‘And forward…’ says Captain Jody of the good raft Soggy McGee in her soft, gentle, good natured, Canadian voice (inflection lingering on the ‘and’ and dropping on the ‘forward’). Three or four strokes later it would be followed by, ‘…and stop’. With the inflection rising on the ‘stop’. Everyone loved being on board Jody’s raft.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Months before stepping aboard the Soggy McGee we were out for a walk in the wilds of Weetangera with the Atkins, when Paul mentioned he was thinking of rafting the Franklin as part of their upcoming Tasmanian adventure. ‘We’ve always wanted to do that’, fell out of my mouth before I’d thought it through.
If I had thought it through I may not have been so quick to lend the venture support. The Franklin is a crazy mixed up river. People have died on it and most commercial rafting outfits won’t take anyone under the age of 16.
Brett from Water By Nature was also clearly cautious and wouldn’t sign us up until Paul or Khia and Emma or I had spoken to him. He was not entirely sold on having 12 year olds (Evie and Amy) and an 11-year-old (Oliver) along for the ride. ‘How old are they again?’ he asked. Followed by ‘That’s quite young’. ‘There are lots of edges’, he kept telling me. ‘And if they fall into a rapid, well there’s sometimes not much you can do and if you can do something it will likely involve a helicopter’.
I found Brett’s concern with edges somewhat reassuring. Experience told me that if anyone was going to fall off an edge it was me, not Amy or Oliver, and I wasn’t worried about me. I was worried about the rapids. I had visions of Oliver being flipped out of a raft caught in a swirling, sucking eddy and drowning before my eyes.
Brett explained that 90 percent of the river is grade 2 and 3 rapids, but the other 10 percent (of navigable river) was grade 4. According to the international rapid grading system, grade 4 rapids, ‘have large waves and powerful confused, currents. Drops are big and stoppers can be large and unavoidable. Fast manoeuvres may need to be made. The route is not clear, and scouting may be needed. Suitable only for very experienced White-water paddlers…’.
All the grade 4 rapids could be walked around if desired, except for Thunderush. In my mind Thunderush went on for a half a kilometre with three metre standing waves, sunken logs and protruding boulders just waiting to pluck my children from my reach! Yikes. Emma and I talked it over, and then we signed up, because we’re like that. I get anxious, Emma calms me down, and then we do these things anyway.
Andrea, our friend from Canada (with much white-water experience) provided helpful advice. She sent me list of ten reasons why I was more likely to die than Amy or Oliver.
- Being anxious in a boat makes you more likely to move against the flow of the boat rather than with it. Amy and Oliver lack the good sense to be aware of their own mortality and that will serve them well. Hang on to one of them if you get anxious.
- Most (like 90%) of deaths in rapids happen because of foot entrapments. Amy is a swimmer. She will not let her feet sink down. It would go against her sense to swim. You on the other hand will more likely panic and sink like a stone. Sorry to say.
- Oliver’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex will think it to be fun if he swims. He will be warm. If it were December here (Canada), that would be a worry. But as it is December there, he will think it a riot, and thus not panic. You on the other hand will more likely open your mouth to scream, water will rush in and… well.
- Amy and Oliver are good students. They will hang on every word the paddling instructors say. They are used to being students and thus absorb far more than those of us who have been out of school for decades. As you worry, you will likely absorb little of what is being said. I worry for you.
- Being 70 lbs is much preferable to being 165. (?). In a sticky hydraulic, they will get tossed up and down and side to side. Those are the weak spots. You and your girth will sink to the bottom where gravity likes to hold the dead weights. Sad but true.
- While your paddle strokes might be more forceful and effective your desire to move the boat rapidly will more likely have you tipping outside the boat in short order. The kids, far more likely to ‘lillydip’, will skim their paddles on the surface and thus not be likely to take a splash.
- Do be careful that when they reach to you with their paddles. You, in your panic are more likely to get pulled in rather than pull them out. So don’t do that. Swim to shore.
- Think like an insurance salesman. Adults are expendable, kids are a massive liability. The death of a kid is the kiss of death for an organisation. The guides will let you go long before they let go of Oliver.
- I got nothing.
- So, if you do wash away (and I still don’t think it likely) I will fly down to let them know that you are the hero. That it was really your concern for them that killed you. That’s a lot of pressure for a kid, so if you don’t want them to bear the weight of that, hang on to them.
