So we set off on the boisterous and bankfull Franklin, on the afternoon of day 2. The front had passed, leaving glorious sunny weather. I knew this would continue for several days as a high pressure ridge now lay over the island.
Right from the start it was clear this water was definitely flowing downhill. “No flatwater!” we cheered, and dug in to rapid after rapid. It was great.
The first obstacle we got out to scout was Boulder Brace, a pile of boulders, with one creating a nasty-looking sideways pourover at the bottom. But it was fine in the end and we all paddled it without problems.
We paddled through the first major gorge, past the Angel Rain cavern. Cliffs and caves and trickling waterfalls fell into the water.
In the heart of the ravine, we found the Log Jam. Surprise, it really is a bloody gigantic log spanning the river. The level was high enough that water was actually flowing over the top of the log, and it looked quite runnable. However there were plenty more smaller logs lurking among the narrow lower part of the rapid. But, caution being the important thing, we pulled out at a beach on the left and started portaging along a faint and scratchy track.
I had a bad time and got bruised and scraped. This was not helped when a group of rafters ran past us straight down the rapid with barely a scout! Grrr, I knew it was runnable.
We caught back up to the rafters at Nasty Notch, where they were occupying the sneak line on the right. So we caught a small eddy on the left among trees, and hauled ourselves up and over a quick portage on the left.
It was about time for some real paddling! The river dived right, and started cutting down into the bedrock, walls and boulders appearing on the banks. Me and Bjorn climbed a large boulder on the left to scout the top of the gorge.
We didn’t have a flood level, but it was high. It was a feast. We devoured the drops and then paddled hard into the swirling eddies to peer around the next corner, and the adrenaline kept flowing all the way until we were well into the deep Ireneabyss. Surely the best class III paddling in the country. I remember thinking “this is best day of paddling I’ve ever had”
Ireneabyss to Fincham’s Crossing
The Ireneabyss campsites were crowded with several groups, but calm, with a warm sense of contentment all around. We chatted and drifted, and then decided to press on to the helipad platform at Fincham’s Crossing.
The high water and afternoon sun resulted in glorious paddling between the forested banks, down endless broad class II wave trains.
At Fincham’s Crossing, we climbed the metal ladders and steps up the slope past the gauging station (at 2.2m) to the helipad, an elevated wooden platform perched high above the river, swirling and flowing strongly between slabs of rock. We ate in the twilight (except for James, still in the depths of suffering, who was force-fed raw carrots) and slept beneath the sky.
Fincham’s Crossing to the Great Ravine
Morning came cold and grey up on our perch. “I’ve got a leech in my boat” said Jarrod. I thought he’d said “leak” and almost started feeling sympathetic.
Jiri’s notes had this marked as an “easy day”. It was easy in the same way that doing your tax return online is easy. Luckily, it was a lot more enjoyable, and at the end I had to reconsider whether yesterday actually had been my best ever day paddling, or if this day was actually better.
Hind leg slide, Duck shoot, Debacle bend, the Rafter’s Race, all passed by as we were flushed down the Ditch. The water unfortunately was definitely lower than the day before, and there were a few bumps and scrapes.
We passed another group of rafters at Camp Arcade at about 12:30. Bjorn asked whether they were done for the day, or about to start. “Actually, we’re having lunch” they replied. There was a moment of confusion, as we faintly remembered that having a break where you get out of the boat to eat food is a thing a lot of people do. So as an experiment, we stopped for a lunch of Pringles and cream cheese, at the reach where the crest of Frechman’s Cap is just visible above the gorge. The view of the cliffs was actually quite impressive – the mountain was a lot closer than I expected!
Some great and atmospheric class III rapids were paddled, including Side Slip. Then, very suddenly it seemed, a savage quartzite gash appeared ahead, and we had to enter the Great Ravine.
With a grim heart, I prepared to portage like I’d never portaged before. The was a line through the Churn down the right – hardly “unrunnable” at a higher level it seemed – but the top was sieve city, the next big drop was stomping, and yeah nah, no-one seriously considered it.
