Fast Franklin Trip

Franklin River packrafting speed record attempt with Klaus and the Pedro boys

The Tasmanian summer of 2016 was one of the driest on record. There was a strong El Nino and bushfires burnt parts of the alpine zone that had never burned since the glaciers had retreated at the end of the ice age and plants had moved in. Rainforest in low-lying areas that had also been there for thousands of years also burned, so it was not that promising as a paddling season. We had a four day window to packraft the Franklin in late February. That was pretty-much the only decent river on the island we could potentially run. Co-ordinating all of the people into one feasible time range brought the trip length to the minimum. Klaus, Joel and I thought was possible, which was five days. The plan was for seven of us to head out on a Sunday night, camp beside the Collingwood put-in, do alpine starts every day and paddle/drag/walk until our arms and legs exploded.

Jarrah was the first to pull out of the trip as he had to work and look after his new-ish baby. This was a bit of a worry for the rest of us as he was really the only one who knows the river well. It is also a reasonably intimidating trip because of the potential for high water and Roman Dial’s account of his packraft there in the “Packrafting!” book is a good example of how tough it can get. Joel, Klaus and I had been down it once on a guided trip in a big raft with Elias and Franzi, but you don’t generally remember much when other people are making the decisions. We had notes, but were a bit worried about the extra time it would take to scout everything thoroughly, navigate and generally mess about with trying to identify where we were, but we committed to it anyway. That left five of us.

When I got to Klaus’ place on Sunday afternoon, Joel and Klaus had just realised that the flight times for James from the US were all listed in Pacific Standard Time, not local time as you’d expect. It was really weird and I have never seen an airline ticket booked like this. We spent a bit of time debating options. Joel’s brothers Hayden and Jarred were patching borrowed packrafts and packing gear. The plan had been to pick James up at five at Hobart airport, do a quick stop to drop off his gear and then on to the river. So, James was the next to pull out of the trip, involuntarily of course, as he was still in an aeroplane somewhere over the Pacific. In the end, we left him a note and a stove, map and bushwalking plan for an alternative trip he could do alone along with a phone number for a hire car company. There was not much else we could do.

There was rain in the Franklin catchment the day before departure and the flow at Mt Fincham rose to 4500 ML/day. We drove to the bridge where the Lyell Highway crosses the Collingwood and got everything ready to go for the morning. The cars were parked, the boats were inflated and we bivvied under the bridge so that we could get away early. The water level at the bridge was 0.8 m and with no more rain forecast, we were hoping to have the right sort of levels and flow for packrafts. There were possums in the trees watching us, so I slept with my bags full of food right next to me to keep it out of their sneaky paws.

It was still dark when we got onto the Collingwood at 6:15. We used headtorches for the first quarter of an hour or so, until the pre-dawn light made it feasible to go without. We had a nice easy run to the Franklin/Collingwood junction, a quick break there and then on to Descention Gorge. This was pretty fun for most of us except Klaus, who had more excitement than the rest. He had an early swim and there weren’t a lot of eddies, so the swim went on and on and over waterfalls and into rocks. He lost his boat early on, so he couldn’t even drag his upper body onto that and bashed into most of the available rocks on his way down. He ended up pretty battered by the time he and his boat reached the eddies at the end. I tried to catch him on the way, but it was really hard to get ahead and then try to push him and raft to the side and by the time I was in position, there would be another drop and I’d have to turn around to do it and leave Klaus to swim it. Sorry Klaus… He needed a a few minutes of teeth-grinding silence holding his bruised shins and rolling around a bit to recover. He looked like he’d been trampled by a herd of horses and had big red lumps all over his legs and ribs.

We got to the Irenabyss by 10:30 and stopped for some snacks there. After that there were lots of great, fun rapids and the river at that level seemed really fantastic for packrafts. I had a really good time and Hind Leg Slide was particularly fun because it makes a great ridge-like feature around a corner that is just really satisfying for some reason. We made it to Camp Arcade for that night after about eleven hours of paddling, camped and got some sleep.

We had another pre-dawn start. I was getting ready to go and flipped my raft over to wash out sand and noticed a slice in the fabric. There were two hernia-like bubbles of the inner airproof polyethylene layer poking through. I was the only one using an Aire ‘Bakraft’ which is a fairly new design and different from the Alpacka rafts that everyone else was using. The Bakraft has an outer layer of Spectra fabric that isn’t waterproof and an inner polyethylene bag that is and makes it float. The outer had been cut, probably on limestone and bubbles of inflated polyethylene were poking out. This design does seem a little less tough than the Alpacka single-skin, but it was easy enough to fix. I got the sewing kit out and sutured the boat and was ready to go in ten minutes or so, so pretty easy really. At the time, this was the only self-bailing boat available, although I see Alpacka and Kokopelli both produce them now. I love this system and having a pack behind you and with a low centre of gravity is a great improvement also. It handles well too.

