Newlands Rock Shelter to Sir John Falls (30 km - 35m fall)- Part 1 morning rafting

Waking up in the early hours of the morning, I looked up - stars! The steady drone of the Newland Cascades below our rocky perch seemed to be that little bit quieter - all seemed well and I went black to sleep. By morning, it was clear why, as the river level had already dropped two metres and the churning white water below our mooring had reverted to a fast-flowing foam-streaked stream.

With a fine, though cloudy day ahead, we loaded up the rafts one last time and set off. Today, we would be doing another double-section - this time a long one. Our destination, Sir John Falls lay over 30 km ahead on the Gordon River. The day on the river started straight into white-water thrills - a 400m stretch of of big pressure waves that gave a few of us an early morning shower.

Running the rapids out of Newlands
(Go-Pro photos: Elias Eichler)

Cold shower in the morning

About to head off for our last long rapid

The last day begins (photo: Elias Eichler)

The rapid took us out of the gorge and into the new landscape of the Lower Franklin. The thick low mantle of the Black Forest cloaked both banks as we easily ran the stony race at Calders Ferry. The river was now much wider and deeper as it settled into the low country.

Limestone cliffs begin to line the river


Wide still section in the Black Forest

Dense forest and low cliffs of the Lower Franklin

Another feature of the Lower Franklin is that this is limestone country. The low cliffs of jagged grey limestone began to appear along the river's edge. It was the type of rock that could easily slash a rubber raft - Elias and Franzi kept us well clear as we passed by still and silent reaches beneath the low sculpted cliffs. About this time, a sea-eagle took off from a tree high above the river and, for the next 10 km, guided us down, flying from tree to tree, as we rhythmically paddled on to follow.

Beneath the sculpted limestone walls


Mirror-like reflections at Blackmans Bend

Passing a small waterfall flowing out of the cliff

After a long stretch of calm meditative water, excitement returned briefly as we ran the Little Falls and passed into Diana's Basin. With such high water levels, the rapids were quite easy. Ahead lay the orange gash of Cromleigh Cliff, high on the Elliot Range, which formed a nice backdrop to the flatter landscape about us.

The Lower Franklin backed by the Elliot Range

Heading towards the gash of Cromleigh cliff

On a gravel island in the river

The Franklin was now a much wider river with long stony islets splitting it into channels. The rushing waters of the Jane River converging on our left probably widened it that little bit more. Sweeping around the big dog-leg at Blackmans Bend, we approached a series of higher limestone cliffs on the left bank. This is cave country, one of which - Kutikina - has artefacts from human habitation that date back 20,000 years. We stopped to visit this aboriginal sacred site and reflect on what it meant - when people lived here and hunted in the grasslands long since replaced by temperate rain forest.

The forest near Kutikina Cave .....

Back on to the lower Franklin ......

.... looking out of the cave entrance ...

.... with its wide reaches, limestone cliffs and lush forest

... the interior where people live 20,000 years ago
(photo: Paul Davies)

Lunch stop at Big Falls Beach

From Kultikina, it was back to the river - time to get organised and get our rhythms back to shoot Double Falls, easier than at lower water levels, but a bit of excitement nonetheless. A few more long reaches separated by gentle gravel races brought us to a pretty sandy island, covered in low tea-tree scrub. Big Falls Beach on this island would have been our overnight camp, had we not been delayed, but last night it was under water. Now it was a pleasant lunch stop, with a patch of sunshine to boot. With the river running high, it had taken only four hours to get here.

Newlands Rock Shelter to Sir John Falls (30 km - 35m fall)- Part 2 afternoon rafting

The name Big Fall carried a good hint that another serious rapid was waiting downstream, and after a couple of sporting smaller drops we reached it. At lower water levels, it would have been a compulsory portage (kayakers have died here), but with the river running high the dangers were greatly diminished - it was to be our final white-water frisson as we shot over its drop and bounced off the rock wall below.

A final bit of rough-water before Big Fall

Beneath the imposing walls of Galleon Bluff

From Big Fall, we began the long rhythmic paddle down the last few kilometres of the Franklin River beneath green-forested walls and under the high limestone face of Galleon Bluff. Suddenly, the lead raft disappeared into the bluff - we had reached the entry to Penghana Cave, where we could paddle in to the gloom and look out at the light pouring in from both the land and river entrances.

Entering Penghana Cave


Looking up to the land entrance of Penghana Cave

River reflections in the cave

The dramatic undercut of Verandah Cliff (photo: Paul Davies)

The current was still quite strong as we passed under the overhang of Verandah Cliffs. Elias and Franzi tied the two rafts end-to-end to create the Franklin River dragon raft - 8 paddlers stroking along in perfect synchrony (well almost) and, for the first time, our two guides could sit back and relax.