As we pushed and carried our boats in pairs up the track on the left (actually quite wide and easily travelled, compared to the Log Jam high portage) the group of rafters caught up behind us, and started their own portage. We helped each other out a bit.
Where the track started to descend, there was a double ring bolt anchor and fixed line (luxury!), and James and Bjorn started lowering the boats with a throw rope and Munter hitch.
I think we did it in about hour. Not so bad at all! We started checking out the bottom drop, known as the Corkscrew.
This rapid was actually almost the technically hardest line I tried on the trip to be honest. I was trying to hit the main hole with enough edge and angle that it would kick me hard right away from the rock, but still let me escape. I think I had the right idea, and I stayed upright and on-line. There were a couple of rolls from the others, but no-one swam and it went well. A good challenging rapid.
With the large raft group occupying the Churn caves for the night, we floated down the Serenity Sound to the Coruscades.
The main campsite on the left above the rapid was also occupied. It was beginning to feel downright overcrowded in the Ravine. But hey, Tassie in January, that’s what you get on all the popular trips. At least it wasn’t the Overland Track.
Perhaps there was a bit more tension felt than on the walking tracks, as most parties are large commercial guided groups. Sympathetic to the high expectations of paying customers, we picked pretty dramatic and Spartan bivvy spots well away and down amongst the rocks directly above the rapid. The kitchen area was solid class IV – any mistake would surely have resulted in a tragic loss of food into a sieve among the boulders.
A short while later, the first campsite occupants maybe wished they’d been more welcoming to our small group, as a second load of rafts arrived with a dozen more people to accommodate! In the end, the guides gave us a whole bunch of leftover noodles, and were mostly forgiven.
The Upper Coruscades is the second truly fearsome rapid on the river. There is a very well hidden, nightmarish object in the middle of the top drop – I’m not sure if it’s a rock or log – that pinned Tim in 2012. I didn’t see it at first – only a long second glance revealed dark jagged spines just beneath the water.
With the main flow pushing strongly left into an undercut at the base, personally I couldn’t see the line. Bjorn, the conservative voice, was adamant about everyone portaging. James had a long look, stubborn about the potential he saw, but in the end walked away. (In view of his carnage later on the trip, this was almost definitely the right choice. Despite having recovering well, he was still barely past 48 hours of severe illness). As we were camping, at least we got to portage unloaded boats down the mostly flat track, which was a breeze.
The morning was cold. Freaking cold, for January in Australia. I got out of my hammock and put on all my clothes.
The Ravine is awe-inspring. Huge grey and orange quartzite cliffs stab down into the gorge between the rainforested and mossy walls. Mist hangs everywhere. The water – oh the waters of Tasmania. A black mirror along the reaches, with delicate laces of white foam slowly swirling on the surface. It churns brown in the rapids, and boils up deep and dark from the bed even where the river is flat, always moving. The tannins give it a faint flavour of sweet black tea. Fill up your bottle straight from the river – anywhere you please, no-one filters – and drink deep.
We made our way down the Coruscades and past Sidewinder, portaging more often than not. (We accidentally avoided the main drop of the Forceit without recognizing it, thinking the hydraulic looked problematic!) The Ravine narrowed and gorged out, rising straight from the water. Here it comes.
AC/DC was clearly the only suitable music to have stuck in my head. “Na na na nah, na-na nah-nah, Thun-der!”.
The Thunderrush high portage – the most infamous on the river – is half a kilometer long, climbs high and tortuously above the water, and can take up to six hours. As the guidebook dryly notes, it almost as dangerous as the rapid. In recent years it has been officially closed due to a landslide, but packrafters still use it (this says something about packrafters). What most groups do, is portage the class V top section of the rapid among the boulders to the left, and then launch from an eddy into the must-run lower section. This is described as class III in very low water, and class IV in moderate to high water.
