The Franklin River is regarded as the last “Wild River” in Tasmania, Australia, winding it’s way from near Lake St Clair to the Gordon River which then flows into Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania’s West Coast. After work had already begun on damming the Franklin for a hydro electric scheme it was saved by the protests of “radical conservationists” in 1983. I was too young to participate in the protests at that time, but I can remember the protests in the streets and on the river (in the news) and I am very grateful to those who fought so hard and took such risks and went through some terrible ordeals in order to save the Franklin River. The Franklin River is a truly amazing place.
The area surrounding the Franklin River is famous for its beauty, its remoteness, its vegetation (including Huon Pines – Largostrobos franklinii), its rock formations and caves (that have evidence of ancient habitation), and for its hostility, having claimed the lives of several rafters.
It is not recommended that inexperienced rafters attempt the Franklin River. People should either join a commercial rafting tour with experienced professional operators, or go with a group of experienced white water rafters only after having practiced on other safer rivers. Even then, rafters should do extensive research using the various rafting notes (and stories) that are available, taking note of the cautions regarding the many dangers, both generic for all white water, and those specific to the Franklin and some of its rapids in particular.
Note that this series of articles is not a river guide or trip notes and should not be used to help people navigate the Franklin River. This is merely a journal of my personal experience while rafting the Franklin. However, there are some lessons that can be learnt for people who wish to attempt the trip, and I hope that it will be of interest to others too.
How I Became Involved
David, who has been a friend of my wife’s family for decades, had rafted the Franklin twice before, in 1979 and 1980. He was unable to convince his former rafting partners to join him on a 30th anniversary trip, so he set out to recruit a new team, including some of his now adult children to join him on what would be his third rafting adventure down the Franklin River.
About a year before this trip David invited me to join the expedition.
Of course, I said “no”. I couldn’t possibly join them, as I’d just promised my wife that I would be spending more time at home with my family and less time out bush over the next year or so, until our kids were a little older.
David invited me again several times during the year, and each time I said “no” with a different reason. “I just don’t have any money to spare on extra activities this year”, “I’ll be very busy with my new job at that time of year”, etc, etc.
But really, they were all just excuses. The real reasons I had declined the invitation were that white water scared the crap out of me, and the Franklin River has a reputation for killing rafters, both novice and experienced. Now that I have completed the Franklin River, it still scares me, but I’m a tad more confident and competent than I was beforehand, and may even consider other white water adventures in the future.
Eventually, at David’s 60th birthday party, he asked me twice more, and after I again said “no” the first time, my wife told me that I would regret it for the rest of my life if I didn’t go (and I knew she was right). She told me that I should go, and that her and the kids would be fine without me for a couple of weeks. So the second time that David asked me that night, I said “yes”, and was then admitted to the team, and started planning.
The membership of the expedition team changed a few times, right up to the last few days. The final make up of the group of rafters was:
- Sean (David’s son)
- Nik (me)
For the first two days, there were an additional two people in the group who hitched a ride on our rafts (for most of the trip, we had one raft per person): Kate (David’s daughter), and Lauren
I generally refer to us as a “team” rather than merely as a “group”, because even though each person supplied their own food and gear, we really did have to work together as a team to make it through. Especially when it came to portaging, when it was sometimes more efficient and easier to pass gear along a line of people, than to each carry your own gear the entire distance.
We investigated several boats and initially David purchased one each of a Bestway Mariner and an Intex Seahawk II. The Bestway was lighter, shorter and wider. The Intex was longer and narrower with several more gear tie down points. Being narrower proved an asset whilst paddling in the lower river levels. More tie down points to choose from would also be very useful, so we settled on the the INTEX Seahawk II and made a bulk purchase so that each person had their own bloat.
In practice, this proved to be an excellent choice, despite not being designed for white water at all. These boats are reasonably quick to inflate and deflate, and are tougher, larger, and more stable and forgiving that the small, light pack-rafts which are available these days. The only modification that I found necessary on mine was to cut off one of the rod-holders, which would have interfered with my paddle strokes. I also unscrewed and removed the rowlocks, but kept them so that they can be replaced later for rowing my kids around the flat Tamar River, near home. Some others in the team cut off both of the rod holders and the rowlock mounts for similar reasons.
We assisted David in making our own paddles using a similar design to his original 1979 paddle, and his paddle-construction skills were very much appreciated by those of us with less experience in fibre-glassing. Commercially available paddles are designed for kayaks or pack rafts and are not long enough for reaching over the high-wide sides of larger boats like ours. David still had his old home-made paddle from 1979 which he used again on this trip. The paddles were made from 25mm aluminium tube shafts and fibre-glass blades, with the shaft extending a few centimetres beyond the blades so that we could safely use them to fend off rocks without smashing the fibreglass. David’s 1979 paddle used 30mm tube which was no longer easily available, but which was a little stronger, as it turned out.
Each paddle was custom sized to the owner’s requirements, and the two halves were joined by a smaller diameter piece of tube inside the main shaft attached with rivetts on one end, and bolts or screws on the other, so that the paddle could be easily broken down for transport and reassembled as required. My paddle was 3.2 metres long. It probably still is, but I don’t know for sure, as the last time I saw it was when we unsuccessfully tried to retrieve it from deep underwater in a log jam in a fast flowing current (details later in the story).
I also bought a large SEAL Line waterproof dry sack (as used by the US Navy, apparently) to keep my stuff dry in my back pack. Other team members used large plastic barrels to keep things dry. I purchased a decent PFD (‘Personal Floatation Device’, AKA life jacket), and a crash helmet. I had a rope knife attached to the PFD (for entanglement/drowning emergencies – the highest cause of death in white water rafting, apparently), and a very cheap waterproof camera also attached to the PFD, so that I could take photos at any time, without worrying about the camera.
