Franklin River Day 12 – Hobbit Hole to Newland Cascades

We woke this morning to find that the water level was down quite a lot more than when we arrived at the Hobbit Hole.  Everybody agreed that the rapid looked relatively easy and should be fun.  There were two stoppers visible in this rather long rapid, but they both looked small and therefore should not be a problem.  Finally, we were all very excited that we would get rafting again.  The water level now looked ideal for us.

As if the severe pain in my left hip and lower-right ribs wasn’t enough, I fell on the rocks again this morning.  This time I sliced the palm of my hand open.  It wasn’t terribly painful, but it was quite a deep cut that would require some care to avoid infection and to heal properly in this environment.  Thankfully, it was lower down on the palm than where I grip the paddle.  I gave it a quick dressing with band-aid and elastoplast.  I knew that I’ll need to give it some better treatment later on.

Water level still a little higher than normal on day 12 (photo David Tasker)

After breaking camp and packing our gear we had to begin by paddling through the rapid that had stopped us in our tracks when in flood.  All of us now considered the rapid looked quite easy.  It was right next to our make shift camp site and had been under observation for the better part of two days.  However, this apparently ‘easy’ rapid proved to be yet another disaster and I am thankful that we did not attempt to do it when we arrived and the water level was 1.5 metres higher.

The first four boats went through the rapid and from where I was at the top, they all appeared to make it through OK.  It was a long rapid and the far end was obscured by a corner, so it was difficult to be certain.

I was second-last in line and when the boat in front of me was close to the bottom of the rapid, I paddled into the current and began my descent.  There are two things I was careful to get right as I approached the first stopper:  Firstly, to make sure that I had enough momentum to carry me forwards over the stopper, and secondly, to make sure I hit the stopper head on and not at an angle.  If a raft doesn’t have enough momentum, it may not be able to continue forwards, up and over the standing wave in the stopper and will run back down effectively getting stuck in the stopper’s hole.  It would most likely fill with water and flip over.  If a raft hits a stopper side on, it is highly likely that it will flip.  In either scenario the rafter would be tossed out and could get trapped.

At the last second before hitting the stopper, some hidden force in the current twisted my boat sideways just as I went over the drop into the stopper.  Once again I was flipped out and again, despite everything I knew, I let go of my paddle in the panic to just survive.  Once more I experienced the rude shock of being unceremoniously and unexpectedly dumped into cold water.

This time I did not just casually float down the rapid without my boat.  I did not surface at all.  I was tumbled around under water like a rag in a front-loading washing machine.  I could not tell which way was up – I was terrified.  I tried to remain calm and think rationally.  I recalled that in this situation, attempting to swim to the surface may not be advisable, because I might just be pushed straight back down again.  Apparently, it may be possible to swim down and then out, but there would be the risk of getting jammed in rocks or logs under water.  Another school of thought is to just relax and eventually the stopper would spit you out – if you were lucky (some large stoppers are known to trap bodies permanently).

So I tried the relaxing technique.  It’s not easy to relax when you’re panicking.  It’s not easy to relax when you’re underwater, unaware of which way is up and realise that you’re very low on oxygen, probably due to panicking.  But I tried.  Eventually, after what seemed like about two minutes (but was probably less than 30 seconds), I knew I had to take a breath, whether I was still under water or not, I knew I needed to breath in.  My body insisted on it.

At that point, I surfaced – the stopper had finished with me.  But my respiratory orifices barely broke the surface.  Even with a PFD humans don’t float very well in water that is full of froth and air.  My first breath contained a lot of water and I coughed uncontrollably, sucking in more water as I did so.  At that point I also managed to assume the correct feet-first-face-up position to body surf down the next section of the rapid.

While coughing and floating down the rapid for a few metres, I observed my raft speeding into the distance and then rounding the corner out of sight.  It appeared to be right way up this time, for a change.  I then noticed two paddles floating in the water just off to the side in front of me.  It was a good spot to swim out of the current, and I was able to pick up both paddles, one of which was mine (actually, the paddle David had lent me after I’d lost both mine and Jamie’s).  As I clambered out onto the river bank, I wondered who’s the other paddle was.

