Rafting the Franklin: a trip of fearful beauty

by Crispin Hull on April 13, 2018

Published in The Canberra Times on 3 April 1982.

The Franklin River, in Tasmania’s wild south-west, is under threat by a hydro-electricity damming scheme. CRISPIN HULL rafted down river, finding the beauties and ruthlessness of the wild.

Franklin River rafters call it the Masterpiece.

It is a slab of rock the size of a car that sticks out on the western side of the river. The river has taken thousands of years to carve it into a smooth, abstract sculpture, and it has not finished its work.

Many other Henry Moore-style sculptures adorn the river’s steep sides, each begun long before human artists ever thought of abstract work.

Smooth grooves, sharpened edges and odd-shaped holes make them natural wonders. The water that carved them can flow slowly and powerfully or gush with turbulent violence that defies the challenge from mere human rafters who dare to take the 90-kilometre trip from the Franklin’s headwater to its junction with the Gordon River.

It is 4pm, March 8, at the bridge where the Hobart-to-Queenstown road crosses the Collingwood River.

Five kilometres downstream the Collingwood joins the Franklin. Four of us on the bus from Hobart meet two others who had arrived the night before. The six of us planned to raft down the Franklin. Seventeen days later only three emerged at the junction with the Gordon River.

The Collingwood had risen from 0.7 metres to 3.3 overnight and was unsafe. Next day it was back to a metre. Seeing the rapidity of the change was a good lesson. Many have heard the phrase “rafting down the Franklin”. It does not convey the enormity of the experience. No two Franklin trips are the same; almost every occurrence and sensation is unpredictable. No one will ride the Franklin if the Tasmanian Government allows the river to be dammed. This report relates the first part of a Franklin adventure. The second part appears tomorrow.

no short cuts. The consequences of rafting on a violent, full river can far outweigh the inconvenience of waiting days in the rain for the river to fall.

We each had a $125, three-metre Taiwanese rubber raft, an air-mat tress on its floor, a couple of water proof barrels, a wet suit, life-jacket, helmet, usual camping gear, medical supplies and what was later to prove a life-saving compass.

The water is like whisky, crystal and very cold. Every stone can be seen through a clear, brown film of water. Dark green vegetation hangs to the water’s edge.

All of us had river experience with either rafts or canoes—the Denison, Gordon, Goodradigbee, Murrumbidgee and the Snowy. But it was not enough for the Collingwood. After a couple of kilometres we came to a log. The first three went through.

The fourth came out and lost his paddle. I came out and in seconds the river had swept my raft and all my gear downstream. Then followed 68 hours of struggle against the elements.

Two of the rafters chased my raft and I got in with one of the others.

(Walking on the bank is almost impossible.) A kilometre or so later we hit a snag, the bouyancy tank ripped apart and the cold water bit hard around the midriff. I struggled to the nearest but wrong side of the river and found myself standing shivering on a tiny rock perch with only helmet, wet suit, life-jacket and sandshoes to my name.

The 30-metre swim to the other side reduced me to near hypothermia. It began to drizzle.

The build-up and exciting enthusiasm for the Franklin trip was shattered and we hadn’t even seen the real river.

I can laugh now. Lunatic journalist takes on Australia’s wildest river, loses all gear on first day, returns home to irate editor who demands return of wasted air fare, and never ventures again from sealed highway.

But then it was different. I wanted to go home. I wanted my Doona.

Kayaking down the warm Murrumbidgee in summer was such a radically different proposition to rafting a cold Tasmanian torrent in March.

Why did two pieces of wood in a river have such mean consequences — gear worth $1,500 gone and pride, gumption and strength taken so quickly? What an unforgiving place.

There was nothing for it now but for the two of us to make our way to the junction. The bank was impossible. There was no gap between the water and the vegetation. We had to scrub-bash and rock-climb so we could walk along the ridge and later drop down to the river junction.

From the junction a track goes back to the highway.

The others arrived. They had found my raft upside down snagged on a log in the middle of the river a short way up from the junction. No sign of the gear. It was too late to do anything about it that night so we camped.

