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A History of Tasmanian Packrafting

Traversing the Guardians en-route to the Murchison River.

Sally traversing the Guardians en-route to the Murchison River; packrafting (Janszooning) Tassie style circa 1992/1993.

What is Packrafting?

It is traveling across land and/or water with a raft and a pack. The concept was developed by Peter Halkett in the 1840s. Alaskans claim their state to be the home of modern packrafting, through the 1950s adventures of Dick Griffith, and since the 1980s, the excellent adventures of Roman Dial and others. Sheri Tingey, as a designer and manufacturer has led the revolution of equipment and techniques over the last decade, for the benefit of us all.

What is Janszooning?

Before the term packrafting reached these shores, some of my group of paddling friends called the exact same practice Janszooning, and for a few of us, the term has stuck. To “Janszoon” has a special nuance of meaning; indicating wilderness journeys over water and land, often of more pain than pleasure, more scrub and mountain-thrashing than fun river travel, typical of the kind of effort needed to visit Tasmania’s most remote and beautiful places.

Packrafting in Tasmania

There have been many noteworthy pioneering journeys on Tasmania’s wild rivers, including those of Olegas Truchanas on the Gordon River, and of Johnson Dean, John Hawkins et al. on the Franklin River during the 1950s. It was arguably not until the mid 1970s that the boats and techniques used could be described as packrafting. In the summer of 1975 to 1976 two profoundly important journeys were undertaken. Helen Gee lead an expedition down the Jane River and lower Franklin River using portable inflatable mattresses (lilos) as watercraft, while Bob Brown and Paul Smith chose inflatable dinghies (which would later be known widely as rubber duckies) for a journey down the Franklin itself.

The motivation for Helen, Paul and Bob was the same; following the flooding of Lake Pedder in the Lake Gordon Hydro Electric Scheme, the Hydro Electric Commission were once again gearing up to commence a major dam building project to inundate the rivers of the Lower Gordon basin. Helen, Paul and Bob were keen to explore and investigate the area under threat. They were all so moved by their journeys that upon their return they became instrumental in the formation of the Wilderness Society and in the campaign to save the Franklin and Lower Gordon Rivers. Helen, Paul and Bob’s contribution to the growth of packrafting in Tasmania would culminate in the heady events of the late 1970s and the Franklin Blockade era of the early 1980s. After the rivers were saved Helen went on to a rich and fulfilling life of achievements and activism, and Bob continued on his path to becoming one of the world’s most significant environmental and social activists. Please visit http://www.bobbrown.org.au/ to support Bob’s ongoing work.

After the Franklin Blockade, there was a peak of interest in paddling the Franklin River, mostly using the large one-person rubber duckies. Commercial operators began taking large multi-person rafts down the Franklin River, but not many sections of our other wilderness rivers are suitable for these larger boats. In the early 1980s a very small number of people branched out and began exploring other rivers and waterways using whatever craft could be suitably pressed into service. Until the appearance in the 2000s of the modern Alpacka rafts from Alaska, packrafting in Tasmania remained an obscure pursuit for a small number of enthusiasts. I was lucky enough to do my first packrafting trip on the Franklin River in January 1981 at 15 years old, and I have continued ever since; what follows below is therefore my personal packrafting history of Tasmania.

Many other people have enjoyed packrafting in Tasmania over the years, and I hope to include links to the adventures of others as the site builds. .

 My Personal Tasmanian Packrafting History

Background

When my paddle blade first dipped in to the sun-dappled golden water of the Collingwood River (the most commonly used entry point to the Franklin River), I was only 15 years old, and our group of 6 friends ranged up to 18 years old. It was a very young age to be undertaking such a serious wilderness adventure. Things weren’t, however, as reckless as they seem.

John ascending The Acropolis, du Cane Range. 1979

John ascending The Acropolis, du Cane Range. 1979

 I began doing genuine hard bushwalking in 1978 as a 13 year old, and was doing serious and difficult wilderness trips by the age of 14, with my brother Robert who was 16 when we did our first two really tough winter journeys to the Du Cane Range and Labyrinth area in 1979, learning to deal with blizzards and difficult Tasmanian conditions on our own. Over December 1980 to early January 1981 I completed a 28 day adventure in the Southwest with 3 other boys (Mark Gibson, Peter Slowitzky and Peter Woof), so by the time I paddled the Franklin I was quite a seasoned wilderness traveler for such a young kid.

For that 28 day Southwest adventure we had flown a food stash in to Melaleuca, we commenced walking at Cockle Creek and emerged 28 days later at Tahune on the Huon River, via the South Coast Track, Ketchem Bay area, Old Port Davey Track, the Eastern Arthurs and the Yoyo Track. We knew each other’s strengths and personalities pretty well by the time we were finished.

 

Ironbound Range, Southwest Tasmania. December 1980.

Ironbound Range, Southwest Tasmania. December 1980.

We managed a quick turnaround in Launceston between expeditions, and were joined by my brother Robert and the brother of Mark Gibson (Peter Gibson). Robert and Mark had also spent 35 days straight in the Southwest the summer before; culminating in a rare ascent of Federation Peak via the Old River Valley, so between us we had plenty of wilderness experience for a bunch of 15 to 18 year olds, but what we lacked was river paddling experience. As river paddling was in its infancy as a sport in Tasmania, very few people existed who were qualified to advise or teach others, and embarking upon the Franklin River with no prior experience did not seem the crazy idea that it appears in hindsight.

 

 

 

 

Separate pages from the menu document the following Janszooning (packrafting) and related journeys:

(?) = must check dates!

This is a fairly comprehensive list of the major rivers of the South-West of Tasmania. The glaring omissions from my list are the fine small rivers in the Tarkine region. I might start chipping away at those next!

In time, I hope to provide stories, pictures and movies of each of these journeys. Watch this space!

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