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The Franklin River - Life defining experience.

Rafting Tasmania's Franklin River is one of the worlds last true Wilderness expeditions.
Rock Island Bend

Well, now I really do know. Taking part in an expedition rafting the Franklin River really can define or even change a person.

Oh yes, the heading above is not just a cliche` marketing slogan that is often seen emblazoned on adventure tourism brochures and websites.

For me, May 02 to May 08 was an experience that I shall always treasure.

After a year of on again-off again working on this log, here is a very abridged account of life leading up to this monumental point in life.

Growing up in a place like Queenstown is typical for the most part but there certainly were differences to the upbringing that most people will know.

The photographers companion stares across the desolation of the Queen River valley.
1960's Queenstown - The Valley of Brimstone Fire.

As I was forming my first memories here around 1974 the surrounding landscape consisted of much exposed bare rock with small pockets of reed grasses, tiny stunted silver wattle, willow wattle and blackwood trees. These were early signs of the landscape just beginning to recover from almost a century of large scale mining and pyritic smelting that had been carried out heedless of the surrounding environment. The famous Mt Lyell pyritic smelter had only ceased operating less than 5 years prior, the original Mt Lyell ABT railway 11 years prior and the environmental devastation was clearly apparent. The Lyell district consisting of Queenstown, Gormanston, Linda, Lake Margaret village and Lynchford combined had a population of around 7000 at this time.

By the time I started at Queenstown Central primary school I had come to know the many children of our neighbourhood, my first friends. After school and weekend adventures revealed mysterious relics of brick and steel from miners past. Silica mines, Limestone quarries, brickworks and much more prompted many questions to parents such as, 'what was that for?', 'what did that do?', who?, when?

As we grew and ranged further afield all this gave way to cool damp rainforests with percolating tea coloured streams, waterfalls and grottos. A world of its own concealed by the forest canopy. I joined the scouting movement and experienced places such as Cradle Mountain/Lake St Clair exploring Tasmania's national parks. I'm mesmerised by such natural beauty.

1979 and 1980 I am 11 and 12 years old respectively and experiencing a time of great learning. I had already come to recognise that the previous generations here were proud of their heritage including the wanton environmental devastation regarded by most as an achievement and deemed necessary. The hard rough and tumble mining town where drinking, smoking and gambling was considered normal healthy behaviour. Also apparently, was dumping household rubbish, sewerage, waste oil and tailings containing cyanide from the ore concentrator into the waterways that tribute the Queen River and thence the King River to Macquarie harbour. Ah yes, now I know what that sweet almond smell was on frosty mornings as we rode our bikes to school.

Such was the culture of Queenstown, where the people living at the closest point of urbanisation to the Franklin River would aggressively support the recently announced Hydro Electric Commission plan to dam the Gordon and Franklin rivers. Any opposing point of view would be met with immediate confrontation. Visitors were often met with hostility which would earn Queenstown a deserved dark reputation prompting most people to drive through without stopping.

Meanwhile, I had been spending time with a small group led by a great mentor Mr Terry Reid into remarkable environments such as that of the Nora and Bird Rivers some 40 Km south of Queenstown. A large rainforest environment that ticks all the heritage boxes which was a wonderfully rugged and wild three day expedition back then. Natural beauty is ratcheted up to the highest level here and during this time, camped in the Huon pine forest delighted by the blue dots of glow worm light all around, I felt it, something beyond the obvious, something much deeper.

The Western Wilderness instilled feelings of wonder and enchantment in me to an immeasurably greater extent than I can communicate here. I didn't talk much of it outside that small group, I knew that to openly talk of such feelings would make life in Queenstown for this 12 year old rather unpleasant.

Frenchmans summit sunset with Robert Reid, January 1981. Image : Terry Reid.

Frenchmans Cap 1981 L - R David White, Shane Smith, Grant Creighton, Lee Davis, Anthony Coulson. Image : Terry Reid.

Suppressing my real feelings, I did my best to fit into local culture but I never did fit in all that well, finding myself having to stand up to bullying throughout secondary school which usually only resulted in myself also ending up in more trouble. One strong memory from primary and secondary school was that most of the teachers were young. I didn't realise this until later in life but many were on their first posting after the Lake Pedder protest during their own impressionable school years. During 1979, my last year of primary school, I believe it was the Tasmanian Wilderness Society that came to the school and screened a documentary style 16mm reel of what had happened at Pedder, then an early Franklin River rafting expedition was screened finishing with the government backed HEC plan to flood the area. I, and quite a number of other young people left the Queenstown Central Primary School multi purpose classroom that day with questioning opinions.

