It’s the place that the world community has formally recognised as meeting more of its natural and cultural heritage criteria than any other place on earth. It’s the truly magnificent Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area and I was about to spend seven days on the Gordon and Franklin Rivers finding out what makes it so special. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Day 1 – Eagle Creek
Most people get a taste of what the Gordon River has to offer by taking a ferry across Macquarie Harbour from Strahan. On the way, they are treated to a delicious banquet, a guided tour of the historic Sarah Island penal colony, and if conditions are right they even take a quick dash through Hell’s Gates into the Southern Ocean. The unquestionable highlight though is when the ferry makes its way slowly and quietly into the river, enabling those on board to take in the tranquil majesty of this wild river and the ancient rainforest that surrounds it. It also stops briefly at the Heritage Landing boardwalk so passengers can wander among 2,000 year old huon pines, but the return to civilisation comes all too soon… unless you happened to bring a kayak. Luckily the ferry operators are more than happy for you to do just that.
Too often in life we are content with following the well worn path, the beaten track, the path of least resistance. To see the most amazing things and really feel alive you have to leave those trails. I was incredibly excited about venturing into the unknown and full of anticipation of what was in store.
Our Eagle Creek home for the night wasn’t far so we took our time and soaked up the surroundings. Long periods of awestruck silence were punctuated by the occasional soft “wow” as we admired what is regarded as few remaining tracts of temperate rainforest in the world, and the steep slopes that it blankets.
Most of the trees in the rainforest are myrtle beech which can grow up to 50 metres tall over their 500 year life, although it’s the ones that stand out from the crowd that you notice. The lighter green foliage of celery top pines shoots out of the canopy here and there. White flowers of leatherwood trees, from which local bees produce delicious honey of the same name, decorate sections of the shoreline.
Eagle Creek is one of the few places by the river where there is enough flat open ground to set up camp for the night, but it is well camouflaged and difficult to find without local knowledge. We were fortunate to have just that in the shape of our guide Chris Blackaby from Blackaby’s Sea Kayaks and Tours.
The campsite doesn’t have any facilities so you have to bring in everything you need and take everything out with you again. Bringing everything in is easy when you have an expedition style kayak like my Mission Eco Bezhig. There’s plenty of room in the hatches and weight isn’t an issue. Taking everything out again is where things can get a little uncomfortable and that’s where the “poo tube” comes into the picture. Without going into the mechanics of this device, let’s just say that there were some interesting looks from fellow diners when Chris explained it in a Strahan restaurant as part of our pre trip briefing.
The water in the Gordon River is uncomfortably cold so jumping in for a wash is an activity only for the very hardy or the very stinky. I can’t say that I’m the former and I wasn’t the latter just yet, so a quick splash with water warmed nicely by my stove was enough for me at this stage. On the plus side, the low temperature of the river means that it can be used as a natural fridge. It’s perfect for chilling drinks and keeping food fresh. Keep an eye on your sausages though, as it doesn’t take long for crayfish to come in for a snack.
Day 2 – Lower Gordon Camp
I slept incredibly well at Eagle Creek. Maybe it was my peaceful walk into the forest before dinner. Maybe it was the trance inducing sounds that Chris had been making with his didgeridoo and clapping sticks. Maybe it was the thick luxuriant carpet of moss on which I made my bed. Maybe the fairies of the wood came and sprinkled magic dust over me. Whatever the reason, I loved it there and was happy we would be coming back again in a few days.
Today’s plan was full of highlights. Before reaching our digs for the night at the Lower Gordon Camp we were to check out an historic lime kiln which is now a cultural heritage site, lunch on the beach at Snag Point, pass the landmark Marble Cliffs, and take a look at the iconic Butler Island.
The day was cloudy but there wasn’t much wind and the glassy waters made for good platypus spotting. A couple of fishing lines were towed in the hope of snaring a sizeable rainbow trout or salmon for dinner. The vegetarian in me is happy to report that I saw a platypus but I didn’t see any fish.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the lime kiln is by a section of the river called Limekiln Reach. It is a hollow cylindrical stone structure with an opening at the bottom to allow air into the chamber. The rim is adorned with attractive fernery, although it’s probably safe to say that wouldn’t have been the case in its heyday. Lime kilns are used to create quicklime (calcium oxide). This is achieved by applying heat to limestone. Quicklime has a number of uses but given its age, it is likely that the output from this kiln was used in cement and mortars for building projects.
There are a lot of impressive rock formations in this section of the river, some even featuring caves into which you can paddle, but the highlight is the Marble Cliffs. A sheer white wall towers over the waterway. We couldn’t believe our luck when we arrived to find a sea eagle perched imperially near the top. At first, it appeared to simply be watching us pass by but when a small traumatized bird was found flailing in the river we realised it was actually waiting for us to move on so it could finish lunch. Needless to say we intervened and the story had a happy ending.