I looked back up the river, and saw another raft stuck in the stopper.  It was upside down.  I knew Sean was the only person to come through after me, so it must be him.  Was he still stuck under water under his upturned raft?  Was he tangled in a rope, or trapped against a log or rock?  Then I saw him swimming and climbing out of the river just upstream from me.  Phew!

(Sean later explained that he had entered the current somewhat behind me and when he saw me flipped out in the stopper he had tried to slow down to avoid running into me.  It was probably this lack of momentum that then caused him to get stuck in the same stopper.)

I called out to him that I had his paddle and held it up for him to see.  He shouted back that it was Jess’ paddle, so he still didn’t know where his paddle was.  Three of us had lost paddles in this one stopper and two of us had been flipped out and rolled around underneath it.  I knew that Sean and I were OK and I was fairly confident that somebody would have caught my raft for me below the rapid, but where was Jess, and was she OK without her paddle?

By this time, the rest of the team were around the corner and out of sight.  I realised that they must be starting to wonder if we’re alright, as we should have joined them by now.  With Sean’s boat still bobbing around upside down in the stopper, we had two paddles and no boat, and no way of notifying the people downstream, including Sean’s father.  I wondered if any of them had seen us get caught by the stopper before the current took them around the corner.

I climbed over the rocks back up to where Sean was.  We were just starting to discuss how we might free his raft, when it popped out of the stopper by itself and started heading quickly downstream.  We had very little time to think about how to stop it before it would float past us.  Sean climbed out onto a rock that protruded into the river and was preparing to jump out onto his upturned raft, without a paddle, as it came past.  We didn’t have time to discuss whether this was a good idea or not, or even if there were any other options.  And then, his boat stopped just a few metres short of where we were.  It’s rope must have been pulled out of it’s strapping, and had got caught around something underwater.

We took the paddles from where I’d left them and climbed along the river bank to as close as we could get to the raft, still bobbing around in the middle of the rapid, held in place by its rope.  It took quite some time for us to pull the boat close enough to the shore using a paddle and the rope, and with Sean sitting on it’s upturned floor.  We then attempted to take it upstream some way, in order to get some slack on the rope and to try to free it, but were unable to do so and eventually had to cut the rope.

Then we were able to turn Sean’s boat back up the right way.  With me in the front and Sean in the back we finally managed to complete the rapid and catch up with the rest of the group around the corner.  They had been very worried about us for a while.  Eventually Paul had spotted us both on the river bank and given the rest of them the ‘thumbs up’ signal.

They had Sean’s paddle, as well as my raft!  So we’d managed to recover all three paddles and the one raft that we’d lost on that rapid.

It had been an appalling start to the day, on what we’d thought would be a fun easy rapid.  My already fragile nerves from the experience of two days earlier were not helped by this nasty accident and I was again very cautious going into even simple looking rapids for the rest of the morning, slowly getting my confidence back as the day continued.

Sean shooting a big rapid

We encountered a few other rapids during the day, most of which were still swollen with a high volume of water.  Some of them were too dangerous, requiring us to line the boats or portage all the gear.  Others were rafted successfully – albeit with some extra adrenalin produced as a result.  At one rapid (the Trojans, I think it was), we started off planning to line the boats, but the plan failed due to a large log protruding from the river bank, cutting through the water.  While the rest of us were attempting to line the rafts around the first section of the rapid David was left to try to get his raft over the log on his own.  Eventually we realised he was going to need help, so Sean and then others joined him to lift the boats over the log.  The second boat to be lifted over the log got wrapped on it, and filled with water.  It was quite difficult to free it, but it was eventually hauled over the log.  At this point the rest of us decided we would portage this one instead, especially since the log had a sharp-looking point where the rafts had to be slid over the top of it.

Caves and columns near the Trojans

Eventually we had the rafts and gear around the rapid, except for Jamie who was keen to paddle through it.  He was more confident and more capable than most of us and there were a few rapids that he shot on his own while others portaged on lined boats through.  One of these rapids had a large stopper that very nearly caught his boat.  At the moment when it looked like the boat was about to slide back into the stopper, he threw towards the front of the boat, using his momentum to ride over the top of the standing wave and keep moving in the right direction.  It was a great piece of work, and perfectly timed.