We cruised down past Pyramid Island and into the wide reach of the Gordon River - it was time to farewell the Franklin, our companion for the past eight days.

The jagged sculpture of the Limestone Cliffs

The 8-man dragon raft turned west and headed down the Gordon. As we passed the site once proposed for the Gordon-below-Franklin dam, Elias and Franzi brought out a bottle of champagne and proposed a toast to Bob Brown and the blockaders of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society, whose action stopped this insane project. Let the Franklin run free - we salute you all!

The crew of the Franklin river dragon raft

A long and steady rhythmic paddle took our dragon raft past The Big Eddy, the last ripple on the river, and then onwards from bend to bend. In some reaches, the water was so still that it became mirrors reflecting tree and cloud, in others it shivered in a headwind that for the only time on the trip made me wonder "are we there yet?"

A glassy reach on the Gordon River

In fact we were, for around the next bend was the brand new pier at Sir John Falls, our campsite for the night and a lovely spot indeed. Dry-bags and barrels were unloaded for the last time and the rafts deflated and rolled up. The next leg of the journey would be aboard a 20m steel ketch to Strahan and civilisation. For now, we could enjoy the lovely waterfall and pool near the campsite and eat our last camp dinner on the pier surrounded by the perfect reflections on the Gordon River.

Sir John Falls

One last camp site

Evening reflections on the Gordon River

The "Stormbreaker" arrives

A lovely tannin-stained pool in the forest

Expedition over - relaxing on Sir John Pier

Just before 7pm, the "Stormbreaker" slipped quietly into the dock and, a little later, we slipped quietly into our sleeping bags for one last night under the tarp and the forest canopy. it was an early night for an early morning - would need to be up at 5.15am to break camp for the last time and climb aboard.

Sir John Falls to Strahan by yacht

The moon reflected softly on the mirror-like water of the Gordon River, as mist floated above its surface. The hour before dawn is a magical time on the river. At 6am, the "Stormbreaker" switched off its wake-up call of Andrea Bocelli, switched on its motors and we began our 6-hour journey down the river to Macquarie Harbour and then across the harbour to the small west coast town of Strahan.

Butlers Island in the dark and fog

It was a voyage through history - some quite recent, and as we passed by Butlers Island in the foggy darkness, we saluted the Blockaders of '83 and tried to imagine their flotilla of tiny rubber rafts strung across the water in an attempt to stop the barges full of earth-moving equipment destined for construction of the dam. They may have lost that battle, but they did win the war - the dam was never built and the rivers run free. I composed a little haiku doublet in their honour.

Haiku doublet - homage to '83

Morning mist hangs over the Gordon

The early morning mist hung still over the mirror-like water of the river and, as the sky gradually lightened, the silhoutte of shore-line trees cast ethereal reflections. Finally, the sun rose, a fuzzy bright circle, and began to burn off the fog to highlight the bright shades of green along the heavily forested shoreline of the Gordon.

A selection of Gordon riverscapes ..... mists comes and goes .....

.... and the sun slowly rises

Our rafting gear on the deck of the "Stormbreaker"

Adieu, Frenchmans Cap

After a couple of hours we puttered out into the broad expanse of Macquarie Harbour to pass Sarah Island, a hellhole for convicts in the 1820s and 1830s - the end of the earth for the desolate. Many died there, some escaped and only a very few of those made it back through the endless Tasmanian wilderness to the "civilised" east coast of Tasmania. Nowadays, salmon farming leases lie spread across the broad expanse of the harbour, generating as much controversy as income - economic boom or death of the harbour ecosystem? Time will tell.

Women convicts prison islet next to Sarah Island

The Elliot Range from Macquarie Harbour

Arrival at Strahan

After six hours, the "Stormbreaker" pulled in to the dock at Strahan, where our mini-bus was waiting to take us all back on an equally long journey to Hobart. What a pleasure it was to have that first hot shower and cold beer! That evening, we all got together with our guides to celebrate our epic adventure with a meal at a dockside pub and reminisce on the good times spent along one of Australia's last wild rivers.

Thanks to all our companions-de-voyage - the fair Nello, my muse as always - Ron and Vicki, Paul, Dave, Darlo and Don, strong on the river and congenial in camp - and our guides, Franzi and Elias, for showing us their Franklin, meticulous in preparation, extremely professional and safety conscious, firm and skilful in the rapids, excellent bush cooks and a whole of of fun to boot. They should write the "Guide to being a River Guide". I don't usually give plugs on this website, but, if you are inspired to discover the beauty of the Franklin River, you couldn't beat Elias and Franzi and their Franklin River Rafting Company.

The Franklin River Rafting expedition of February 2017 (photo: Elias Eichler)