*Note: As I type this weblog the disused classroom that film was screened in is being renovated into an artistic workshop. One of the key people leading the repurposing of this space, Raymond Arnold, is an accomplished artist but in early 1983 Raymond Arnold was arrested for participating in the protest and blockade.

The NO DAMS mass protest ushered in a new age. The people that participated in the protests and in particular The Blockade we all owe much gratitude and respect.

No longer would the environment be of little consequence hardly worth consideration with any planned development. No, it would become the first and highest consideration.

No longer can people whose heritage ranges further back in time than any be disregarded and ignored. This really was an historic turning point!

The high court decision that would halt the development prompted a spate of even more than usual unruly behaviour from some HEC workers and supporters. The image here speaks volumes.

Still smouldering and glowing orange is the 2000+ year old Huon Pine near the site of the proposed number one dam on the Gordon River. A tree so significant it was named 'The Lea Tree'.
The vandalised Lea Tree.

The tree that is still smouldering, still glowing orange, is a 2000+ year old Huon Pine near the site of the proposed number one dam on the Gordon River. A tree that was so significant it was named 'The Lea Tree'. The broader explanation can be learned here.

HEC workers retributive behaviour lasted for a short time but then the announcement to fast track construction of the King and Henty River schemes seemed to appease.

Even so, it was sad to witness the upper King River valley destroyed and flooded during 1991 but The Franklin had been spared to be left wild.

The Franklin River and surrounding environment is World Heritage listed to the highest degree and a National Park. One would think 'Well if it's a World Heritage area then it has to at least be a national park' and your thinking would be sound but unfortunately it is not the case.

Some of Tasmania's governance is still yet to evolve often making it nonsensical.

Somewhat like the rehab' work the Mt Lyell Company did just before the flooding of the King River. Queenstown's surrounds greened up very quickly after that. If only the same efforts had been applied to the dumped overburden rock of the old open cut works to minimise the acidic dissolved heavy metal pollution draining into the Queen river that ends up in Macquarie harbour.

Acid mine drainage carrying dissolved heavy metals pollution into the Queen & King rivers. Queenstown Tasmania.
Mt Lyell Mine pollution as at 2020. Glover creek drains the mine site into the Queen River. Nothing can live in this acidic dissolved heavy metal soup.

Life progressed. I work on in the mining industry, marry at a crazily young age and we buy a house. My feelings on environment and conservation still suppressed and held within but by now I'm reflecting often and start talking to the few people that I know are agreeable.

I venture back into the forests retracing earlier steps and again, standing by the tanin rich stream I feel that deeply rooted connection. Gazing up between the mixed foliage of Huon and King Billy Pine, each older than 20 human lifetimes, a ray of warming sunlight beams down through a gap in the canopy. The warmed air drives a gentle breeze permeated with mixed forest aromas. Simply breathing is euphoric.

I feel a peaceful comforting solace.

Here, Lutruwita is still in perfect natural orchestra.

Huon and King Billy pines grow together in the natural forest wonderland south of Queenstown.
Aaron Coulson, Western Tasmania : Less than 10Kms south of Queenstown. Image : Anthony Coulson.

By the mid nineties the old Mt Lyell company is no more and brings sudden changes. Now known as Copper Mines of Tasmania (CMT) the various contractors came and applied 12 hour rotating shift regimes of 14 consecutive 12hrs shifts with a week break. This, in addition to questionably high performance expectations and incredible pressure to achieve these expectations lead to much depression within the employment base.

Soon after, just before the dawn of the 21st century, I'm a father to a special son, working for salary often flying back and forth from mainland mines, city offices and a junket disguised as a consult in the USA during 2008. The Australian mining industry had become 'a disturbing working culture with a rotten core'. Any whistle blowing resulted no differently than most other whistleblower cases. Ostracised, belittled and alienated.

The state authority was weak, failing to address the mining companies and contractors bullish arrogance. The deep seated problems that were so often hidden hundreds of metres underground were not going to be addressed from within.

