Tasmania: Old River

This post will describe a descent of the Old River undertaken more than 25 years ago. But first, some historical background may be informative.

By 1980 the more prominent and accessible rivers in Tasmania had been paddled. Dean and friends had bagged the Franklin in the 50s. Truchanas triumphed and then sadly perished on the Gordon in the 60s. According to The South West Book (1979: ACF), Helen Gee and party scored the Jane in 1976, and Emery’s party rode out the Denison as early as 1975. These journeys represented a new wave of exploration and recreation, distinct from the upstream exploration of the earlier pining era.

My first river journey was the Franklin in January of 1981 in a one-person duckie. I started at 15 years of age in a group of 6 boys all 18 or under, none of whom had paddled a river before. In hindsight it was crazy. It’s a very dangerous journey requiring paddling skills and experience, of which we had virtually none! Although inexperienced, we enjoyed a successful trip, and I repeated the Franklin the following summer as an experienced paddler of 16 years old, again with a few mates all aged under 20. This was during the lead-up to the biggest conservation battle to date in Australia, the fight to prevent the damming of the Franklin and Gordon Rivers. In the early 1980s as the numbers of people paddling rivers exploded, there was a mini-frenzy of new-routing, and I became aware that others were bagging the Crossing/Davey, Andrew and other minor rivers. I decided I wanted a “first descent” too, and settled on the Old River as an achievable objective for a first. I persuaded Robert Daniels, now of Copenhagen, but still active in our Tassie wilderness, and Jim and Bruce Taylor to accompany me on a first descent of the Old. Although our leadership style was cooperative, it was basically my plan. I was 17 and we ranged up to 18.

The precedent for smaller river travel had been established by Helen Gee’s party on the Jane in 1976. Lilos, rucsacs on backs, hand paddling (1979: ACF; p170). We planned for a twelve day journey down the Old, starting and finishing at Scott’s Peak. Our gear had more in common with the primitive equipment of the 1960s than with the gear we enjoy today. I had an H-frame Mountain Mule rucsac from New Zealand, a brute, like a brick wall with shoulder straps. Rob and I shared a Paddy Pallin Japara tent. Our clothes were woollen. Not luxurious Icebreaker stuff, but itchy stuff that would matt into misshapen lumps when wet. Dehyde meals were primitive, and we used to eke out dry rations that use more fuel than today’s best outdoor foods. Although we carried an Optimus Choofer, we also had the fall-back of occasional camp fires! I think our maps were the old green 1: 100,000 series with 40 metre contours. Navigation was very imprecise!

We were young and soft, and moved a lot slower than we do now. Our approach? Across the Arthur Plains and a traverse of the Eastern Arthurs via Luckman’s Lead. Although just a pup, I’d been through that way before, having done a 28 day SW walk the summer before as a boy of 15, with three older lads of 17. I recall that the weather was constantly cold, wet and blustery on our Old River trip, typical south-west summer weather! We chickened out on the summit block of Federation because of poor weather. I’d bagged it 12 months earlier, and the other blokes have been back since.

I can remember some camp-sites, but not all. I don’t know where we frittered all the days away, but I can remember a few quite vividly. We climbed over Geeves Bluff, and dropped down to the small plateau a third of the way down the infamous Gorilla Ridge, where we spent a shocker of a night. Rob and I had our A-frame Paddy Pallin Japara tent pitched tight as a drum to withstand the storm, and I remember lying and watching the rain being forced through the single thin woven fabric wall by the force of the wind. The Taylor boys’ tent collapsed on them that night. We picked up Olegas Truchanas’ axe blazes the next day, which eventually brought us down to the Old River valley, whereupon we eagerly advanced to the river’s edge. What a disappointment! The river was completely choked with logs! There was an impassable jam about every 20-30 metres! We pushed on downstream adjacent to the river, and traversed Gorge Ridge, eventually putting in on the lower Collins River at the far end of Gorge Ridge. We had observed from the slopes of Gorge Ridge that the Old had become quite negotiable by the time it reached Gorge Ridge, and would plan to put in upstream of Gorge Ridge in future.

So how was the Old? We missed paddles. They would have been handy. The river was quite sweet, a bit like the Crossing, some easy rapids, and mostly clear of forest on the flanks. How long do you get on the water? About one day only! We left the river near its mouth and walked around Bathurst Harbour to the Ray River. We hoped this part of the journey would be straight-forward, but for us, it was a shocker. Constant gale-force winds compelled us to attempt an inland crossing of the Ray, which we found to be a tangled jungle-infested delta of fast-flowing streams under killer sieves. We had a nightmare time crossing the Ray River, and spent a leech-infested rainy night in the most uncomfortable site I’d experienced to date. Leeches were everywhere. I woke up during a fitful sleep with one latched onto both lips. Rob got one in his eye. He migrated to Europe shortly after, and for many years I addressed letters to him in London to “Ray River” as a cruel reminder of the time we spent there.

We eventually forced our way through the then untracked Moulters Gap and walked in to Melaleuca from the east. As we approached Melaleuca on one of those days when stinging squalls are separated by shafts of inspirational slanting sunbeams, a figure approached to meet us half way across the final button grass plain. It was Deny King. He said he had downed tools and came out to meet us because in all his life there he’d never seen a party of walkers approach from that direction before. He was genuinely curious about where we’d come from and how we’d found the going. He shared a few stories about his own forays across Bathurst Harbour. Deny also remembered me from our first meeting the summer before, when I’d walked in from Cockle Creek. Although I was just a young boy in awe of this living legend, he was very respectful and interested in our humble recreational efforts. He was such a kind host to us, particularly on this second visit to Melaleuca. We had spent far too long fighting our way down the Old and around the Ray, and were quite low on food. Deny gave us wonderful fresh bread he’d baked, loaded with strawberry jam, made from his Melaleuca strawberries. Deny kindly ferried us on his boat to Bathurst Narrows the next morning, to commence our journey back to Scott’s Peak.

Some years later Deny died, and I reflect now upon how lucky we were to experience the hospitality of this most intelligent, independent, solitary, and yet intensely empathetic and sociable man. A truly great Australian.

Our return to Scott’s Peak was far from straight-forward, as the rain lashed us from Spring River to the Crossing. The Crossing was far too dangerous to cross, even with lilos, and we were forced to camp on the button grass tussocks about 100m back from the riverine forest and regular flood line. Eventually we walked out to Scott’s Peak on day sixteen of twelve, with little food remaining. These days we would do it faster, stronger, more purposefully, better equipped, yet those formative trips served a valuable purpose for me, and I’m still hooked on our Tasmanian wild rivers.