The Great Ravine is not much further from Camp Arcade. It is exciting paddling into that and it got my heartrate up. We arrived at Thunderush at the same time as a commercial guided trip with two big rafts. We edged around the top section while they were dealing with their boats. It took a little while to scout around and make a plan. It was reasonably intimidating even for just the bottom section that we had to do. I had quit my “permanent” government job the week before because of the bad colleagues and workplace in general, so I was in a reckless mood and was keen to go first. My self-bailing boat was another factor because if I flipped I thought I’d be able to get back in a lot more easily than the others with the classic bathtub-style Alpackas. Hayden was keen to go too, so the plan was that he would go within a few seconds of each other so that the two of us would end up in the same place at the same time if there was a problem. I looked back as I was taking a few deep breaths to calm my nerves and saw one of the ladies from the commercial trip air-crossing herself like some Christians do as she was watching us. It was a little discouraging.

I paddled in and managed to cross the main flow to the right far enough to get around the hole on the left that had to be avoided. Jared filmed us with his GoPro and later I could see that my boat’s big air volume was the key as it just floated across. The Alpackas have about 2/3rds of the air that my boat does, so Hayden wasn’t so lucky and the current pushed him into the hole so that he flipped. I had a tricky moment trying to work out where to paddle and eventually Hayden was near a rock in the middle of the flow, while I could nudge his boat with the front of mine. I thought I’d slowed enough for him to grab the back of my boat and was paddling flat out for the river right and making great progress… because I’d paddled off before he could grab me properly, but he was able to grab the rock and eventually haul himself out. Sorry, Hayden. I nudged his boat into the eddy and spent a while trying to flip it, but couldn’t because the pack was full of water. Joel came down next and made it. He took over Hayden’s boat and worked out that the big dry bag had filled up and sorted all that out while Klaus was coming down and he swam and I bumped him river right with his boat. His paddle went straight down the middle, but luckily Hayden was still on his rock and he was able to fish it out. Jarred came next and flipped and came over to the right laughing like a madman, so we all made it eventually and all was well.

We met up with the commercial group again at the big portage over The Cauldron. The portage track and open places to deal with gear got pretty crowded and we all had to work around each other a lot. We must have been annoying with our rafts because we didn’t deflate them and they take up a fair bit of room in the cramped rainforest paths. Klaus slipped and fell at one point, landing on one kidney onto a tree stump for a bit of bonus bruising.

We went on through various rapids, not really knowing which was which. I find this happens a lot on rivers the first time you run them, even with notes etc. Without constantly checking a GPS and a good map, it is hard to keep track of things. In a way it is a good thing though as it makes you scout every rapid properly and be cautious. Eventually we got to the Pig Trough, which was obvious enough to recognise. It was almost dark and we didn’t think we could portage around to Newland’s Cascades before proper nightfall, so we did a bit of up-river scouting and found a big rock on river left about 250 m upstream where there were good places to camp. It was a nice spot, but I had one of those pyramid shelters that you can use a paddle as a centre pole for, but no inner for it. I got swarmed by leeches. I stuck my head in a mesh bag I had to keep them out of eyes and nostrils and eventually got a bit of sleep despite them sucking a bit of blood out of hands etc.

We did the portage to Newlands the next morning and quickly climbed up Rock Island to see the great views. We ran Newland’s Cascades, which was really fun at that level. After that we went for a swim to get clean and dried out in the sun for a while. It was a nice day and we knew that from then on it was pretty easy flatwater paddling, so it was relaxing. It would have nice to have some rain here to push us on faster, but we just had to paddle. We walked into the hidden chasm of the Lost World and had a look at that great little creek behind it cut into the limestone. We camped at Blackman’s Bend eventually, which is a really nice spot.

It was sunny again the next day and there were some overhanging limestone cliffs that were being spattered with amazing reflections off the dark-brown water. These looked like a portal to a different universe; or a spell cast by the Queen of the Spider Witches. It was quite unreal and I stopped and mesmerised myself under these for a while. We realised that Joel had not fallen out all trip, but the rest of us had. We decided to change that and after an hour or so of complicated cat-and-mouse games, we managed to flip him over. “Cold, isn’t it” he said. Joel is laconic.

We got to Pyramid Island where the Franklin and Gordon meet and it was conveniently lunch time. It was hot and we swam a bit to cool off. It is great getting to that place and thinking back on other trips down the Denison and paddling up from Sir John Falls in sea kayaks etc. We got bored and Klaus was wading around in the river, so naturally we threw rocks in the water to splash him. Joel accidentally whacked Klaus right on the forehead with one of these, which was pretty funny and good for Klaus’ bruise collection. This trip was giving him a good beating. A little bit further on and we were at Sir John Falls. So that was it, 3.5 days from the Collingwood and we were out, which seems pretty fast. However, there are probably people from the 1970s who did this in duckies in flood over two days, or the 1960s in five days… but on a Lilo and only taking a pound of lard and some tea for sustenance. I think a kayaker has done it in one day? Anyway, a great trip and really fun in packrafts at that level.