South-West Tasmania: Rafting the Franklin River on a eight-day guided tour

In the middle of a long dry summer, Tasmania's Franklin River is a skinny version of itself. Water levels are low, and through its many bends the river slows more than it flows. At the base of Pig Trough, one of the river's fiercest rapids, our rafts are doing nothing more than gently rolling in the flat of an eddy.

Ahead of us, rising like the bow of a sinking ship, is Rock Island Bend, parting the Franklin's dark waters. It's an image so familiar that it feels a little like nature imitating art. Softened with mist, this very scene once helped save the Franklin River from being dammed. But, so too, in its own way, did rafting.

During the March 1983 federal election, as part of a protest blockade to halt the construction of dams that would submerge much of the river, an evocative photo of Rock Island Bend by Peter Dombrovskis was used in full-page newspaper advertisements across Australia.

The now famous image helped turn sentiment against the dams with its caption, "Could you vote for a party that will destroy this?".

Bob Hawke, who had been elected opposition Labor Party leader in February , promised to stop construction of the dams and was elected prime minister. The dams were never built.

It was, and arguably remains, Australia's most significant environmental blockade, and one of the then fledging Green movement's most prized victories. But it may never have happened at all were it not for the rafts. For many of the blockade's leaders, passion for the Franklin was sparked by rafting trips in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Among them was future Greens leader Bob Brown, who was in the first party to raft the river in 1976, and Geoff Law, who paddled the river in 1981 and now leads a rafting trip each year for World Expeditions.

"The river changed my life," he says. "I was an aimless youth at the time. I'd done some fruit picking, I had a degree in science I wasn't very motivated to use, and suddenly there was this urgent, compelling necessity to save this river.

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"I think most people who went down the river were changed by it. They gained an appreciation of the beauty of this place, but also its fragility."

At around the same time, the first commercial rafting trip, operated by Australian Himalayan Expeditions (now World Expeditions and the operator of the river journey I've undertaken), brought paying rafters to the river. Four decades on, rafters continue to descend the Franklin, lurching through its rapids, skidding past Rock Island Bend, and experiencing a remarkably untouched wilderness.

INTO THE GREEN HEART

In the shadow of the Lyell Highway bridge, our three rafts drift into the flow of the Collingwood River, the tributary that will lead us to the Franklin. The sound of a passing car behind us will be about the last evidence of other humankind for the next eight days.

Our crafts on the river are six-person inflatable expedition rafts. Strapped to them are barrels carrying eight days' worth of food, portable fridges that will have us eating fresh food well down the river and large waterproof bags that hold and protect our personal gear – sleeping bags, sleeping mats and a mass of warm clothing.

Unlike typical white-water rafting trips, which provide a few quick squirts of adrenalin, the Franklin River offers the sense of a true journey. For eight days we'll flow as the river commands, winding for 100 kilometres through the green heart of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

Out here it's the river that dictates travel, not travel that dictates the river. As history has seemed to show, the Franklin bends to nobody's will, and the pace and effort of the coming days is at the whim of water levels.

At high water, rafting here is wild and fast, while at low water it's as though the plug has been pulled on the waterways. It's engrossing but hard work. High water is most likely early in the season – November and December – with water levels typically falling through the dry of summer. Heavy rain sees the river rise and fall significantly and rapidly.

"I had a trip a couple of months ago where the water level was so high," says guide Declan Reid, "that a couple of people in the raft didn't even need to paddle along the entire river."

For two days on the Collingwood and the upper Franklin, we wrestle the rivers as much as raft them. The water is like black silk, though more often it's like an obstacle course as we heave and haul rafts over rocks, logs and anything else that intrudes across the river.

Rainforest smothers the land, but it's only midway through the second day that the stars of the Tasmanian forest, Huon pines, begin to appear, drooping from the banks. One moment there are none, the next they're plentiful as the river wraps around the foot of Frenchmans Cap and enters Descension Gorge, the first of the Franklin's four major gorges.

It was this gorge that stopped the first canoeists who attempted to run the river in the 1950s. Canoes were lost, broken and a man swept downstream unconscious but we squirm our way through until the river slows almost to a complete stop inside the Irenabyss.