“The vibes are all wrong,” Steve muttered to the campfire. “We’ve been here one day. Lost one raft down the river. Had another one slashed. It’s raining and the river’s rising. I’m walking out tomorrow.

The vibes are all wrong.” Then Lincoln, the organiser of the trip, said he wanted to go, too. His camera was wet. He’d do the trip next year.

The next day they took half their gear and left. I’d spent a miserable • night with no sleeping bag.

The remaining three, Rod Costigan, Sam Rando and Graham Carter, made it obvious they wanted me to go on. I thought I’d proved myself a liability, but they knew four was safer than three.

We went to rescue my raft. It took four hours, mostly in the rain. And the more they worked, and risked, and got wet and struggled in the middle of the river the more I was obliged to continue. To walk out would ruin their trip. Oh, how I wanted to be out! “You’ll live it down,” I thought.

“A mishap. Gear lost. It’s excusable.

They’ll understand.” The raft, air-mattress and large barrel came ashore. The small barrel, with sleeping bag, tent, camera and $50 had gone. I thought it a blessing, in a way. It was an excuse to go. The river and rain and cold night had been so brutal the loss was irrelevant. The wild was distorting hitherto accepted values. But the wild’s values were right — $800 worth of gear was irrelevant. I couldn’t and wouldn’t face the river again. I had an excuse. My mind was made up. When the others came back, I would walk out with them the next day.

Steve had spent three years in south-west Tasmania, and he was walking out. It was all right for the other three. They hadn’t come out of their rafts. They hadn’t lost any gear.

They hadn’t spent a night without a sleeping bag.

Next morning brought a rude shock.

“We’ll need Steve’s tent, and Crispin can borrow his sleeping bag,” Rod said casually.

And sure enough, when Steve got back he agreed. Gone was the excuse to walk out and I faced a gruesome choice: either walk out, causing the people who had worked so hard to retrieve their trip to abandon it and facing the shame in Canberra, or endure the river, the rain, the fear, the cold and discomfort. Why did I ever come here? Why didn’t I leave this wilderness alone? It was brave-face time.

“I came to raft the Franklin. And raft the Franklin I will. I will conquer this river.” Then Sam: “You don’t conquer this river; it lets you ride along it — sometimes.” Sam has spent the past four years trying to save the Franklin and a friend of his was killed on the Denison. This was the first time his river feeling came out. It was to come out again and-would grow with all of us.

We spent the rest of the day redividing the food so Lincoln and Steve could leave that evening. Sinking-stomach feelings came over me as they left, taking with them a chance to return quickly to civilisation.

It’s a river of contrast, river of change, river of beauty, joy, fear and freedom.

A cloudless sky greeted us next day. The whisky ran over the stones with a more gentle rapidity. The rafts went with it. The sun on their stark, yellow, pin-pointed human smallness in a great green-and-brown wild. The river was letting us ride on it, easing us over small rapids, giving us practice and confidence.

Round a bend it took us, and there, on a rock, was the missing barrel. Out of the raft. Open the top.

Camera, tent, sleeping bag all spotlessly dry.

“How are the vibes, Crispin?” Sam calls.

I’m laughing defiantly.

“High, high. What a river,” I call back.

A little further down, the Loddon River sneaks into the Franklin.

These rivers are so unlike others.

They have carved their way through rock, and the vegetation crowds the steep sides, making the surface of the water the total river. There are no shoulders or flat sides. The first Huon pines crowd the sides of the Loddon, too far upstream to. fall victim of the early loggers.

We paddle gently into an almost still pond and a distant roar breaks the silence. At the end of the pond, giant Huon trunks have been slammed against a rock in the centre of the river. We went to the bank and got out to see the other side. The water was sweeping over one log and narrowing into a violent gush of white before squeezing under another. The innocence of the still water above was so deceptive. To have been swept over the first log would have been death. The raft would have been sucked under the second, trapping the human airless beneath the churning water.

It was our first portage. All the gear and rafts had to be hauled up the steep sides, along and back down — four hours of toil to go 200 metres. It’s no wonder such rapids get names like Nasty Notch.

Others can be shot, like one the next day — three-quarters of a kilo metre of white foam swirling among boulders in the river. I wrote in the diary that night: “The rafts perform superbly.

