Return to the river

I STEERED THE raft with my paddle buried deeply by the stern and we sped down the final drop of Newland's Cascades on the Franklin River amid the din and spraying water caused by the helicopter's down draught as it perched on a rock nearby. It was 1988, five years after Australia's most famous environmental campaign, which prevented the flooding of the Franklin River in Tasmania's south-west.

The helicopter carried Bob Brown, then forty-three, the first elected Tasmanian Green MP. He was wearing a collared shirt and jacket; it was clear he was not staying long. Greeting our party warmly, he asked about our river experiences, telling us he had escaped briefly from his state parliament office to do a story for the ABC.

Seventeen years later, in 2005, he sits in the back of my five-person raft clad in a black neoprene wetsuit and brightly coloured spray jacket, buoyancy vest and helmet. He has not been on the river that changed his life since 1981.

A few days into the journey, Brown surprised me when he described his response when first invited to paddle the Franklin, as we sat on a huge rock above the Coruscades rapid in the Great Ravine. "When Paul Smith [a forester from Launceston in Tasmania's north] first asked me to come down the Franklin River with him in 1976, I thought about patching all those rafts and carting things around river obstacles and I wasn't keen. He had asked a stack of other people and none of them was silly enough to come ... So I agreed if he in return came for a walk in the Western Arthurs [in south-west Tasmania] ... And, of course, it turned out to be the best bargain I ever made."

Brown kept coming back. Between 1976 and 1981 he made seven descents of the fast-flowing and technically challenging river, which carves its way south-west from its headwaters in central Tasmania's Cheyne Range through numerous gorges before joining the Gordon River more than a hundred kilo-metres downstream near Macquarie Harbour on Tasmania's west coast.

In 1978, Brown committed himself full-time to the campaign when he became director of The Wilderness Society, forsaking his profession and income as a doctor. By then, saving the river had become his obsession.

I know how he feels about the river. I first paddled the Franklin in 1987 after graduating from an outdoor education course. I was excited and curious as I ventured down "the wild river" I had heard so much about. My senses were flooded by its beauty and pristine nature. I have kept coming back.


FINDING TIME FOR this journey has been years in the dreaming. Brown's life as a senator and leader of the Australian Greens does not allow much time away. "It is never easy to find twelve days out of my routine. However, a federal election had been held in November. There was no immediate state election or parliamentary sitting ... everything fell in place."

It was a chance for his partner, Paul Thomas, to see the river for the first time. "We have been together for ten years and the Franklin has been a major episode in my life and he wanted to see it. The second thing was a very strong urge to go back to a place that I loved and had such a strong acquaintance with and owed so much to," says Brown.

Thomas is a tall, bearded and gently spoken man who runs a Tibetan rug shop in Hobart, manages a sheep farm in the Huon Valley south of Hobart and is an active member of the Greens. I appreciate his physical strength and competence, and have seated him in the front of my raft. He is excited, keen to experience the place that inspired Brown's vocation.

As director of The Wilderness Society during the campaign in the early 1980s, Brown watched the Franklin River debates from the gallery in the Tasmanian parliament with increasing frustration. He believed the parliament needed people more experienced in environmental and social-justice matters. In 1982, when the bulldozers rolled into the Franklin valley, Brown considered entering parliament.

On December 12, 1982, the first boatload of protesters left Strahan on Tasmania's west coast and headed for the dam site on the Gordon River. Brown was arrested four days later and imprisoned for more than two weeks at Risdon Prison. Over the next few months, 1,272 people were arrested and 447 imprisoned. During his prison stay, Brown finally decided he would run for parliament. He was elected the day after he came out.

On this journey down the Franklin, Brown is accompanied by his media adviser Ben Oquist, and Ben's fiancée Alex Gordon, Paul's sister Anne Foale, his brother-in-law Larry McCabe, and friend Mike Dempsey. Anna Feeley and I are the guides.


YESTERDAY THE RIVER rose to the perfect departure level. There is enough water to cover the rocks but not too much to be running on adrenalin all day. It is as though the river is just turning it on for Bob.

