In December of 2017, seven of us ventured to Tasmania, once known as Van Diemen’s Land, to boat a river only one of us had ever heard of before this trip was planned - the Franklin River. This is our story. It will take several ‘parts’ for me to tell it. I’ll post a ‘part’ - whenever I can - until the story, from my perspective, is complete.
Our trip down the Franklin, and a short, but memorable section of the Gordon, was 129 kilometers long. About 80 miles in American terminology. It’s a trip that should, under normal conditions, require a week to eight days. An aggressive, skilled kayaker could manage it in four days. We were advised to allow 11 to 12 days in the event the weather and the river decided to have a high water event as we had seen via the graphs before we had launched.
The Great Ravine is one section of that journey, a very short section actually, but it harbors the most serious whitewater and back-breaking portages. Within the Great Ravine are four rapids of consequence: The Churn, The Coruscades, Thunderush and the Cauldron. Each need to be approached with an abundance of caution because a mistake with any of them could be fatal.
It’s imperative you reach and portage the third monstrous rapid in the gorge - Thunderush - when the river is not varying high. Because the only portage is along the shore over massive boulders on river left while the water level is on the calmer side. An old high water portage on the right bank, involving humping your gear over land, above the cliffs and through the forest had been eliminated some years back by a rock slide.
We arrived at the final hurdle of The Great Ravine pretty early in the day. I was ecstatic knowing - in advance - there was an ‘escape route’ through the woods. If there was a way around this last whitewater road block, without having to expose myself to the danger of violently moving water, I was bound and determined to take it.
We had seen pictures and heard descriptions of The Cauldron. Our kayaker friend in Hobart had given us a solid description of the process of portaging your boats over the house-sized boulder that comprises two-thirds of the real estate on the right side of the falls. The top of the boulder looks like the roof of an A-frame and is about half as steep.
To reach ‘the roof’ you have to paddle across the river just above the back of the neck hair-raising entrance and catch an eddy only a little bigger than the raft. For non-river runners, an eddy is a safe harbor. It is where the river’s current takes a pause and circulates back upstream.
Of course, it is possible to misjudge this move. Having never been here before that is a distinct possibility.
Another concern might be the nature of the stone that you will be stepping out on once you’ve reached the ‘safe harbor’. Will it be slimy with algae? Will it be slippery when wet?
However, because I was dead set on the overland route, I only gave these concerns a passing thought.
The woodland portage was on the left bank of the river. As was a very large ‘safe harbor’. But, when we paddled our raft into this voluminous eddy above The Cauldron, what we discovered was a trail of steps carved into a cliff that led to a promontory overlooking the maelstrom of water below. The promontory was - apparently - the main camp site and it was no bigger than your typical backyard swimming pool.
Lugging river bags and other gear to the promontory was challenging enough - the raft itself was a whole other level of magnitude. Even though it was a pint-sized raft, it was still going to be a bear just to get it to this first high spot. It was going to require our rope, pulley and vector magicians to work their magic.
As it was still early in the day, I decided, along with a couple of others, to reconnoiter the Aussie track around The Cauldron’s howling clot of whitewater. Just to get an idea of what kind of hell I was choosing.
The previous part about this expedition should have given you a clue as to how this part of our trip unfolded. I referenced a movie directed by Werner Herzog called Fitzcarraldo where one man decided to haul a 60 foot steam boat through the Amazon wilderness. Specifically. . .
Fitzcarraldo is a 1982 West German epic adventure-drama film written and directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski as the title character. It portrays would-be rubber baron Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, an Irishman known in Peru as Fitzcarraldo, who is determined to transport a steamship over a steep hill in order to access a rich rubber territory in the Amazon Basin.
I am in no way endorsing this movie. Nor would I ever suggest anyone watch Aguirre, The Wrath of God which was also starring Klaus Kinski and directed by Werner Herzog and also set in South America.
But as I struggled to walk the Aussie track from the promontory to the bank below the rapid - just walk it without the burden of gear or a boat - I thought about what kind of effort would be necessary to drag a steamship up and over a hill in the Amazon.
First we had to lift the inflated boat from the water to the promontory using a pulley system set up by our lead boaters and rope technicians. The lift was probably about fifty feet. It had its moments of frustration, concern and hazards. It was not a simple process.
Once it was safely landed on the marginally flat camping area of the promontory, the idea was brought up as to whether it would be possible to haul it through the forest, with its low-hanging branches, ankle-twisting exposed roots and vertiginous slopes above a Class VI rapid inflated. The immediate and definitive answer was a resounding ‘No’.
We deflated and rolled it like a cigar.
The initial stretch out of camp was - predictably - uphill. It was steep, muddy and gnarled with roots.
We tried to carry it as a team of three. We tried to pass it from person to person, so that everyone could remain stationary. Both methods were tedious to the nth degree. I don’t have any idea the actual length of the portage track from start to finish but both of those methods were going to take hours.
River runners - as per usual - have a very old, very well-worn expression. “Most accidents happen on shore.”
It’s a good reminder to not let your guard down when you are scouting a rapid or horsing around in camp. Like trying to create firewood by snapping a log in two with a large rock. (“Look! Ug make firewood. Ug also break toe.”)
With the ‘most accidents happen on shore’ expression in mind and exasperation at our modest progress, the youngest, fittest buck on the trip decided to take matters into his own hands and just wrestle the awkward bundle of hypalon - for the most part - on his own. I tried to assist but I think I mostly was there to witness his potential demise, or the demise of the raft should it tumble through the heavily treed mountainside and tumble into the river, while cheering him on as I tried to keep up.
He willed that ungainly mass up and down the trail and through the spaghetti mess of roots and down through the rabbit warrens. Like Fitzcarraldo, he refused to be denied and - in hindsight as I sit here and type - I owe him and the magicians with the ropes more thanks than I gave them at the time.
It was my choice, along with my two boat companions, to opt for the overland hump of gear and boat when I could have sucked it up and accepted the challenge of catching the micro eddy above The Cauldron, scrabbling down the slope of the A-frame rock, lowering the boat ten feet off the rock into a squalling jumble of conflicted currents, climbing down off the rock as the boat bucked below - knowing that one inconvenient lurch of the raft could put me in the water which had been the death of more than one Franklin River traveler - and then paddling the last fifty yards or the ‘wash’ of The Cauldron like the downwash of a helicopter’s rotor.
On second thought. I made the right choice. And, if it had been left to me, I would have dragged and wrestled the boat through those woods if it took me all night and was the last thing I ever did.
If I had, I wish Werner Herzog would have filmed it.