They buckle in the stoppers, bouncing over the huge back-waves, taking the shape of the river. The rapid is fearsome. The river just took me down the wrong channel. I cursed my incompetence, spun backwards and crashed side-on into a rock.

“‘Lean downwards, lean down wards,’ I’m screaming to myself above the roar. It’s against instinct, but it works. If you lean up, the water pours in over the side and you go under. The raft freed. I went over a one-metre drop, the raft was vertical. Fear, real fear. A slight release as can get out and cling to rock wall where the stream is fast-flowing but not rapids. I manage to bail 50 he!metfuls. We know we have to go on because the rock cliffs are too steep to portage round. More violent rapids — terrifying, exhilarating and then release, a triumphant relief as we drift into Irenabyss Gorge.” Bob Brown, of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, named the gorge from the Greek eirene, peace, and abyssos, bottomless. This place must be one of the great natural wonders of this continent. The four of us stopped paddling. In solemn silence we let the rafts just drift, turning slowly as we gazed in wonder at the sheer rock walls twice the height of a room and at the rest of the gorge that towered 80 metres above. We stayed for two hours at this marvel.

Immediately after the gorge the river opens out and there is an obvious camp site where we find a battered kayak.

“Probably the guy who died last year in those rapids we just shot,” Sam says.

The comment reinforces respect for the river — for its danger, its beauty, its wildness. That beauty-danger contrast con trolled the next two days. Sunday brought a love affair with the river — the multiple greens of Huon pine, scrub and other trees, confident raftng dispelling the danger myth, real naked enjoyment of nature so men tally far away from rectangular civilisation.

Monday. Rod goes down a rapid.

His paddle shaft breaks. He falls out. Uncaring, the river pushes his body under and slams it into a log.

He just gets up, staggering to the bank. We get to him. He’s in deep shock, eyes rolled back, having difficulty breathing. We think he has broken ribs. He obviously can’t go on.

Now we were to meet the wilderness head on. Sam, an experienced Tasmanian bushwalker, and I were to walk out to get a helicopter.

“Make no mistake. This is going to be the hardest walk of your life,” he told me.

He was right.

Part 2. Published in The Canberra Times 4 April 1982.

Fewer than 2,000 people have rafted down the Franklin River

Its waters are drawn from an area where there are no towns and no farms. In more than 100 kilometres only one road crosses it, two four-wheel drive roads go down to it and four walking tracks lead out from it. So two of the nation’s greatest natural wonders, Irenabyss Gorge and the Great Ravine, are accessible only by raft — a trip which can take up to 20 days

Most go down with no serious mishap. They look at the rugged sides and marvel at how the river has carved its way so far down. But if there is a mishap, those rugged sides have to be traversed, and then comes a real appreciation of wilderness

On the seventh day of our trip Rod Costigan came out of his raft in a rapid and was slammed into a log. His chest was injured and his ribs were probably broken. He was having trouble breathing and we were concerned that he might have internal injuries.; . Rod landed on the wrong side of the river. On that steep bank he had no place to go easily if the river rose

We took him across the river. That last sentence took you an instant to read. It took us three hours to rig a safety rope and bring the injured Rod and all our gear across and up to a safe makeshift campsite

Two of us, Sam Rando and I, were to get help.

Rod would stay with the fourth rafter, Graham Carter

We started at 5pm. Before long we ran into bauera, a type of ti tree that sends its branches out like a creeper. They call it horizontal scrub. It was like walking through a hedge longways.

Most of the way we went backwards, crashing our backs into it, swearing and cursing at it as it scratched our faces, wrists and chins. The stuff was so thick it supported a person’s weight with ease. Some of the time our feet didn’t touch the ground; we were half climbing over the top of the scrub.

It was getting dark and we still hadn’t got to I the top of the ridge, which was less than a kilometre from the river, according to the map. It had taken four hours to go 500 metres, and in that 500 metres we had climbed 200 metres.

But the bauera was good for one thing: you just had to fall back into it a couple of times to form a tolerable bed. We didn’t have a tent and, of course, it rained.

