: : : TASMANIAN STORIES

 

 

When they talk
of the rivers

By MATT NEWTON | The bird arrived like an unexpected idea and landed on his head. We stood and stared with an acceptance usually reserved for dreams, in which the absurd is common and understanding not necessary.

The sodden rosella sat there and shrilled. It was our third day on the river, a misty rain hung in the air and our world ended where the low cloud began just metres above our heads. It took us the best part of two hours to drag our small wooden punt and all our gear up through the rapid and for the entire time the little bird flew in circles, landing on each one of us in turn. It was as if after days rowing upstream we were becoming part of the place or at least less of another.

About halfway down the west coast of Tasmania lies Macquarie Harbour, a giant expanse of water twice the size of the one upon which Sydney was founded. At the northern end sits the once small fishing town of Strahan, now drowning in the rising tide of tourism.

The Gordon's main tributary is the Franklin River, which holds a special place in the political and wilderness landscape of Australia

Fifteen kilometers past the distant horizon to the south is the gaping mouth of the Gordon River, spewing more water into the ocean than any other in the country. The Gordon's main tributary is the Franklin River, which holds a special place in the political and wilderness landscape of Australia. Each year a few hundred more people bob and squeal their way through the deep folds in the land that hide the rivers great gorges and dark pools. In doing so they undertake one of the last great wild river journeys in the world.

Like a giant family tree the Gordon, the Franklin and their countless tributaries stretch and branch off into the wild lands. As with any family tree the rivers are flowing with stories of the forests that line their banks and of the ancient trees that grow there. And the stories of the men who for nearly 150 years came in search of these trees and the wood that had the almost magical power to resist rot, making it a prized boat building timber. It was Huon pine.

We were standing on the bank of the Franklin River at a rapid called Double Falls, debating how we were going to get our 15-foot wooden punt up past the thunderous obstacle without reducing it to splinters. We had started at the other end, at the river's mouth and for the past few days had been rowing upstream, against the flow and back in time.

his history and the Huon pining trade are recorded not in books, but somewhere between the kitchen table and the public bar

There were two reasons for our journey: to row a 60-year-old Huon pining punt up the river and gain some understanding of what life may have been like when this was the preferred craft for travel in these parts; and to take an old friend, whose life has left his body unequal to the task, to a place called Newlands Cascade, 40km from the mouth and the beginning of the Franklins gorge country.

Denny is a west coast local. He lives in a vertical board shack beside a wharf in a quiet backwater near Strahan. Denny loves history and stories, which is fortunate, as his history and the Huon pining trade are recorded not in books, but somewhere between the kitchen table and the public bar. As a young man he saw the end of the Huon pining era, a time when men would set out from Strahan in 15-foot pining punts, rowing across the harbour and up the rivers for months at a time in search of the golden wood. Although spending much of his life exploring the harbour, the Gordon River and the ocean off the west coast, Denny had never been far up the Franklin, but he knew the stories.

Having canoed the length of the Franklin and various other rivers in the area, a few of us had often sat on the river bank and wondered what it was like rowing these curious square-ended punts against the current. There are stories of at least one group rowing the entire way up the river and manhandling their punt through all of the rapids and gorges before finally winching it out of the valley to the Lyell highway 100km upstream. If true, this journey must rank as one of Australias true epics. There are stories of men rowing their mates, who had lost limbs to the sharp ends of their own axes, back from the river country and across Macquarie Harbour in a single effort.

when you begin to row against the current: every little ripple, gravel race and rapid, which you would simply float down and barely notice if you were coming the other way, becomes an obstacle

We had never rowed a punt before and had no plans for an epic. It would not be unkind to suggest that what we were doing in the punt for the first day or so was flailing rather than rowing. As we thrashed wildly at the dark waters, I suspect we looked more akin to an upturned turtle trying to right itself than a crew of experienced river men. An interesting thing happens when you begin to row against the current: every little ripple, gravel race and rapid, which you would simply float down and barely notice if you were coming the other way, becomes an obstacle. Often we were forced to jump from the punt into waist-deep water and push against the weight of the river. In the warmth of summer, although often gut-wrenching work, its a great way to travel. The sun beats down upon the wet world which has an aroma like time itself.

We made good time, better than we expected. With Dennys fund of knowledge we were spared what probably would have been a steep and treacherous learning curve. Around the major rapids we lifted the punt from the water and slid it along on skidders made from slippery flood debris so as not to wear through the soft hull on the sharp limestone. We travelled passed great walls cut into the limestone by an eternity of water with flood lines marked tens of metres above us.

Around each bend and with each new landmark Dennys eyes light up as he recognised places he had never seen before. Before his eyes all of the words he had heard over the years were becoming rocks, water and trees real places. In the warm evenings we made camp on the rivers shingle stone banks and told stories and lies long into the night. Late in the afternoon of our third day on the river we hauled the punt and our weary bodies up one final kilometre-long stretch of rapid and arrived in a swirling deep pool immediately below Newlands Cascade and the beginning of the Franklins famed gorge country.

Denny had long ago given up any hope of ever seeing Newlands. The Cascade not only marks the end of the final gorge, it is perhaps the longest continuous stretch of white water on the Franklin, and due to an enormous overhanging cliff offers protection from the most servere storms, making it a place of almost mythical proportion amongst river travellers.

That evening in the warm waning light I saw something fantastic, the look on the face of a friend who had achieved a goal. It reminded me of a phone call I had received weeks earlier. When I picked up the phone I heard the voice of an excited boy. He told me he had found a punt that he thought we should buy to do a trip that I had once mentioned. I had never heard such rare excitement in a voice before. It is still hard for me to imagine that young boy wearing an old man's body. ¶


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