Inspiration hits me. At the end of a 2008 Caterpillar conference I get on a city bus tour of Chicago and onto the top deck of the classic red city tour bus struts Colin the tour guide. He picks up his microphone, reaches down to turn up the PA volume and with showman like confidence opens his routine with 'Hi y'all my name's Colin and I'm the guy who's in charge of showing you what's what', as he launches into an animated, perfectly timed and choreographed interpretative routine dashed with humorous side stories of the City. Such engaging passion! A passion that can only come from someone who is deeply connected. My expectation of a typically nice city tour was far exceeded as Colin's interp' delivery transformed it into a wonderful memorable experience. My thoughts right there, 'When I get home I will make a change'. No longer will I keep the way I feel suppressed, No, even more than that, like Colin here I'll lead guided experiences of Queenstown and surrounding wilderness. I can live it and share it the same way that Colin knocks it out of the park (yes, Wrigley field is a point of interest) as he entertains touring the city of Chicago.

So I get back home and by December 2009, just a year after spending the morning with Colin, I've quit the mining industry, bought the mine tour business and with son Aaron in tow immediately started a new soft tourism experience called 'Lost Mines-Ancient Pines'. A half day adventure visiting abandoned pioneer mines among some very special rainforest with old Huon and King Billy pines. We started sensitively taking people to that most special forest environment around the Bird and Nora rivers. My love of this environment will never diminish and I do my best to impart this to anyone who buys in.

Taking in the grand view over the Western Wilderness from Mt Owen.
Mt Owen

Surging forward now with new vigour and exuberance. Meeting new people that for the most part are people I like, some people I very much like, some who have naturally gone from colleague to friend and some I just admire... Life sure did change but it hasn't been all beer and skittles.

2013 - 2014, Queenstown experiences a time of tragedy and sadness from a December 09 2013 double fatality at Mt Lyell. Two local family men were lost and while the community mourned as the investigations were barely underway, just 5 weeks later, January 17 2014, another local family man is lost. A huge rush of mud into an ore extraction point deep underground in an ore drive that the miners had been avoiding for some time having recognised from previous events that the bulging reel of this draw point was holding up a large amount of mud. Refer to the earlier paragraph with statement, 'a disturbing working culture with a rotten core'.

On reflection, Queenstown had been changing since 1983 after the NO DAMS protest and blockade. Slowly at first, more rapidly since the mid 1990's and by 2014 this terrible turn of events abruptly completed the transition to the end of Queenstown being a mining industry driven town. The sudden change and upheaval was detrimental to the larger communities psychological health. Suicide attempts and relationship breakdowns escalated. My own marriage of 23 years hits the rocks. I find myself alone in great sadness and despair. I move back in with my mother for a short time and am not coping. Antidepressant medication and almost chain smoking cigarettes to get through nights of despair take a toll. There seems to be no clear way forward, only painful sadness and the darkest of thoughts.

But then Joy, an entrepreneurial woman I had met some months earlier at the local tourism operators association of which my first impressions were, 'how very intelligent but someone please fit a restraining bolt to this woman!' We met again and I'm not sure whether she sensed something or had heard around the traps of my misery but she was kind to me at a time when I needed help.

Proud, passionate, strong and battle hardened. It's black or it's white and she is quick to call out bullshit, even when doing so may be personally detrimental. Never to be bullied or intimidated but gracious enough to recognise and respect others who she believes deserves it.

When circumstances had me at the lowest her genuine caring friendship was a pleasant distraction from the turmoil and pain. There were other people I already knew, friends who helped me up and I owe them my gratitude but Joy befriended me from scratch and as we traded stories we found ourselves often empathising. This is a woman boys clubs will fear!

The Adventure Tourism business I had started less than four years earlier went from enjoying much better than expected success to flattened and broke. It didn't take long for Joy and I to combine our passions and strengths, then hatch a plan to get up and going again. It was very tough. Well hey, life's rough and everything good is earned so sometimes you just have to step up to the plate and have a go. Working to make the best of any situation, always looking for opportunities and being aware of opportunities that might find us.

