Take a wild ride down the Franklin River

Jump on­board for an un­for­get­table raft-borne jour­ney on Tas­ma­nia’s wild and un­tamed Franklin River, host to one of the world’s great­est multi-day pad­dling ad­ven­tures.

Australian Geographic - - Travel With Us - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Justin Walker

To tackle the Franklin River in­de­pen­dently – in a kayak, ca­noe or raft – you need to have plenty of white­wa­ter and river-run­ning ex­pe­ri­ence. But this doesn’t mean the less-ex­pe­ri­enced pad­dler needs to rel­e­gate it to their as­pi­ra­tion-only list.

Guided raft­ing trips down the river are avail­able, and range from seven to nine days, mak­ing this iconic ad­ven­ture ac­ces­si­ble to any­one who is rea­son­ably fit and game.

The calm be­fore the storm

The Franklin River links the lofty heights of cen­tral Tas­ma­nia’s Cheyne Range to the Gor­don River, and is con­tained within the mas­sive 4463sq.km FranklinGor­don Wild Rivers Na­tional Park. In the early 1980s, as many Aus­tralians may re­call, the Franklin River was at risk of be­ing dammed and trans­formed for­ever (see “Wa­ter f ight”, page 111). But thanks to a lengthy and pas­sion­ate bat­tle waged by lo­cal cam­paign­ers to pre­serve this pris­tine wilder­ness, it’s still the wild and nat­u­ral force of na­ture that it’s al­ways been. Pad­dling down­river is the best way to un­der­stand why peo­ple fought so hard to save it.

Guided jour­neys start at Colling­wood Bridge, and you put your craft into the river of the same name. Once you’re on the wa­ter, there’s no way out un­til jour­ney’s end: there are no ac­cess points or roads along the river’s route. It’s the true re­mote wilder­ness ex­pe­ri­ence. When it’s at an av­er­age f low, the Colling­wood River is a tran­quil in­tro­duc­tion for pad­dlers; you f loat along for roughly an hour be­fore reach­ing the conf lu­ence of it and the Franklin. This seren­ity al­lows you and fel­low pad­dlers (and your guide) to ac­cli­ma­tise to your raft and other crew mem­bers.

It also gives you time to learn the es­sen­tial pad­dle strokes, as well as a few com­mands, of which “get down” is by far the most im­por­tant. This means to slide down deep into the body of the raft and hold on in prepa­ra­tion for up­com­ing rapids.

A mo­bile home

The rafts used on the Franklin are im­pres­sive and, in terms of how much gear they can carry, like the aquatic equiv­a­lent of an old Land Rover. Guides es­ti­mate that, at the start of the trip, the av­er­age raft weighs about 700kg when fully laden, with four pad­dlers, a guide, camp­ing gear, cloth­ing, food (in a large esky) and wa­ter. Most guided trips will run two rafts, and some­times an ac­com­pa­ny­ing kayaker to scout fur­ther ahead along the river.

De­spite car­ry­ing all the gear you need on­board, the raft has a sur­pris­ing amount of room in which to make your­self com­fort­able. Sit­ting on the tubu­lar sides of the craft is your de­fault pad­dling po­si­tion, while “get down”, as men­tioned, means just that: get­ting down low on the raft f loor when run­ning rapids. This re­duces your risk of top­pling over­board.

Most days you’ll be on the wa­ter for about six hours. That sounds like a long time, but you’re likely to be too en­tranced by the age­less land­scape around you to even no­tice. And don’t worry about drop­ping off to sleep. In­ter­mit­tent rapids will keep you alert.

I will al­ways trea­sure run­ning the Franklin. The 125km-long rough-and­tum­ble course – a mix of rugged rapids and tran­quil flat wa­ter flanked by sub­lime camp­sites and aeons-old gorges and caves – is both for­mi­da­ble and un­for­get­table.

Keep it clean

The Franklin River is lauded as a pris­tine wilder­ness, and raft­ing com­pa­nies work hard to make sure it stays that way. In­struc­tion on pad­dle strokes and raft­ing tech­nique is very im­por­tant, but ad­vice on camp­site hygiene is even more so.

All waste, in­clud­ing rub­bish, must be car­ried out with you. Re­mem­ber to en­sure your hands are cleaned be­fore and af­ter meals, be­cause there’s noth­ing worse than get­ting a gas­tro bug on a trip through re­mote coun­try. By ad­her­ing to a strict pro­to­col, the po­ten­tial for this is min­imised.

The im­pres­sive re­sult of all this at­ten­tion to hygiene de­tail – both in camp and on the river – is that you can dip your bot­tle in the Franklin as you f loat along, and drink the wa­ter with­out fear of in­fec­tion. Ac­cord­ing to one ex­pe­ri­enced Franklin raft guide, it’s es­ti­mated that, by drink­ing from the river it­self, the av­er­age pad­dler would re­place all the wa­ter in their body af­ter a week on the river, be­com­ing, in ef­fect, the Franklin.

On the side­lines

Be­sides the run­ning of rapids and f loat­ing through un­touched wilder­ness, one of the Franklin River’s other ma­jor at­trac­tions is its va­ri­ety of camp­sites. These start with An­gel Rain Cav­ern at the end of the first day. Here you sleep un­der a large over­hang while perched half­way up a cliff, with the muted roar of the river below as ac­com­pa­ni­ment. This is in stark con­trast to the wide sandy ex­panse of The Beach, and the rel­a­tively open camp at Cor­us­cades, the last big rapids be­fore pad­dlers en­ter the Great Ravine, where tow­er­ing cliffs squeeze the river to its nar­row­est point.

