Kayaking The Franklin Part 1: Prelude

I don’t think I ever really believed I would paddle the Franklin in the summer of 2014/2015. Sure, we talked about it, after our successful Snowy River trip. Sure, I bought the guidebook. But I just thought it was something nice I should have on the shelf. The logistics…the cost…the difficulty…the weather. Too much to think about.

The story of the place is practically a fairy tale – a ragtag bunch of hippies almost die “shooting the rapids” in inner tubes and homemade canoes, and are washed up on the banks of the Last Wild River, where they literally save the trees from the Big Corrupt Government and the Evil Bulldozers.

Or – a darker gothic tale if you prefer – eight desperate criminals escape from the British Empire’s remotest and most terrible prison. Lost and starving in the wilderness, they finally begin to kill and eat each other. Eventually, only two remain, eyeing each other from opposite sides of the campfire, not daring to sleep. Until finally one gives in to drowsiness, and closes his eyes…and the other raises his axe. Before his execution for murder and cannibalism, this sole survivor remarks “Man’s flesh is delicious. It tastes far better than fish or pork.”

That stuff just doesn’t happen any more, right? Port Arthur is staffed by hipster Hobartians with TAFE degrees in tourism. Bob Brown’s retired, Truchanas and Dombrovskis have sadly passed away, and the golden age of bushwalking and river exploration is long gone.

It’s just too big and too mythic. Like the whole south-west of that island.

South-West Tasmania

A few years ago, I did a bushwalk where we traversed the Western Arthur Range. We took 11 days, and it was an incredible experience. You wallow through the mud and the rain (and the snow, even in summer) at the end of the world until the “terrible beauty” gets to you. It really is wild down there. Proper wild. I wasn’t sure I was quite ready for that again. I probably needed another few years to digest it.

The Franklin River

What is special about the Franklin? It is the last major wild river in Tasmania. There has never been any permanent human settlement anywhere in the catchment. No farming or industry. Just some remnants from a few ambitious loggers and surveyors. One road – the Lyell Highway – bridges it high up in the catchment. The Mt McCall 4WD track reaches the rim of the river’s gorge, about 50km downstream. An walking route descends to the river down a spur of Frenchman’s Cap, itself a two-day walk from the highway. There are no other access points, every other track being long overgrown. Once you’ve reached the confluence with the Gordon River, 100km or so downstream from the highway, the only way to get back to civilization is continue down to the Gordon to its mouth at Macquarie Harbour (usually on a chartered yacht, seaplane, or on the tourist ferry the Lady Jane Franklin II ), then sail across the large harbour to the small fishing and tourist hamlet of Strahan.

And, of course, there are no dams anywhere on the river. This maybe doesn’t seem so remarkable, until you look through the rest of the Paddle Tasmania guide, and realize how many rivers on the island are controlled, and how few waterways escaped major damming and alteration. The Derwent. The Mersey. The Forth. The Esk. The King. The Pieman. The Gordon itself. And of course, the Huon and Serpentine, whose dams together form the Huon-Serpentine impoundment, which inundated Lake Pedder, the shining jewel and heart of the south west.

I almost regret doing a google image search for Lake Pedder. I think it might have been better not to know what it once looked like. Much was saved, but much was lost.

The Preparation

The core of our group was from the UNSW Outdoors Club and the Snowy River trip we did back in Easter 2014. Myself, James (aka Bulti), Jarrod, and Niels, with much of the equipment and experience carrying over. Niels provided the muscle in the form of a 1992 Land Rover Defender known as the Toad.

The Toad. No, I don't know why the sky is pink in this photo.
The Toad. No, I don’t know why the sky is pink in this photo.

We were joined by Bjorn, who brought with him lots of river experience, and valuable access to the Sydney Uni Canoe Club stores and institutional knowledge of the river from a previous trip. He drove Rosie, a battered, borrowed Subaru Forester.

Planning HQ was set up at the Royal Hotel, and the depot at Niels’ house in Randwick. Last-minute items were bought, boats adjusted and modified (including custom aluminium handles for the Tuna, and repairs to the Mystic), and the food dehydrater ran around the clock.

Also this sweet paddle box.
Also this sweet paddle box.