So, I get a call from a man asking if I could shuttle a group from the Strahan wharf to Hobart after having rafted the Franklin River..... What!, the Franklin River! Really? Containing excitement I calmly said 'Yes, of course', like I routinely took passengers to Hobart, which I never did. He went on to indicate that we would need a decent trailer for the gear, 'yes of course, no problem', says I, like I have more than one at my disposal, when in reality I didn't even own a trailer. Such minor details. 'Great', he says, 'I'm Brett by the way'

Off to the Strahan wharf excitedly and confidently I go with a cage trailer I hastily borrowed from Simon Dilger coupled to a front drive automated manual minicoach (Note here, LDV is a coded acronym meaning rubbish). I drive onto the wharf, park near Strahan Yacht charters where 'Stormbreaker' is berthed and notice quite a lot of people carrying river rafting equipment. I stand there conspicuously but no one approaches so I walk over to some people that have obviously spent several days away from urbanisation but they just look at me and look away as they get on with moving equipment and rummaging through large blue bags that each of them have. These must be my passengers, I will just have to walk to the yacht to find out what the go is.

Strahan yacht charters Stormbreaker. River rafters from wilderness to Strahan.
Rafters pick up

Trevor Norton, the Stormbreaker's skipper will know and this Brett fellow will no doubt be there too. As I begin to walk to the Stormbreaker I see a tall lean man about my age lifting one end of a rolled up inflatable raft. It looked quite heavy so I walk over to help. I bend down, drag the other end around slightly to better position it and get startled a little by a sudden 'NO, don't drag, Lift!' I apologise, feeling like an army cadet done wrong but I say to him, 'Look, I'm new to this gig so can you shed any light on things for me'? 'This raft has to go in the trailer', he says. 'Well, that's a start but calm ya farm mate', was my thought. I helped him carry it and place it in the trailer and I notice the tall lean sinewy frame with protruding veins and toned muscle befitting an ultra endurance athlete. His scraggly silverish grey almost shoulder length hair frames a sharp chiselled face and jaw. 'Oh you Dick', I think to myself as I come to the realisation that this is most likely the guy that has hired me. I'm also thinking he's a bit awesome, which makes me feel like a tool after our encounter minutes before. 'You must be Anthony' he correctly assumes as he extends a large right hand in greeting 'I'm Brett'.

My comparative Marmoset hand does its best to grip his as I say 'Yes, I am Anthony, nice to meet you', my inner self saying 'Yes, I am Anthony the bumbling dick, nice to meet you..... sir'.

Little did I know at the time that I had just met the person who has spent more time in the Franklin River Wilderness than any other person. A man that I would later learn from many of the people professionally guiding expeditions down the river is regarded as The Master and affectionately referred to as The Wizard. Such is his knowledge of and ability to negotiate the ever changing challenges presented by the ever changing level and flow of this most wild and wonderful River.

For Brett Fernon the River is home. (River saying)..... Not really, I was a fan of Phantom comics.

I managed to do well on that first run and Brett called on us to help with some more trips. A few trips later I'm really getting the hang of it and loving the association of it all as I arrive at Stormbreaker now towing a purpose built equipment trailer, but Brett was not there.

A dynamic hard bodied, dreadlock haired woman appears to be in charge. A prominent Germanic accent makes it even clearer that she is running this show. I step back, twice, as she systematically directs the people on the expedition around her with an efficient decisiveness all the while intensely working. I ask Peter, another more experienced shuttle driver who is there, 'who is this powerhouse'? He takes another step back and gestures that I do the same as he quietly tells me 'this is Klaudia, Klaudia and Brett are partners, don't try to help just stand back and let her do it'.

I meet many wonderful people providing services for rafting expeditions, walking groups, bike riders and just general transports as our reputation and consequently our activity level grows. Being based in Queenstown is a huge strategic advantage for us and we soon get equipped and apply for a Parks and Wildlife supported license. After 2 and a half years of process, checks and balances we finally earned recognition as a Tasmania Parks and Wildlife service licensed operator. This allowed us to have our own key to what is known as the' Mt McCall Track', the only existing track to the river which makes it to Propsting Gorge, about the River's halfway point. An exciting 60 Kilometre journey from Queenstown with the last 10 Kilometres requiring a level of equipment and skill. Being somewhat challenging this really adds an element of intrepid adventure. It is also very useful as a means of enabling shorter less demanding half distance trips and providing assistance for those expeditions that may not have gone as well as planned. We have helped many trips out of difficulty. Mostly minor difficulties and rather routine expeditions

such as;

Food or equipment drops when something has been lost, run out of, broken or forgotten. Even punters who have a craving and are willing to pay for delivery.

