Forget the resort rooms, get out and get dirty – or wet
I’m a travel junkie. By that, I mean I read a lot and I travel a little.
I love travel magazines and travel inserts and travel liftouts and online travel sites. I love other people’s travel stories and photographs. I love following family and friends on social media as they head off to some – read any – destination. I research the life out of my own dreams and plans.
What I don’t like is that so many sources review and spruik accommodation and tours that cost the earth! $1200 for a room for a night for two people. In the words of former tennis brat John McEnroe: You’ve got to be kidding!
In my world, the most vivid travel memories are the ones that had a degree of hardship, a challenge, an unexpected event, a chance encounter. Such as … six family members in a one-room cabin in summer on Lady Musgrave Island, catching a bus from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap – and back, or … rafting the Franklin River.
It was January in Tassie – one of the island state’s supposedly warmer months – and hubby and two sons were coming along for the ride – not necessarily super excited, not reluctant.
A moderate degree of fitness was advised. No problem.
A bus trip to Queenstown, where we spent one night, then a three-hour, four-wheel-drive trip through the most amazing country to the river for a five-day adventure.
The climb down to the river, with a 20kg backpack, was backwards via a steep damp slope, hanging onto a chain for about 800m. When we arrived at the bottom, my legs were like jelly.
Next was lunch and into the rafts.
The forest is so dense on either side of the river and the cliffs so steep that there are few places to pull up or make a campsite. And it's the same for kilometre after kilometre after kilometre.
The Franklin, a prized jewel in Tasmania's wilderness crown, owes its existence to one-time director of the Tasmanian Wilderness Society and former Greens leader and senator Bob Brown and the “No Dams” protesters who fought the good fight 35 years ago.
It has been a world heritage area since 1982 and is in pristine condition, accessible to visitors with permits and a handful of licensed tour companies that operate under a quota system. Only about 500 people navigate this section of the river each year. It's a privilege to be here. And reassuring to know that future generations can see this area still in its original condition.
But rafting this extraordinary river is not for the faint-hearted.
I knew we were sleeping rough – and I was looking forward to it – but I had imagined days on the river with rapids to add spice and excitement and cool nights sleeping under the stars. We got considerably more for our money.
Within minutes of getting into our rafts, we were soaking wet. The first set of moderate rapids saw to that.
Some rapids are exhilarating, some bowel-loosening and some impossible to navigate, and that's a real bastard because that means portaging, that is, emptying the boat of all belongings, transferring them up slippery cliffs, down the other side and guiding the raft around the offending rapids with ropes. The process is slow and tedious and you might be cold and wet at the time.
Our camp on night one was at Newlands Cascades – the five-star spot on the river, we were told. It was a spacious rock ledge partially sheltered by an overhanging cliff about 20m high. The advice was to drag our air mattress and sleeping bag into the caverns.
We unloaded the rafts and changed into dry clothes while the tour cook created the 'kitchen' with amazing efficiency. There was a cuppa in quick time, and nibbles, and a cask of wine come 5pm.
The food on this trip was exceptional – risotto, rogan josh with pappadums, fresh fruit salad and custard, brewed coffee. If we'd hoped to lose some weight it wasn't going to happen here.
As we took in the river and our surroundings, the tour leader spoke about the area’s history before introducing us to the Groover – a repurposed ammunition box that accommodates the freezer bags containing our bodily waste. Nothing is left behind. And believe me, it can me tricky doing the job in a freezer bag!
There was a surprising lack of obvious wildlife – no birdsong, no scurryings in the forest – until the bush rats appeared at dusk and clambered over our sleeping bags as we attempted to sleep.
I had imagined sleeping under the stars but then the rain started to fall, and kept falling.
In the morning, there was a 20m waterfall across the river that hadn’t been there when we arrived. The river was on the rise.
We stayed at this camp for another 24 hours because the next campsite downriver was already likely to be under water, we were told.
It was a daunting feeling to be holed up with only each other – eight of us plus two tour leaders – the rushing river and a pack of cards for entertainment.
Day three and the river had risen about a metre and a half. It was time to move out. We had about 30km to cover, though only about six that required constant paddling. The rain continued – until it hailed.
We had one more night camping – under a tarpaulin in the forest listening to the melodic drip drip through the branches – with a ketch picking us up the next morning for the return to Straun. We were exhausted and partially numb with cold.
The adventure was much more than I'd bargained for, but so memorable. I'd take that any time over a luxury hotel with a pool.
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