It’s only Natural
‘I dunno why we do these things!’ Dan hollered, catching his breath. His voice was alive with emotion. We three wilderness seekers found ourselves grinning foolishly from ear to ear, akin to little kids pulling childish pranks in the school yard. Our bodies were physically trashed after days enduring this gut wrenching terrain, yet our souls never felt so alive. We were totally immersed in one of those treasured moments in life that simply rises above the rest.
After days of blood, sweat and tears, Dan, Dave & myself (Dave) had just paddled through a very remote and rarely visited river gorge widely regarded as a geological phenomenon. It is a gorge that has to be experienced to be believed. With the last forbidding rapid thankfully in our wake, Dan’s outcry was all too reflective of the pressure valve finally being released. The heavens above had battered us with torrential rain, snow and strong winds, yet the glory of the place repelled Mother Nature’s fury. We were truly content and wanted to be nowhere else. Why do we do these things? Well… we knew perfectly well why we do these silly things……to feel alive again.
Let’s wind back the clock a few years. Like so many, this little adventure of ours had been building up over a lifetime whether we knew it or not. As boys, Dan, Dave and myself grew up getting our hands grubby, so to speak, whenever we could. From backyard antics and mud pits to ‘getting lost’ out bush as often as we could, we were discovering ourselves and the world outside our windows. In hindsight, it defined who we are and gave us a deeper connection to life.
Bugger me daze if life didn’t get too busy and complicated for us all. We dabbled in the occasional wilderness trip, but the time spent in nature and our connection with it dwindled accordingly. All so subtly, Western lifestyle took over. Furthermore, Dave and I were both going through some challenging times (illness and divorce) and our lives, while still meaningful, just wasn’t as fulfilling as it once was. Our souls weren’t content. Sure, we were living and generally happy, but something was missing.
It soon dawned on us that we had lost that strong connection to nature. We simply hadn’t made time for it – pre-occupying ourselves with what we believed was more important. The rat race had taken hold. Life was going through the motions. As Bob Brown so eloquently says ‘The very fact that we go about our daily lives untroubled by our inability to know or understand what we are doing here, where we are from, or where we are going, is a tribute to the evolution of a very capable denial mechanism in our brains’. Dave and I were asking ourselves these very questions. We realised that it was exactly at this time we needed that meaningful connection the most…..not the least.
Enough was enough. Time to get back to the simple things, time for our souls, time for ourselves to feel whole again. It seemed fitting that, as we were neared forty and with our health changing for the better, it was the right time to reinvent ourselves. What better way than to get back to our childlike passion, what inspires us – immersing ourselves in wilderness on white water kayaking expeditions?
We drew inspiration by the late Olegas Truchanas and Peter Dombrovskis, two of Tasmania’s major conservation heroes. Until this day, these world renowned photographers continue to inspire so many people to embark on wilderness journeys into the wilds of South West Tasmania. Once again, they inspired us. We remembered one of Peter Dombrovskis’s quotes below…
We also figured a bold rejuvenation deserves a bold plan. We decided to explore where no-one else has explored much before. Somewhere that captures the essence of wilderness. Somewhere where we have always dreamt of going. The Gordon River in South West Tasmania. It is steeped with remarkable beauty, high class rapids and a forbidding landscape. Not only is it a jewel in Tasmania’s South West but it also features the rarely visited and treacherous ‘Gordon Splits’, a geological phenomenon. Perfect.
After a year or so of planning, butterflies circled in our stomachs as we stood just below the controversial Gordon Dam at Strathgordon. As much as we had some ‘knowns’ of the trip, one of the exciting things about any expedition is the great unknown. As much as we’ve chosen the adventure, we are all too acutely aware that the adventure chose us. There is also a slight fear associated with this unknown. Fear of the unknown is so deep in everyone’s psyche. Now this is the time where we take that step.
The weather gods threw a spanner in the works with a local thunderstorm, snow and gale force winds. That’s October in South West ‘Transylvania’ Tasmania for you. This was the only time we musketeers could do this rare trip, as Hydro Tasmania shut down the power station for maintenance, resulting in no water being released through the treacherous Splits below. This section is normally very high grade with dangerous rapids and near impossible to portage. This is where our childhood hero Olegas Truchanas tragically drowned back in the Seventies, something we were acutely aware of. This adventure is indeed a tribute to both he and Dombrovskis.
After a small abseil to access the river, we were off like ducks to water. Straight away, in between the torrential rain, we were blessed with an awe-inspiring river gorge that left us speechless. Paddling across this first pool of water to where the Albert rapids approached, all we saw was a large mass of rock. Dave named it the ‘Devils Marbles.’ We were fully aware that these boulder fields would be our nemesis and they didn’t disappoint. A lot of the first day was spent carefully dragging our fully laden kayaks over these slippery, large rocks.
