My classmates were exactly the sort of inbred degenerates you would expect: an unusually short and hairy yet bald mainlander hippy Jew with a ferocious appetite for alcohol and unhinged women, an irritating contortionist/undertaker who liked to cross-dress, a dead-eyed ASIO assassin turned vegan environmentalist, a pompous pommy git who had made a fortune selling porn for mobile phones, a self-appointed Tasmanian hard-man who would ride his unicycle through the night hundreds of kilometres to the start of each trip listening to Bette Midler’s ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ on repeat and so on. It was 2003 and I had decided to do a course in adventure tourism in Hobart, Tasmania. I had no real interest in working as a guide or working at all at the time but I did like to go bush.
I learnt many valuable things on the course – how to lather one’s self in mutton bird fat as demonstrated by one of our intrepid leaders, how to induce vomiting via dahl, and a little about white water rafting during a week long rafting course on the Mersey river in the snow.
One of the more significant acquaintances I was to make was a scrawny Austrian bogan from Lilydale. It was at the white water rafting course, I was sitting in a dingy shed on the banks of the Mersey River having a beer and some capers with the Austrian and arguing with some Nazi wannabe cop chick about their right to bash hippies when we spotted the ad: dolphin bucket boat, baffles blown, $500. I said to the Austrian: ‘we should buy that boat and raft the Franklin River’.
The Franklin River looms large on the mind of any aspiring Tasmanian adventurer. For one thousand million years, since the aboriginal spirit Moihernee cut the ground and made the rivers, or for all one knows a millennia of earthquakes and molten lava formed the landscape, the Franklin has run free, indifferent to and unmolested by human kind.
For the last fifty years it has captured our imagination, awed us, inspired us, we have gone to gaol for it, it has moved us to violence and it has shaped our political landscape. In 1982 the Tasmanian government at the time had approved an extensive hydroelectric scheme that would flood the entire valley with three different dams. The bulldozers were rolling in and the catastrophic possibility that the river could be lost forever seemed inevitable.
The campaign that followed was fought with unprecedented passion on both sides, from the mud in front of the bulldozers to the rainforest to the Australian High Court. No matter where you stood it became undeniably clear that this river was of profound importance. The culmination of the campaign saw the fall of a federal government and the birth of a global political movement. Today, almost thirty years since the campaign that saved the river, it has lost none of its allure.
But at the time we didn’t care about that shit. We wanted adventure and everybody knew it had truckloads of that, particularly for a crew armed with Albert’s ‘a little knowledge’ and a 40s series troop carrier full of substandard gear and beer.
The chap from the Tas Uni rafting club made no effort to conceal his contempt when I offered him $150. ‘The materials alone are worth more than we are asking’, ‘but it has no baffles, it will sink like a god-dam stone if it gets punctured, no one in their right mind would take this thing near a river.’ I handed over $350 and the boat was ours. My brother and the Austrian’s German cousin were sufficiently unsuspecting and had agreed to join us. We were ready.
When we arrived at the river it was in flood at 2m so we retreated to Derwent Bridge for more beer and food poisoning. The next day the river was still at 1.8m, above the level we has been advised to put on but we put on anyway. The days that followed were some of the most amazing of my life. The river is stunningly beautiful and the rafting was terrifying, it awed and humbled us. Each day we learnt more about how little we knew.
We flipped in a rapid in the middle of the Great Ravine, the boat was surfed upside down in a hole and our gear came apart and went everywhere. We lost our pump and a lid came off one of the barrels and my sleeping bag got soaked. Needless to say this made for an uncomfortable night. With a boat that could not be deflated and without the knowledge to avoid the high portages we spent hours high portaging the fully inflated raft over treacherously steep high portage tracks. At Rafters Basin, once we had escaped the Ravine, the sun came out and we were able to dry our gear and recover. Life was good.
The lower Franklin was a dream – breath taking reflections, stunning cliffs, sunny weather, ancient rainforest and the satisfaction of knowing we had survived. When we arrived at Sir John’s Falls, a couple of our friends, a raspberry farmer and an illegal immigrant, had come across Macquarie Harbour in a 12 foot tinny to meet us. They’d already caught several massive sea run trout which we feasted on hungrily and washed it down with fine boxed wine.
Once back in Strahan we headed straight for the pub – a wilderness in its own right. The German cousin picked up a 180 kilogram pink haired Queenstown beauty and took her back to his ditch. The rest of us crashed on a jetty while the farmer and the illegal immigrant were nearly killed in large swell on Macquarie Harbour. Luckily the illegal immigrant’s considerable experience with small dodgy boats in large seas and the farmer’s life sustaining produce saw them pull through.
Now, almost ten years later, you can go up on a steep treeless hill in Queenstown and with the right kind of eyes you can look back and see that what we had done was arguably stupid and dangerous but it was also awesome, a true adventure and bloody good fun.
In years to follow I soon gave away any illusions I may have had of becoming a guide. I was too rude and lazy and given my strong dislike for people in general I became a doctor instead. The Austrian was to follow a different path. He continued to guide, raft and kayak all over the world, returning to the Franklin every year to work as a professional guide. Armed with all this experience, in 2012 he returned to the river with his wife to set up their own company, ‘Franklin River Rafting’. This was to be quite a turn of luck for me as it led to another trip down the river, something I had wanted to do for years. This was to be a very different trip.
This time we had a brand new state of the art expedition rafting kit. In place of our 12 foot baffle-less bucket boat were two brand new 14 foot Incept self-bailers. The river again was high but with years of experience guiding us it was notably less terrifying. There were no gear losing flips and no high portages with inflated boats. In fact there were no high portages at all as over the years ingenious tricks have been developed for sneaking the fully laden boats through the most dangerous rapids that cannot be paddled. The food was also of a notably higher standard, as not portaging the rafts means there is little restriction on the luxuries that can be taken. Highlights included fresh fruit, cheese cake and rib eye steaks. Most importantly the river was unchanged, still wild, majestic and free.
No matter how you do it the Franklin River thirty years on from its near destruction remains one of the world’s greatest adventures, a veritable phantasmagoria of inexpressible natural beauty, adventure, ancient history and exhilaration. With an outstanding company like Franklin River Rafting the river is now accessible even to those not sufficiently lacking in common sense to attempt it in our original style. This is a fact that to be honest offends me to core, that these smug bastards can now experience such a spectacular adventure without the suffering, the fear, and the night freezing my balls off in a wet sleeping bag. Anyway as the late Dr Thompson once said ‘if a thing like this is worth doing at all it’s worth doing right’, no doubt it’s worth doing but I leave it to you to decide how to do it right.