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A Dream Packrafting Adventure Down the Franklin River

Packrafting Tasmania

Dulkara Martig actualizes a nine-day dream trip packrafting Tasmania, down the Franklin River 

By Dulkara Martig. Photos by Dulkara Martig and Ben Weigl.

The Franklin River offers one of the most impressive multi-day whitewater journeys to be found anywhere. It winds its way 120 kilometers through one of the most wild and remote corners of the world–the 3.5 million acre pristine, untouched Tasmanian World Heritage Area.

The Franklin also boasts a bit of everything: gorges full of rapids with car-sized boulders, cascading waterfalls, and peaceful pools. Though once famously described as a “brown, leech-ridden ditch” by Robin Gray, former Premier of Tasmania, protesters successfully rebuffed his campaign to dam the river.

Saving the Franklin

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Franklin River lay at the heart of one of the largest conservation battles in Australian history. It peaked in the summer of 1982/1983 when protestors formed a blockade with rubber duckies to halt dam works and stop the passage of equipment. Police arrested thousands of protestors, but new waves of protestors arrived to take their place.

This continued for the entire summer. They finally saved the river from in July 1983, a huge win for environmentalists. Australia’s new prime minister Bob Hawke also won his battle with the Tasmanian Government. He luckily had the right to make laws for the environment.

Packrafting
For the first few hours, on the Collingwood River before it spilled into the Franklin, we encountered log jams, boulder gardens, and short swift sections of calm water.

Packrafting Tasmania – a Daydream Turned Real

In January I found myself rattling through the desert on a train in Rajasthan, India, daydreaming about lush green forests and waterfalls. The Franklin River, which had been on my radar for many years, popped back into my mind. I flicked my Australian friend Ben a message on Facebook.

“I’m about to book tickets to Tassie for April, are you keen to come?” Within a few minutes he was in, and a few weeks later we had a crew of four committed for the adventure. 

In April, Ben, Gus, Ed, and I loaded everything into Gus’s friend Blinky’s car in Hobart and drove the three hours to Donagy’s Hill Reserve on the Lyell Highway. We exploded our gear on the banks of the Collingwood River and made our first camp, crossing our fingers for nice weather. Anticipation for the unknown was growing.

A Picture-Perfect Journey

For the first few hours, on the Collingwood River before it spilled into the Franklin, we encountered log jams, boulder gardens, and short swift sections of calm water.

Packrafting Tasmania
The Franklin is a river of many moods and amazing contrasts. Sometimes it’s a bubbly mess. 
Packrafting Tasmania
At other times it flows peacefully through steep canyons with the forest mirrored perfectly on the surface.
Packrafting Tasmania
At Arenabyss we scrambled up a cut track to Frenchman’s Cap. Almost all of Tasmania was spread out before us.
Packrafting Tasmania
We slept at Lake Tahune Hut with rain bucketing down on the roof, followed by sleet, snow and icicles around the toilet in the morning.
Packrafting Tasmania
Returning from Frenchman’s Cap, we found the river in a flooded mess, with two of our paddles swirling around in an eddy. Our trip could have ended with us sheepishly walking out at the Arenabyss. The changing moods of the river left us in awe multiple times a day.
Packrafting Tasmania
We completed a high portage of Thunder Rush. The guidebook said that the portage may be just as dangerous as running the actual rapid!
Packrafting Tasmania
We bush-bashed above exposed bluffs, where instant death – or at least a broken femur – could follow a fall. There used to be a precarious cut track here but it had been washed away by a landslide and was now covered in treefall. We used throw bags to make a few short hand lines and lower our backpacks down a bluff.
Packrafting Tasmania
We pulled into an eddy just downstream of Pig Trough, racing darkness and leeches to set up camp in a lumpy but magical spot in the forest. Exhaustion set in, after the two most ridiculous portages of our lives.
Packrafting Tasmania
Nobody in our group had paddled the Franklin before, giving our mission more of an exploratory feel. With limited prior research, we freestyled many campsites and portages, using an old guidebook as a reference for the most dangerous river features.
Packrafting Tasmania
I found myself portaging far more than I normally would. Rapids that I had the skills to easily negotiate often seemed scary, given that the dark water hid terrifying log sieves, with the risk of entrapment in a swim. The remoteness of the river added to both the level of challenge and the feeling of vulnerability out there. 
Packrafting Tasmania
The river winds its way through The Great Ravine, with ominously-named rapids like the Churn, Sidewinder, Thunderrush and the Cauldron. We all felt a sense of relief once we popped out of The Great Ravine. The river makes you feel small, as you float downstream in a packraft and look up at cliffs and densely forested slopes towering hundreds of meters above.
Packrafting Tasmania
After Newland Cascades, a 400m runnable rapid, the Franklin changes character and becomes wider and flatter, with limestone cliffs replacing the quarzite riverbanks.
Packrafting Tasmania
Our journey finished with a long flat paddle down the lower Franklin River and into the Gordon River, giving us plenty of time to reflect on the adventure and let our minds wander.
Packrafting Tasmania
Nine days after setting off from the Lyell Highway we were left with a pile of smelly wet gear on a sailing boat at Heritage Landing, bound for the small fishing town of Strahan.
Packrafting Tasmania
Packrafting Tasmania… the combination of quality whitewater, remoteness, epic side hiking and the overall length of the journey made it easily one of the top river adventures of my life.

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