Originally written and published on the blog https://rockmonkeyadventures.wordpress.com/2022/11/15/rafting-the-franklin-with-water-by-nature-6-12-november-2022/
Rafting the Franklin with Water by Nature: 6-12 November 2022
by BeccaLunnon on November 15, 2022
*Photo credit: Becca Lunnon
Rafting the Franklin with Water by Nature: 6-12 November 2022
Rafting the Franklin River has always been on my ‘I want to do that’ list. After walking across the state with Em earlier on in the year I knew I wanted to share it with her. I got the impression my question to her was somewhat rhetorical. She selected the dates and we booked in. She couldn’t have picked better. We’d just had a few weeks of solid rain and yet our trip was going to be pretty much dry!
Day 1: 20km paddle from putting in at the Collingwood river to camp at Irenabyss
We started off with a long bus ride to the Collingwood river. We chatted to a few others on the bus but people largely kept to themselves. I knew it would be much easier and less forced when we were out on the water and at camp, so I didn’t push too hard to make conversation. Em is much better at that sort of thing so I listened to her and occasionally chimed in where appropriate. It turned out we were the youngest and only two from Tassie.
At the river we struggled to correctly interpret short but sometimes conflicting orders from guides, but eventually all the gear was loaded onto inflated packrafts and so were we. Em and I ended up being on a boat with Julie and Mark, a lovely couple from SA, and our guide Jed, who turned out to be lots of fun. We set off to a chorus of whistlers, although I think they fell on largely deaf ears – we were too busy concentrating on learning how to paddle and what the orders meant that we’d have barked at us through the rapids. They ranged from ‘easy forward’ to ‘forward’, ‘back’, ‘right forward’, ‘left back’, ‘bump’, ‘hold on’ or even ‘get down’. It took a bit till we were well coordinated but by the end of the day we were moving through the rapids and not getting stuck very much.
An hour in we arrived at the confluence of the Collingwood with the Franklin river and had a snack and pee break before setting off down the river we’d all signed up to raft. We were having a hoot, although I suspected there were a few people who were well outside their comfort zones. Every time Em and I glanced at each other we had big grins on our faces!
The Huon pines were still pollinating, the swallows darting over the water feeding on the bugs and we even saw a cormorant sitting on a dead tree branch that stuck out over the river. He was so chilled he didn’t budge as we drifted under, hoping he wouldn’t let one loose on us. At one point we stopped to wait for the others where a waterfall met the river and we got to climb up to its base. There was lots of foam to play in so you can guess who ended up nice and dirty – I’m going to blame it on Em! ;) Without her there, I’d probably have stayed clean and dry, but she had me laughing, playing and having even more of a ball than I would otherwise, even if I was now soaked through. This wouldn’t be the only time this trip.
The rapids were such fun, but you could also see how easily they could turn nasty. The other two boats on the river both lost people overboard early on, although it wasn’t a cold day (in fact, none but the final day of paddling were!) and a swim was probably to their advantage. We had a few portages and it was fun to see how they worked. Some were harder work, as we dragged the boats over logs or rocks, while others involved letting the packrafts float down the rapids and controlling them with ropes, and occasionally the guides solo-ed them through the less dangerous rapids.
The final stretch of rapids for the day, Nasty Notch and Decension Gorge, also the longest of the trip, was a test of our ability to work as a team and it felt good to respond promptly to the very specific commands from Jed, feel the boat respond on the water and race through smoothly. We portaged Nasty Notch, but paddled the rest. When we popped out we were in the beautifully calm, high-sided Irenabyss. Appropriately named. We stopped paddling and just floated, enjoying the change in the river. I could have stayed there for a long time. But camp was just round the rock at the end and it was already late enough so we pulled in next to the other boats and started unloading gear, hauling it up to the forest camp or the kitchen rock.
Setting up camp was slow and messy, everyone left to their own devices while the guides sorted dinner. Someone had even grabbed our tent from the tent bag and set it up for themselves while we’d gone to wash in the river! I felt a little guilty asking for it… but that was quickly forgotten when we went to the kitchen. Dinner was a gourmet affair. Cheese, bread, dip, nuts and chips for entree, followed by prawn gnocchi, and fruit salad and ice cream for dessert. Yep, prawns AND ice cream in the bush. Crazy!
Over dinner we had the toilet talk and a briefing on the following day, but were otherwise left to chat away and get to know some of the others, or watch the distant sunset turn the clouds pink. One fellow paddler, Patrick, had overheard that we liked walking and came and had a good chat to us about why walking was special to each of us – it was a ‘my kind of chat’. Others chatted about what they did for work or how they spent their time. And then it was off to bed for our weary bodies, the sound of the river a peaceful accompaniment to our ears.
