connect with something long since gone.
After climbing back into the boat we headed for the second last rapid, Double Fall. After scouting it carefully we ran it without incident, the full on adrenalised water now drifted ever further behind us and into memory.
The surrounding hills had become low and gradually sloping, much less dramatic than what had been before. Even the rocks in the river had changed, taking on a more pitted and light brown look. This caused us to be more careful with the raft as they formed odd and sharp shapes that could easily pierce the raft, leaving us stranded.
The paddling had become very hard work. Only one rapid remained and it was an infamous one, Big Fall. We had read and been told plenty about this rapid. Two people had died there in its turbulent waters, a shocking way to end a trip for those groups. The thing we needed to be mindful of was the fact that it was supposed to look quite runnable, which could be tricky since we’d been suffering from some excitement withdrawal. You could understand why people had risked so much here, especially with the promise of a final thrill.
It appeared on the river horizon and it was exactly as people had described – completely innocent looking. The pour over and stopper at the bottom told a sinister story however, so we decided to line the raft through.
Once through the river slowed more, each stroke felt like dragging the paddle through wet sand. It was hard to keep the strokes going and we began removing our helmets and waterproof jackets to get some air circulating. We glided past the amazing Verandah Cliffs that hung over the river like a permanent wave that had locked eyes with a Medusa.
With little fanfare we reached the confluence of the Gordon River. It was completely different to the Franklin, twice as wide and barely moving. The water seemed much blacker and reflected the sky back like a photograph. At Pyramid Island we dipped our hands in to grasp our last taste of the mighty Franklin, before casting our eyes over it for the last time.
After a short while we passed the proposed site of the dam that was a battleground between environmentalists and the Tasmanian government during the early eighties. That battle had ended with a High Court decision that prevented the flooding of much of the area we’d just spent eight days of our lives getting through. It would have been a tragedy if the river had been lost, even if most Australians would not know it. There was no real signifier to be found apart from the gauges that measured the river levels now. It read 1.9 metres as we slid past the gauge.
As we neared the Big Eddy a strongish head wind began to blow, making the going even harder on us. It seemed that the river was not going to let us go without a fight. We hugged the left bank and knuckled down. The hardest paddling we would do would be the next six kilometres.
It was incredibly tough going and I had to dig deep to keep the paddle knifing through the water. At times the wind blew so strongly we swore that the raft was being pushed backwards. Darkness was beginning to fall and the weather started to freeze us to our bones.
Round the bend the jetty loomed tiny in the distance. I had made the bold statement that when the trip was over I would celebrate by somersaulting over the front of the raft and into the river. As we drew closer to the jetty I leapt into the freezing water and immediately regretted my brashness. Brass monkeys would have turned to sopranos in water that cold. Imagine my delight then when the jetty proved not to be the end point, but instead the roof over our heads that we dreamed about lay further around the bend. BUGGER!
The hut is all that remains of the Hydroelectric Scheme work camp that housed those workers who were building the Franklin Dam. It had since been turned into a fairly basic centre of accommodation but at least it had a roof and some beds. We returned to the raft to collect our gear and heard the distant sound of a motor approaching. As we looked downstream we saw a sight that filled our hearts with joy – a small grey boat that was driven by Trevor Powell, the man that would get us back to Strahan and who, more importantly, carried the beer.
We’d imagined that the hut to be empty we were surprised to find a lone bushwalker already settled. He was tall and bearded, with a spooked, almost slack jawed look about him. Conversation dribbled from him with difficulty and I got the impression that he’d played pretty hard in the Seventies. To top it off, he used a lilo as a mode of transport, a device I’d not seen since my early childhood at the local pool. Apparently it is a fairly common way of getting around, but there is no way you’d get me on one of those with all my kit.
Trevor stopped briefly before heading down to the jetty to tie up at the site of my premature acrobatics. As he chugged off we had a photo taken on the small beach and returned to the hut to get dry.
As we changed, Trevor appeared with a small cooler bag which contained some of the beer we’d asked him to bring. I had expected it to taste a little sweeter after ten days, though it did slide down pretty well and signified the end of a long adventure. It should have been a moment of pure elation but we were too knackered.
Trevor invited us down to his boat where he offered to cook dinner. It was above our expectations, but he had mysteriously referred to a surprise he’d brought along. Intrigued, we tore along the narrow bush track to the jetty.
On board the grey coloured boat Trevor had prepared a mini feast. Two crayfish were handed around and he busied himself with cooking us all a chicken schnitzel. Night was falling rapidly and the temperature was becoming bitter, so he produced a bottle of ginger wine to add to the beer. A couple of beers later, our bellies full, we reminisced about the past adventure and listened to the country tones of Shania Twain. Around us, the Gordon River seemed to disappear into the cold and black night and misty rain descended to make it bleaker.
