Wild waterways: Get the best of Tasmania’s rivers

Across Tasmania, rivers and streams pour from the mountains and create a host of travel experiences. Here's how to get the most enjoyment.

  • Andrew Bain
  • July 2018

A storm is brewing, but it’s not coming from the sky. Ahead of the raft, the Franklin River is a mass of white water, fighting its way through a deep gorge known as the Great Ravine. It’s a place so wild that James Calder, the first European to sight the gorge in 1849, described it as a “hideous defile”. And the raft is about to plunge into it.

For more than a week, this most famous of Tasmanian rivers will be everything to the people in the raft – their home, their road, their constant companion. At times, such as inside the deep and languid Irenabyss Gorge, it will be as still as a painting. But at other moments the river will rise into a fury.

Inside the Great Ravine, rafters will scramble along the base of the cliff walls as guides toss the raft through the raging rapids. It’s just 5km of water and white noise, but it will take a day to navigate.

There is ample reward. Rafting the Franklin River is one of the world’s great wild-river trips. Thick rainforest crowds its banks as it pours through World Heritage-listed wilderness, wrapping around rock towers and between stunning, remote mountains. Everyone but the most experienced rafters should come on a guided trip.

The Franklin River is the most famous of Tasmania's waterways.

Though at times it flows within 150km of Hobart, it’s a place almost beyond any mark of humanity. In its catchment there’s not a single piece of cultivated land – from a raft, you see nothing but nature. It’s liquid purity, even by the standards of a state abundant in pure places.

This year marks 35 years since government plans to dam the river were defeated in one of Australia’s fiercest environmental battles. Protesters blockaded the river, and the campaign helped swing a national election, with the opposition Labor Party pledging to halt the dam, turning national sentiment in its favour.

It was then that Tasmanians, and the outside world, realised the true value of the state’s wilderness and its wild rivers.

Running Waters

In contrast to the Franklin, the Gordon River is serene.

The Franklin is not the only wondrous waterway in Tasmania.

Across the state, rivers and streams pour from the mountains. They create a host of travel experiences – from battling rapids, floating across your own reflection on a mirror-still river, or hiking into gorges and waterfalls.

At its end, the Franklin River pours into the Gordon River, where it’s possible to get a shorter and less frenetic glimpse at Tasmania’s wilderness with Gordon River Cruises. Its half-day trip sets out from the west-coast fishing town of Strahan, crossing Macquarie Harbour (with a visit to the former convict station on Sarah Island) to slip into the rainforested embrace of the Gordon River.

A morning that breaks as calmly sheet of dark, reflective water as the cruise nears Heritage Landing, where a 400-metre boardwalk loops through rainforest. One fallen Huon pine beside the track is estimated to be more than 2000 years old.

Heading Upriver

The still waters of the Pieman River simply take your breath away.

Further north, marking the southern border of the Tarkine – the world’s second-largest tract of temperate rainforest – is the Pieman River.

Its banks are lined with some of Tasmania’s most impressive Huon pines, their ancient limbs angling out over the tannin-stained waters.

The Arcadia II – the world’s only operational Huon pine-built river cruiser – departs from former gold-mining town Corinna. For almost five decades it has been transporting visitors along the Pieman to this section of coast, feared by 19th-century sailors. Three ships were once wrecked here in a single year.

A more intimate way to explore the Pieman is by kayak, available for hire from the wilderness retreat at Corinna, an accommodation centre with rooms spread through the old miners’ cottages.

Paddling downstream, it’s a fairly quick journey to the mouth of the Savage River, where you can drift over the sunken SS Croydon – Australia’s furthest inland shipwreck, with its nose still peeping out of the water. The ship sank in 1919 while winching aboard Huon pine logs. It is rumoured the captain might have deliberately wrecked it to defraud insurers and avoid again confronting the violent waters of Pieman Heads.

A short distance from the Savage River mouth, a small pier provides a pull-out point for kayakers to visit Lovers Falls. A short walking trail burrows beneath giant man ferns, some of which are thought to be among the oldest in the world, to the 30-metre waterfall, named when a couple came here during their honeymoon in the late 1870s.

Into Hell's Gates

Sea-kayaks are the only way into the remote Davey Gorge.

The Pieman is one of several Tasmanian rivers that can be explored by kayak. On the Davey River, which empties into Port Davey in the far southwest, you can paddle into a gorge named Hell’s Gates by the loggers who once worked here felling Huon pines.

Davey Gorge is in one of Tasmania’s most remote areas, and the only feasible way to paddle here (and even then, at the whim of the ocean and weather conditions) is on a week-long sea-kayak expedition with Roaring 40s Kayaking.

These guided trips begin with a flight into the remote Melaleuca airstrip, the site of an abandoned tin mine inside the vast Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. Kayakers paddle out through the tea-coloured waters of the Bathurst Narrows, past the well-named Breaksea Islands to Port Davey and the mouth of the Davey River. From here it’s a short paddle upstream into the gorge, where 100-metre- high quartzite cliffs enclose the dark, still waters.

Far easier to reach is the Derwent River, the waterway that flows through the heart of Hobart. North of the city, local company Tassie Bound offers short kayaking tours.

A half-day “relax tour”, suitable for families, floats through gentle rapids, passing the hop fields of Bushy Park and surprisingly bucolic scenes so close to Tasmania’s capital. The pace is a little more frenetic on a five-hour rapids kayak tour, which begins gently on the Derwent before building to a wild ride through the rapids at Broken Bridge and Train Bridge, downstream from Bushy Park.

Land Lubbers

The Overland Track takes you to some impressive water falls.

Not all Tasmanian river experiences require actually getting out on the water. The mountains and valleys here are laced with bushwalking trails, some of which bring the state’s rivers into fine focus.

Tasmania’s most famous walk, the Overland Track, is primarily a journey through mountains; but along one stretch at its southern end the peaks disappear behind the spray of a trio of magnificent waterfalls.

Deep in rainforest beneath the craggy Du Cane Range, a short side trail detours down to the Mersey River. The large waterway empties into the Bass Strait at Devonport, but is near to its mountainous headwaters here. One branch of this trail leads to a ledge looking directly onto powerful D’Alton Falls. Another branch heads a short distance upstream, beside a narrow, mossy slot canyon, to the equally impressive Ferguson Falls.

Another excellent and little-known river walk is to be found on Tasmania’s east coast, less than an hour’s drive from Wineglass Bay. At Bicheno’s edge, inside Douglas- Apsley National Park, an 8km walk loops through Apsley Gorge.

The Apsley Gorge Track continues over a ridge and into the heart of the gorge. From here, you can rock-hop and scramble through the gorge, returning to Apsley Waterhole past small waterfalls, scoured mini-canyons and deep pools that beckon for cooling swims far from any crowds.