In early 1988 over the course a thirteen-day trip, we encountered three used car salesmen from Hobart who had embarked on a self-reliant expedition after purchasing three yellow duckies, three paddles, and camping gear. They paddled out down the Gordon eleven days later with two people in one raft being towed by one other raft with one paddler. They lost most of their camping gear, were down two paddles and a raft, had a scary exercise in survival, slept wet and had multiple near-death experiences.
Rafting the 100kms of the Collingwood and Franklin Rivers from the Lyell Highway to the Gordon River confluence is one of the world’s greatest wilderness whitewater journeys. The Franklin is a wild river with no dams. Much of the catchment is forested whilst some are alpine, draining the entire Frenchman’s Cap Massif. Following what can appear to be even modest rainfall, the river can rise up to 4 metres in several hours.
Around 700 people negotiate the Franklin River each season, far less than the number of people who attempt to climb Mt Everest. There are no permanent settlements in the catchment, no fires to scar campsites, minimal use of detergents and most paddlers transport out all solid waste, helping to keep the tannin hued waters pure for drinking.
This magnificent Wilderness World Heritage Area has many natural and cultural attributes preserving ancient temperate rainforests of Huon pine, myrtle and sassafras. It also features the “Lost World” limestone canyon and the mystical Kutakina Cave. This unique and iconic river was very close to being flooded into several still lakes in 1983. Fortunately, after the jailing of many selfless and devoted people, the High Court voted 4 to 3 to give the Commonwealth power under the UNESCO treaty.
Commercial tours in modern self-bailing rafts with two to five paddlers can range from four to eleven days. It is possible to raft the full river in as little as two days at medium to high water. Technical rope maneuvers can mean some grade 5 and 6 rapids that were in the 90s mandatory portages, are now walked around, carrying minimal gear and the boats lined through.
The river can be low or high at any time and low/high seasonal probability is around 70% based on experience and past levels. Levels are generally higher than average from October till mid-January and from mid-March to April. Higher levels normally mean easier paddling, bigger rapids with less obstructive hazards (logs and rocks) as well as more time in camp.
Seven days is normally plenty of time to complete the trip, including one-day yachting the Gordon River and Macquarie Harbour often with time for a camp or exploration day.
Typically lower water from mid-January to mid-March means the amazingly sculptured river rocks are exposed, drops in rapids are bigger, and there are more. Smaller rapids surrounded by tranquil pools and camping is often under the stars on sandy beaches. The first few days of the trip become more challenging the lower the river level, particularly the 5 km of the Collingwood River, which can be more of a river walk when water levels are low. Lower levels normally mean water temperatures are warmer, which is great for swimming, The average trip duration is 8-10 days when levels are typically low.
Hydro Tasmania has remote river gauges at the Collingwood Bridge and Fincham’s Crossing.
3000M/L day at Fincham’s equates to around 1 metre of depth on the Collingwood Bridge gauge which is generally considered a medium water level. The detailed 7-day forecast for Queenstown by Bureau of Meteorology can give a reasonable indication of likely rainfall.
It is light until nearly 10 pm in December and January, there are few insects and it is rarely windy as the gorge mostly runs perpendicular to the prevailing weather, making for very pleasant camping.
Single person “pack rafts” have been making a comeback on the river. These have advanced since the yellow rubberised cotton Taiwanese “duckies” that proliferated in the 1980s. Most are made of urethane often with self-bailing floors. Many people have successfully negotiated the river in these craft at medium to low levels after whitewater training, Grade 4 paddling experience, research and careful scouting of rapids.
More than six people have drowned on the Franklin. One in Coruscades (on a private trip), two at the Cauldron (one on an early “commercial” ducky trip, and one on an army trip in a sieve) one at Pig Trough Rapid (pinned in a kayak) and two at Big Fall (recycled in a dangerous hydraulic in the last major rapid).
A professional guide(s) with experience on the Franklin River may improve the safety, ease, and comfort of most trips, though there have been at least three rafts, lost on commercial trips.
Brett Fernon is a guide at Water By Nature Tasmania and has spent over 1500 days rafting the Franklin River over more than 30 years.
Water by Nature Tasmania organises professionally guided five-day, seven-day, and ten-day wilderness whitewater rafting expeditions through the rapids and reaches of the iconic Franklin River in South-West Tasmania.
By Brett Fernon