Punters with minor injuries. Just upper body sprains and strains. Some who have simply had enough, some who couldn't make the normal put in due to travel delays or such and some who need to catch planes or whatever.

Then there are the not so routine. Missions.

Midnight stowaways. After days of worse than forecasted weather we get a Satphone call from Brett one night. 'Got 14 to get out' My usual response to anything Brett throws at us by this time is cool and calm 'Yes, of course, 11am tomorrow at the gorge just leave it to us, we got this', then we immediately go into a flat spin behind the scenes. We managed to transport 16 people and a bunch of gear out that afternoon and night. We all get to our base at The Paragon and Brett casually waves toward two young guys as he is tucking into a bowl of pasta and a beer as he utters 'they're not ours'. Turns out they were two punters from World Expeditions. Stowaways! LoL... Oh well, we were happy to help them out too so after what turned out to be an Epic we all made it to Hobart around 2am.

Thunder F$&ked. (The punters description) After about 4 days of driving rain I'm at The Paragon bar when a caller from Melbourne asks 'can you get 10 people and all equipment from the the Franklin River?, It's not gone well'. My usual reply, 'Yes of course, happy to help',....WTF! We thought no-one had gone on... I immediately call Brett who is trying to work out how they could get there in this weather and still be alive. After much supposing he just says 'Ahhh, fill me in later'. Turns out they were experienced rafters from NZ leading the expedition. But this is The Franklin and going it alone is not recommended. They somehow managed to do some kind of crazily arduous high level portage around, no, more like over a rapid set aptly named Thunderush where one slip would have almost certainly resulted in death. After surviving this terror they spent 9 hours using ropes, pulleys and carrying all their gear including rafts up the 300m gorge, an amazing feat of endurance, after which they collapsed in a heap under a tarp and waited for us. When we got there the bunch of bedraggled soggy misery crawled out from under the tarp waving raw chapped hands at us. Then came unashamed emotional tears as they devoured the sandwiches and hot soup we had for them. I said WOW to how they managed to get themselves and all the equipment up the gorge to which they replied with 'That was the easy part', Hmmm, hard to imagine what these people had endured prior to that. Two 4x4s and the off-road trailer got them out.

Operation ThunderF#$%ed

Space Chook. Always at the ready every rafting season by now. Anytime we hear a helicopter we check that it's not the rescue chopper headed to the River. We see the rescue helicopter from time to time but it seldom goes to the River. All the professionally guided expeditions are safely run and the need for that level of assistance is rare. I repeat, professionally guided. When there are trips that are not so professionally or not at all professionally led that's when trouble is likely. On the upper section of the river is a feature called Nasty Notch, which is just that, a narrow rock gap that one would not want to be forced through by a powerful water flow so it's best to safely portage this. A private trip with a boat being steered by a Mr Space Chook somehow becomes wrong way up just before Nasty Notch meaning that everything is going through. Well, unless you were a bit portly and didn't fit... well, let's not dwell on that. Thankfully, these skinny lean paddlers got away with minor injuries. Not minor enough though and the rescue 'copter had a busy day. So where do we come in then? We get a call from Abigail and Scotty. Abigail, an experienced guide I had met a year before unashamedly wearing a T-shirt with the classic NO DAMS logo on its front. Scotty I had transported several times and learned he is a champion Kayak paddler who has mixed it with the best in the world. Both of these most likeable people had been hired to lead another expedition to recover all the gear and so we were happy to provide our service.

Goin with the flow. So, back at The Paragon I get a message to call someone back about a McCall trip. Turns out it's someone wanting to 'borrow' our key. AS IF!... There are few things, if any, more highly valued and as closely guarded as our key to the Wild Rivers Wilderness.

I say, 'No, there will be no borrowing of our key, but we can help you'. After a sigh, 'I need to get a couple of paddles, food and barrels to the river' to which I say, 'Of course, Happy to help' and thinking about what has gone wrong on the river.