All good advice and true, although I contend I hung on every word uttered by our guides with all due care, attention and diligence. After a night camping in the rain, four hour’s drive from Hobart and just off to the side of the Lyell highway where it crosses the Collingwood River, we ‘put in’ the following morning.
While managing to keep a lid on the vapours of my anxiety they were unable to be fully controlled. I drew comfort from Adrian (head guide) who noted as part of the pre-departure briefing, that what he was about to explain (about what happens when rafts flip and people go flying into fast moving water hundreds of kilometres from help) was very much akin to the pre-flight take-off briefing on a plane. All good stuff but almost universally unnecessary.
I wasn’t the only one with a few pre-trip, post safety briefing, jitters. Khia looked like she’d seen a ghost and while I didn’t know Todd and Sarah (parents from the other family that would be joining us for the float down the river) they weren’t all that chatty either following Adrian’s spiel. Emma, Paul and Dana by contrast seemed far less concerned and happy to get underway.
Jody lightened the mood, declaring no-one could possible absorb any more information and directing us into her raft which we later named the Soggy McGee because she leaked profusely and required pumping with air regularly to keep her afloat. As the current carried us away Jody instructed us in how to hold up our part of the rafting bargain. As ‘passengers’, our job was to provide locomotion. Mostly forward and hence the softly spoken command I began with. Sometimes backward and on the odd occasion (mostly after accidentally taking a rapid in reverse) one side forward and the other side back, to spin the raft around and go forward again.
I felt like I spent the first two days proving how slowly my brain operates on holiday, mostly paddling the opposite way to what Jody called for and pausing for too long to think through the instruction.
Six kilometres downstream on the Collingwood and with only the occasional snag on the shallow river bottom (necessitating bouncing on the raft like a bouncy castle to help ease it over the impediment) we reached the intersection with the Franklin. It was pretty. Easily enough to overcome the drizzle and rain which continued for the most part throughout our first day. Unlike hiking, I figured it might as well rain as much as it liked given we were going to get wet anyway. Thing is though, when it’s raining it’s not sunny. And when it’s not sunny you get a little shiver that persists despite wetsuit and standard issue, jailhouse orange thermal undershirts. Songs about sunshine flowed freely as we floated along. ‘Here comes the sun, little darling…’ and ‘Sunshine, on my shoulder, makes me happy..’.
At Admiral Adrian’s urging we pushed on downstream through the beautiful Irenabyss and on to our first night’s camp on the Franklin at the base of Frenchman’s Cap. After unloading the rafts and stringing a tarp, wet, wet suits were changed for dry clothes and the shivers went away. Except for Dana, whose dry bag wasn’t quite sealed with predictable results.
Everyone’s heart sunk for her. No dry clothes. No dry sleeping bag. Uugh. Dana however, adventurous soul that she is, carried on cheerfully, refusing offers of assistance on the basis it was her own fault and refusing to be fazed. She spent the night alone under the tarp in a wet sleeping bag on a wet lilo while the rest of us were squirrelled away in tents. The next morning, bright and cheery she was the only one amongst us keen to climb a thousand vertical metres in the rain to the summit of Frenchman’s Cap – which we didn’t do. The tribe had spoken.
Admiral Adrian was, I suspect, delighted. Heavy rain overnight meant the river had spiked by over a metre and the Admiral was keen to ‘get his float on’. Day two is normally a slog with ‘normal’ river levels meaning equal part floating and exhausting dragging of boats over rocks. We however, kicked back and let the current carry us over gentle rapids which the rafts took easily in their stride.
I began to relax, no longer wedging my feet into nooks and crannies for traction and leaning into the centre of the boat ready to duck for cover every time ruffled water approached. It was like riding splash mountain at Disneyland only… real. A real, healthy, functional, natural, diverse and enchanting ecological wonderland. Thirsty? Stick a cup over the side and drink it down. The catchment of the Franklin is totally intact and the three metres of rainfall each year washes down nothing but tea tree tannins which make the river appear black, like flowing, glassy, obsidian with a trail of swirling white tea tree oil foam marking the swiftest moving water.
We camped that night beneath a tarp on a small clearing four or five metres above river. The sun came out while we set up and like lizards we gravitated to its warmth, sending the shivers packing. We played Pass the Pigs, ploughed through wheels of cheese and crackers and happily drank cask wine in plastic cups while Admiral Adrian held court with tales of rafting trips gone awry, being chased out of camps just like this one by floodwaters rising in the middle of the night and his girlfriend fending off a cougar with plastic fork.