At the junction of the Collingwood River with the Franklin, we stop for a morning snack on a peninsula of polished golden and brown quartzite rocks. The natural tannin in the button-grass plains above stains the water like weak tea in the shallows to almost black in the depths. Brown wanders to the edge of the shingle beach and takes a photograph. His mood is exuberant, his enthusiasm contagious.

"I can't believe it," he comments as though reading my thoughts. "That is the easiest trip down the Collingwood, because of the 0.85-metre run in the river. We always came when it was much lower and dragged across the rocks and always got tipped out at one of those rapids up there half a kilometre ... You're a much better director of currents and paddlers than we ever were," Brown says, laughing.

Travelling down the river in 2005 is different to those descents at the height of the campaign by 2,000 or more supporters. "Going from a rubber duckie to these big rafts is like going from puffing billy to an express train. It is so much easier, of course, because there are five paddles going instead of one."

In the 1970s and 1980s, Brown's single-person "duckie" was frequently punctured and had to be blown up by mouth. Pumps weren't even considered; nor were wetsuits or helmets. Cargo was a waterproof pack and a barrel of food. Double-bladed paddles, homemade from dowel and plywood, provided propulsion.

Anna and I untie our rafts as the crews return. I push off from the shingle beach and we float and paddle downstream. The leatherwood trees are in full bloom and their white petals swirl in the current. Mist hangs around the tops of the hills and a soft light overhead accentuates the textures in the forest. Cormorants skim down the water just ahead of us. The rafts slip between boulders on smooth green tongues of water and roller-coast down wave trains in between the calm pools.

We reach Descension Gorge. I know the water is up and it won't be easy to stop between the 400-metres-long rapid. Anna and I run our boats close together as backup for any rescues. It's a hoot. We punch through deep holes, filling up with water that quickly drains through the floor eyelets of our self-baling rafts.

"Forwards. Hold on," I call. We reach the final drop and ... ooh, that hole is bigger than I thought. Here we go. The boat is nice and straight. Should be right. We go deep and spring out into the welcoming calm of the Irenabyss.

"When you come into the Irenabyss it is like you've come in from a storm outside and slammed the door. Silent, peaceful and you're at home," Brown says as we sit eating our Moroccan-lamb dinner at camp that evening.

Brown named the gorge in 1978, from the Greek words meaning peace and bottomless chasm. Foam from natural plant oils forms delicate lacework patterns in the depths of the gorge below, swirling sensuously from side to side in the surface current.

"It is one of those places – and there are many of them on the Franklin – where you wish you could press a button and just give everybody five minutes sitting here on the white quartzite rocks looking back into that gorge," he says, as he gazes upstream.


DAY TWO. THE river had only dropped a couple of centimetres, which is great. We say "Hi" to a bunch of outdoor instructors from Victoria, camped on the other side. One woman's eyes are like saucers as she spots Bob. We all decide on camp sites downstream for a few days to avoid any double bookings. We'll head to Watermelon Beach tonight. That's one Bob didn't name.

We're paddling through easy grade-two and grade-three rapids under Pyramid Peak. An eagle watches us from a charred tree trunk above the forest. I decide to record from my minidisc as we are paddling. Hope I don't drown my microphone. I have three-track audio with narration from Bob, my paddle commands and the sound of white water. A log-jammed rapid is reached and Bob has a story to tell.

"I thought my number was up in that rapid once. A loose line at the back of my raft was caught around the log and the raft was being held in underneath with me ... no drainage holes like in this raft. Paul Smith inched his way back up the river with a knife ... so I could reach back and cut the line and voom, away we went."

Everyone seems comfortable and absorbed by the ever-changing scenery. We camp on Watermelon's wide sandy beach. Paul says he hasn't thought of home or work or anything back in the city. This place is like that. You become so focused on the present. It brings people back in touch with simple living, intimately connected with nature.

He shows me a garden with tiny bonsai-like plants of huon pine, sassafras, myrtle, lichens, liverworts and violets all growing together on a square foot of rotting log. He describes it as "magical" and lays his mat and sleeping bag beside it.