According to the Bureau of Meteorology, it rains an average of 164 days a year here so I had expected to get wet at some stage. Today was that day. It started belting down as we left Marble Cliffs and didn’t let up until we reached the Lower Gordon Camp.
Photo opportunities were pretty much non-existent as we passed Butler Island which was disappointing due to the role a stunning image of it played in stopping the construction of the Gordon-below-Franklin Dam. Between 1979 and 1983 the Tasmanian state government made several attempts to build a dam here but were delayed by a concerted campaign led by Dr Bob Brown and a long non-violent blockade by protestors. In the end, and in response to public sentiment, the Federal Government saw the light and stepped in. Many believe that the publication of a beautiful Peter Dombrovkis photograph of Butler Island was instrumental in getting the Australian people to support the protest.
The Lower Gordon Camp is a basic hut which has eight single beds, a table with two bench seats, and a food preparation area with sink. There is also a drop toilet nearby. The hut was originally built as accommodation for dam workers, and is now a roof over the head for rafters coming to the end of a trip down the Franklin and kayakers having a Gordon River adventure. Beds are allocated on a first come, first served basis, so if another party is already in residence there is a chance you will be sleeping outside. We arrived to find it empty. If it had been dry, I would have set up my tent on the beach as that appeals to me more than an old hut. As it was still raining and we were soaked through, moving in was a no brainer.
Those that do sleep outside need to be aware that there are a couple of tiger snakes that live at the back of the hut. They are venomous but tend to leave you alone if you don’t bother them. There’s also a colony of jack jumper ants. Surprisingly, they are more of a concern than the snakes. Wikipedia says that “jack jumper ants cause more deaths in Tasmania than spiders, snakes, wasps, and sharks combined”. The reason for this is that a nip from them can cause anaphylactic shock. They are quite territorial and aggressive as well. Get too close and they will start jumping towards you.
That night we were entertained with some live music. Geoff Martin, the guy who invited me to join this trip, had his guitar with him. He managed to keep it safe by carefully wrapping it in an ingenious combination of waterproof bags. There was some musical wizardry and several dulcet tones, but to be honest the reviews were mixed. I was just relieved that word hadn’t got out that I was learning to strum a few chords. There might have been a walk out if I got stuck into a half arsed rendition of Smoke On The Water.
Day 3 – Franklin River
When you sleep in a hut with fourteen other people, it is inevitable that you will hear a little bit of snoring but nothing could prepare me for the night time cacophony. Before bed, everyone had roundly denied that they were snorers and they weren’t prepared to change their story in the morning. Nevertheless, I am not a light sleeper and I was woken several times by the orchestral manoeuvres in the dark.
There was an air of excitement as we were about to head upstream into the Franklin River. Chris warned us not to get our hopes up as most of the time there are oncoming rapids at Big Eddy and Franklin Rock that have to be negotiated before reaching the confluence and often he has simply had to turn back, but we were not going to let either that or the light drizzle dampen our spirits.
As it turned out, the river level was high enough to take the two rapids out of the picture and we breezed right up to the Franklin just as the sun came bursting through the clouds. There were high fives all round.
A small approaching rapid soon appeared and was enough to cause a split in the group. Half continued on either by paddling through or walking around and the rest chose to instead pull their boats up on the shore and bask in the sunshine. Even though my white water skills are highly questionable, I pushed on. For me, not taking the opportunity to go as far as possible up this river would have been like turning down a nightcap invitation from the woman of my dreams.
We made it as far as Verandah Cliffs a couple of kilometres upstream. This might not seem far but we had to contend with several more sections of moving water.
If the rock formations on the Gordon are impressive, then the ones up here are spectacular. As I took it all in I was reminded of a Buddha quote I once heard… “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins – not through strength, but through persistence.” The river has carved some incredible sculptures, with two of the largest being the appropriately named Wave Rock and a cave that has evidence of people living in it over 20,ooo years ago. The stones on the river bed have also all been rounded by the passage of time. It is also hard to imagine that had the Gordon-below-Franklin dam been built, this whole area would have been at the bottom of a huge lake, never to be seen again.
When we stopped for a break, I took the opportunity to go for a swim. My main reason was to have bragging rights about swimming in the Franklin, but it was also nice to take advantage of the less frigid water. It is 4 degrees warmer than in the Gordon. I also made sure to fill my water bottles. While it is true to say that you can drink straight out of the river for the entire length of this trip, it tastes better and looks clearer the further upstream you go.
We carefully picked our way back downstream to the Gordon. The whitewater paddlers amongst us handled the trip with ease. I was content to portage the more tricky looking sections. We arrived at the last one to find the other half of our crew still sun baking by the river, so we picked them up and paddled back to the hut happily swapping stories about the day.
