Franklin River rafting in Tasmania

Franklin River rafting in Tasmania

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franklin river rafting
Photos: Louise Southerden

You are not important here, in this wild place. The seasons determine when you come and the river decides how long you’ll stay. You’re going to spend at least part of the next nine days wet through, cold and longing for the warmth of your own bed. You’ll be challenged on every level. You might even feel a twinge of fear as you negotiate your way through whitewater rapids with names like Thunderush, Jawbreaker and The Cauldron. But, strange as it sounds right now, you won’t want to be anywhere else when you’re rafting down the Franklin River, through Tasmania’s wilderness.

franklin river

Lying at the heart of one of the wildest and most remote parts of Australia, Tasmania’s most famous river has an ominous reputation.

When it first appeared on maps, in the 1830s, the Franklin snaked through a blank space eerily called Transylvania.

Its earliest visitors spent as much time on land as on the river, being forced to walk out over rugged mountain ranges when their canoes and kayaks were wrecked by wild rapids.

Franklin River adventure

franklin river Rafting

The Franklin was finally deflowered in 1958, by a team of kayakers, but it has lost none of its wildness since then: it still has a well-deserved reputation for erratic weather, hypothermic cold, treacherous rapids and river levels that can rise several metres overnight. And it’s still as untouched as ever: the only people to go there are small parties of rafters and kayakers, in summer, and even then they’re confined to the river and a few National Park-approved campsites.

franklin river

In an age when so many natural places are being tamed and made more accessible, rafting the Franklin is one of the world’s last true wilderness experiences.

So it’s with a special blend of excitement and nervous anticipation that you get ready to launch the rafts on day 1 of your river adventure. (Ever since the first inflatable raft made the trip down the Franklin in February 1976, rafts have been the vehicle of choice for most river-travellers.)

franklin river

The plan is this: you and nine others, including two all-knowing river guides, are to spend nine days paddling, pinballing and peacefully drifting more than 100km down the Franklin River.

You’ll start at the river’s junction with the Collingwood and follow its twists and turns to Sir John Falls on the Gordon River, where you’ll be picked up by yacht and transferred back to Strahan, halfway down Tasmania’s rugged west coast.

franklin river Rafting

What to wear

Travelling through such a wild place brings unique challenges, not least of which is: what to wear? Fashionistas might protest but if you want to stay safe and warm, you’re going to have to kit yourself out in an unmatching ensemble of wetsuit, helmet (to be worn at all times), fleece, waterproof paddling jacket (called a “cag”) and lifejacket.

franklin river rafting

Weather forecasting takes on special significance too. Because the Franklin’s banks are so steep and its catchment so vast, any rainfall upstream can lead to sudden and dramatic rises in river levels, especially in the Great Ravine, the most challenging section of the river, which you’ll meet halfway through your trip, on day 5. If there’s one rule on the Franklin it’s this: expect the unexpected.

The good news is that no matter what the conditions – high water, low water, or somewhere in between – you’re in for the ride of your life.

Most of the rapids are grade 3 and 4 (the scale goes up to grade 5) with a few designated “portages” – a fancy-pants word (particularly when pronounced “por-taag” as the French say it) for what amounts to carrying the gear and rafts along narrow goat tracks that detour around rapids too dangerous to run.

The Experience

It doesn’t take long to get used to paddling as a team and the river guides’ instructions are clear enough – once you understand that “river right” means the right side of the river as you’re looking downstream.

The single blade paddles are easy to handle and, more importantly, easy to hold onto with their T-bar at one end.

If you are unexpectedly tossed into the river, by the way, remember two things: keep hold of your paddle (it’ll give your rescuers something to grab when they pull you out) and point your feet downstream (to avoid hitting your head on submerged rocks).

If you’re lucky (as we were) you’ll be blessed with fine weather, a rarity in south-west Tasmania. Mist and cloud have their own appeal, but nothing beats wilderness under blue skies.

For one thing, there’s more wildlife when it’s sunny; it’s not uncommon to see platypus and sea eagles, nocturnal pademelon (small Tasmanian wallabies) and spotted quolls.

You might even feel tempted to have a swim. Sure, the water’s only eight degrees (it may be summer, but this is Tasmania), but keep your wetsuit on and you’ll be warm as wet toast. Rafter’s Basin campsite, just after the Great Ravine, has an enormous deep-green pond twice as big as any Olympic pool and perfect for swimming.

An added bonus is that the river’s tannin-stained water is pure enough to drink, from source to sea. Where else could you float on your back buoyed by lifejacket, wetsuit and Dunlop Volleys (canvas tennis shoes long considered ideal rafting footwear), surrounded by canyons several days’ walk from anywhere, and quench your thirst simply by opening your mouth?

franklin river rafting

You’ll probably come prepared for adventure on the Franklin but nothing will prepare you for its beauty: sticks and driftwood stuck in crevices high up rock faces, like artists’ creations hurriedly abandoned; smooth pebbles in smooth-walled pools; perfectly landscaped alcoves of moss-covered rocks and trickling waterfalls. You’ll drift past massive King Billy pines and stately Huon Pines that could be 2000 years old.

Forest Camp

In the mornings you’ll wake up in your forest campsite to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee (prepared by your faithful guides, over the camp stove). And in the afternoons, when you’ve come ashore, hung out your wet gear and slipped into the one set of dry clothes you brought (space is at a premium when ten people have to fit all their gear for nine days on two rafts), you might explore the surrounding country.

There’s no rush; Tasmania has daylight saving longer than any other state so it’s light until almost 10pm in summer.

And at the end of the river when you start the long journey back to city life, first by yacht across Macquarie Harbour to Strahan and then by minibus back to Hobart, you’ll realise that you’ve accumulated more than the grime of nine days without washing.

In losing track of time and the days of the week, you’ve gained something else: that rare relief of being nobody of consequence in true wilderness.

Discover Tasmania

World Expeditions runs nine-day Franklin River rafting trips between late November and late March, from $2695 (ex Hobart). Trip cost includes rafts and rafting equipment, experienced guides, waterproof storage containers, meals, camping gear, and transport to and from Hobart.