Video Edit by Geoff Macqueen
Richard Pearson and Geoff MacQueen embarked on a trip down the Franklin River in January 2017, Geoff has prepared a video diary trip report above and Richard a written trip report below. Thanks for the reports.
FRANKLIN RIVER KAYAKING TRIP 28th JAN – 1st FEB 2017
I experience a combination of excitement and anxiety whenever I prepare to explore a new river. The Franklin River is considered one of the most isolated rivers in the world and has a fearsome reputation. It has taken many lives, most notably during the campaign to prevent the river being dammed. While it is rafted commercially on ten to twelve day trips which negotiate or bypass its more treacherous hazards, it is a trip not to be taken lightly. I was glad Dan Hall, who knew the river well, would lead the team.
We would carry Eperbs for emergency rescue, for once on the river there are only two possible exit points to walk out, neither on a well marked trail. Such hikes would be expected to take more than a single day just to reach a road. I didn’t want to contemplate the possibility as we were not set up for such hiking.
A three hour journey by day became a four hour journey through the night. Kangaroos, wallabies, possums and wombats were everywhere in the highlands. Arriving about eleven, we found a small bush track and drove down it till we reached a suitable spot to camp and sleep. I was up by six. By eight, I had finally organised my things enough for the expedition to begin.
We met our companions from Hobart for breakfast at The Hungry Wombat at 8.30. There was a gentle buzz of anticipation and touch of trepidation about the coming adventure. Dan, the leader and organiser of the trip was supported by Vicky Bonwick. She had been a rafting guide some years before and had also kayaked the river. The rest of the team consisted of Mel Kruger, Paul Black and his sixteen year old son, Kieran, Dean Vincent and his thirteen year old son, Louis, all from Hobart. Geoff MacQueen and I made up the northern Tasmanian contingent.
We transferred kayaks so we could reduce the number of cars travelling from three to two, and then drove these to the get in point where the Lyell Highway crosses the Collinwood River. Two taxi drivers took the cars on to Strahan to be ready for us at the end of the trip.
The water level was a little low. A water level of 1.85 to 1.90 metres on the bridge gauge is considered optimal. At just 1.69 metres travelling was initially pretty grungy, the bottom of the boat frequently grinding on rocks below the surface. It started off hot, and though I wore just a light merino top and long johns, I was steamy in my drysuit. But the good weather didn’t last.
Soon we faced squalls and drizzling rain, and as we descended the Collingwood grade 1 rapids were replace by grade 2 rapids, so we began to get wet. The river was lively enough to ensure we faced a good dowsing. Cold water so close to the chest created a chill, and for the rest of the day I wished I had been wearing a greater barrier. It provided a good opportunity too to get used to handling a loaded boat in relative safety.
Sticks and Stones, as it is known, is a stretch of the lower Collingwood River. Stones there certainly were but instead of sticks there were logs, perhaps the greatest hazards
on the river. In the first day we pulled the boats over some logs, ducked under one before a drop, and did limbo under another that laid across the stream.
We lunched at the junction with the Franklin River, sitting on the logs at the top of a stony bar. Kindly the sun reappeared and warmed us. After lunch we paddled upstream along the narrow Indaba Passage on the Franklin. The shallowness of the river was a little rough on the paddles, so we didn’t go far.
Now we set off down the tannin stained waters of the Franklin, which was truly the colour of tea (without milk). It seemed our adventure had really begun. We headed down stream through Gordian Gate, descended through Boulder Brace and Flanagan’s Surprise, and swept through Aesthesia ravine passing Angle Rain Cavern and the Log Jam. Further down past Cranny Nook and Vera Gorge was the descent of Nasty Notch, and then Descension Gorge, before we arrived at the amazingly beautiful and peaceful Irenabyss gorge.
Soon after, as we approached our planned camping spot below a track to the 1443 metre Frenchman’s Cap, we discovered we were not alone. We could hear cries of laughter before we rounded the last bend. A group of city slickers and ex-school mates from Melbourne were on a rafting trip and enjoying a beer! They had demanded of their adventure guides a carton and a half of beer and a bottle of whisky each for the trip. This required an extra raft and guide to transport it!