The next day was Christmas. Santa’s elves had hung candy canes from guy ropes overnight and I had a red hat with a white pom pom for the occasion. We celebrated with a cooked breakfast and a grade 6 rapid to start the day at the head of the Great Ravine. We climbed around the edges of the gorge while the guides carefully rigged the rafts on a 50-m rope and sent them ghosting through the thundering water while they held on, and we watched on, from the side.
Then we ran the Corkscrew. A grade 4 rapid that we could have walked around but which everybody opted to run – some without hesitation, others after careful contemplation.
‘Just one ‘sieve’ which it would be bad to fall into at the top’, Admiral Adrian informed us. ‘But otherwise, if you flip you’ll just get washed out into that pool down the bottom’, he said.
Evie, who was sitting behind me, anxiously informed me she didn’t want to die and Khia gave me a look which suggested she didn’t want Evie to die either. I turned around gripped Evie’s knee and told her, more calmly than I felt, that this was what living was all about! She would die, but not today, and over we went.
One day blurred into the next after that as we travelled further downstream absorbed and ever more appreciative of our environment. There was so much to take in.
When it was raining, droplets of water, rebounding off the river, sat upon its surface before merging back into the flow. Up and down the river, martens dived and swerved in erratic unpredictable paths as they hunted for insects feeding on and above the water. Way up high on the ridges of the steep gorges the wind rustled trees which glowed in the sunlight. When it was still the forest was reflected on glassy black waters. Rounding a river bend our brightly coloured boats set cormorants to drag themselves out of the water and into the air. Approaching rapids, the smooth laminar flow of water funnelled into narrows and shallows and the ruffled water caught the light reflecting sky blue on a glassy surface of black. Waterfalls, some tall, some short, some steep and some flat cascaded over rocky surfaces which reminded me of carefully designed Japanese gardens, all covered with mosses and ferns and gnarled and twisted trees and shrubs. Petals from the flowers of leatherwood trees wafted down through the air to settle on the water and in the evening as we sat on the banks, fish leapt from the water as they hunted their prey.
The whole environment is serene and stunningly beautiful. Everything has a place and everything worked together, aesthetically, functionally, spiritually. You could live a happy and healthy life without experiencing a wilderness like the Franklin, but it would be missing something extraordinary. It filled up our senses and I felt so grateful to be there.
The Franklin of course very nearly ceased to exist in the early 1980s when Hydro Tasmania proposed to dam and flood the whole thing. The river at that point was only known, the way we were getting to know it, by a few brave pioneers who had risked life and limb to navigate it with gear not up to the task. Bob Brown and Peter Dombrovski were among them. They, and many others, somehow managed to shift the Franklin from backwater to front of the national consciousness, and against all odds, to prevent the whole place from being drowned.
In the foreword to, The Ever-Varying Flood (by Peter Griffiths and Bruce Baxter), Richard Flanagan says:
In the years that I am fortunate to once more journey down the Franklin River I find myself ever more moved, not just by the exhilarating beauty of this remote wild land, but that this land exists at all. For it is a miracle. In a world where the measure of almost all things is money and power, where so many of the greatest wonders – be they cities, buildings, art – so often exist as a tribute to money and power, the Franklin River exists because over a quarter of a century ago people stood up and said there were some things that mattered more than money and power.
Indeed there are and if wealth were measured by experience instead of things, then a trip down the Franklin would be worth far more than a few years of financial growth in a super fund. It does us all good to know such places still exist. It’s something else altogether to immerse yourself in it, in good company and with good friends. To drink in a healthy environment, figuratively and literally, to spend time in a place where the only obvious sign of people are small clearings where a group can fit side by side to sleep under a tarp in the rain.
We spent a rest day at Newlands on day six, camping in the shelter of overhanging rock caves that I was certain were going to collapse and crush us in our sleep (they didn’t). We entertained ourselves by exploring the river on foot, walking up stream to visit Rock Island Bend, made famous by Peter Dombrovski and starring in the campaign to save the river. We also spent time leaping off a rock platform into the river, playing games, reading books and marvelling at a spotted quoll as it explored our camp.