Day 2: 40km paddle from Irenabyss to the Churn camp
We woke with the sun, expecting an easier day ahead although plans were subject to change, as always. It looked like we would be sticking to the same crews as yesterday when people jumped in boats and Jed, our guide, didn’t seem to mind. We were working really well as a team, which proved just as well later on.
It was a slower start to the day, a walk to look at a massive huon pine and not too many rapids to race through. We eventually came to a slightly nastier one. We were clueless, Jed just lead us on and we paddled to his plan and command. We brushed up close to some trees but otherwise made it through without incident. Neither of the other two rafts ran it.
The next raft wasn’t so lucky, they got stuck on a rock and Dan, their guide, had them hop out, but two slipped on the rock and the rapids took one away. Gary got sucked under for a while, before bobbing up right into a tree. He was moving fast, but without control. Jed launched us into action, leaving the eddy we were in and we paddled hard towards him. He heard our shouts of swim and we all closed the gap quickly, hoiking him out of the water and into the bottom of our boat by the straps on his life jacket. He lay there spluttering and breathing heavily, eyes closed as we paddled to the bank and held tight while the rest of his crew and the crew behind floated their boats down the rapid and hopped back in.
By the time we’d regrouped Gary was good to jump back into his own boat, if a little shaken (though he didn’t show it much). We continued on, making good progress. Em and I went swimming, played tag with the guides in the other boats and sent a few splashes towards one who we knew wouldn’t mind too much. We enjoyed the way the water smoothed the rock as it continually caressed exposed surfaces, crafting amazing patterns in it. We had plenty of waterfalls to look at, play under or nose the boat into – providing yet another way of cooling off or quenching our thirst. And there was the odd bit of man-made interest, like the pulley system near the Fincham hut to muse over.
The spray from the boat sometimes caught the sunlight and caused a flash of rainbow, and the light reflected off the water onto the underside of overhanging rocks, making them dance. We made great time and Jed managed to convince the other guides to push on while the river was high to a rocky overhang camp site at The Churn. It would take advantage of the higher water levels, which dropped about 10cm each day without rain, break up the next day of several portages and make it much shorter.
At the start of The Churn we hopped out of boats and walked along the riverside to camp so the guides could paddle the boats down the rapid one at a time. They didn’t make it look easy! We watched for a bit, then helped unload the boats as they came in. Then it was time to set up camp.
Em and I initially made the mistake of choosing the spot used for the loo and had to relocate when Dan, one of the other guides, came to tell us the bad news! Once we were set we headed down to the kitchen rock, right by the rapid, and have a bits and pieces kind of dinner. Corn on the cob, asparagus, cauliflower, salt and pepper squid, chicken, lamb, dumplings, dips, bikkies, nuts, chips, cheese, and chocolate truffle for dessert. This was not a trip to be trying to lose weight!
Yet again the dark chased us off to bed once our tummies were full and we had the roar of the rapid to drown out any noise from our neighbours, who were right by our feet and in some cases certainly not as used to the camping thing as we were!
Day 3: 10km paddle from The Churn to Rafter’s Basin
I woke early, way too early, with razors in my throat. My first thought was that I was sharing a tent with Em, and I didn’t want to pass on whatever I’d picked up to her. So I resigned myself to spending the rest of the night with my head out the tent door. Fortunately it wasn’t ridiculously early and after a few hours of being awake I dozed off just before dawn, waking to find her already out of the tent trying to dry the foot of her sleeping bag. Everyone else was still in bed and we sat on the kitchen rock while we waited for the world to wake.
I wasn’t the only casualty. Mark, from our boat, had a migraine and I realised a sore throat was a small discomfort in comparison. I would not have liked to trade places. He spent a lot of the day with eyes closed and looking miserable between vomiting what little fluid he forced down. It was just as well we were in for an easy day.
We had several portages to get through, but Em and I were lucky enough to be chosen to help Jed out and so we avoided most of the walking and got to enjoy the best of the rapids from inside the raft. At one point I even got a brief turn at steering! There was a stunning rivulet to explore, and we used it as an excuse to get wet and cool off a bit.
Em clearly wasn’t having enough fun, or had got too hot, because on one rapid she dove straight out the front of the boat. I tried but failed to grab her, succeeding only in grabbing her paddle. The boat guided by Klaudia, our head guide, was up ahead and she bobbed and swam straight for it, while we rescued her paddle and got ourselves off the rock we’d come up against so we could pick her back up. She was most annoyed that she’d let go of her paddle!