Trevor was a miner by trade, working far under Queenstown as a truck driver. He was a thickset man with a wide head of grey hair, and carried an aura of friendliness that only rural folk can summon. The most striking thing was the size of his hands, massive lumps of meat that looked like flesh coloured boxing gloves. He was good company and we drank steadily until the grog ran out.
The walk back was somewhat treacherous, mainly due to us being half-cut than the condition of the track. In what seemed like seconds we slumped into our respective bunks to snore and fart through the last night in the Tasmanian Wilderness, satisfied that our efforts had seen the trip reach a conclusion determined by us rather than the river.
DAY TEN – SLOW BOAT TO STRAHAN
Trevor had been keen to get away because of the weather forecast, which predicted thirty knot winds to blow directly from where we were heading today. He told us that it would be a six hour trip to Strahan, a small town at the top of Macquarie Harbour. Two hours of that would be spent meandering along what remained of the Gordon River.
We loaded our gear roughly and prepared for the final paddle from the hut back to the jetty where Trevor waited. The scene was glorious despite the low grey sky that hung above the gently rippling waters. Although the boat home lay only a few hundred metres away, our muscles burned with the minor effort, though this could have something to do with the alcohol we’d consumed last night.
After deflating the raft we began our journey back to civilisation. Trevor cooked bacon and eggs and we kicked back and drank hot coffee as the Gordon slid by. Soon after departure we passed the island that the dam protestors had occupied at the height of the struggle, which was astounding for its complete lack of suitability for camping. Nevertheless, Trevor told us, there had been quite a number of those who’d lived on the rocky slopes to cause trouble for any passing boats and workers.
After an hour I headed for the bunks for a well deserved siesta, dreaming of that clean feeling that a hot shower can give you. I was also looking forward to a shave, as the result of my beard growing attempt had only realised a rather patchy and grubby looking covering that I was keen to get rid of.
Soon I was awoken by the lurching and heaving of the boat. We had left the mouth of the Gordon and were now in the middle of a choppy two metre swell. I had hoped for a relatively smooth trip but for the next five hours we were forced to stand up in the cabin of the aptly named Ol’ Smuggler.
We averaged a little over four knots and at times we were certain that the boat was travelling backwards. In the distance we saw Sarah Island, which had been the site of the most horrific and dastardly prison during the convict times, reserved only for the worst of the worst.
We held on grimly as the death of a thousand waves was administered. There were laughable attempts to urinate from the stern of the boat without showering everything with piss, and no one dared eat or drink lest they violently throw up. I was convinced that this trip would never ever end.
Mercifully the township of Strahan eventually appeared on the horizon sometime in the mid afternoon to end our pain. A motley collection of watercraft were anchored at various points around the many small inlets and harbours, while brightly coloured tin rooves dotted the coastline here and there. Trevor nursed his boat alongside a narrow jetty and thus our journey down the Franklin River ended with little fanfare. The wild and challenging adventure was now complete.
When we left the jetty the trip continued for a few days, though the activities were purely supplementary. After cleaning ourselves up and getting a good feed we went out on the town and got rambling drunk in a pub full of miners and local pissheads. From Strahan we headed to Launceston for more revelry and headed our separate ways a few days later. Overall, it became more like a regular holiday that four blokes might have in a strange town or region, the achievements of the trip disappearing swiftly into memory.
We did find out that the track that Boris had been sent up had actually been revegetated and no longer existed, contrary to our information. So what happened to the crazy Russian and the two kayaks? Well that is an adventure in itself. Here was this crazy gold toothed Russian, all by himself, entrapped in one of Australia’s most remote and inaccessible rivers with not a word of English to his armoury. His mates just paddled off without him! We naturally felt quite sorry for him but in hind sight, we could afford a rise chuckle about it. After all, we gave him a Franklin taste where rightly, he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Rowen’s dad had no choice but to charter a helicopter to fly in to the helipad and collect everything. Boris so eloquently explains in pigeon English how he just sat on the helipad after his futile attempts to find a track, quite bewildered by his predicament. It was music to Boris’s ears when the pilot landed and hollered ‘Ahhh….Boris?’.
When I reflect on the expedition it is with a sense of pride, but not the fierce kind. Much of the hard work in organising the trip and preparing everything actually fell to the three paddlers. I didn’t discover the meaning of life or fall in love with the world of the wild rivers, nor did I make some sweeping self discovery. What I did do, in league with a great bunch of blokes, was travel one of the wildest and most stunning rivers anywhere in the world. We immersed ourselves, sometimes too literally, in an environment so pure and majestic as to make us blasé about the privilege we’d been given by the environment.
There were a few hairy moments, we got through a flood of almost biblical proportions, beat the Great Ravine and paid homage to the wonderful uniqueness of the Franklin, managing to get through unscathed.
What we are left with are stories that will grow taller with the years and the pleasant burden of drifting back there in quiet times, perhaps when asked of beautiful things, perhaps when we are asked about risk. Regardless of what we took from the river, we are comforted by the knowledge that is still there, running tea coloured and madly into the future, to be appreciated by many long after we are gone.