Good non-slip shoes are also an essential bit of gear, as the majority of accidents on the Franklin River are caused by poor footware. Our footware ranged from specialist wet weather shoes and cheap sneakers to wet booties. Despite advice to the contrary, I wore wet booties, not because I thought they would be good, but because I didn’t have anything else suitable, and ran out of time and money to buy more suitable footware. They kept my feet warm, but their grip on wet rocks was quite poor (as I had been warned) so I had to use a lot of caution in some locations. They also offered very little protection from bumps and scrapes, and I stubbed toes twice on the second day, causing significant pain for a few days.
Most of us were already keen Tasmanian bushwalkers, and so we already had most of the other usual requirements for an adventure out in the infamously rugged and meteorologically brutal South West Tasmania.
We also took with us two satellite phones and one PLB (EPIRB) in case of emergencies which might require urgent outside help. The satellite phones were also to be used towards the end of the trip to confirm arrangements and timing for our pick up which could not be confirmed precisely before we began, due to the unpredictable nature of such an excursion.
Knowing that rafting the Franklin River without any white water experience at all would be foolish, we organised three short preparatory white water trips, ranging in difficulty from a trip along the South Esk (Longford to Hadspen), to two trips on the Meander River (Dam to town). We had planned to use the Mersey River white water course, but we discovered at the last minute that the Australian White Water Championships had been carelessly planned to use that location on the same dates that we’d planned our practice run, so we kindly left them to it, and paddled the Meander instead.
I was only able to make one of the practice trips – the first of the two Meander River paddles – but it was an invaluable exercise in which I learned a lot about how the raft handles in different situations, how to manoeuvre, how to read the water (at least in fairly tame conditions), and where, when and how to aim for different parts of the river (rapids, eddies, submerged and protruding obstacles, etc).
Reference Materials – Guides, Notes and Maps
Even with David’s previous experience it was very important to have good notes and maps to guide us along the river, as there are some very dangerous sections that cannot be rafted, and other sections that can only be rafted when the water levels are just right, and by experienced rafters. The notes could tell us how to identify the dangerous rapids, where best to portage (carry gear around them), and where to find different camp sites, and how good or large the camp sites were. Some notes also include points of interest along the way.
We used a combination of three different sets of notes and three different sets of maps, each of which had their advantages and disadvantages. One of the map and note sets was based on Bob Brown’s original notes (Franklin River conservationist/activist, now politician).
One of the most useful maps we used was hand drawn, with hand written notes adjacent to each significant point on the river (including the number of deaths that had occurred at various points along the way!). This was provided to David by Ro Privett from his trip a few years ago (Ro is better known for his “Murray Quest” ).
I printed two sets of maps and one set of notes onto waterproof paper using a colour laser printer. I tested this water proof paper after printing onto one sheet, and found that it worked very well. After a lot of water, and a reasonable amount of scrunching and rubbing, there was no damage to the printed map at all.
Of course even with the best information available for a variety of water levels, it is still essential to scout each rapid on foot, when the entire rapid cannot be clearly viewed from the boat (ie, almost all significant rapids).
Transporting 8 people from Launceston to the Collingwood River (where the rafting was to start) along with all their usual wilderness adventure gear, plus the additional rafting gear is not easy. Then there is also the difficulty of how to arrange pick up at the end of the trip when we didn’t know which day that would be on until we had almost finished. In particular, we would need a boat ride from the Gordon River to Strahan, somewhere to stay in Strahan overnight, and then a ride back home to Launceston afterwards.
We were very fortunate to have Paul in our group who has many tourism industry contacts. Peter McDermott (McDermotts Coach Transport) provided us with a mini bus and trailer and Peter himself collected us and all our gear from our homes and took us to our departure point. As they say, it is not what you know but who you know. Paul’s partner Katie is Peter’s daughter. Paul is also a friend of Guy Grinning, who owns a 60 foot catamaran based in Strahan. Guy agreed to pick us up at the end of the trip and Peter came to the rescue again with the offer to let us all stay in his house in Strahan the night we came off the river.
This made our trip much easier to organise than it otherwise could have been.
Some commercial operators using one large raft for the six or more people, raft the entire river in about eight days. They only go when the water level is just right, and are able to power through some rapids that we would not risk with our smaller rafts with one person each. Of course, their employees know the river and each of its rapids a lot better than we do.
We planned for fourteen days on the river, including two days to climb Frenchman’s Cap from the Irenabyss and back (with two of the party to continue walking out to the highway along the Frenchman’s Cap track). This would allow us to take it slower with less pressure to raft rapids we were not confident with. However, we knew that most similar expeditions get delayed for at least a couple of days along the way when the water level in the river rises quickly after rain (and it rains frequently in South West Tasmania). Some groups have to wait for several days for the rain to stop and for the water level to recede again, but thankfully it usually recedes just as quickly as it rises.
Therefore we decided to be prepared for up to three weeks in the wilderness. I packed two weeks’ worth of good food, and one week’s worth of emergency rations (plain rolled oats, plain rice, dried vegetables).
David also suggested that each person should bring at least two ‘treats’ to share along the way. So most days we would have something unexpected and hopefully extra tasty to eat or drink. I planned for four treats (one in combination with David), and managed to come up with a fifth treat for our last lunch, which I hadn’t planned but which worked out exceptionally well.