We camped, spread out in the rain forest on the opposite bank. Less spacious than on the left bank and without the outcrop of rock from which one could enjoy the view, the right bank still fitted us comfortably. We dragged the boats up high into the forest and unloaded them, and then strung up the tarpaulin, washed, cooked tea, and were in our sleeping bags soon after.
Our thoughts had been to cross the river and climb the mountain, but despite the clear weather our enthusiasm for this side trip had withered away. We were tired and had we chosen to hike, it would have been two or three in the morning before we retuned to sleep. It seemed rather too much. We knew we had big days ahead. I, for one, needed a rest. Even the climb to a lookout on our side of the river was forgotten. We’ll climb the mountain on another occasion.
Once the sun went down it became quickly cold. Now we discovered the borrowed tarpaulin was worn thin, holey in some places and repaired in others. Fortunately it was a dry night except for heavy dew, and even this dripped onto my face. I met my first and only land based mammal for the entire trip, a quoll. It seemed to enjoy exploring our camp. Having one, even of smaller size, wandering close to one’s head in the night while cocooned in the sleeping bag was mildly disconcerting.
In the morning, I discovered that mastering the use of poo tubes was a skill. It required good bag placement, a careful aim, wrapping it up without adding air (double bagging at least for security), fashioning the shape to fit down the PVC piping, and posting it. Next time I will use a larger pipe, 10cm diameter not 9cm. It would be easier and the larger volume would ensure adequate space for the trip. It was hard to know in advance how many centimetres of pipe one would need each day.
Day two brought the best weather, and the trip became increasingly exciting. We faced many log obstacles and the rapids became more challenging with several at grade 3 level.
Dan would generally advise of the dangers and describe the best approach and route in advance. So long as the run was short and the noise of the river not too great all worked fine. Otherwise on some occasions as with “Chinese whispers” the route taken by the last was radically different to the first, with each subsequent person copying the previous paddler’s mistakes or variations. Often however, a paddle held high at the bottom of the rapid would guide us to the best line on the last drop.
We passed the point where Richard Flanagan was fished out by a passing helicopter after he became trapped in his kayak in a sieve during the Franklin Dam protests. We descended a range of rapids with descriptive names like Hind-Leg Slide, Duck Chute, Rafter’s Race, Debacle Bend and Side Slip. And we passed notable land features such as Tea Tree Point, Jasperite Spurs, The Crankle and beautiful Blushrock Falls. We enjoyed a clear view of Frenchman’s Cap before the Bend of the Martins.
In these first two days the teenagers fought vigorously to follow close behind Dan. Dean kept advising Louis to pace himself, pointing out that it was a 6 day trip. By late in the second he had begun to flag on the flatter sections. I hung behind to keep him company. By now Dean was telling him to concentrate, for he seemed indeed to occasionally loose his attentiveness, and one can’t afford a loss of concentration. A couple of capsizes helped to restore his focus. It fact he did exceedingly well, showing remarkable stamina and demonstrating great skill for someone of his age. Kieran likewise proved to be an exceptionally competent paddler.
I had my own challenges. A right radial palsy was becoming increasingly intense. I struggled to cock my wrist back and releasing my grip on the paddle was difficult. A sizable triangle of numbness appeared above my thumb. There was soreness too. I had bruised right shoulder and sustained a traumatic bursitis of my right elbow the previous week when mountain bike riding in the rainforest. After a series of mishaps, gear disintegration, a broken chain and a puncture we had found ourselves cycling in the dark without lights. I guess mishap was inevitable, and I had gone over the handle bars in a stream crossing. The vigorous working of the wrists on the paddle resulted in carpel tunnel syndrome in both wrists and this disturbed my sleep. Fortunately my ankle, broken last year water skiing and persistently troublesome, was handling the landings and portages surprisingly well. Yet sitting in a boat for 6 hours a day made it decidedly uncomfortable. It was good that the many rapids diverted my attention from the ailments. Struggling for survival is a powerful analgesic.
