River landing makes a splash

Greg Clarke tracks the iconic Franklin and Gordon waterways by seaplane.

Forested peaks are almost within touching distance and the fabled Franklin River is below, winding through unreconstructed green. Then, briefly, a bank of clouds appears and the river briefly disappears from view.

The Franklin flows for 125 kilometres through the Franklin-Gordon Wild Rivers National Park in western Tasmania. There are no roads around or through its heart. One of the key ways to explore it is by raft; typically, expeditions are for eight to 14 days. For those without the time or the inclination for white-water rafting, there is the aerial view.

For three companions and me, the first glimpse of the Franklin comes at 800 feet while we're in a seaplane. Those clouds don't lurk above the Franklin for long and we track the mighty river and its embrace of forest towards its confluence with the Gordon River.

We've taken a circuitous path to this point, flying over Macquarie Harbour and Hells Gate, a narrow passage connecting the harbour to the Southern Ocean. With the confluence in sight, our pilot points the plane to the water.

We touch down on a fluid runway every bit as smooth as regular tarmac, though I can feel the water give beneath the plane as we meet the Gordon River. There isn't a great deal of room between wingtips and riverbanks or the simple timber jetty where we will disembark.

We moor at a landing by St Johns Falls, the point where rafters finish paddling and once the front line of the fight by environmental activists against the construction of a dam here. The sound of falling water draws us along a boardwalk to the base of waterfalls, barely 30 metres under a canopy of rainforest from the plane.

The stars of the forest - huon pines, pandanus ferns and myrtles - are perfectly crowded in here but there is just enough room for a pocket of white sand. There will be other visitors around, somewhere, but we can't see them. While rafters are immersed in the Franklin's rapids, we stay dry and enjoy the falls, the forest and the triumph of this fiercely protected wilderness.

Occasional superlatives are exchanged with my companions but mostly the only sound is of tumbling water.

The weather in western Tasmania is notoriously fickle and clouds close in once more. Rain threatens yet may be a clue to further good fortune. Our skipper won't be taking us from here if he doesn't have clear vision for flying and for a moment I have a sense we might spend longer in this lovely spot than the allocated 20 minutes. But soon enough, the clouds slip away and we're back on the plane, 'skiing' over the Gordon. We cruise briefly in the river valley, then take a direct path back to the harbour.

Smoke rising from chimneys in the forest indicates the whereabouts of unimposing Strahan, just beyond the western edge of this World Heritage wilderness. The town, fitting snuggly into a pocket of Macquarie Harbour, curls around the shoreline. Historic buildings, including a clutch of 19th century properties constructed when some residents parlayed the riches of a local mining boom, add to the town's charm. But so does some quick maths: on our final approach into Strahan I count more boats at anchor than cars in a waterside car park. We make another river landing, wait for a vessel to pass and tie up by a crayfish boat, pots stacked neat on deck.

Much later, I walk in the darkest of nights from my hotel to Risby Cove, the restaurant I've been told is the town's finest. I tuck into trout farmed in the harbour and raise a glass of Tasmanian pinot noir to the largely untracked wilderness around me, and the privilege of seeing it.

Greg Clarke travelled courtesy of Tourism Tasmania.


Getting there

Strahan, on Tasmania's mid-west coast, is four hours' drive from Launceston or a five-hour drive from Hobart. Although Strahan is only about 300 kilometres from Hobart, the drive is via the highlands and the single-lane road has plenty of twists and turns.

Staying there

A variety of accommodation is available on the Strahan waterfront. Strahan Village has a two-night package in low season for $419 a couple, including hotel accommodation, two tickets on a Gordon River cruise and breakfast. See puretasmania.com.au or strahanvillage.com.au.

Risby Cove on the Esplanade has one- and two-bedroom apartments and a restaurant. A one-bedroom spa apartment costs $195 a night low season; see risby.com.au.

Flying there

A one-hour seaplane flight with Strahan Seaplanes costs $210 a person with four passengers. Flights run from September-May. See strahanseaplanesandhelicopters.com.au.