Pig Trough rapid

It was 4:30pm when we finally reached our lunch spot at the Pig Trough rapid – a compulsory portage, according to our notes.  I was very excited to be here.  The Pig Trough, named after the Pig Trough creek which joins the Franklin River here, is a terrible name for one of the most beautiful places on earth and the place that of all the Franklin River I had most longed to see.

Pig Trough Creek

Rock Island Bend is where the Pig Trough rapid and Pig Trough Creek can be found.  It has been made famous by the spectacular photo taken by Tasmania’s renowned wilderness photographer, the late Peter Dombrovskis.  I had a poster of that photo on the wall at home while growing up.  Therefore it had always had a special significance for me.  Until a few months earlier I had never expected to actually see it with my own eyes.

Rock Island Bend

Our late 4:30pm lunch at Rock Island Bend was very much needed after two portages.  Even though we knew there was not far to go in terms of distance, we were very tired, and knew that there was likely one more long portage or lining to go.  We ate our lunch at the camp site right next to the Pig Trough rapid.  It was a nice rainforest camp site, except that it was freezing cold.  It appeared to have it’s own microclimate, even more so than most Tasmanian rainforest.  This was hard for me as I’d never really warmed up after my unplanned swim in the river right at the beginning of the day.

Once we’d completed the portage after lunch and I’d finished packing my boat, David suggested that I should just go off ahead to the other end of the rock island where I could wait in the sunshine and hopefully warm up while everyone else finished packing their boats.  I must have looked cold.

End of the Pig Trough portage

When I reached the other end of the island I found that unlike the large cliffs at the upstream end, the downstream end tapered off gradually.  I tied up my raft and quickly ran up the slope of the island to where I could watch the others finish packing up from the top of the island’s cliffs.  That warmed me up!

Looking back down at the Pig Trough from on top of the rock island at Rock Island Bend

From here it was only a short paddle to the beginning of Newland Cascades – the longest continuous set of rapids on the entire river, so our notes said.  The rapids were grade three at low water levels, so with the current water level being still a little high we scouted the first section of the rapid cautiously.

We decided that the first stage of the rapid was safe to raft, with an easy spot to stop and scout the next section.  The next two drops of the rapid looked a little more tricky, but raftable, however there was nowhere to stop below them without having to take on another hundred metres or so, of frothy raging torrent that looked well beyond us to negotiate safely.  So we lined our boats down a little further and then unpacked the gear to portage the rest of the distance to the camp site which we knew was under the cliffs we could see at the far end of the rapid.

It was a long distance to portage, but much easier than most of the portages we’d done previously, as the rocks were mostly large flat slabs after the first few metres.

We finally reached the Newland Cascades camp site at 7:30pm.  We were knackered but happy, because the camp site was fantastic.  Beneath a huge overhanging cliff were a series of ledges and caves which were completely dry.  It appeared as though they rarely, if ever, got rain.  There were large flat slabs of rock floor in front of these which were still protected from any rain by the overhanging cliff and which had various table and seat sized rocks scattered about on it.

Newland Cascades Camp Site

Tents were not needed here as the caves, ledges and overhangs provided plenty of protection from the weather.  Our tents were hung over nearby trees and rocks to dry, along with a lot of other damp gear, as it was the first time in three days that we’d had a dry camp site and that it hadn’t rained during the day.

Nik’s cave at Newland Cascades camp site

Some of us then took the opportunity to strip off and have a swim and wash in the river, as we’d been unable to do this for a few days and the hard work of three portages in one day had increased our odour level somewhat.

It was getting dark by the time we cooked our dinner, but we’d had a late lunch and were now getting hungry again after a big day involving three portages, with not a lot of paddling between some of them.  It was well and truly dark by the time I crawled into my cave to sleep and I was grateful to find that it was quite comfortable, even for my aching body.

Nik’s bed at Newland Cascades camp site