One of the four commercial NBT (Nature Based Tourism) licensed operators on the river has had a slight mishap. They are guiding a trip when somehow both boats are flipped and the whole thing turns into a giant canyoning expedition for a short time. One boat is quickly recovered and everything possible is gathered up and in this one now very heavy boat they continue. One of these two extraordinary guides swims after the other boat finding it a considerable time and distance later. Nearly all of the food is lost and so a mission is now on to resupply and save the trip. With our NBT license, equipment and key to the gate it's what we do, we have invested quite a lot to do it well and are always more than happy to help.

Gotta say it was an impressive mighty physical feat by these two guides that saved this trip and I can imagine the story the punters took home from this one.

We love what we do and are proud of it.

We do it because we love this environment and the fact that it is totally wild. We must all work together to safeguard it from development. Less is more.

It is Wilderness -Let it be-

On a trip to the put in one morning I meet Klaudia's friend Jed who sits in the front seat of the shuttle bus. I learn that Jed and partner are getting out at the Frenchmans Cap track carpark to walk in, Jed will climb the sheer face to the summit and proceed down to the River at Irenabyss. I was impressed enough with them walking into Frenchman's and down to the river but to climb the face as well earns a WOW. But wait, there's more, he's gonna free climb it,.....that's right, no ropes. What The Actual?! Who is this guy!?

He doesn't talk, barely acknowledges anyone during the journey, just dozes, rarely opening his eyes. This leads me to believe he had become immersed in some strange kind of meditative trance like state, mentally preparing, steeling himself for the extreme challenge at hand..... Yeah Nah, just turns out he's prone to travel sickness and gets squeamish. Seriously though, walking into Frenchmans, free climbing the face, descending to the River and rafting out wins my admiration. He takes to rafting so well that he soon becomes a regular guide and we become well acquainted.

Standing on Mt Jukes look outout looking east to Frenchmans Cap.
Frenchmans Cap

It's time. I have to do it, I just cannot keep on talking the talk as an ambassador and advocate for the conservation of this environment without doing the whole trip. As season 20/21 comes to an end in early May there is just one trip left on the calendar and my name is on it. I'm prepped, fitter than I have been in quite a long time and I'm excited to go. And then it rains.... a lot more than expected. Klaudia calls me with the anticipated 'we can't go, it's too much'.

I'm deflated, I was so ready but the power of the River with the gauge at Collingwood running over 1.6 must be respected. And then, it stops raining. The forecast for the week ahead was steady so there's a window but the punters have already been called off so I stop thinking about it. The next day my phone rings... Klaudia... 'We're going, day after tomorrow'

Right, I grab my stuff, service up the bus and trailer and head off. Brett is not going so it's Klaudia and Jed to guide 5 young climate change lawyer types and myself. So 6 punters, 2 guides and we are the only group on the river (Perfect). I stay the night with Brett and Klaudia in a room surrounded by rafting stuff too excited to sleep so I spend half the night fussing over my gear. Eventually I get some rest. Loading up the next morning and getting to the river was a blur as I focussed on the reality that I was going. It was everything plus more than I imagined and the final video will show that much more effectively than me typing here but I will point out one moment.

Pigs Trough portage. 'When you get to the end of the portage check out the waterfall on the right' they said, which I did. Then turning to walk to the river I found myself staring at the same amazing scene of Rock Island Bend that Peter Dombrovskis famously captured during the Blockade. I'm stunned for several seconds until comprehension registers, comprehension of the enormously significant icon of Wilderness that I am now staring at. Memories of the first time I saw a printed image of the scene before me nearly 40 years ago causes emotion to bubble up from within. Knowing I'm alone, everyone else is at the waterfall behind me, I lose it just a little bit. Regaining some composure I realise I'm nodding as I think to myself 'Well played Klaudia and Jed'.

The next day, Klaudia and I walk back up here from Newlands and standing on top of the rock we talk of nature conservation for a couple of hours.

The raftable length of the Franklin River

This is how it went down. We are.

Klaudia Marte (Water by Nature Tasmania guide. Expedition leader), Jed Parkes (Water by Nature Tasmania guide/Leader), and the Punters - Benedict Armitage, Harj Narulla, Arjuna Dibley, Nanak Narulla, Harkiran Narulla and yours truly Anthony Coulson.


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