Like so many features along the river, the Irenabyss – the Greek words for "chasm of peace" – was named by Bob Brown during his 1976 descent. Inside its narrow slot, the cliffs are little more than the width of a raft apart and the water is up to 20 metres deep. Inside the chasm, nothing seems to move, not the water, not the rafts. It's like sitting inside a painting.

"I waited so many years to see the Irenabyss and every time I go through it I get the same feeling," says guide Sam Brain. "It's one of the most amazing places I've ever seen."

RISE AND FALL

The week's first rain is falling as we paddle into the Great Ravine, two days beyond the Irenabyss. It's either a relief or a portent: will the river rise and smooth our way, or is it just the weather's way of welcoming us into the river's most complex and challenging section?

The Great Ravine is where the Franklin gets furious, brawling its way around, over and under boulders larger than houses. The first European to sight the gorge described it as a "hideous defile", and it's filled with ominous rapids named like show rides: the Churn, Sidewinder, Thunderush, the Cauldron.

Even at the most benign of times there are Great Ravine rapids you don't raft, and hours slip by in complicated portages, hauling the rafts and gear over rocks and across cliff faces. But here the Franklin isn't just a river, it's a place of awe, with cliffs and densely forested slopes rising up to 500 metres above the churning waterway.

It's afternoon as we enter the Great Ravine, clinging to narrow rock ledges as we portage the rafts through the Churn, and making camp beside Serenity Reach, a taut section of river that's like the eye in the Great Ravine storm.

In the evening I scale one of the enormous boulders that overlooks the chaos and magnificence of the turbulent Coruscades rapid. I'm soon joined by Law, who's also still marvelling at this river that contains not a single house or patch of cultivated land in its catchment.

"During the campaign, the Tasmanian premier, Robin Gray, described the Franklin as a brown, leech-ridden ditch," he says with a shake of his head.

I sleep this night on a narrow bench of land beneath a large fern with, like most other nights, a tarpaulin strung through the trees as shelter against the rain. As darkness falls, I discover that my bed is all but ringed by glow-worms. It's like a starry night without a sky.

The rain has been a tease and by morning the sun burns on as we continue through this gorge that's like a paper cut in the mountains of south-west Tasmania. "This is a really cool day," says guide Jordie Rieniets. "Lots of problem-solving, lots of action."

It will take us seven hours to cover seven kilometres inside the Great Ravine, puzzling our way through four more convoluted portages. We pack rafts, unpack rafts and pack rafts again, until inside the turmoil and white noise of Thunderush, something as simple as a stumble on wet rock lands us in trouble.

With the stumble, one of the rafts slips away, wedging itself atop a five-metre-high waterfall, where it sits pinned beneath tonnes of pouring water. We stand by helpless as the guides struggle to wrench it free. Finally the raft releases, only to flip as it shoots over the waterfall, landing upside down, wedged between rocks. Our gear and the barrels filled with our food hang from it like stalactites.

The game of righting a heavy raft begins once more. We regroup over lunch atop the flat boulders around Thunderush. Guides who minutes before were wrestling 500-kilogram rafts over waterfalls and boulders now gently slice up apples and oranges. It's a curious imbalance of brutality and beauty, just like the river.

FROM LEAPING TROUT TO LURCHING DESCENTS

"This is the best and most pure rafting day on the river," Jordie declares the next morning as we glide out from camp at Rafters Basin. The Great Ravine is behind us and the river has stilled, as though ironed flat. It's a momentary pause before the Franklin narrows again into Propsting Gorge.

It's no stretch to say that all that's good about rafting is found inside this long gorge. Flat, seemingly motionless pools of water are broken by steep, unruly rapids, little moments of wild within a serene prehistoric landscape of Huon pines, myrtle beech and a thick jacket of moss.

Trout leap ahead of the rafts, and as the river cuts through narrow channels of dark rock it's like paddling between lava flows. The rapids form a staircase of lurching descents – drops of one or two metres, each one raftable – that end just beyond Rock Island Bend at the Franklin's longest raftable rapid, the 400-metre-long Newland Cascades. It's rodeo on water.

