Ok, so where were we? That’s right, camped on a beach under the stars after a long 3rd day on the river.
Day 4 started slowly, the combined effects of a late finish on Day 3 and the generous sharing of booze that evening. The morning was a little overcast so we all slept in and got into the water late. By then it was another brilliant sunny day and the water level had dropped noticeably overnight: a portent of the hard work to come later in the day.
Our journey started pleasantly, however, with some fun rapids to travail (with much bouncing up and down to get the raft unstuck in places. The guides keep telling me the raft is not a bouncy castle, but it so clearly is!) and a rest stop at the descriptively-named Blush Rock Falls.
By now we’d settled into the routine of rafting, with Brett giving very little instruction. K and N commandeered the front of the raft, with all the pulling, pushing and leaping in and out that entails, while J and I were in the rear on bouncing duty, emergency braking and turning, and real-wheel drive. We’d settled into an easy rhythm, paddling together well and letting the conversation ebb and flow. At times our raft was silent as we all absorbed the treacherous beauty of our surrounds.
Although the River was mostly gentle, a couple of times Brett bade us all to disembark while he wrestled the raft alone through a particularly tricky or dangerous section. We’d clamber out onto the rocks and work our way downstream, paddles in hand, to rejoin him.
Our leisurely morning soon came to an end, however, as the river narrowed and the cliffs rose up on either side and we entered the Great Ravine. Here we encountered reached the first real portage of the trip: the Churn – a rush of white-water that’s not safe to raft through at any water level.
There’s a high portage, up over the top of the cliffs, that would take hours of back-aching effort to carry the gear up and over, but Brett has a better idea: the low portage route – a scurry across a fold in the cliff face, directly above the contorting waters. We all clambered out, forming a chain gang to unload most of the raft’s contents, hauling paddles, eskies and gear bags up the near-vertical cliff to nestle in a little alcove perhaps half a metre wide.
Both rafts unloaded, Brett declared our little cliff eirie to be the perfect place for a picnic lunch: we were all there, the eskies were with us and we were hungry. Thus began the most improbable picnic I’ve ever partaken of.
Lunch eaten, it’s time to extract our rafts from the turbulent clutches of the Churn. We watch Brett and Jim wrest our yellow life-lines from end to end, safe on our perches, before passing the gear back down the rocks and lowering ourselves back on board. The Churn is passed successfully and now it’s short, easy paddle to camp at Coruscades.
Coruscades turns out to be my favourite camp of the trip. Last off the boats, I resigned myself to a poor sleeping spot, caught between snoring boys and a walkway, only to be saved by Jim who told the girls there was another camp area off to one side (we’d missed it on account of a couple of trees fallen across the path. Though actually getting to my new camp involved shuffling under fallen trees then scurrying up a steep, eroded path I found myself with the best spot of all: under the myrtle trees, cradled in moss in my own little private patch of rainforest. Best of all, once the sun set the cliff face in front of me provided a stunning private light show: glow worms! Utter magic. I lay there, entranced by nature’s fairy lights until my eyes would stay open no longer.
I slept the sleep of the utterly exhausted, waking early the next morning to the scolding of a scrub-wren, unhappy to find me asleep in its territory. To appease both the bird and my own curiousity I rose and set about exploring the camp, discovering my fellow travellers all still sound asleep.
Happy for the solo time, I wandered out onto a rock in the river to watch the sun slowly slide down into the dark, quiet waters of the Great Ravine, waiting for the others to wake.
[Part 1 is here]
Day 2: I woke early to a beautiful morning and enjoyed a half-hour or so of quietness to myself before the rest of the camp began to stir. We packed, breakfasted and got back in the rafts, or in my case, the kayak, and set off for our first full day on the Franklin. The morning was uneventful; largely gentle paddling with decreasingly-frequent stops to drag the rafts through shallow sections. I had the hang of my kayak and the trust of the guides so was largely left to my own devices all morning, and derived far too much amusement from watching S, the boy in the other kayak, repeatedly capsize. Yes, I can be a little cruel sometimes.
At lunch time I swapped with J (and Es swapped with the water-logged S) and took my place in a raft with N, W and guide Jim. It was quite different to need to work as a team and respond quickly to Jim’s instructions, and frustrating to be stuck with the consequences when someone in the team wasn’t pulling their weight.
By afternoon tea time we’re dragging the rafts a lot less and Brett makes the call to deflate the “ducks”, so we’re all in the rafts now. Just in time, too, as we soon encounter our first serious obstacle of the trip: a jammed-tight log in a narrow slot that Jim nick-names the Tipper. It’s every-body out and a lot of hard work to lift the loaded rafts up and see-saw them over the top of the log. All the men are heaving (except Wayne – a recurring theme), lifting and pulling the heavy raft with nothing for footing but the same wet log the raft’s on top of and some rather slippery rocks and I start to realise how serious this rafting business really is.