The picturesque Serpentine river soon cascaded in from the left hand side, adding slightly more h20 and further fuelling our desire. This added water then flowed into the boulder field from hell. House sized rocks, glazed with water, packed in like sardines from one side of the gorge to the next. Quite a doozie. Each boulder quite skilfully deft with deep potholes in between awaiting for any momentary slip up. Needless to say, it kept us honest ensuring slow and steady progress. Still, even amongst the blood, sweat and tears, we were constantly beside ourselves, in awe of the beautiful surrounds as we passed through the first of four splits. We had to keep pinching ourselves.
As mentioned before, the Splits are a geological phenomenon. Six hundred million years ago, the powerful waters of the Gordon River wore a deep slot through a rugged ridge of quartzite. In contrast to most rivers, the Gordon runs across the grain of the countryside instead of following it. The result is rare and spectacular indeed. After enough slippery boulders, we found a stony beach to call home for the night.
The rain gods certainly did their thing overnight, well and truly giving the tarp a run for its money. More pressing was the water from below! Our trusty sleeping hammocks, perched above a narrow little rocky beach, hung precariously above the rising water. We lay there with that um….sinking feeling, reluctant to turn on torches and check how much clearance we had. Dan was the first to cave in. ‘Looks like we may be night paddling boys.’
That sent a shudder through our bodies. Dan, always the joker, was overstating the situation but it certainly was rising and only half a metre or so from our cosy abode. Our beds ended up no more than thirty centimetres above the Gordon’s grasp. Standing on our now tiny beach, devouring a hearty porridge, we all had a good chuckle about what could’ve been.
The paddle started with some nice Grade Two rapids, obviously more alive from last night’s deluge. It wasn’t long before we were rock hopping again. Our daily dilemma, amongst others, was whether we manhandle kayaks fully laden (~40kg) or ferry the cargo separately? Often the former won out, requiring two people to lift the heavy boat over each small ‘Ayers Rock’ in our path.
The heavens were still angry as snow fell on surrounding peaks. We could only laugh at the thought of finding ourselves in such a cold place at the end of winter. Thank god for dry suits! Ooops, spoke too soon. Our new dry suits – designed to keep us warm, dry and sealed from the elements – developed holes. The seal broke around the buttocks of all places. Big bummer to say the least; pardon the pun. While it did start some corny banter, we were now getting quite cold every day which took a lot more management. Time to get warm with pita bread, tuna & sun dried tomatoes. Dave all of a sudden was as white as a sheep as he was fossicking through his kayak. With a muttering stutter, he informed us that he has to go back to last night’s camp. ‘Cripes Dave, what for?’ I remarked. ‘I’ve stupidly left my camera gear behind’. Before we knew it, he was off paddling upstream on his mission, still clearly in disbelief of his oversight. A couple of hours later, he returned and the three musketeers were whole again.
There were small respites in the weather, but steady rain fell most of the time. I had a small slip and lost my kayak on one boulder but thankfully no damage was done. It took dogged concentration to carefully haul our kayaks over these large rocks, but the rewards were worth it. The rain provided us with many beautiful waterfalls cascading into this marvellous third Gordon Split and the scenery was something to behold. These once impassable gorges are a central part of one of the last remaining temperate wildernesses on earth, boasting some of the densest and most inhospitable rainforest in the world.
Such a wilderness hasn’t gone unnoticed by the government. As long ago as 1916, the potential use of these rivers for hydroelectric power had been noted. It was on October 24 in 1963 when The Mercury (Hobart) was headed with ‘Opening up the South-West’. It reported “…the Commonwealth Government will bear the cost of constructing an access road from Southern Tasmania towards the remote and hitherto almost inaccessible South-West. The primary purpose of the grant was to assist in the development of the vast hydroelectric resources known to exist in the Gordon River area.” Many wilderness faithfuls could not believe that such a magnificent place might be destroyed at the hands of humans and despite fierce opposition, construction commenced in 1964.
In the years to follow, the rising waters of the Gordon Dam swallowed some of the South West’s hidden treasures including the heavenly sublime and picturesque Lake Pedder just upstream. This invasion into South West Tasmania stirred up much protest and laid the foundations for the creation of The Wilderness Society. Truchanas and Dombrovskis played a pivotal role in supporting this and the subsequent Franklin River campaign by supplying the visual ammunition required to capture the beauty of it for the rest of the nation. Truchanas was famous for hosting wilderness slide shows in Hobart that vividly awoke public awareness and appreciation for the mountainous grandeur they never knew existed. Dombrovskis, carrying on from Truchanas’s footsteps, further inspired public interest by capturing the essence of the South West in his majestic photos, in particular his iconic picture of Rock Island Bend on the Franklin (second picture above)
Momentary sunlight had by now waved goodbye and right on cue, torrential rain reminded us of our holey dry suits. We were still amongst a huge boulder field with no campsite in sight. With daylight gone and torches on, we pushed on through a steep sided boulder field. Battle weary, we devoured a block of chocolate closely huddled together. “It doesn’t get much tougher than this” Dan said with a wry grin. We all had a chuckle. One of those silly chuckles you sometimes have when you’re in slight disbelief of your predicament, albeit still smiling. Very humbling. Finally we lucked a bank of sorts on river left. It would be home sweet home for the night.