The Cauldron was one of the rapids almost everyone had to walk up and over a hill but Em and I and a few others got to take the boats through. Mark also got a trip over, simply to save him the effort of a long walk while feeling horrid. We paddled the boats over to a rock, one at a time, then hauled them up and over. It gave you a healthy respect for the river when you saw how hard the guides fought to keep out of certain areas and when you could see a sieve churning away underneath the rock you were standing on like a massive washing machine, really understanding how deadly it could be. The message was hammered home when Em whispered, ‘this is where people have died!’
At the end of the rock we were standing on was a really cool part called Wild Ride, which we got to raft! We dropped the boats one at a time sideways between the rock and the river bank, which was a vertical wall of rock. The boats were tied up to an anchor and because of the water racing underneath they bobbed up and down, keen to be let free. We jumped on and then untied ourselves, shooting out and down the rapid. It was lots of fun and we let out appropriate hoots of glee!
We had a nice easy paddle at the end of the day, more waterfalls to swim in (the Mousehole was especially cold), a The Masterpiece (a Picasso-like rock in the shape of a human face) to admire and a ravine to climb up. Every stroke of the paddle would send little water drops skidding across the surface, and they’d race forwards like little jewels, before merging back into the river. And still the river and its walls gave us plenty to admire as we paddled on.
It was indeed a short day and we were at camp by early afternoon, before lunch even. We set up camp – I was going to try sleeping under the tarp – had a quick wrap to eat and then went for a swim and wash in the very cold Franklin! Dan told us about a little pool up the Interlude river, which ran through the camp, so we slipped and slid our way up the river and spent a fair bit of time sitting on rocks and logs, skimming rocks and just chatting. Cold feet eventually chased us back into the sun, where we settled into a game of 500 that would take us to dinner. I had a brilliant hand for an open misere but it came before that rule was explained and our luck didn’t get any better, Em and Heike were a formidable pair!
A tiger snake and alleged platypus sighting had everyone on their toes while we snacked before spaghetti bolognaise for dinner and chocolate for dessert. Apparently we weren’t eating enough chocolate compared to most groups and so we made a valiant effort to put that straight. We went to bed as darkness fell with very full tummies, prepped for another short day ahead.
Day 4: 14km paddle from Rafter’s Basin to Newlands
I woke at 1 am with the razors back in my throat, popped some Panadol and lay there enjoying the moonlight through the trees. When it was a more appropriate time to rise I quietly packed most of my gear, had a wash in the river and settled down to yoghurt and muesli with the handful of other early risers, with repurposed spaghetti, egg, herbs and cheese for seconds. It was a nice quiet start to the day. People arrived in dribs and drabs, an easy relaxed mood had clearly settled over us all.
We eventually set off, down a short easy rapid and round a bend where we picked up an old emergency barrel before continuing on. It was a lovely day going through Propsting George – nice rapids and a pretty stretch of river with more waterfalls to swim in and awesome names for different features, like Ganymede’s pool, The Trojans (such a fun rapid) and The Pig Trough. Our little team, with Mark now back to full strength, was solid. We smashed the rapids, high-fiving paddles and whooping with delight, and pulled up with great smiles on our faces.
https://video.wordpress.com/embed/XWLMSTWx?cover=1&preloadContent=metadata&useAverageColor=1&hd=1Rafting the Trojan rapid (at least I think it’s that one!)
We had a few more portages and Em and I were chosen to help out on the largest just before Rock Island Bend, probably due to our sure-footedness on what was exceptionally slippery rock. We clambered over rocks, running the empty boats down the rapids, and kicking them out into the right bit of current. We managed 3/3 without getting stuck, something the guides seemed pretty stoked with. It was all down to teamwork and it felt great to be included. Not only was it a lot of fun, it was perfect for people like us who like to be kept busy and be useful. At the end of the rapid we paddled the boats across to the others and it was only then I realised exactly where we were.
Rock Island Bend has long been made famous by Dombrovskis’ photo, which became the face of the Save the Franklin campaign. We stopped there for lunch and it was even more stunning than in the photo. There was a lovely waterfall to one side, which Em and I went off to explore. On our return we took photos of pretty much everyone, including Dan, one of the guides, with a paddle wearing a helmet. He joked it would be the cover shot for the inaugural showing of ‘Paddler wants a Wife’!