Day 4 – Return to Eagle Creek
The striking 30 metre high Sir John Falls are a short walk from the hut and can be seen perfectly from a handy viewing platform. This is attached to a pontoon that sea planes use when they bring day trippers in for a quick look. However you can get closer by paddling into the inlet beside the pontoon and that is what we did first thing today. Just in case you were wondering, both the falls and the Franklin River are named after Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin, the 5th Lieutenant Governor of Tasmania, or Van Diemens Land as it was then known.
Chris took us on a morning walk to a piners camp where he showed us a stone oven, a winch, and a chute they had carved into the hillside to help slide huon pine logs into the river. The piners were real men and tough as nails. They would come here for three months at a time. Getting dry wasn’t possible so they didn’t bother trying. The highlight of each day was sitting around in their wet gear eating wallaby stew. I’m guessing that a can of Solo wouldn’t have gone astray either.
By the track we saw examples of the different trees that grow in the rainforest – sassafras, leatherwood, native plum, native laurel, mountain pepper, and King Billy pine. Chris also showed us a 2,000 year old huon pine which we couldn’t help but hug. Have you ever hugged a huge ancient tree? To the uninitiated this may seem a strange thing to do, but it is a wonderful experience. It is like embracing one of your oldest, most trusted friends.
It was time to make the return trip to the Eagle Creek campsite. You can read all the tourist brochures you like but to really understand the value of a place like this, you really need to spend a night underneath its canopy. I was looking forward to doing that again.
We made our way there pretty quickly, but there were glimpses of blue sky as we passed Butler Island so we grabbed the opportunity to pose for a few happy snaps.
Day 5 – Boom Camp
I woke to the sound of cameras clicking and opened the tent to a breathtaking scene. The clear blue sky, rising mist, and surrounding hills were being perfectly reflected on the water’s surface. The Gordon River is famous for its reflective qualities, but it was the first time we had been treated to a Kodak moment like this.
Not content with just one rainforest walk on our trip, we went for a wander up the Eagle Creek track which heads away from the river from the back of the campsite. Eventually the track leads to the Franklin River but we were content simply to reach a gorgeous babbling brook high in the hills.
Our next destination was Boom Camp. This is the local fishing club’s home base. They don’t use it all the time and if they aren’t there then they are happy for other people to use it, so long as you leave things how you found them. They have bunk beds, a stove, a hot water tap, ingenious bilge pump shower, and last but not least, a throne with a regal view.
The conditions were superb for the entire day – brilliant sunshine and hardly a breath of wind. One of the ferries was docked at Heritage Landing as we passed by. We had a chat with the people on board as we passed by and unsuccessfully tried to persuade them to throw a beer or two overboard for us.
As there wasn’t a hint of rain most of us decided to put up our tents rather than stay in the Boom Camp hut. However there were a lot of takers for the hot shower.
The day finished as memorably as it started. Kicking back on a sun drenched pontoon in one of the last true wilderness regions on earth with a group of friends is pretty special. When one of those friends magically produces a couple of six packs and two bottles of wine, it’s pretty close to heaven.
Day 6 – Sarah Island
A paddle up the Gordon River usually ends where it began – Heritage Landing. However, in order to give us an extra day, Chris made special arrangements for us to be picked up at Sarah Island instead.
We knew we had to cross a long stretch of open water on Macquarie Harbour so we hit the water early in an attempt to avoid any sea breezes. A thick mist had settled on the river overnight and made for a beautifully soft and serene start t0 what was to become another perfect summer day.
Camping isn’t allowed on Sarah Island so we once again took advantage of our guide’s inside information to find the best alternative. He led us to a protected mainland beach just north of the less than invitingly named Asbestos Point. It was perfect. We spent the afternoon basking in the sunshine, and even had time to paddle over to Sarah Island for a look around.
After many hours of trolling, a rainbow trout of an edible size had finally been caught and was on the dinner plate for all but the vegetarians among us. There was also a glass of red wine to wash it down and a chocolate bar for dessert. It was a fitting feast for our final night.
Day 7 – Return to Strahan
As loading 15 kayaks onto the back of two ferries takes a significant amount of time, we made sure that we were on Sarah Island and ready to go well in advance. While we were waiting, the wind came up and so did the rain. It was only the second time on our trip that the weather had turned so we couldn’t complain, but we were getting increasingly cold and wet.
I was on the second ferry to leave, so I joined a walking tour of the island being conducted for passengers of the first. The tour guide was excellent and really conveyed a sense of how harsh things were in the days when this was a penal settlement in which convict labour was used to build ships from huon pine. There was even a bit of role playing, and three of our group were given parts. I was an enterprising walking cane maker, even though I probably looked more like a piner at this stage, Geoff was a scammer who was later to become Tasmania’s premier, and Dave was Australia’s first streaker. It was an informative and amusing end to our trip.
All that remained was the ferry ride back to Strahan, where a hot shower and clean dry clothes were waiting for me.