The morning paddle, while wet and cold was some of the best geology thus far. This very old rock has been extensively deformed by massive pressures into great waves and folds that formed these mountain ranges, albeit with millions of years of erosion. This erosion and the glaciations enhanced the contrast between the craggy ranges and the river valleys that we see here today. Early piners could not penetrate these gorges because of their precipitous walls (more than 250 metres in places) and a series of steep cascades.
Rapids! Armed with defensive and cautious paddling, our kayaks had us bouncing through many boulder rapids, occasionally scouting and portaging around some chutes that were choked with ugly logs or a boulder sieve. Rocks were popping up everywhere, like meerkats on the savannah. The added water flow was giving us a treat. Always mindful of our remoteness and heavy laden boats, we bumbled our way through the grade two and three rapids unscathed, relieved that the water wasn’t too high or pushy for our liking. Rivers here in the South West can rise several metres in a matter of hours and can reach flood levels of near biblical proportions.
Flanking both sides high up on the bank were the unmistakable Huon Pines. Described in glowing terms by the Sticht party in 1928, these impressive specimens lay claim to being the oldest living trees in Australia and one of the oldest living organisms on earth. Fossil records from a tree in this region were dated at 3,462 years old. Huon Pine is the pride of Tasmania and is well known for being the best boat building timber in the world as it doesn’t seem to rot. It contains oil which makes it virtually indestructible. They are timeless and primeval. One can sure appreciate Truchanas’s and Dombrovskis’s enchantment with this trees and region, and their enthusiasm for its preservation.
Not only were fun rapids a welcome joy, but the sun also warmed our soul through the clouds. Glorious. Days like these were the making of us. As we paddled along in late afternoon, we were alone with our thoughts but together on the river. Our little brotherhood of purpose. The last couple of days had a fair old sting in the tail, so when Dave spotted a luxurious beach campsite, none of us needed a second thought. Before we knew it, we were lounging on the beach, sipping on a stash of Port, rather content in our surrounds.
It was a night we will never forget. Another famous quote from Peter Dombrovskis came to mind; ‘It is a wild land (Tasmania) and I think that there is a certain wildness, a certain wild element in man’s nature that is essential to the humanness of man. If man becomes contained, too docile, programmed, then he becomes less human. And this wildness in the wilderness allows the wildness in man an expression’. As we relaxed and chatted at the river’s edge watching the calming flow, we half suspected to see Dombrovskis and Truchanas floating along in their self-designed kayaks. These aluminium framed canvas kayaks were a clever design which enabled them to dismantle at will for transportation or portaging. A far cry from our ‘plastic fantastic’ kayaks.
In the morning we spotted animal footprints in the sand. We hadn’t seen much wildlife thus far. They were almost as elusive as the Tasmanian Thylacine itself, of which the last known died sadly in 1936, imprisoned in a wire cage. Always in the back of our minds, like I’m sure of many wilderness adventurers of this area, we hoped to glance a chance spotting of this presumed extinct critter and rejoice in its survival.
After our first good night’s sleep, aided no doubt by the Port, we were excited about the Second Gordon Split around the corner. Both the first and second Splits are renowned as being the most spectacular. With our schoolboy grins working their charm, we set off. A smorgasbord of grade three rapids tantalised us, some of which requiring the obligatory portage due to unrunnable lines or being choked with fallen timber. Flood debris metres above the present water level informed us of the rivers many turbulent moods. We paddled ever so wary of what we were faced with and further wary of where the river may suddenly suck us. We dropped through the many boulder garden rapids, paddling their rocky chutes. Our senses eagerly absorbed our surrounds and we became attuned to rock and rapid.
A trickier grade 3 rapid appeared on our agenda. While innocent enough, it had an undercut rock that a lot of the water was flowing under. A paddler’s nightmare. There is no rule saying that you have to paddle each rapid. Every day each paddler decides which rapids to run depending on factors like water level, dangerous hazards, remoteness and confidence to name but a few. Being honest to himself, Dan decided this rapid was not on his radar today. Dave and I paddled it successfully, albeit Dave did with a slight murmur above the undercut. No damage done. This wilderness kayaking has a way of keeping you honest and humble.
