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.
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.
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.