Our aim was to walk to the ridge and along it to Mount Fincham and then to the Mount Fincham track — a four-and-a-half kilometre walk from the river

Next day we got to the ridge and took a bearing 40 degrees on Mount Fincham. It was so close and it looked so easy. We were putting pieces of toilet paper on trees in case we had to find our way back. The ridge went down into a saddle and the ground flattened out. We started walking up the other side, dodging the thickest of the undergrowth. Then mist closed us in.

The compass seemed to go wrong. It often happens when there is iron in the hills. All we could do was continue up until the scrub cleared. It was after midday. We had been walking six hours. Up through the scrub I could see some white on a tree. It couldn’t be. It just couldn’t be. But it was. It was paper, toilet paper, our toilet paper. It took some time to sink in, but we had walked six hours for nothing.

The compass had been right the whole time, but in the bottom of the saddle while dodging scrub we had somehow managed to turn 180 degrees. It was classic. People in the wild walking in circles; the rescuers themselves needing rescue.

We were utterly demoralised, and scared. No one knew we were here. It would be days after our food ran out before a search party came.

What of Graham and Rod on the river? It had taken so long to do so little. What if we had made a mistake pinpointing the accident place on the map? Should we follow the toilet paper back to the river? The wild was beating us. What would it be like to die of starvation or exposure? Alone, I would have given up. Later Sam said he had the same feeling, but together it was different. Sam gave me the compass. We resolved to take a reading every 10 metres and walk to it no matter how thick the scrub. We walked a dead-straight line 40 degrees north. The going got horrific. Cut-grass taller than us, more bauera and other scrub made even the 10-metre readings difficult. Then the scrub cleared and we made it to the top of Mount Fincham. We confronted a new problem: the mist had closed in. It was a white-out and we couldn’t see the spur, which, according to the map, led to the track. Blind navigation was called for. From the map the spur was 318 degrees. We had to walk in that direction, taking bearings as the mist would allow.We double-checked the bearing because Mount Fincham has 120-metre cliffs on two sides and we couldn’t afford another mistake

We descended into the scrub, occasionally finding smaller, 10-metre cliffs, sometimes having one foot over them before realising they were there, because of the scrub. Ironically the accursed bauera saved us. It, and banksia trees, could be used to help us abseil and climb down

The ground flattened and we entered quiet, damp rainforest with no undergrowth. Moss, fungus and ferns grew over the dead logs and up the trunks

Suddenly the track. We were saved, and we hugged and shook hands in middle of the Tasmanian wild. It had taken 16 hours to walk four and a half kilometres

The track was easier, if a bit overgrown

Occasionally it degenerated to a minor creek and we walked in ankle-deep water and mud. The ubiquitous leeches took their share of our blood

We virtually ran the track to get to the road before nightfall. Then we walked all night to the Lyell Highway, where we flagged down a car to the Queenstown police station.

There Sergeant Graham Kingston and Senior Constable Geoff Lesley organised a helicopter.

There were no moral lectures about foolhardy adventurers, just efficient concern for the injured man and how to get him out.

The helicopters cost $500 an hour and the Tasmanian Government has to foot the bill. Tasmanians are justifiably irate. Geoff Lesley would like to see a scheme under which the rescued party would pay. Adventurers could then insure themselves against having to pay for rescue. Few would object. We persuaded the police to give us a ride in the helicopter to retrieve our gear. It took 15 minutes to cover what had taken two days on foot.

In the air we told Geoff Lesley there was no way we would try to walk from the river with our gear; we would continue the trip and report back in 10 days.

Pilot Garry Jukes rested the helicopter skids on what seemed a tiny rock at the edge of the river. With the rotor still going we helped Rod and his gear aboard. It was all over so quickly — a. tribute to the police work — and we were back on the river without so much as a taste of the goodies we had longed for while walking to Queenstown

After a day’s rafting we were in the eight-kilometre-long Great Ravine, with its near-vertical sides towering 250 metres above. The names of the reaches and rapids speak for themselves: Inception Reach, the Churn, Serenity Sound, the Coruscades, Transcendence Reach, Thunderrush, the Sanctum, the Cauldron and finally Deliverance Reach

The river invites risk. At Thunderrush there was a choice: either carry up the cliff and over (six hours’ work) or carry along the rocks (an hour) and shoot the bottom half. Loading up the tied-up rafts in the middle of the rapid was stomach-churning. The name is right— the river thunderrushes over and around the rocks. There were two 1.5-metre drops, five rocks and a couple of logs to avoid. Any one could cause injury or death.