I’m sure Bulti, and the hard nut class V paddlers he runs with, will sniff at the difficulty of lower Thunderrush and call it class III. But, in the middle of one of the biggest gorges in the country, way out in the wilderness, facing a must-run gorged out rapid with few opportunities for scouting or shore safety, as the last paddler, I knew three things. 1) I had to quickly paddle across the flow to hit a rather narrow line, between the rock on the right and a worrying roster tail 2) If I plugged the nose, I’d loose all my speed for the rest of the rapid, and potentially spin out towards rocks and logs 3) If I did get the boat pinned or swim, there was no upstream support, and it would be very bad. I was firmly in the realm of “don’t fuck up”. I ran it perfectly and it was the paddling highlight.
High on success, we dived into a small but surprisingly tricky and hazardous drop just below. Bulti tried a fancy line, and got wedged in a small hole. We weren’t prepared with a rope (after all, the difficulties were over!) and after maintaining a surf for a good part of a minute, he hilariously swam out of his boat. Recovery was a bit precarious, but easy, we did an almost sea-kayak style rescue against the cliffs.
In the heart of the Sanctum, we felt we were nearly out of the Great Ravine. Just one big portage to go! Bulti had a small picture of the Cauldron on his wall at home, and it didn’t look that bad.
But we quickly discovered that the Cauldron is a gigantic monster. It is the crux of the river. Paddling? I could see only a hint of a crazy line, starting on the left, then I guess you’d somehow get down the main drop. Sieves and undercuts everywhere. It’s one giant river-wide strainer of giant boulders.
Portaging? It is avoidable only by the most desperate and heart-breaking of climbs, right out of the gorge and back down, traversing seriously steep, muddy rainforest slopes. It’s hard just to get out of your kayak, as the cliffs drop straight into the water. A fixed line on old iron spikes guides you up a Yosemite 4th class scramble straight out of the water, to a cramped ledge called the Eagle’s Nest, where the unfortunate are sometimes forced to camp. It gets harder from there.
The least worst option is a low portage trick you can do with a raft, that’s so infamous it actually has a name. The Wild Thing. Fortunately, Brett, the head guide from the Water By Nature group, had offered to help us out. Really, it was fantastic and much appreciated. In return, we crewed their rafts for the most serious move, helped carry their client’s gear, and gave them a raft guide’s throw rope we’d found as river booty (it turned out Brett knew the owner, so that worked out well)
Only one client volunteered to help Brett and Claudia deal with the rapid, while the rest walked the high portage track. I wish I remembered this guy’s name, as he did a badass thing for someone with not much whitewater experience!
So, the first raft got loaded with James and Niels’ kayaks, and was calmly ferried across the slowly moving water above the rapid. Gently, ever so gently – you don’t want to go too hard, and bounce off the wall back into the rapid – they eased it into the tiny eddy just above the huge Wild Thing boulder, a big slab which spans most of the rapid. Most of the flow goes under the boulder. The raft is dragged on top, and unloaded on the boulder.
Idly, I looked down at the helmet at my feet and picked it up, and…hey wait a minute, why is there a helmet here, whose…and I looked over to see Niels sitting obliviously bareheaded in the raft, having just cheerfully screwed the pooch without protection. We worry about you sometimes Niels, we really do.
Claudia took the second raft over, and Jarrod, Bjorn and I made the move. Very very calmly.
With everything on top of the rock, the next step is to anchor the raft to a chockstone in the slot between the boulder and right wall of the gorge. It’s then turned sideways, and dropped down into the slot, right onto the stream of whitewater that emerges from underneath the boulder. The kayaks are loaded onto the raft, and then seal launched off, to run the last small drop.
When the raft is ready to go, they release the rope and boom, off they go.
Buzzing, we drifted down to the small cove where the high portage track finally returns to the river, to meet with the rest of the rafters.
The next section of the river that emerges from the Great Ravine is called Deliverance Reach.
Continue on to Part 3, or try some more
- Jiri, Cat & co’s 2012 Franklin trip (video)
- Packrafting the Franklin in the golden age of the early 80s
- Another epic trip report of a recent raft descent (pdf)
- The well-known big wall climber John Mittendorf’s Franklin trip. He found it pretty intense, considering the scary adventure credentials he has!