Eventually we get both rafts clear of the Tipper, but it’s only a short stretch of smooth paddling before we hit the first of the dangerous rapids, known to have claimed a few lives: Nasty Notch. We all pile out onto the rocks and the rafts are dragged through and dropped into the downstream side and we glide our way through a glorious afternoon down to the night’s camp: Irenabyss. Rumour has it this was to be the site of the 3rd dam proposed under the Franklin scheme, though I’ve never seen anything official. It’s a pretty little gorge in steep country, nestled under the impressive white-quartz peak of Frenchman’s Cap. A beautiful spot, I’m very glad the river’s still wild and free.
Camp is made under the trees (I claim an isolated spot up on top of the rocks) with hours of daylight to spare, so the more energetic of us cross the river with Jim to try a walk up a ridge that Brett recommends (notably, Brett stays put at camp). The trail to the ridge is steep and very over-grown in places. We’re all in shorts as the afternoon is warm, and pretty soon our shins are scratched up from the unforgiving vegetation. We follow Jim up until the trail peters out and two of our party get bitten by inchmen (luckily not jack-jumpers, which were also about). A group decision is made to turn back, and somehow Jim loses the trail a couple of times on the way back down, so we go cross-country and follow wombat trails until the track appears again and we finally make our way back down to the river, legs scraped and bloody. When we get back to camp Brett just laughs and we all learn a lesson about his sense of humour.
The night is overcast and warm, and after a tasty dinner I flake out quickly, falling into a deep sleep in my mossy grotto (with repaired air mattress) only to wake in confusion several hours later to find Brett shining a torch in my face. It had started raining and tarps had been set up down below. Begrudgingly I woke up enough to gather my things and move down to the tarped area, claiming a small patch of dirt between Espen and Sam and spending the rest of the night dozing off then waking up to the snoring. Boo.
Day 3: The morning crept in grey and damp to find me grumpy and underslept. This was the morning we were supposed to climb up to Frenchman’s Cap: an arduous ascent but one I’d been looking forward to. But with the peak lost to low clouds and a disrupted night’s sleep, no-one could summon the motivation necessary to get up and get going. So the walk was called off, we slept in and a lazy morning was had. We didn’t hit the river until 11 am, but consequently didn’t make camp that evening until it was nearly dark: some time after 8 pm. The rafts were re-shuffled before we left and I was pleased to find myself swapped out of Jim’s raft and into Brett’s, with the rest of the science-nerd introverts on the trip: K, N and J. I’d spend the rest of the trip with them and appreciated the quiet company, intelligent conversation and shared physical effort.
Lead raft: Guided by Brett, owner and operator of Water By Nature, a quiet man with a slightly vicious sense of humour who knows the river backwards. Crewed by me, J (lovely & competent Environmental Engineer from Melbourne) and the Scottish half-brothers (K, an electrical engineer who designs next-generation tanks and APCs for the British military, currently living in Cardiff, and N, qualified marine biologist now making furniture and large metal sculptures, living in Bondi with his wife and baby daughters).
Second raft: Guided by Jim, who’s not worked for Brett for long and runs his own rafting business in Scotland during our winters. Jim is more sociable than Brett and bestows nick-names on us all, except W (a 50 year-old accountant from Brisbane who doesn’t pull his weight in the raft and spends the portages surreptitiously filming us all with his camera strapped to his life-jacket), who becomes Creepy-W by popular consensus. Then there’s N (an amazingly fit 50-something animal behaviouralist from Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, born and raised in South Africa, whom Jim spends the rest of the trip on the pull, possibly successfully), S (a 22-going-on-16 year old nouveau-bogan chippyfrom Melbourne with a good heart, a short attention span and a talent for annoyingness. He’s spoilt rotten by his parents, with whom he still lives and who sent him on this $2k trip as a birthday present: in short he’s your friend from high-school’s annoying little brother, magnified) and my friend Es (a 35 year old chef and logistics manager on a mine site in the middle of nowhere, Queensland, and part of my chosen family).
The rafting itself was fairly straight-forward, with no major obstacles to negotiate. The most dramatic event of the day occurred when our raft spun backwards unexpectedly while traversing a rapid, slamming into a very large log downstream. Except the log was higher than the raft edge, so the surface that collected and absorbed the impact was my arse. Yeah, that made me wince a little (and left quite a spectacular bruise right across the left cheek).
Camp was made on a sandy beach, with conversation over cask wine extending late into the evening before we drifted off for another chilly night under a sky full of brilliant stars.