We now found ourselves in the second Gordon Split. So be-stilling. Anyone who has seen the majestic photos of these Splits from both Truchanas and Dombrovskis are spellbound. “You cannot call them gorges. The term is not appropriate. This term ‘splits’ conveys the best idea of them,” was how Sticht described them in 1928. His party of three piners were the first modern day explorers to visit the (first) Splits, describing it in the vain of a holy grail. He believed that it would become the premier tourist attraction in Tasmania, such is the regard he had for this special place.
With another portage under our belt, we exited this unforgettable Split – sad to leave but excited for the next Split waiting around the next bend. As we rounded a left bend in the river, there it lay, in all its glory. The first Split was the narrowest of them all, just a few metres wide in some parts. It was a mass of boulders, old wise and patient, lying at the foot of bold vertical cliffs. There was a stunned silence between us all. One of those silence’s that is deafening and louder than words. We felt a strong kindred spirit to Sticht, Truchanas and Dombrovskis as we gazed in wonder. This was the pinnacle of two years of planning. We had to get our minds back on the job, as the boulders had us testing our climbing skills once more. After many a precarious potholing exercises, we came to the crux of the first Split. So beautiful, but scary.
The walls on both sides were vertical with no chance of portage and the path ahead didn’t look too appetising. A gnarly grade three rapid lay between us & freedom. The problem was, the only get in point was a swirly pool on the wrong side of the rapid. From there, we had to ferry glide above an undercut rock to a blind eddy that hopefully provides a smooth run out of the rapid. The eddy was blind because we couldn’t see what’s actually in the Eddy and also what’s below it. The most chilling factor was the first boat would have no idea, no feedback and ultimately – no safety. There was no other choice. We had to get to that eddy and hope it was a clear line from there. It’s these moments when you learn just a bit more about yourself.
First things first. That get in point involved a 4m abseil so we rigged up a quick line and got the ball rolling. Dan abseiled down first. He likes being first. We then both watched him precariously trying to enter his boat in that deep, swirling pool. We all knew that falling in would expose us to the undercut rock. For just a few moments, I re-checked the abseil anchors and upon my return – I was a gasp not to see Dave anywhere.
‘Dan! Where’s Dave?’ I hollered. ‘Dave and I spoke and we agreed to let him paddle to the eddy just past the undercut rock’ he replied. While somewhat relieved, I immediately had a knot in my stomach. I didn’t agree with it. I didn’t agree with it at all. The eddy was blindsided from us. We had no way of knowing whether Dave is safe or not. I preferred that he wait until we were ready to back him up. I immediately wondered how I would explain to his wife and kids that I wasn’t there to watch and rescue him.
With a slightly heightened sense of urgency, Dan abseiled down next.
‘S***’ he hollered, almost falling into the rapid trying to enter into his boat. I quickly abseiled down to hold his boat as best I could. With Dan safely secured in his kayak and a quick last minute agreement on the line, I pushed him off. I don’t know who was more nervous sometimes, the kayaker or those watching. He made it. Of course he would. He came to rest on the edge of the eddy and shouted,
‘I can see Dave – he’s safe!’ You can imagine the relief. Yet – it’s now my turn to follow suit. After pulling through the abseil and somehow entering my cockpit without falling in, I envisioned my line and went for it. I stonked it – making the eddy too. I saw both the boys just below me beyond a chute, grinning from ear to ear. My grin helplessly followed suit as I floated through. We were there. We had it!
We glanced at each other and enjoyed one of those silly chuckle moments that you can’t put words to and will never forget. That moment, like others, didn’t need words. In that sound of nothing, there was something. Something deafening and tangible. The whole world stood still for an instant. Our eyes met again and once again Dan’s catch cry rang out. ‘I don’t know why we do these things!’. His affectionate sarcasm was buoyed with emotion. It was one of those moments where our hearts and souls agreed; we hadn’t lived many a better day. The euphoria of this moment matched the incredible scenery.
Reflecting now with the expedition safely tucked away and our connection to nature faithfully restored, our lives once again felt more fulfilled. We now have a clearer understanding of our lives and a better connection to both family & friends. We are feeling whole again. We have re-discovered our passion.
On this occasion, that passion was immersing ourselves in our treasured wilderness on a demanding adventure. But we also realise that, that same passion can be evoked by simply jumping the backyard fence and kicking the football with your mates or simply taking a stroll in the woods. It can be as simple as that. For all of us.
Everyone can reignite their passion that is ‘lifted from the earth itself by our own muddy hands as it travels along grass-stained sleeves to our heart. If we are going to save the environment, then we must also save an endangered indicator species: ourselves and our connection to nature.” (Richard Louv)