Rafting Tasmania's Franklin River

G Magazine

In July 1983, the High Court made its landmark decision to protect Tasmania's Franklin River from the damming intentions of the Hydro Electric Commission. Take a rafting trip down the untamed river that inspired a generation of Australians.

Paddling on the Franklin River

The Franklin River carves its way through rugged and otherwise inaccessible country.

Credit: Louise Southerden

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The Franklin River in Tasmania's remote southwest has always been a wild place. When it first appeared on maps in the 1830s, it snaked through a blank space eerily called 'Transylvania'.

Its earliest visitors - including goldminers, pine cutters and the occasional escaped convict - spent as much time on land as on the river, when they were forced to walk out over rugged mountain ranges after treacherous rapids wrecked their canoes and kayaks.

At the height of the 1979-83 Franklin Dam campaign, the pro-dam Tasmanian Premier Robin Gray famously declared the river to be "nothing more than a brown ditch, leech-ridden [and] unattractive to the majority of people".

He may have been right about the leeches, but it was the Franklin's wild beauty that inspired conservationists to protect, and ultimately save, the river.

Nevertheless, the Franklin has a well-earned reputation for erratic weather, hypothermic cold, water levels that can rise several metres overnight and challenging rapids with names like Jaw Breaker, Thunderush and The Cauldron.

In an age when so many wild places are being tamed and made more accessible, rafting the Franklin is one of the world's last true wilderness experiences.

Into the wilderness

So it was with some trepidation that I joined a nine-day rafting trip on the famed river.

This was the plan: eight relatively inexperienced paddlers and two all-knowing river guides would paddle, pinball and peacefully drift more than 100 kilometres down the Franklin River, from its junction with the Collingwood River to Sir John Falls on the Gordon River, where we'd be picked up by yacht and transferred to Strahan, halfway down Tasmania's west coast.

Rafts have been the vehicle of choice for most river travellers ever since the first inflatable rafts went down the Franklin in 1976, captained by none other than Greens' Senator Bob Brown - who subsequently named many of the river's landmarks and led the blockade against the dam in December 1982.

Not only are rafts able to withstand rocks and rapids, but they're supremely low-impact and allow unskilled paddlers, like me, to experience the river firsthand.

Within two days we'd all forgotten our lives back home and instead had a new routine: waking up under tarps strung between trees in riverside campsites to the aroma of freshly brewed coffee, we'd pack the two rafts before setting off as the sun peeped over forested peaks that kept us in morning shadow.

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