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Daring and exploration on Tasmania’s wild rivers

Daring and exploration on Tasmania’s wild rivers

I’VE JUST FINISHED reading Johnson Dean’s Shooting the Franklin — early canoeing on Tasmania’s wild rivers, and have come away with a feeling of great admiration for those early adventurers who made hazardous voyages into what was literally the unknown.

Curiously, I came across Dean’s book while in Tasmania during December of 2008. I was in Launceston and had just walked through The Quadrant when, looking up the street, I saw the sign of Petrarch’s Bookshop. Drawn to bookshops the way a moth is to a candle, I found Shooting the Franklin on the bargain table at the entrance. It was one of those whim purchases you don’t come to regret.

If you take a look at the map, you can’t help but notice how the South Esk makes a grand curve from its hill country origins to its confluence with the Macquarie, thence to flow into the Tamar at the city of Launceston. This — the South Esk — is where Dean’s story starts during his boyhood in the war years of the early 1940s. It was on this river that he and his friend, John Hawkins, who would join him on later, more adventurous riverine excursions into the wilderness, started their canoeing careers in home made, canvas covered canoes.

Graduating from the South Esk, Dean and friends hatched a rather over-ambitious plan to ascend the Huon River, portage across the button grass plains, and put in on the Serpentine that drained Lake Pedder which, in those days was not sunken at the bottom the the Hydro-Electric Commission’s dam catchment. The Serpentine was to be descended to where it joined the Gordon, which would be followed all the way to the west coast town of Strahan.

Although that trip never eventuated — and there can only be serious doubts about its success if it had — the one down the King River did. The King drains to Tasmania’s west coast, as do others Dean and friends were to attempt. And like those others, the King twists and winds between steep, forest-clad mountains, draining away the copious rainfall that settles on these wild lands. But the trip… it turned into a near disaster however, over the next 20 or more years, Dean and his friends were to descent the Franklin, Pieman and the Gordon where they made their way by still pool and fierce rapid through Tasmania’s rugged, western wilderness.

Dean’s story is also one of the evolution of the canoe from the 1940s to the coming of the ‘rubber ducky’, the bright yellow inflatable rafts in which adventurers of later years made their journeys along the Franklin and other wild rivers. It’s the story of how collapsible, army-surplus kayaks of waterproofed canvas stretched over a wooden frame (which broke in collisions with rocks in rapids on more than one journey) gave way to the fibreglass, Canadian canoes that Dean and companions modified for their 1958 descent of the Franklin, so as to keep the water out. Both types were summarily trashed in the rapids

On the last page of the book, in the last paragraph, Dean looks back and sums up those decades of river adventure. He concludes with the thought of how fortunate he was to have lived at a time when it was possible to have made such journeys, for hydro-electric development has dammed all of those streams with the exception of the Franklin. The journeys made by Dean and friends… the adventures… are no longer possible. Discovering those rivers at the end of their mellennia-long lives as free-flowing, wild streams, that band of adventurers has left us a minimal but revealing insight of how things were before the Tasmanian government policy of hydro-industrialisation brought about their end.

You get glimpses of the coming of the hydro in the book when Dean mentions the presence of Hydro-Electric Commission exploratory works on the Franklin, and when their presence in Queenstown drew comments from locals about their being ‘greenies’. As he noted, times were starting to change in Tasmania.

In that state, the years of Dean’s adventures constitute something of an era of exploration… the late 1940s to the 1970s… not only of incredible river journeys but of journeys on foot through the mountains and across the soggy, button grass plains of the interior. While living in the state in the 1970s, I became acquainted with some of those whose ventures into poorly-mapped territory popularised places like South West Tasmania… people like Jack Thwaites, Roy Davies, Peter Allnut, Jim Brown and Peter Dombrovskis.

After that time, the popularity of bushwalking, climbing and river running underwent a boom and, slowly at first, their commercialisation got underway with the opening of adventure equipment stores — by the end of the 1970s, there were two of these in each of Launceston and Hobart and one in Devonport. The publishing of track guides for what had been remote places known to the adventurous few and to local bushwalkers opened up the country and paved the way for the guided walking and river rafting tours now on offer.

Dean’s book is a story of times that can never be repeated. It reports succinctly told tales of a time when the wild places were largely unregulated, when going into them was done with a sense of self-responsibility and freedom. This, Dean and companions did and did well.

There is an interesting little story that hangs from Dean and friends’ grand adventures on the wild rivers, and it is told in the preface to the book by Bob Brown, with whom the Franklin River is forever linked. It started when Bob was a young doctor at the Alice Springs hospital, There, he recounts, he assisted a senior doctor whose name was John Hawkins. For Bob Brown, the meeting was something of an omen although he didn’t know that then, for it was that same John Hawkins with which Johnston Dean had made his journey down the South Esk all those decades ago. It was the same John Hawkins with which Jonhson Dean had descended the Franklin River in 1958. This, Bob Brown only later discovered, and you can only wonder if he experienced a sense of prescience over the coincidence.

That was not the end to curious coincidences. The next came in 1973, as Bob drove up to a look at a house he was interested in buying at Liffey, in the north of Tasmania. He bought that house. And he bought it from someone named John Dean… the same Dean that had accompanied Johnson in that first party to descend the Franklin.

Publishing details

Dean, J. 2002. Shooting the Derwent — early canoeing on Tasmania’s wild rivers; self-published. ISBN 0 9581744 0 7.

Reviewed by Russ Grayson, April 2009

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