I started analysing the risk. Two thousand have done the trip and some say nine or 10 have died. That’s one in 200. Hang-gliding, parachuting and even Australians in Vietnam have a better record. It brought physical, adrenalin pumping fear.

Graham went first, then my turn. I got out of my raft.

“What’s the matter,” Sam said, bewildered.

I walked over to a crevice of shallow water and sat down and let the cold bite the midriff.

“Just wetting myself,” I replied, with a nervous smile

He laughed at the pun. I said, “Better to have the cold water bite me here than down there.” Cold water on the skin can be confidence-shattering in rapids

Into the raft and off. In the first shoot the paddle jams between two rocks and one of the blades snaps off. The raft spins and goes backwards over the first drop. It’s half-full of water. I overcorrect. The raft does a 360 and goes backward down the next drop. Round the rocks and logs it goes hopelessly out of control but magically stable. The juxtaposition of fear and .exhilaration dissolves into undeserved self-satisfaction — the raft did it all

The walls of the ravine block most of the sky, leaving a narrow band of stars at night. The sides were so steep we had a split-level camp. The tent was perched high above the river in a place the size of two tables and the fire and gear were put further up. If anyone injudiciously rolled over at night the whole lot would have tumbled into the river.

The ravine, and indeed the whole river, makes individuals so small. Wilderness is needed to put individuals in perspective. We don’t have much courage when we face it alone. We have to gang up against it and tear into it with the help of machines. Collectively we’re very brave. We can engineer the conquering of the wilderness. But taming the wilderness is a contradiction in terms. There is only destruction

After the ravine it rained, and this extraordinary river once again radically altered it’s character. Thirty millimetres of rain overnight caused it to rise a metre and it widened — no more big-drop, narrow rapids. The river was 50 or 60 metres wide with grey limestone walls on one side. The full, flooded river swept us with smooth speed to the junction with the Gordon.

There was no need to paddle or negotiate; there was time to think. Dare they fill that limestone cave with water? Dare they drown that 1,000-year-old pine? Dare they put a barbecue spot above a flooded Great Ravine? Dare they banish a thousand rock sculptures and the Irenabyss Gorge to a dark world of stagnant water? We drift down the quick Gordon in the early morning mist of the last day and forget all the toughness, toil and fear. There was no feeling of exhilaration or even satisfaction —just appreciation that the river had let us travel its course, and sadness at human folly.

We meet the culture-shock aboard the tourist boat Denison Star. Its vinyl seats and throbbing engine tell us “Yes, they dare.” But we read an entry in the log book kept for rafters and know the river has not lost yet: four bracketed names and a praise for the river followed by another name with the word “deceased” after it, and below: NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE WILDNESS OF THIS RIVER.

Postscripts:

The Hawke Government legislated in 1983 to protect the Franklin using the Commonwealth’s foreign affairs-power to implement the World Heritage Treaty. Tasmania’s challenge to the legislation in the High Court was unsuccessful and the Franklin River was saved.

After I returned to Canberra, a parcel arrived. It was a book on the Tasmanian wilderness. It is was an inscription: “Crispin, Thank you for saving my life, Rod.”

Pictures (to come):

Only Sam Rando’s head (circled) and his paddle blade can be seen as the violent Franklin water hides the rest of his raft.

Graham Carter, left, and Rod Costigan prepare to set out from the junction of the Collingwood and Franklin Rivers.

The injured Rod Costigan is helped to the helicopter, which rests the front of its skids on a rock. He spent 48 hours in the Queenstown hospital with chest injuries.

The 300-metre-deep Irenahyss gorge. The river is dwarfed by quartzite cliffs as it carves its way between rock walls.

Rod Costigan shoots a rapid on the upper Franklin. A rucksack tied to the front of his raft bobs up as the rest of the raft gets obscured by the swirling water.

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>