We finished the day with a portage around a vicious descent called The Churn. It has taken a number of lives. Here the water surged down the left side of the river, the right being blocked by huge boulders that had fallen from the cliffs. It looked vicious. In addition a narrow but powerful flow swept between the rocks on the right of the river.
After waiting in an eddy on the left side of the river, one at a time we ferry-glided just below the last drop over to the right bank. There, with great care, we climbed out onto what appeared to be cliff keeping hold of our boats. It appeared a serious challenge,
but with a little help me managed well enough, attaching a line to the bows and walking then downstream. Working as a team we dragged them up and over the steep bank and transported them along the face before putting them back in below the point of danger. We helped one another get back into them to shoot the last drop. This 2 metre waterfall, needed to be boofed on the left, as below on the right was a hidden rock. Jubilant cries of exultation confirmed the thrill.
We paddled down Serenity Sounds and set up camp in a gorgeous strip of forest backed by a cliff on the left bank. The girls camped alone on the other side of a stream but joined us to cook and eat. It was good to start enjoying their company and to get to know the others a little better too. We faced a damp night and the tarpaulin was tested. I was relieved not to be soaked. Breakfast and ablutions were soggy affairs.
The third day began with another portage. It was fairly simple to skirt the rapids by carrying the loaded boats through the forest. It was a pity that the water level was too low to render the upper portions of the Coruscades safe. It is reputedly one of the most exciting rapids on the river, but at low levels dangerous sieves appear, and these can suck you down and trap you.
This day we travelled through The Great Ravine, a spectacular calcite gorge with multiple drops, some of which required portages. It was truly a most exhilarating journey through some spectacular scenery. We were fortunate that the river level was low enough to provide fairly safe passage.
Lower in The Coruscades, we rejoined the river to shoot the aptly named drop The Forceit, best ridden high on the left as it swept past the rock. From there we proceeded along Trancendence Reach, past Livingston Cut to tackle Side Winder. Further along, we had to portage past Thunder Rush and the upper portion of The Cauldron. Their names perhaps evoke images of their extreme vigour and treacherous nature.
Above Thunder Rush, the boats were ferried across on tow lines from the left of the river to the right bank. Dan and the two girls manhandled them over the first few mighty rocks. The rest of us scaled the cliff on the right bank with the help of a rope, carrying our paddles. We found a good vantage point to watch the progress with the boat and then scaled the rest of the climb before descending to other side of the rapid. There we waited for the boats to be floated down to us. Of course not all arrived, and I had to swim across the river and work my way upstream along the bank, sometimes wading, occasionally swimming, and in places creeping on all fours along huge slippery logs or shuffling my buttocks along them legs astride. Perhaps a hundred or so metres upstream, I was able to reach the first snagged boat and set it free. Down stream, others swam out on lines to catch and drag in the drifting craft. Another boat towards the left bank, half sunk, made slow circular excursions in an eddy.
Above the Cauldron we pulled into the left back and then carried our boats over the slipper rocks to a ledge over a metre above the current. Rock blocked the flow on the right driving a powerful current down the left. This descended into a treacherous turbulence, a boiling dog leg that swept to the right against rocks below. A journey through would be to chance one’s life.
We seal launched from the ledge, plunging into the accelerating aerated flow. I feared that anyone who capsized might be swept downstream before being able to recover and ferry-glide across to the right bank. Fortunately, we all reached the right bank without mishap and climbed out onto the rocks. We dragged our boats over the rock and entered the lower part of the rapid without incident.
The river features had offer excitement and challenge, but it was the portages the raised the greatest anxiety. Such manoeuvres seemed to provide the greatest risk of injury. Where portages were chosen it was with good reason. Logs, undercuts and sieves have taken many lives.
The Great Ravine had offered no escape. When water levels are high people may have to wait for days to gain a safe passage. To my relief we had made it through to the security of Deliverance Reach and soon passed the Outer Gate without harm. We had been fortunate indeed.
The boys who had clearly expected our journey to be as dramatic as the most extreme you tube videos may have been disappointed. The adults were elated. The experience had been quite awesome. The boys thought it “okay”. In reality, they did seem to be enjoying themselves. But even my sense of achievement was tinged with disappointment. I suspected that the excitement was over. It was not.