But it’s the south­ern end of the Great Ravine, at New­land Cas­cades – the long­est raftable rapids on the Franklin – where you ex­pe­ri­ence the pièce de ré­sis­tance of camp­sites. A vast rock plat­form sprawls along the river’s west­ern bank for hun­dreds of me­tres, al­low­ing you to choose your own site well away from any other cam­pers, while stay­ing well shel­tered, thanks to the equally huge over­hang above you. On the river­bank op­po­site is an im­pen­e­tra­ble wall of thick rain­for­est, high­light­ing the in­com­pa­ra­ble feel­ing of be­ing truly out in re­mote wilder­ness. The views from this lofty perch in­clude a 180-de­gree vista of the Franklin River, close enough to ex­pe­ri­ence the loud roar as the waters has­ten past. I slept on a large ledge here, which I noted in my diary as “the ul­ti­mate night out”.

Con­sid­er­ing how close to the river you’re camp­ing on most nights of the trip, it may seem sur­pris­ing how easy it is to sleep. Per­haps not, though, when you con­sider the sheer phys­i­cal ef­fort ex­pended to get there.

Rapid des­cents

In many ways, each day on the Franklin is sim­i­lar. Ev­ery morn­ing there are pre-raft­ing pro­ce­dures to fol­low – break­fast, packing rafts and don­ning wet­suits and PFDs (per­sonal f lota­tion de­vices). Then, of course, there’s pad­dling to the next camp­site, be­fore re­vers­ing the afore­men­tioned pro­ce­dures.

On the other hand, each day throws up dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, such as po­ten­tially lethal rapids. Some sec­tions are so dan­ger­ous you need to ‘portage’ them, which means lug­ging your raft/ca­noe/kayak around an ob­sta­cle in the river, in­stead of pad­dling. To do this you need to empty your craft be­fore the ob­sta­cle, carry all your gear around on the shore­line, and then reload the gear (and your­self ) at the near­est safe point af­ter the rapids.

On the Franklin there is a mix of portages, with some of the most mem­o­rable be­ing around The Churn, in the up­per Franklin, and the mon­ster portage at The Caul­dron. Here, you’ll wit­ness the sheer bloody-mind­ed­ness and in­ge­nu­ity of your guides, as two gear-laden rafts are inched through the pound­ing rapids and around a num­ber of huge boul­ders, be­fore freefalling over a rapid so high it could be more ac­cu­rately de­scribed as a wa­ter­fall. It’s in­cred­i­ble to watch from the bank as this portage pro­ce­dure gets un­der­way, be­cause the rafts and guides are dwarfed by the im­men­sity of the river.

The Caul­dron and New­land Cas­cades are among many of­ten omi­nously named rapids, such as Sidewinder, Thun­derush and Pig Trough, all con­tained within the nar­row con­fines of the Great Ravine. Their sheer power is off­set by the tran­quil­lity you ex­pe­ri­ence once you reach the Great Ravine’s most fa­mous land­mark: Rock Is­land Bend.

A thou­sand words

It was a pho­to­graph of Rock Is­land Bend taken by Peter Dom­brovskis and evoca­tively en­ti­tled Morn­ing Mist, Rock Is­land Bend that showed everyday Aus­tralians ex­actly what was at risk of be­ing lost if the Franklin River was tamed by a dam on the Gor­don. It de­liv­ered the blow the anti-dam cam­paign needed to suc­ceed (see “Wa­ter fight”, page 111). Run­ning the photo as a dou­ble-page, full-colour spread in The Age and The Syd­ney Morn­ing Her­ald news­pa­pers is said to have been one of the most inf lu­en­tial mo­ments in the Save the Franklin cam­paign. In the im­age, Rock Is­land is shrouded in mist while the Franklin’s waters swirl by, per­fectly cap­tur­ing the essence of a wild river.

On the other hand, each day throws up dif­fer­ent chal­lenges, such as po­ten­tially lethal rapids.

The end of days

Pad­dlers take a sense of be­ing ‘wild and free’ with them once they’re through the Great Ravine and back out into slightly more open coun­try. The river slows, the sec­tions with rapids be­come more widely spaced apart, and you have to pad­dle with a bit more pur­pose.

Rafts are de­signed to go over rapids, but not to be pad­dled over long dis­tances. So progress is slow, but no less re­ward­ing; you explore caves used by Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, spend your last night in the wild camped on a sandy beach­head on a river bend and explore a slot canyon aptly dubbed the Lost World be­fore you reach the conf lu­ence of the Franklin and Gor­don rivers. The Gor­don runs rel­a­tively fast and you’re soon at Sir John Falls, tra­di­tion­ally the last camp for rafters and the lo­ca­tion where a char­ter craft picks you up for the trip to the west coast town­ship of Stra­han and jour­ney’s end.

To pad­dle the Franklin is to explore one of the world’s last re­main­ing re­mote wilder­ness ar­eas. You’re un­likely ever to for­get it.

This is the last sec­tion of rel­a­tively open river coun­try, with calm waters, be­fore rafters need to start ne­go­ti­at­ing the many rapids and nar­row cliff walls of the Great Ravine.

Take time to pack your gear well. These brightly coloured wa­ter­craft are ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing all the equip­ment – and food – needed for a re­mote multi-day pad­dling ad­ven­ture.

Head­ing into the Lost World, a canyon carved into steep banks. In­side is a fairy­land of mossy walls and fallen tim­ber.A guide’s knowl­edge of each set of rapids, and how to move safely through them, is cru­cial to en­sur­ing a fun, safe trip.

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