Newland Cascades is also the point at which the Franklin changes character, with the river flattening and widening, and jagged limestone cliffs replacing the hard quartzite riverbanks. There are mountains ahead named after escaped convicts, but still the same pelt of rainforest as far as the eye can see.

Only three rapids remain – the rather unimaginatively named Little Fall, Double Fall and Big Fall, as though somebody lost interest and creative energy this far down the river – and caves puncture the riverbanks, including Kutikina Cave, which was inhabited by Aboriginal people during the last ice age.

An archaeological dig inside Kutikina in 1981 found more than 300,000 artefacts, such as stone tools and bone fragments, in an area of less than one cubic metre. Under plans for the dams, the cave – one of the richest archaeological sites ever found in Australia – would have been flooded. Instead, Kutikina helped the area secure World Heritage status. Before we continue down the river, however, we stop for a night at Newland Cascades, where the Franklin's most atmospheric camp sits poised above the end of the rapids. A high cliff arches over the river, sheltering the rock ledges and caves that will be our bedrooms.

With river levels low, I take the opportunity to wander back upstream from camp to the familiar and hypnotic lean of Rock Island Bend. A high waterfall pours down into the stout-coloured river, and the water seems to part reverentially around the island. Only a few hundred people get to see this spot each year, and yet a country chose to save it. Standing here, it's not difficult to understand.

FACES OF THE FRANKLIN: THE CONSERVATIONIST, GEOFF LAW

Does the river still have the capacity to change people?

I see the impact of the river on people who have never done anything like this before. They see these gorges with the polished burnished rocks, they see ancient Huon pines, they see blankets of rainforest, they go through the Great Ravine with sprawling rapids and then they see the Aboriginal caves. It gives people a connection back to wild places.

Is it fair to say that rafting helped save the Franklin?

It is because Bob Brown's efforts encouraged people to go down the river. In the end there were hundreds of people who took the bold step of buying a rubber raft, finding some companions and heading off, with the benefit of Bob's little manual, down the river. That galvanised a generation of young people who joined the campaign.

Has commercial rafting improved the environment and experience on the river?

When I went down the river in 1981, there were so many private groups – little ragtag expeditions – and in the well-used campsites there was a turd under every rock. There were problems, even, with some degree of sickness on the river. In the 1990s the rafting companies collectively decided voluntarily to remove all human waste. It's certainly made for a better river experience than we had in 1981.

FACES OF THE FRANKLIN: THE MUSICIAN, SHANE HOWARD

Shane Howard was lead singer of Australian band Goanna, and wrote the song Let the Franklin Flow in 1983.

What so inspired you about the Franklin River to write Let the Franklin Flow?

The dark silence, the sense of an ancient, remote and undisturbed country, moved me deeply. A wild landscape, untamed and seemingly untameable, shaped by powerful natural forces and yet, here was the hand of modern man wanting to undo this epic work of art, of nature, of creation, for commerce.

Where does Let the Franklin Flow stand among your most important songs, or your greatest statements in songs?

At the time, I saw it as a purpose-built song for the times. I didn't really see it as having the reach that it's now garnered. I often play it live and it still evokes a deep sense of zeitgeist for me, for people who remember that campaign and for all people who value the spiritual reality of country.

What was it particularly about the Franklin that you felt was so important?

It symbolised epic grandeur, set against the epic stupidity of modern man's ability to view the world only in terms of potential economic outcomes. In that sense, it was a turning point in Australian environmental history. The Franklin River campaign lit the spark of the mainstream environmental movement in Australia.

FACES OF THE FRANKLIN: THE WILDERNESS PHOTOGRAPHER, GRANT DIXON

Tasmanian photographer Grant Dixon was involved in the campaign to save the Franklin, and has rafted the river four times.

As a wilderness photographer, what do you find inspiring about the Franklin River?

I've been privileged to visit many wild parts of our planet and seen and experienced many inspiring places. The Franklin River is certainly up there, but there's something extra and personal that comes from the history of the campaign to preserve it from development, and the fact that I was involved in all that.

