I had initially planned to run a rafting trip down the entire Franklin river, unfortunately I didn’t get enough people on board so I ended up deciding to run the upper section of the Franklin and walk out via Frenchmans Cap from Irenabyss.
Before getting on river we scouted out the get in options before settling on starting the trip at the conventional point on the Collingwood river. We were hoping that the water level may be high enough to run the upper Franklin, a section I have done previously in a packraft but that is very rarely paddled. Unfortunately the water level was too low for this.
We paddled the Collingwood to its confluence with the Franklin. After a short break we continued on down the Franklin river itself. The rapids were all rather straightforward and having paddled it previously it was a relaxing time. With the low water level we occasionally had to jump out and haul the raft over rocks and logs.
Soon enough we made it to Angel Rain Cavern, our campsite for the night. This is a nice sheltered campsite with overhanging cliffs that mean tarps don’t need to be used. I prepared dinner and we all sat around relaxing and drinking some of the copious amounts of hard liquor that everyone bar myself had brought along. It had been decanted in to old wine bladders (to save weight). We had to drink most if not all of it before we began walking (we needed to be using the bladders for carrying water).
I was up early, it was a cool morning so I grabbed my sleeping bag and headed down to the rocks next to the river and spent some time relaxing and writing. I then got breakfast sorted and soon enough we were on river once again!
The main hazard we encountered was Nasty Notch, a small log choked channel that is clearly not runnable. We got to the side and the crew walked around the rapid (the safest option) while myself and the other guide (Rowan) hauled the rafts over the rocks before paddling them down the lower section solo to then pick up the rest of the team. There was one other section like this where there was a nasty log sieve which would have been very bad to swim into. Again we got the crew out and they walked around while myself and Rowan ran through the rapid solo, timing our approach very carefully so as to be able to haul the raft over the log rather than getting sucked under.
Finally we made it to the most serious section of runnable rapids on the river, Descension Gorge. This is a section were the river narrows and steepens before it opens out in to the calm tranquillity of the Irenabyss. One section required us to line the rafts down the river as there wasn’t a safe route to take through the rapids. We paddled the rest of the rapids though which was great fun.
Soon we were through and after a short section of incredibly narrow rock walls on either side the river widens out in to a massive pool. Tahune creek enters from the left and there are beautiful campsites all around. Irenabyss is one of the most incredible places on earth, silent and relaxing but surrounded by difficulty and danger in all directions (either brutally tough walking up Frenchmans Cap or dangerous rapids on the Franklin). As much as it would have been nice to spend more time here I was keen to get moving efficiently to make the walk easier. We put all of our gear in the sun to dry and enjoyed a relaxing lunch before packing up out gear and beginning the walk.
Having done the walk before I knew it would be tough. Despite this I underestimated the weight we would be carrying and the impact that would have on our progress. The walk was brutal; myself, Rowan and Michael (a bushwalking guide) were all carrying around 35kg and the rest of the team were carrying packs ranging from 10–20kg. Progress was incredibly slow.
Finally we made it out on to the more open ground were we could look out over the mountains, which was a much needed morale boost after two hours of grinding up steep slopes in thick scrub. Rowan was looking at the map and trying to figure out how much we’d progressed. I think the transition from the scrub to open ridgelines had the effect of making us overestimate the distance we had come and underestimate the distance we still had to cover.
We pushed on and it started to get late. The setting sun was a stunning backdrop to our walk, and given our height it was a truly magnificent view. That said, myself and the other guides were beginning to get concerned about the time. We had a break and I made sure everyone had some trail mix and muesli bars as well as head torches to prepare for the imminent nightfall.
We pushed on for another two hours, now well in to the night. Everyone was exhausted. It was also very exposed with the real danger of someone falling a long way if mistakes were made. Everyone was doing it tough. Rowan, Michael and myself were holding up but I was rather concerned about everyone else. One of the girls told me she was pretty close to her breaking point (and everyone else looked it) so I got everyone to have a break while I figured out a plan with Rowan and Michael. At this point it was 11pm at night. Camping wasn’t an option given how exposed we were. We decided to abandon the two rafts and return for them tomorrow. Given I was carrying one of the rafts I got a pack from one of the girls, packed it with the extra gear that was strapped to the raft and we set off again.
Rowan, Michael and I took it in turns to be at the front, warning everyone about slippery or steep bits and generally keeping everyone as motivated as possible. Finally we made it to the distinctive saddle which marked the end of the uphill grind. Soon enough we were at the campsite at the respectable time of 0100 in the morning. Everyone collapsed looking completely wiped out. I was completely exhausted but knowing that it was critical to make sure everyone had a solid meal before bed I raced around like a lunatic getting water, firing up stoves and getting a quick meal of Burritos together. It started to rain so we set up the tarp and everyone crashed, utterly spent.
I was up relatively early; Rowan, Michael and I got together to figure out a plan of action. We decided to head off immediately to on a rescue mission to grab the rafts, estimating that it would take around three hours. Not wanting to wake up the rest of the crew we grabbed a solid breakfast of leftovers from last night and started walking. It was an interesting trek given the thick mist which shrouded our path.
Soon enough we were back, I ran ahead of the other guys in order to get a big lunch together, the plan being to get everyone fed before getting moving again. We had a massive meal of pasta with the last of our fresh vegetables. We packed everything away and we were soon moving again. It was tough going, the ex-army external frame pack I was using was absolutely terrible – combined with the 35kg of weight, I had soon managed to chafe a decent strip of skin off my back. Michael taped it up for me as we stopped for a break. We pushed on and finally made it to Lake Vera, just before it got dark, allowing us the relative luxury of setting up our tarp and cooking while it was still light.
For our final day of walking I made sure we all had a good breakfast before we once again got our heavy packs on and got moving. The walk was painful, but nothing compared to the prior two days, and we made pretty good time. Soon enough we were at the Franklin river once again, which marked the end of our adventure. We joined a bunch of other walkers as we dropped our packs and jumped in the river, washing off and enjoying the cool water. None of them could quite believe that we had rafted down the franklin before carrying the rafts out. Amusingly, I read at the information booth on the way out that the track to Irenabyss was not recommended as it had become very overgrown. I think everyone on my trip would agree!
Soon enough we were all back at the rafting sheds where we began four days ago. We had a debrief and I took the opportunity to build everyone up after their ordeal. According to several of them it was the toughest thing they had ever done. Given everyone was still uninjured and smiling at the end I think I can feel good about that despite my concerns during the trip. It is interesting that there seems to be a very fine line between a trip being not challenging and it being far too extreme as to be ultimately unpleasant. I feel like I managed to strike that balance here but more through luck than anything else.
On reflection having received more feedback from everyone involved I am quite proud of this trip. The fact that everyone there got so much out of it is something that means a lot to me. It is fascinating how quickly you can form close friendships through shared hardship.
I think there are two clear takeaways from this expedition; firstly I need to be much better at judging pack weight and estimating how that will impact walking speed. Secondly, doing the little things right really matters when there are setbacks. What I mean by this is that over the course of the entire trip everyone was positive and did an excellent job of keeping each other’s spirits up. The food was good, everyone was warm etc. While individually none of these aspects are critical if they go wrong when there are setbacks these elements are all the more important. I could easily imagine this trip failing if we didn’t have some of those basic factors in our favour.
Photos by both myself and Michael Cooper.