There was another group already at camp when we arrived at Newland Cascades – they’d had a rest day – but there was still plenty of room and Em found us a lovely little spot to spend the night. We spent the afternoon swimming the rapid whenever we got too hot (so much fun), paddling the inflatable kayak until the paddle was lost (on run two, unfortunately), searching for said paddle, drying out, stretching, finding a yabbie and other river insects (spiders, bugs, mites, craneflies, weevils, bees), eating chocolate and playing more cards, all the while chatting away.
https://video.wordpress.com/embed/jB615voa?cover=1&preloadContent=metadata&useAverageColor=1&hd=1I even found a yabbie!
We all sat around in a big circle for dinner, not planned but spontaneously, and it was really quite nice. The guides cooked up a delicious pumpkin risotto and we had yet more chocolate for dessert. We were officially labelled ‘tea-baggers’ which is actually a rafting term for someone who only pretends to paddle by dipping the oar in half way and lightly moving it through the water, but was awarded because as a group we were powering through the tea even if we weren’t pulling our weight in chocolate consumption (though I can assure you it felt like Em and I were definitely eating more than our fair share!).
Afterwards we learned and/or played Big 2, a game that took me back to high school lunchtimes. Slowly our numbers dwindled as dusk fell and by 10pm it was just Em, myself and our guides Jed and Klaudia, playing by fairy lights. We eventually called it a night and retreated to tents/tarps for a pleasant night’s sleep.
Day 5: Rest day
Word was we’d have a rest day for day 5, and a bigger day for 6, just to avoid camping in a site not so great in the rain, which was due to come in the evening. It wasn’t all that popular with everyone, many of whom wanted just to move and have two shorter days. But it would mean extra time exploring the area, swimming the rapids and just enjoying being in such a special spot, and less time wasted loading and unloading rafts. I think it was a good call in hindsight.
We started with a 3 hour breakfast of cereal, eggs, sausages, zucchini on toasted muffins and blueberry pancakes while we watched the other group pack and move on. And then some of us went for a wander up stream to climb on top of the pseudo island at Rock Island Bend, where we sat and chatted, enjoying the views, stiff breeze and dappled shade. Em got us all chatting by asking us about our favourite parts, though sometimes we just sat in silence too. Eventually thirst got the better of us and we headed back to camp, jumping at the sound of a tree falling down the opposite bank.
I decided my sleeping bag and tarp were in a spot just a bit too windy so shifted to join the group, nesting in a dry spot under the cliffy overhang. I would be out of the wind and rain, when it eventuated. By then it was lunch time, so we saved more swimming and further exploring for later in the day – if I could be convinced out of the perfect rocky recliner I had just discovered! A sea eagle visited as we waited for lunch, surfing the wind gusts with ease. The bees came to drink water from pools on the rock, and tadpoles filled some of the bigger pools.
We ate till we were past full, learnt and played more card games, and eventually Em had me agreeing to jump in the river with her. It wasn’t as cold as we expected, so we went again. That set the ball rolling and we had one other go for a swim and another go for a few runs down the rapid and then a jump off the rock. More cards, food, discovery of the log book and a mini guitar, some artwork and playing and singing whiled the afternoon away, almost without us realising.
Oh, and I just had to use the perfectly natural long drop we discovered! There was a round hole in the rock the ideal size to get in, with a bottom hole that wasn’t quite so wide on one side. This meant your face could be in full view of everyone while you stood on the thin ledge, pulled down your pants and peed through the hole in the bottom, straight into the river. As soon as Em saw me go she knew exactly what I was doing and raced over to take a video and photo, fortunately giving me enough time to pull up my pants in between fits of laughter. No one else had a clue what we were doing!
Another rafting group, from the same company as ours, arrived in the evening to share the campsite. Being from the same company there was more intermingling between our guides, although our groups kept relatively separate. By the time dinner came around I don’t think anyone was hungry, given we’d gorged ourselves on seared scallops and spring rolls as well as the usual chocolate and chips for entree. The guides catered accordingly and dished up a smaller than usual, but just as tasty dinner – two curries and chocolate brownie for dessert! We still didn’t finish it all.
After the dishes were done we played more cards, primarily Big 2, teaching our fellow crew mates Mark and Julie the rules. They’ve now added it to their list of games to play with the family! We retreated to bed with the sun, knowing we had an early start. The group that had just arrived partied on and given they were all around us I expected another night of broken sleep, but hopefully one that wouldn’t see me forget where I was and sit up too far too fast, or I’d be cracking my head on the rocky ledge above!
Day 6: 40km
While sleep wasn’t great, as expected, I woke with dawn at 5:30, quietly packed and cracked on with breakfast, hoping to beat the queue to the loo. Everyone else either woke with the sound or had similar thoughts, because we ended up being more than an hour ahead of schedule! We put the group before us to shame – they’d got up at 6 and left at 10, we were out by 8.