What impact did Dombrovskis' Morning Mist Rock Island Bend photo have on you?

[The image itself] didn't have a big impact in isolation, but the collection of images of the Franklin River I first saw in the early 1980s, many by Peter Dombrovskis, made me aware there was this wild place out there I didn't then know and that deserved protection.

What are the main difficulties of working on the Franklin for a photographer?

Water, obviously, and the conflicting aims of both protecting your photo gear from it – both river and rain – while having it relatively accessible for use. And the again often-conflicting aims of concentrating on undertaking a tough wilderness journey safely while being open to photographic opportunities. See grantdixonphotography.com.au

FACES OF THE FRANKLIN: THE FIRST-TIME RAFTER, EMMA WASSON

What drew you to rafting the Franklin River?

I think of the Franklin River as a wellspring of inspiration for the environment movement across Australia. Rock Island Bend is like the Holy Grail if you're an environmentalist, as I am, so I wanted to be there and see if for myself.

What did you find most striking about the trip and the river?

The rock formations along the river had me fascinated and wondering about what was happening on the planet at the time they were formed. There were works of art in the rocks everywhere I looked. Having drunk from the river every day for eight days I feel I have a more embodied experience and more detailed understanding of what the campaign would have been like to protect it.

Do you think you'll return to the Franklin?

I hope I'll return one day in a kayak. I fell in love with the pure, wild camping style and being so close to the ancient landscape and old-growth rainforest. I can't wait until I meet the river again.

THE FRANKLIN AND ME, THE RAFTING GUIDE, JORDIE RIENIETS

How many times have you been down the river?

I've done 38 trips – a bit over a year of my life – on the river. I found the first trip quite physical so I wasn't sure if I wanted to guide here, but it became my dream job pretty quickly after my second trip. I knew I wanted to hang out here and make it my occupation.

What first hooked you about the Franklin?

On the first trip I was really keen on the white-water and the rapids, but it soon shifted away from that and became more just the beauty of the place and the journey on the river.

Is it rare to get such a complete sense of journey on a river?

For sure. You can get a small sense on other rivers, but unless you're on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, it's pretty rare to be able to spend an extended time on a river, carrying everything with you, and not see too many other people.

Guiding here must be a mix of the serene and the physically brutal?

It can be, but the brutal part is usually accompanied by sunny weather and beautiful times, so it's still good.

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE FRANKLIN RIVER

20,000 to 12,000 years ago: Aboriginal people lived in caves along the lower Franklin River.

1822: Alexander Pearce and six other escaped convicts from Sarah Island are believed to be the first Europeans to sight the river. Pearce later ate his fellow escapees.

1841: Surveyor James Calder makes the first official discovery of the river.

1958: After two failed attempts, a team of four make the first descent of the river in canoes.

1976: Bob Brown and Paul Smith make the first rafting descent of the Franklin.

1978: Australian Himalayan Expeditions runs the first commercial rafting trip on the river.

1979: Australian Himalayan Expeditions (now World Expeditions) launches the first commercial rafting trips on the Franklin.

1982: The Tasmanian Wilderness is granted World Heritage status. On the same day, the Franklin blockade begins. More than 1200 people were arrested in the blockade.

1983: Bob Hawke's Labor Party wins the federal election on a promise to stop the dams, though the Tasmanian government continues construction work. The High Court rules in a 4-3 vote that the federal government has the power to legislate to enforce an international treaty – World Heritage status, in this case.

1994: Richard Flanagan's novel Death of a River Guide, set on a rafting trip on the Franklin River, is published, renewing interest in the waterway.

TRIP NOTES

Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of World Expeditions.

MORE

traveller.com.au/tasmania

discovertasmania.com.au

FLY

Virgin Australia flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Launceston, where the rafting begins. See virginaustralia.com.au

PADDLE

World Expeditions runs rafting trips on the Franklin River between November and March. Trips include up to eight people plus guides, and are rated as moderate to challenging, requiring reasonable fitness and the ability to paddle for up to six or eight hours a day. Trips begin at $2985. See worldexpeditions.com

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