At first, we enjoyed flat stretches between rapids, none of which were a challenge. We passed the Biscuit and interesting feature of wall like ridges descending from the hillside, and later had excitement on Trojans. We watched Dan in easy style negotiate his way through Ol Three Tears, but, despite the elegance of his performance, we all decided to carry our boats past the rapid. Below Ganymede’s Pool, we saw our way first through The Trojans, then ABC, and finally Pig Trough rapids to reach Rock Island Bend. The iconic view, so often reproduced during and after the Franklin Dam protests, was every bit as beautiful and as dramatic as pictures in the books and posters. To the right of the river, an impressive fall was well worth exploring, and we climbed up through a lovely gully to see it.
A little past Rock Island, the day’s journey reached its climax. The descent of the Newlands Cascade was a real thrill putting us on a high. It is an exciting 200 metre long stretch of rapids filled with obstacles. Below this we pulled into the right bank and dragged our boat up under a prominent overhang of Proina Cave. There were plenty of hollows for a dry sleep but many had such a slope that during the night one slipped ever further into the depths. In consequence the headroom shrank and in the dark it would have been easy to crack the skull if one sat up.
Before bed we ate, and before we ate, we swam. Actually like a bunch of kids we ran from the edge of the rock ledge and leapt into the river, some waving arms and legs about, others performing “horseys” and “bombs”. The water was so cold it made one gasp. The swim to the bank strained the breath, but despite this most jumped at least one more time.
The clouds had been gathering all day and we had faced a number of vigorous showers. They had been enough to raise the water level, and we watched it creep up a
midstream rock. Dry in our shelter, we now had the spectacle of a downpour of more intense rain. By morning the river had risen a further 30 centimetres or more.
We began the fourth day in leisurely fashion, sleeping in till seven and then enjoying a long breakfast of porridge and fruit, followed by pancakes and maple syrup and then toasted muffins. Newlands Cascade was now a pumping grade 4, and four of us carried our boats back up to the top and then paddled down a second time. It was an invigorating run, with many exciting routes and opportunities. At one point, I had intended to go straight over a big rock and boof off the top. Unfortunately, the current got the better of me and I slipped off the left side, and soon I was upside down. I had to roll in the raging torrent, but all was well.
After a lunch time conference, it was decided that four of us would take advantage of the increased flows and complete the last 60km of the trip in just two days instead of the planned three. The two father and son teams together with Vicky would persist with the original plan. We would stay together until we reached their night camp.
We enjoyed a few nice rapids on the way but increasingly, as the river widened in the transition first to limestone gorges and then to more open terrain, we faced shallow shingly drops. Even in these lower reaches the heights of previous floods was astounding with debris seen in places ten or twelve metres up in some trees.
The scenery was gorgeous with abundant limestone sculptures often highlighted with dancing net-like patterns cast as upon them as the sun reflected from river ripples. Artistic displays of sticks collected in many of the crevices. And there were caves and a number of stalactites.
We passed Payaleena Cave, and then six or more metres up a limestone face giving a commanding view of the river was The Royal Box, and after Little Fall, came the Cromleigh Cliffs. Waterfalls added to the scenery throughout the trip, but now instead of cascading down gullies they were seen on occasions to pore out through the cliff faces directly into the river. Gutta Grotto and Lancet Falls, just past the hairpin of Blackman’s Bend were particularly impressive.
Not much further down stream, we reached Kuti Kina Cave. Pulling in on the left bank, we took a fifteen minute detour to walk up a gully to visit it. The cave was used by the aboriginals at the time of the last ice age. This finding had been another factor in building anger for the proposed Franklin Dam, for the aboriginal people would have lost an important part of their heritage
The feel of the river had changed. In the forest man-ferns became more evident and there were no massive Huon pines, these being logged out half a century or more before. The fragrance of leatherwood in flower occasionally drifted upon you. The whitened trees stood out in the rich forest green. Epiphytes had established themselves everywhere on the older trees. A pair of sea eagles coasted over the water then rose above the trees to swing down again to feed. It was a wonderful sight.