We had a long day ahead of us but all the entertainment to make it pass quickly and enjoyably. We started out with multiple platypus sightings (at least 3-4 for our boat) and well over half a dozen sea eagle encounters, including a pair, and all at close range, although probably multiple sightings of only a few different birds. One even had a massive nest in a tree that Jed pointed out.
We also got to explore a cave with stalactites and stalagmites, crickets and spiders with their amazing climate-controlled egg sacs. And the rock was completely different. Before it had been largely schist, but for most of the day it would be limestone. Very sharp limestone! We tried extra hard to keep the boat off it. The guides told us how one rock called the Shark Fin, which was sitting deceptively just below the water level, would slice a boat from front to back if you didn’t know it was there and went over it unsuspectingly. It was even more nasty, because it was right in the middle of the best line of flow.
Jed broke up the longer stretches of river by giving us all a crack at steering the raft and even let us go down some rapids at the helm! It took a bit of getting used to but was lots of fun, more of a mental challenge than anything else but also a physical break from constant paddling. By now I think most people were feeling pretty tired – I know my arms were, although it had taken till today to prove it.
When that had run its course we played word games, listened to music, listened to a David Attenborough segment on platypus and even shook out the odd dance move! Later on the jokes and brain teasers came out, which were lots of fun. Em went for the occasional swim to break things up and even tried towing the boat. We went about as fast with her swimming us along as we did paddling! All our messing around meant we ended up way behind everyone else, but arrived on Madagascar Island in perfect timing for lunch.
We only got out for one very short portage down a decent drop, I think Big Fall, and then straight back in. And then we had a perfectly timed break to check out the Lost World. It was magnificent – for many it was likely the highlight of their trip. The route took us through a big open cavern and into a canyon, whose sides were steep, slick black limestone. We followed it up for quite some way, marvelling at its majesty. I have seen a lot of nature’s awesomeness and this one definitely ranked highly!
There was more marvelling back on the river at the impressive rock sides and the big rocky overhang of Verandah Cliffs, the pile of never ending snacks and a swimming race against the clock, which Simon and Em participated in. Then before we knew it we were at the end of the Franklin River. The guides tied our rafts together and we paddled them like a train down the Gordon River towards the jetty and our pick-up point.
Em had tried several times in the trip to push me out of the boat, although not seriously enough that I’d actually gone in. So when we got to within eyesight of the jetty I gave her the old, ‘what’s that over there?’ which she generously took, hook line and sinker. Then I gave her a good push and followed her in. At that point she tried towing all three boats, and actually made pretty good progress!
We were back to sharing the cramped space on the jetty with the first group we’d met on the river and so we set about changing and deciding where to sleep. Salad and steak for a final dinner on the river, even if it wasn’t THE river, went down very well indeed! When the day turned to night everyone quickly dissipated, tired from a big days’ work. Em and I retreated to the hut, which all but Mark and Julie had passed up. While it was a supposed 10 minute walk from the jetty instead of 10 seconds, it would mean we didn’t have to pack up tarps and gear in the morning. Em and I agreed on a 5am skinny dip and then headed to bed for a very comfortable sleep.
Day 7: yacht and bus rides home
We slept well and were woken by the alarm. The morning was clear and not too cold, but the water made up for that. Our swim was a very short affair, with muted yelps, but felt wonderful as soon as we were out, and as we dried a boo-book owl sounded from nearby. It was a perfect start to the day.
Everyone else was up and packing when we arrived at the boat, and we got away on time. We had a simple breakfast of cereal and tea/coffee, followed by several hours of motoring up the river and then across the harbour. We still had plenty to chat about, while several of the guides caught up on sleep on the roof. Carrot cake came out for morning tea, with more tea and coffee and by the time we’d whiled the rest of the morning away with cards and chatter we were ready for toasted sandwiches and smoothies at Strahan.
The long bus ride home was a quiet affair, everyone tired and a few people a little queasy after the Queenstown bends. But still we had a couple of echidnas to entertain us, and a group of performance cars whizzing by to make sure we didn’t doze off for too long. We said our goodbyes as we prepared to break the bubble we’d been living in for the week and head back to our individual lives. It was a very special thing to have been able to do and I cannot recommend it highly enough (there are a few providers, we went with Water by Nature). I can also highly recommend having an Em in your life!
All up: 122+ km of paddling, 32 hrs on the water (although this included lunch and snack stops and portages) over 7 days (1.5 of which were travel and 1 a day of rest).