We sleep under the stars tonight as the dew falls gently. The cirrus clouds from the afternoon have disappeared and a clear sky is overhead.

After a bacon-and-egg breakfast, Brown and Thomas fasten original green triangular No Dam stickers they found in a recent house move to the front of each raft. The slogan came from a state referendum where "No Dams" was not an option. "You could either vote for the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam or for the Gordon-above-Olga Dam. And there was such an outrage about that, that one in three people wrote 'No Dams' on their ballot papers. So it became a motto after '81 for the Franklin ...That was the biggest informal writing in Australian history."

During the day, we explore a sculptured side canyon at Askance Creek and swim in the pool under the huge cascade at Blushrock Falls. Downstream, the Side Slip rapid marks the entrance to the Great Ravine, the inner sanctum of the Franklin. The rafts speed down a steep fast chute, bouncing off the right-hand wall. We paddle the calm straight of Inception Reach. Walls 1,000 metres high tower in from either side. We move towards the Churn, the first of four major portages. The water is still too high to safely reach an easier portage route, so we decide to carry the gear along the trail on the left.

"Everybody ready? One. Two. Three," calls Brown as we heave the raft almost vertically up the steepest section of the trail. It is interesting and somewhat surprising to see him comfortably carrying barrels, bags and rafts with the ease with which he might deliver a fiery election speech. We complete the portage in three hours.


CAMP IS MADE for two nights at the top of the Coruscades, the second major rapid in the Great Ravine. The group is swimming again. Rail, hail or shine for these folk. Not me. The water is freezing. I help Anna organise dinner.

It is an incredible place to hang out for a rest day. We are surrounded by huge canyon walls, the imposing golden face of Oriel Rock with rich pockets of forest fringing the river banks. Michael spots a platypus surfacing in the deep pool of Serenity Sound. I love this place. I'm in heaven.

On the fifth day, we raft the steepest drop on the river, the Forcett, near the finale of Coruscades. It is a sneaky move to the far left side of the fall followed by a big "hold on". We line up well and the raft buries deeply and submerges for a split second. This always gets people excited. If they don't hold on it is easy to be flicked out. We pull in at the bottom and I set my video camera running on autopilot; river safety is the priority here. Here comes Anna's boat. "Oooh", and there goes Ben. I throw my safety line but he's instantly pulled back into his boat. Nice rescue.

Fully laden rafts are hauled over the left-hand side of the third major portage, Thunderush, and the bottom section runs smoothly. Sometimes rafts get held sideways on a rock here, with upstream water pouring in, requiring ropes and pulley systems to haul them off. Not this time. At the final ravine portage of the Cauldron, an easy dragging route is completed on the right.

Many parties have had to abort their Franklin expeditions. The river claimed two lives during the campaign years and a handful of others later. Brown describes an incident from the the first full river descent made by Johnson Dean and John Hawkins. It was their third attempt in 1959, and they finally made it all the way down the Franklin. During the first two attempts their parties walked out, leaving broken canoes behind. "Dean got stuck on the left-hand side on a rock with the rest of them on the central rock in the middle there throwing him canned food in the rain. It was a very dicey situation but they managed to haul him back," Brown, who knows Dean well, says.

In 1971, Fred Koolhof's party came down on rafts made of tractor tubes. The rafts smashed at the Cauldron. Brown says: "Koolhof is said to have been saying his prayers before he jumped in with his pack on his back because he had no option in rising water ... All four of them came out at the bottom end and pieced together the smashed remnants for enough flotation to get them through the river. The whole thing [the Great Ravine] is very beautiful, very spectacular, very inspiring and so different to what it would have become had the No Dams campaign not succeeded because we would be about a hundred metres underwater here, had that happened."

On the sixth day we encounter more challenging rapids through Propsting Gorge. The second of two portages so absorbs the attention of the group that they are surprised to suddenly see Rock Island Bend. Brown is immediately nostalgic: "This is where Peter Dombrovskis came in 1979, sat on the rocks just behind me here, waited for the moment and the misty morning to take that iconic picture of Rock Island Bend, which was reprinted more than a million times during the Franklin campaign. It headed up the campaign for the 1983 election to save the Franklin, which helped change governments and brought the Hawke government in, which stopped the dam through the High Court action."


