Full stroke on the river
Chris Viney paddles the Gordon River on Tasmania’s west coast
Happy landings: Stop for a riverside picnic before heading back downstream
IAM slipping over a sheet of dark amber glass, gliding across a slab of polished bronze, flying through air along a ruler-straight horizon with identical cliffs and forests above and below. Everything is so dead flat, so utterly motionless that it can’t possibly be a liquid.
But as the wake curls silently away from the bow of my kayak, as drips from the paddle-blade pock the surface into widening ripples, I know I’m moving through water. I amon the buttongrass, tannin-stained Gordon River on Tasmania’s west coast.
Ahead is my paddling companion Brian Hall, an experienced outdoor adventurer and a veteran of the region; he’s guided dozens of rafting trips on the Franklin and Gordon. We’re on the river to reconnoitre locations for a new Pure Tasmania signature experience based in Strahan. The Gordon River Paddle is a one-day excursion, but our preliminary trip involves an overnight camp and a brief thrust into the lower reaches of the Franklin.
We start our journey in the same way as the Gordon River Paddle, with a voyage across Macquarie Harbour aboard the fast cruise boat Lady Jane Franklin II. At Heritage Landing, while other passengers explore ashore, we lower our sea kayaks to the water and paddle upstream. As soon as we round the first bend, the world drops away and we’re alone with the river, hearing only the dip and splash of our paddles and the clatter of currawongs in the trees.
In the late afternoon, clouds gather and the river takes the colour from the sky. On the silver-grey surface a soft rain turns the water into the hissing static of an off-station television screen. Ahead is a stretch of sand, where we pitch tents, cook a simple meal and sleep to the sound of a rainforest creek cascading over Sir John Falls.
Participants on the Gordon River Paddle stay on flat water but our second day involves heading further upriver and into the lower reaches of the Franklin. There are several short rapids to traverse; depending on electricity generation in the Gordon power station, they can be easy or impossible. We are able to paddle most of the rapids but one demands a short portage, wading around a rocky bend and dragging our boats through the tangle of riverbank vegetation.
The lower Franklin is intimate and friendly and we paddle as far as Verandah Cliffs, where the river closes in and jumbled rocks block our progress. We turn back and drift with the flow back into the Gordon.
It’s a bouncy ride down through the joggle of rapids that we’d portaged and paddled earlier. As we arrive at our camp, we’re surprised to see three new sea kayaks drawn up on the beach. They belong to a trio of women paddlers who have made the upstream trip from Heritage Landing that day. After introductions, we share mugs of wine from our bottle and their cask.
Chance encounters in the bush usually revolve around enthusiastic comparisons of favourite outdoor equipment and exaggerated accounts of past wilderness epics. Neither of these themes interests me much, although I’ve had my share of both. Now, with a new audience of like-minded gear-freaks, my companion morphs into River Guide Man and soon the talk is all of dry-bags, wet rescues and the power phase of a paddle stroke. I retreat to my tent with a mug of red and my copy of The Fatal Shore .
The second morning is still, silent and sunny. We break camp, pack up and launch our kayaks, aiming to meet Lady Jane for its afternoon cruise back to Strahan.
I have never paddled with an iPod before this trip. This morning it is the early sun that makes my eyes water, but back home, as I listen to K. D. Lang, they prickle at the memory of gliding down that wonderful river with her voice, a smoky cello, in my ears.
I match my paddling to the slow and measured cadence of the songs, although I feel reluctant to break the river’s perfect mirror. With my head full of music and my eyes full of reflections, I round the last bend at the end of Limekiln Reach. And there’s the cruise boat waiting at Heritage Landing to take us back to the real world.
The Gordon River Paddle is a full-day guided experience, operated by Pure Tasmania from Strahan. Departing on the morning sailing of Lady Jane Franklin II, the paddle begins with a safety briefing and gear check at Heritage Landing. Safe, stable double sea kayaks are used and specialised equipment is provided. After an hour and a half’s upstream paddling in flat-water conditions on the lower Gordon, there’s a riverside picnic lunch before an easy drift and paddle back downstream to meet the cruise boat for the return trip to Strahan. Daily from October 5 to April 5; $345 a person (minimum of two, maximum of eight people). More: www.puretasmania.com.au.