Rafting down the Franklin [72]

By John Friedman

Last February, I rafted down the Franklin with a group of like-minded travellers. Safety and preparation were paramount for our 10 day self supporting trip and I could see many similarities with the NSWSKC rules regarding trips.

Our experienced trip leader has a heavy burden of responsibility. As well as ensuring the safety of the rafters, the trip leader needs to ensure that all gear is unlikely to fail. Everything is checked and rechecked before departure. We took two rafts and a kayak on our trip and our only contact with others for the 10 days would be by satellite phone if necessary. When things go wrong, they can be quite disastrous. A trip prior to ours lost a raft, food and safety gear one night when the river level rose over 1.5 m. It is also not unusual to have to sit out some days at camp waiting for river levels to drop. Unlike many sea kayak trips where everyone manages their own food, the rafting group needs to think about its food needs and prepare the menus accordingly, especially if the trip needs to be extended due to adverse conditions.

The rafts we used were purpose built for white water. Four people paddling per raft plus one at the helm. PFDs need to be worn at all times and helmets fitted whenever a rapid is encountered. It is essential that all gear is secured well. The rafts when loaded can be dragged with some degree of difficulty due to their weight, but surprisingly, can be flipped quite easily by the white water in many of the rapids. During one flip, our first aid kit was ripped from the raft and its contents were thrust into the river. Only quick thinking by the leader ensured that nothing was lost as we saw gear floating away. Talking about the first aid kit, it is essential that at least one person knows how to administer first aid in a wilderness environment. We carried very strong pain killers for any possible bone breakage as well as an Epipen. On a personal level, everyone needs to ensure that they use sunscreen and lip cream, and wears a hat, sunglasses and strong footwear. Chafing is also fairly common so take some zinc cream or the like. Your encounter with leeches is guaranteed and snakes a strong possibility, so care at the nightly campsites and other river stops needs to be taken.

Using river maps and trip notes, we knew where we were and what distances we had to travel before camps. The trip leader was an experienced river guide and knew exactly how to approach each of the rapids. He also had to make the decisions whether any of the rapids were non-negotiable and how to port the gear when this occurred. We nearly lost our leader once when one of the rafts was wedged upside down in one of the rapids and he had to dive under the raft to cut some lines. Without knowing the river, this would have been extremely foolhardy.

For those planning their own trip, I strongly recommend taking an experienced guide with you, especially when the river levels are up. An alternative is to use one of the three companies doing the trip or commissioning a guide to plan, prepare and provision the trip for you.

Helpful advice

  1. Your trip may not go ahead if the river is either too high or too low.
  2. Don’t attempt the trip if you hate leeches.
  3. Don’t attempt the trip if you don’t feel comfortable about squatting and bagging all your waste.
  4. Use of a range of dry bags as extra water protection is a must.
  5. Be prepared to sit out at camp if the weather turns bad or river levels rise by too much.
  6. Ensure you have insurance to cover trip cancellation, or the possibility that the trip extends past the anticipated end date.