At the beach camp we had team photos and said our goodbyes to the five. Despite the sense of achievement, I was sad to leave them. The four of us pressed on for a further
3 hours, exploring “The Lost World” on the way. This was a gorgeous little gully entered through a huge cave.
We portaged around Big Fall, which was congested with logs making shooting it too dangerous. We paddled on past Galleon Bluff, Pengana Cave, and then Verandah Cliffs. A little further on, on the verge of twilight, we joined the Gordon River at Pyramid Island. Our journey down the Franklin River was over.
The Gordon River was wide, perhaps 150 metres across where we entered it, widened further along its length. Surprisingly, there was sufficient flow high up to provide boils, swirls and eddies, with names like Franklin Eddy and The Big Eddy. A little before 9 pm, in the closing dark, we arrived at the beach by the Hut below St John’s Falls.
Initially we had thought that we would revitalise ourselves with dinner and then press on through the night to reach a beach camp a couple of hours further down stream. But we all felt exhausted and agreed that an hour more was all we would manage.
We feasted on chilli con tempura (soya) with quinoa, rice and pasta and all felt comfortable. When the big rains came soon after, we chose to stay at the hut, sleep well and rise early, for it would be a race to catch the boat to take us out.
We rose before dawn on the final day and ate well. We all had excess food supplies. I never thought that I would consider a long drop toilet a luxury, but so it seemed. We packed our boats and two were on the water well before 7. I never seem to move too fast first thing and was less organised. Dan and I departed half an hour later.
We worked hard to catch up, paddling past the great fortress of rock of Butler Island with vigour, but it was clear that alone I was too slow. Dan pulled ahead so I could ride on his wake and this worked well enough for ten minutes or so, but I was unable to maintain my station. A sore right shoulder, brought on more by repetitive use than violent trauma, made it impossible for to keep my paddle strokes vertical and strong. With more horizontal paddle my boat yawed. Dan let me paddle on alone, but a short while later caught me up. He was topless. We hooked my boat on to his, then paddled on again with vigour. Without a skerrick of fat on him, I watched his shoulder and back muscles ripple with every stroke as we struggled on together. We passed the Marble Cliffs and within the hour we had caught the others who had been paddling at a leisurely pace. They had just made it past the previously proposed campsite. We had covered a third of the distance to the boat landing.
The journey was amazingly beautiful. When we set off, the water was glassy with a rising thin mist. Trees on the banks were dripping with moisture and laden with tufts of old man’s beard. The hillsides were shrouded with the opacity of moisture. More dense clouds sat in the streamlines within the forest. In time the mist began to rise and the surrounding forest stood out, the up ended image reflected with exceptional clarity.
The sun began behind us and in time appeared on our right. Now in flat water, with the heat of the day rising, I took off my helmet and attached it to the boat. It was nice to paddle in the shadow of the hill, to listen to the birds, and smell the flowers on the
banks, but our course was largely between the river bends. We saw two platypuses and a number of pairs of ducks. Some pushed their way into the darkness of the banks; others took flight, sometimes returning overhead. Cormorants swam, barely their necks above the water, or in places hung their wings out to dry. One or two flew with surprising speed and grace. A sacred kingfisher, hidden on a branch among the green, intermittently flashed its vibrant blue, streaking orange as it dived repeatedly to fish. This was a special delight.
I needed all the distractions. My body was stiff and sore, and we were paddling energetically to avoid missing the boat to take us downstream to Strahan. There was no time for pictures, which was a pity. There could be few more soothing sights, and I would love to have lingered along the way.
As it turned out, we arrived at landing with plenty of time to spare. We all took a swim and changed into dry clothes. There was even time to take a self guided tour through the forest. A boardwalk and educational explanatory notices had been built to introduce visiting tourists to the magnificent variety of the forest.
On the journey down river on the commercial boat, we enjoyed a beer but faced an increasingly strong and chilly wind on deck. We chose to sit inside. Macquarie Harbour was awash with white caps. The Strahan township seemed somehow protected and we enjoyed a brief feed and coffee in the outside area of a little cafe before embarking on the 5 hour drive home. Despite our aches, we all agreed we should make another trip before too long. In the meantime we have other adventures to plan.
by Richard Pearson