Trip Report: Gell River Tasmania

The Gell River looked appealing for a number of reasons: first, access was via the stunning Denison Range; secondly, a little bit of off-track walking in country that I had heard in the weeks leading up to this trip as ‘serious wilderness’; and thirdly, and perhaps the most appealing aspect of this trip was its circuitous nature, with the Gell flowing into the Gordon and the Gordon taking us back to within a 30 minute hike of the car. Finally, to the best of our knowledge, it hadn’t been done before – at least not in pack rafts.

In the weeks prior to departure, there was broad scale interest in the trip amongst a small and enthusiastic group of packrafters. However, for various reasons, by the time the departure date came around we were down to two. We were a little reluctant to postpone the trip as there was concern at the time that if we waited too long then perhaps we would run out of water. Reaching the Gell to find no more than a trickle would be a little unpleasant.
Day 1. We departed South Hobart at 5am on 11th October and headed straight to the Lake Rhona carpark and were underway at approximately 7:20am. Conditions were overcast but an ideal walking temperature. The Richeas were flowering, small, pale yellow, as we came down Richea Creek and it occurred to me that’s probably how it got its name. Around half an hour later, we came to the Gordon, the log which we were to walk across was 40% submerged. This came as a bit of a surprise having been out to Lake Rhona in the month prior and walking across the same log with relative ease. We thought briefly about unpacking the rafts and negotiating the river that way; however, we decided in the end to cross on our knees in a form of locomotion similar to the way a leech navigates its way around. Simon has a fancy waterproof pack and plenty of intestinal fortitude so he set off first and crossed with relative ease. I followed his lead and we both managed to cross with no problems other than our voices raising a few octaves at the waters deepest point.

We trudged our way to Gordonvale negotiating plenty of mud and small streams in the process stopping for a quick snack at 9:10am. Progress was good. The daffodils were flowering. We continued to walk. We both had been to Lake Rhona before, me in the month prior and also in 2009 and Simon some years ago, so the aim was to reach Lake Malana on day one and camp there. Not only would this be a nice change for us, but it would reduce the amount of walking required on day two by several hours. We knew it would be a long day but not insurmountable. We continued to trudge up the Vale of Rasselas as the day slowly improved, Reeds Peak was rarely visible and Bonds Craig remained hidden all day. Small patches of snow were visible from the vale. Occasional drizzle came down the slopes to dampen us but nothing which required a change of attire. It’s a bit of a pinch up to Lake Rhona so we decided to break it up with lunch half way up (-42.554, 146.300). It was quite pleasant in the sun out of the wind and we could easily have dozed off (Simon may have) before the jackjumper nest nearby gave me the impetus to get up and continue walking. Slowly, we made our way along the South side of Lake Rhona past Lavara Tarn and the pointy rock I think is known as the sundial, although it was more of a dial at this stage as the weather progressively got worse with our gaining altitude.
Visibility was quite low; it was windy, misty cold and wet. The pad was quite obvious for the most part, sometimes we would lose it and then pick it up again, we both had a couple of painful falls on the boulder scree which was extremely slippery. After 2 hrs or so of walking the ridge line we didn’t really know how much further we needed to go and with no discernable landmarks other than mist and with exhaustion rapidly approaching we decided to pitch our tents amongst the boulders on the ridgeline (-42.532, 146.277). After 9 hrs walking a half marathon with 25kg on our backs, through mud and uphill we both crawled into our tents and had a nap, emerging around 6pm where Simon cooked a pasta salmony cheesy thing. We drank whisky; spirits were raised. Toasts were made.

Day 2. We awoke – unsurprisingly – to mist. It was a little better than the previous evening, occasional glimpses of what lay beyond were offered to us. It was a leisurely start. We knew it wasn’t getting dark until 7:30pm so we had plenty of time. We set off about 9am dressed in our best scrub negotiating gear. Rigging gloves, long pants, sleeves, and we decided it might be a good idea to walk in our rafting helmets due to the number of falls on the wet scree the previous day. Ridiculous looking but prepared we set off, we had probably walked for 10mins when all of the mist and cloud seemed to lift and revealing our way down the wilderness beyond, North Star, Mt Curly, The Spires, Innes High Rocky, Diamond Peak and Frenchmans Cap dominated the view. Somewhat fortuitously, we had camped in almost the perfect spot the night before. No altitude had to be regained and it all lay before us. The maps came out and we planned our descent. We had read that it was scrubby. It was. Still we managed to find a pad for most of the descent and some signs of human activity, an old yellow rag, some parks and wildlife tags on a subcren. We made pretty good progress; we were down by around 11 and climbing a button grass ridge (-42.520, 146.253), stopping for a snack and some photos around 11:30am. There were no tracks from here on in and no sign of any human activity; it had a proper remote feel, colourless yet colourful. We would walk for around 45mins and then stop and pull the map out, recalibrating our position. It worked quite well; we drank cool, refreshing water from between button grass tussocks, and had a quick lunch at (-42.512, 146.238). Some relatively easy walking across the button grass plains and by around 3pm we had reached a small creek (-42.499, 146.227) that we knew joined the Gell further down. It was slightly wider than a pack raft at this point and it looked more appealing that walking another 1-2kms through the scrub. The sun was out, the water looked cool: we decided to raft it.