Training consisted of high-water runs on the Shoalhaven power lines section, the Red Rocks Gorge section of the Murrumbidgee, and endless laps of the Penrith Whitewater Stadium.

The Approach

Plenty of fun was had on the road as the guys journeyed south from Sydney, stopping at Mt Buffalo for a climb or two, then down to Melbourne for a wild New Year’s Eve party before catching the ferry first thing in the morning.

A friend of Bjorn’s graciously let them stay at his house in Launceston, where the final packing began. Back in Sydney, I fielded last-minute calls to bring vital items like forgotten jackets, milk powder, and pumpernickel on the plane. To keep weight down, I cut out dispensable items like bowls, mugs and a toothbrush, and broke my headlamp and cracked my nalgene bottle for good measure just to keep James and Bjorn on their toes (they had spares of both, because they’re winners)

Passengers boarding plane
The charm of flying budget domestic airlines.

Groggily I fell out of bed at 5:30 AM in the morning, on Saturday the 3rd of January 2015. I survived the holiday queues at the Jetstar Domestic Terminal, and landed in Launceston a mere twenty minutes late. Bjorn was waiting outside, and we drove out through the small towns of northern Tasmania, and up the Great Western Tiers, and through the highland lakes, and past the dolerite mountains of the ranges, and all of a sudden we’d gone over the bridge on the Collingwood, slammed on the brakes, turned around, gone back over the bridge, down the dirt road, and there we were at the river.

After a while Bjorn left to find the others (It turned out they were in Queenstown) and drive the shuttle. I settled in to wait, pulled out a book, and set up a camp chair and hammock. I figured it would take a while to sort out…

The Collingwood River

UNSWOC and SUCC were portmanteau-ed to UNSUCC, which is what we tried to do.

Packing the boats seemed to go quite smoothly actually, but when we finally put on the river, after all that, it was astonishingly 6 PM. Oh well, we had still had a few hours of light.

We floated down the dark and tree-lined river, sliding over logs and the odd drop. How great to be on the water at last. The rapids picked up a little, the clouds gathered, twilight deepened, and suddenly a burst of thunder rolled and rain began, and the Junction campsite seemed nowhere in sight.

Well, that got out of hand quickly. Welcome to Tasmania bitches! It was everything I’d expected. We staggered into the Junction campsite, and mercifully the rain paused while we set up camp.

I’d seen the front on the forecast, of course, and in an academic way it had looked like great timing to put water in the river. The others had been convinced of mostly fine weather, pointing to bureau forecasts of a mere 1 to 5mm. But the Bureau of Meteorology does not provide a miserableness index (you have to work that out yourself from the charts). Come one, it’s a cold front on the west coast of Tassie, of course it’ll rain. And it did end up a wet first night there in the rainforest, water splashing under the tarps into the small hours. The bowls seemed to have about 20mm of water in the morning.

I sure didn’t have the greatest sleep. But the morning, it turned out we had a big problem. James was sick. Really sick. He lay delirious and groaning on the cobbled beach. Something had to be done.

Though we had the option to walk out, we didn’t have anywhere to stay off the river, so in the end James’ choice was being sick by the river until he recovered or worsened, or being sick by the side of the highway in the back of the car until he recovered. And the junction was very pretty – quartzite crags scattered among the perfect v-shaped gorges, and the Franklin emerging from a small canyon, almost a miniature Ireneabyss. At least, we thought, we were still withing walking distance of the road, on a good track.

“Ever-varying flood my ass!” However, in a few hours where we were standing was practically underwater.

In the end, Bjorn and Niels walked out and drove to Queenstown, and called Strahan to delay our ferry pick-up by a day, to give us more time. Me and Jarrod minded the boats and camp, and watched the water levels at the beach rise. James continued to curl up in a semi-coma, getting up only at intervals to go and spray the rainforest plants with fertilizer.

Bjorn and Niels took this as they were hiking out. That's the river down there.
Bjorn and Niels took this as they were hiking out. That’s the river down there.

In the end, although James didn’t really improve, he didn’t get any worse and was able to hold a paddle, so we made the decision to continue. At 2PM we put him in his kayak, pushed him into the water, and launched ourselves on the Franklin side of the junction, dipping into its waters for the first time. We were off.

Continue to Part 2 or check out further reading with these

Bonus Links


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