In the afternoon, we dragged a raft up river to run the rapid in front of our camp again, and again. My confidence that we would survive the river intact was almost undone on our second run when the river wrapped the big red raft around a rock, forcing one side of the boat upward and the other side down into the water which surprisingly quickly swept me, Evie, and Dana away, Paul held on to the back of the raft but was instructed to let go and head to the nearest rock. It was scary and fun at the same time. We were totally out of control but I did remember Admiral Adrian’s instructions and quickly got my feet up in front of me while barking at Evie and Dana to do the same.
Feet up, the river threw us over a couple of drops where we were submerged in fast flowing water and then spat out further downstream. ‘Carnage’ Admiral Adrian calls such events. Evie, Dana and I made our way to the side of the river when the water slowed, battered, bruised and a bit shaken. Then we watched as Captain Jody pondered how to extricate Emma, Amy and Suade from their precarious perch. Paul was stranded on another rock in the surging water (see the great video captured by Rio below).
The next day we quickly dropped out of the upper Franklin and into the slower flowing, but possibly even more beautiful, lower river. Here we had to paddle to get somewhere, not just to avoid being wrapped around rocks in rapids. ‘And forward…’ from Captain Jody became a much more common refrain. Still everyone liked being in Jody’s boat because ‘And stop…’ usually followed more quickly soon after. Captain Jeff meanwhile developed something of a reputation amongst the crew for his addiction human induced forward motion.
Captain Jeff did tell jokes though to compensate.
What did the cheese say when it looked in the mirror? Haloo-me. (Haloumi – get it?). And, did you hear about the French cheese factory that exploded? There was De Brie everywhere. And, what do you call a man with no arms and no legs in a leaf pile? Russell. And, what do you call a man with no arms and no legs in a pot? Stew. And, what do you call a man with no arms and no legs hanging on a wall? Art. And, what do you call a man with no arms and no legs lying on the floor? Mat. And… so it went.
Admiral Adrian meanwhile told tales about the blockade to save the river and the life of river guide.
As we went we stopped to shower under waterfalls on the river edge, explore hidden canyons gushing with water as the rain fell and the Kuti-kina Cave, the latter of which proves Aboriginal occupation of the area going back a remarkable 15 to 20 thousand years, when this temperate rainforest was an alpine grassland. The cave was critical to the areas World Heritage listing. Hydro Tasmania came up with all kinds of crazy schemes to save it in their effort to have the dams go ahead. My favourite involved the proposed construction of a Perspex bubble around the cave with a series of ladders in shafts to allow archaeologists to descend beneath the waters of the proposed lake to access it.
On day nine we paddled out of the Franklin and into the Gordon. Actually, most of us took part in an apparently, time honoured tradition and leapt overboard to make the transition from one river to the other. Once on the Gordon our three rafts were roped together to make our progress more efficient. Which was just as well as a head wind sprung up to painfully slow us down – still it was hard work.
As we passed the site of the proposed Gordon below Franklin dam, Admiral Adrian stood up unexpectedly, pulled a bottle of champagne from somewhere, popped the cork and posed a toast to Bob Brown and those who saved the 125-kilometre river we had just paddled. The champagne bottle was passed up and down the rafts until there were no more bubbles and we resumed our slog into the wind. An hour or so later we rounded a final bend with the jetty at Sir John Falls in sight. We paddled on until the jetty was nearly by our side and Jody called…
We camped one last night beneath the big blue tarp at Sir John Falls before boarding the yacht the Stormbreaker for a relaxing journey down the Gordon, across Macquarie Harbour and into Strahan. Safely aboard the yacht I reflected on the second half of Andrea’s pre-trip counsel to me which went something like this:
So… can your kids die in a class 4 rapid. Yes. Will they? Likely not. What we all need to remember is that the risk of not taking them [to places like the Franklin] is greater than the risk of taking them. The world has created more ways for us to die (both literally and figuratively) than we are conscious of. There are so many traps for our hearts and our thoughts and we are falling into them all the time.
When you can offer your kids the world why would you offer a substitute? Because you’re afraid and it seems then that avoidance and ‘safety’ is the better option? [This is what I feel before every adventure we take.] It is far better, albeit a bit scary, to teach your kids how to feel real things so they don’t go looking for substitute thrills. Let them feel joy and fear simultaneously and help them learn how cope with both. Make sure they can feel fear and not feel intimidated by it. And maybe most important of all make sure your fear doesn’t debilitate them. Life is too short for that.
And because it was so beautiful, below are more photos from the journey.