That was not a great decision. 100m downstream the creek closed in a little and it became quite difficult to move the rafts along. Nevertheless we continued to wade the river towing our rafts for around 1km before we reached the Gell. It was a nice feeling to finally be there and have enough water in the river to paddle, and although conditions were a little lower than we would have preferred it was fairly easily to raft, with a bit of scraping and dragging here and there. We meandered our way down river into a stiff warm headwind for around an hour before setting up camp in a patch of button grass (-42.490, 146.211). I cooked a ‘Strive’ Massaman Curry. We drank some whisky. The weather closed in and it rained for perhaps five hours, it was hard to tell without a watch.
Day 3. Another leisurely breakfast, a robust coffee and we were away into the dark waters of the Gell by 9am. The river had risen sufficiently that were negotiating bouldery sections with relative ease. After around an hour’s paddling, we reached the junction with Reverend Creek (-42.479, 146.204). Reverend Creek is about the same size as the Gell and this point and the two form a bit of T junction with a large eddy pool before the water heads down the Gell. This is a very impressive place: two enormous quartzite cliffs frame Reverend Creek as it flows down between them. Probably the most spectacular part of the river.

From here we made good progress, with small drops and ripple beds, and some nice little wave trains, no dragging or scraping, just a very pleasant journey down a beautiful river. Enough rapids to keep it interesting, and enough water that paddling was very minimal. The Gell is very open, button grass/bauera/teatree heathland on either side for the majority of its length which is a nice change from the other more rainforested pack rafting trips we had done. It was nice to have the sun on your face and some nice views.

After we had been going for around 3 hours, the river closed in a little and we were hit by a hailstorm just before reaching the fork in the Gell (-42.437, 146.263). Perhaps it was an omen. At the fork there was a log obstructing the left side so we took the right side. This was a mistake. The right side whilst sounding correct was a log choked rainforested bit of river that drained into a bauera choked swampy nightmare. We stopped for lunch and consulted the map, and decided to pack up our rafts and walk for a bit, after about 100m the river opened up so we re-inflated the rafts and tried again to navigate the flood channel. There were fewer log obstructions but the river was often less than the width of a raft and you had to force your way through. After an hour or so we couldn’t go any further so we packed up the rafts again and decided to walk to the Gordon (-42.436, 146.284). We swam, fought, waded our way through the bauera and came out into a button grass plain to great relief, and proceeded to walk towards where we thought the Gordon would be. Unfortunately, we ended up on a large loop of the Gordon so we probably walked for 30mins further than we needed to albeit through some nice open rainforest. After a couple of stops and a map check, eventually we reached our destination at around 4:30pm (-42.432, 146.300). We reinflated the rafts for the 3rd time that day and headed off down the Gordon. We had about 35kms of river to return to our start point so any ground we could cover that day would be a bonus. After an hour or so we found a nice enough campsite (-42.467, 146.320) set up camp, Simon cooked a nice “Strive” laksa and naturally we consumed a little whisky.
Day 4. It was a frosty night, the coldest of the trip, even under the trees all of our gear had frozen: frozen boots, socks, lifejackets, tents etc made us a little reluctant to get back into our gear that morning. Plus there were some strange noises in the forest that night neither of us could work out what kind of animals they were. We knew we had a long day of paddling - 6-8 hours we estimated - we had not anticipated the amount of timber in the river. The river gauge (stick) showed us that the level had dropped around 15cm overnight. We paddled constantly for 3 hours taking in magnificent views of the Denison range watching Reeds Peak slowly get closer and closer, plenty of platypodes were fossicking around the river as we crossed what seemed to be log after log after log. The technique went a little like this; arrive at log, swing leg onto log, get out of raft, drag raft up on to log, put raft in the water on the other side and get back into the raft, continue journey. This happened more than 100 times in 35kms of river; not to mention all of the logs that we were able to go under, or zig zag around or were just able to get over. A 10 minute stop for lunch and check of the map and we were off paddling again, 6 hrs of flat water paddling / log obstacle course negotiating later we were back at that octave-raising log we crawled over 3 days prior.

here is a video of the trip;

Simon Jarman
James Marthick

Oct 11-14th 2014

Well done guys! Good write up.

Thanks for posting

Great trip and report, thanks for the write-up and vid! Cheers, John.

Thanks, Mark and John, it was a special trip to a really nice little river. John I am feeling pretty inspired by your Murchison trip via the Guardians, I think something similar is on the cards, whether it be the same route or something like Pyramid Mountain Rocky Hill access its definitely high on the list.


Great write up and video, makes me want to get back to Tasmania soon.

I did laugh when I saw your put-in point.