Return to the Ditch

Written by Jonathan Males (Mally)

I first paddled Tasmania’s Franklin River in 1979.  At the time only a handful of kayak trips had been completed, and the river was the source of a major conservation battle.  Now a National Park, the river is crossed by a single bridge in its 110 km length.   In February I returned to meet up with old mates and spend a week “down the ditch”  (a pro –dam politician once called the river “a brown leech ridden ditch” – a name that stuck amongst rafters and kayakers).

Creek boats were the order of the day and I paddled a Fluid Solo, ideal for carrying gear and food for a 6 day trip. After the long drive from Hobart and arranging a car shuttle, seven of us started late afternoon from the bridge over the Collingwood River.  The first rapids were shallow, technical and full of fallen trees.  We pushed on steadily and reached the confluence with the Franklin in about an hour, eventually making camp in the dark 15 km down the Franklin at a narrow ravine called Irenabyss.

We spent our second day climbing Frenchmans Cap, a 1400 meter peak.  Cloud and snow at the summit meant we missed the best views, but the weather was clear enough for us to get some great panoramas on the way.  It was a harder climb than I remembered and we were all leg-sore by the end of the day.

On the way up Frenchmans
At a low level the upper Franklin doesn’t present many white-water thrills, but the vistas of steeply forested hill-sides, rain-forested river banks, water-carved rocks and ancient fallen trees is beautiful.  And the solitude was refreshing – in our week on the river we saw only one other group.

Upper Franklin – lunch stop
By the end of day three we were into the Great Ravine, the most challenging part of the river with five major rapids formed where huge boulders have fallen and choked the river.  Some of these are best portaged, which provided plenty of ‘boys own adventure’ fooling around with ropes, cliffs and boats.

Portage round The Churn
Day four started with a portage past the first rapid of the Coruscades, a gnarly Grade 5.  After helping to carry a loaded boat on the steep portage trail I decided that paddling it was better than getting a hernia – and the adrenaline buzz was good too!

The battering of portaging put a long crack in the hull of Martin’s boat. This was serious because the nearest walking track was still 15 km downstream, and from there it was a 40 km trek to civilisation.  Suds and Harry got to work on a repair and we distributed Martin’s gear between us to reduce the strain on his boat. Surprisingly the repairs held for the rest of the trip.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           In the Great Ravine

The remainder of the day saw the best white-water of the trip, with many good grade 3 – 5 rapids through the remainder of the Great Ravine, down into Propsting Gorge and finally Newlands Cascade.  We camped on a beautiful shingle beach that night and drank the last of our scotch and port, watching the full moon light up the sky.

The geology changes dramatically below Black Forest, as the river flattens and winds its way through low rounded hills.  The river-bank is dotted with caves, home to Tasmanian aboriginals for 30 000 years.  There was little current, so the fifth day was a long slog through shallow shingle rapids and pools until we reached the Franklin’s confluence with the Gordon River.

Veranda Cliff, Lower Franklin
We spent our last night at St John Falls, an old Hydro camp from the early 80’s preserved by the National Parks service.  Regular human habitation has attracted rats, but fortunately plenty of tiger snakes also live around the hut to eat them.  An old mate, Brian, arrived early evening with cold beer, having piloted his power-boat 70 km up the Gordon from the nearest town of Strahan.  Next morning dawned sunny and clear, a beautiful end to the trip as we loaded our boats and gear for the ride back to Strahan.  It was a nostalgic trip for me, paddling a Tasmanian wilderness river again in the company of good friends.

Fast ride home