I FEEL THE adrenalin running again as we scout and set up safety ropes for the last major rapid on the Franklin, the 400-metre-long Newland's Cascades. The river is quite low now and Anna and I entertain our crews as our rafts bump and spin off rocks, forcing us to run a drop or two backwards when we don't have time to turn them around. We are both upright at the bottom of the rapid and that is what matters. We paddle a short stretch of calm water to camp.

Newlands, with a huge long overhang about twenty metres overhead, is my favourite camp site on the river. No tarpaulins are needed as secluded ledges provide shelter, complete with views of swirling lacework patterns in the river and the music of water droplets cascading off Shower Cliff on the other side.

The final two days are spent in the broad forests of the Lower Franklin. We have finished with the serious gorges; there are no large rapids to contend with. The mood is relaxed. The river gently flows thirty-five kilometres to the Gordon River. Limestone dominates the cliffs along the waterline, punctuated by caves, arches and waterworn pockets.

We are paddling on a mirror. The reflections are intense and when the breeze picks up, light patterns from the moving ripples play on the cliff like a light show. We refresh ourselves with regular swims; the temperature reaches 30 degrees. You really appreciate days like this on the west coast where it rains about 300 days a year. I lie on my back and float in the current, watching the clouds and trees move by.

Tonight at our Snake Island camp we toast Dick Smith with mugs of Tasmanian wine. He helicoptered in the box of goodies and a note: "To Bob Brown. Thanks for saving the Franklin. This gravel bank would be fifty metres underwater but for your work. I dips me lid to you. Thanks, Dick Smith." When we arrived on the beach at Flat Island this afternoon they were there waiting for us.

Everyone sleeps under the stars. In a couple of days I will miss the sound of gentle waters running over the shingle rapids as I fall asleep. I wake at three am to a huge full moon glowing through the mist before the imposing Elliot Range. I think about getting up to film but I drift off.


THE NEXT MORNING we climb up from the river to the Kutikina Cave. It is the size of a large living room and the site of the southernmost known habitation of humans anywhere on earth during the last ice age. Brown recalls his memories of its historic rediscovery in 1981, on a trip he made with Kevin Kiernan and Bob Burton. From the river, he and Burton heard Kiernan's cry of delight from the cave above. "When we came up here, Kevin was bent over this hearth. There were coals still in the depression in the ground and bones of animals which had been cooked by the last Aboriginal people. We were astounded. In the silence of the morning you could see the little breeze lifting the ferns outside, you could see shadows outside and it was as if we were in somebody else's house. You could absolutely imagine an Aboriginal family coming back off the river and finding us in there, even though they left 14,000 years ago."

The cave was central to the No Dams campaign, particularly after December 1982 when south-west Tasmania became a World Heritage Area (WHA), as it was a site of recognised international cultural importance. The WHA Act protects sites of international cultural importance – providing a compelling argument when the battle to save the Franklin moved to the High Court in 1983.

Eight kilometres downstream, we reach the Gordon River as a sea eagle flies overhead. There is a good flow from the Gordon Dam today and even a tailwind to assist in the final seven kilometres to the jetty at Sir John Falls. The thick rainforest on these river banks is much denser than on the Franklin.

The crumbling remains of a drill site made in 1982 for the proposed dam is almost reclaimed by the forest. I look across at Bob, who smiles. He noticed it, too. He looks at home here.

This eighth river journey may be his last, his only trip down the Franklin since the future of the river became certain. "It is like reconnecting with an old friend and [finding] that he or she is just as beautiful and rewarding as ever. The great thing is the simple joy of knowing it is there and people ... are going to be floating down this river for centuries to come. Coming back closes the circle, the circle between going there in the first place, then the campaign, then almost losing it, and then entering a political system which would still dam the Franklin if it wasn't for enormous public sentiment, which is absolutely prohibitive of it now. Coming back has been a real journey. It was the journey of a great environmental epic in which I took part." 

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