Maxwell River Trip Report
A friend and I recently spent 12 days traveling down the Maxwell River in South West Tasmania. I had wanted to do this trip ever since watching John McLaine’s ‘Six Rivers’ video in 2013. The scope and challenge of the route really appealed to me, as well as the chance to travel through one of the more remote areas of the South West wilderness.
The trip started at the old Jane River Track on the Lyell highway. Arriving in the evening, we found a good spot to park the car just off the highway past the Franklin River bridge. The Franklin River was running fairly strongly, and we could only just cross it on foot. We camped on the southern bank that night, above the remains of the old vehicle bridge.
Day 1 saw fairly slow progress down the Jane River track. The track is still easy to see but significantly overgrown. We were carrying 120L Sea to Summit dry packs, which were packed to capacity – initially, we couldn’t even close them. I estimated the weights to be about 30-35 kg each. The main obstacles were fallen trees – on average, one every 50m or so, depending on terrain. Our packs were also very tall, which meant we had to crawl through quite a few obstacles, since we couldn’t walk under them. We camped at the Adelaide River, which was approximately half-way to our put-in on the Erebus rivulet.
We spent Day 2 continuing to pick our way down the Jane River Track again, arriving at track crossing on the Erebus Rivulet in the late afternoon. The Erebus is a beautiful river even this far from the Jane – shallow pools, gravel rapids and open temperate rainforest with a moss floor on either bank. Even with a fairly low flow after a dry summer, it looks as though you could launch here if you wanted to. We decided to camp the night and avoid all the log jams by walking down the track and launching closer to the Jane.
Day 3 saw us launching on the Erebus by early afternoon. We made good progress – there were no real obstacles - and reached the Jane River by about 15:00. The Jane River was beautiful, with many pleasant rapids and hardly and log jams, making for a great afternoon with perfect weather. In the late afternoon we reached the start of Enkidu Gorge, notable for the entire river disappearing into a massive boulder field.
I would not like to raft the Jane with much more water – getting through the gorge without any high portages would be extremely difficult. Hardly any of the gorge was runnable – all the rapids were either log sieves, boulder sieves or chutes that were too narrow to fit through. By nightfall we had only gone a few hundred meters and ended up in a fairly unsatisfactory campsite perched on some rock slabs above the river bed.
It had rained lightly all night, and Day 4 was cool and overcast. We kept picking our way through Enkidu Gorge, portaging, lining and dragging our boats until we finally got through it in the late afternoon. Arriving at the mouth of the Algongkian rivulet was almost a relief, and we found it easy to paddle and drag our boats up the wide, slow flowing stream for about 1500m until we found a good campsite.
Attempts to dry gear overnight were thwarted by more rain on the morning of Day 5. In fact, it rained on and off for the next 8 days. We re-inflated our boats and paddled them several km upstream until we reached the take-off point for the head of the Maxwell River.
I had anticipated that the route between the Algonkian Rivulet and the Maxwell River would be the most difficult part of the trip, due to the thick scrub in this area. After discussing the trip with John, I had prepared a GPS route that linked all the open patches together as far as possible, and we used this route to navigate to the headwaters of the Maxwell.
As we set out it began to rain heavily, and we were soon soaked through - fortunately it was still quite warm. The terrain was very challenging – it was comprised mainly of button grass interspersed with waist high scrub, interspersed with bands of bauera and tea tree. The area was surprisingly rough, as well, with many small ridges and valleys that weren’t really shown on the map. We arrived late in the afternoon at the very head of the Maxwell River, where it was only about 2m wide, 150mm deep and covered almost entirely with fallen logs and scrub – not exactly an inspiring sight. We camped here the night, having come about half the distance to our planned entry point on the Maxwell.
Day 6 saw us packing up camp in more heavy rain. We left the Maxwell to the north again, working our way through patches of scrub to a point about 1km above the Lancelot Rivulet. I had noticed that this area was shown as being burnt during the summer bush fires, and I hoped it would be easier to walk through. This proved the case as we arrived in the recently burnt area in the early afternoon. We crossed the Prince Rivulet, and were heartened to find it was about waist deep – this indicated that we should have a fairly easy trip down the Maxwell.
We followed the burnt section down to the Lancelot Rivulet, along the southern bank of the Maxwell. I had heard from a helicopter pilot that the Maxwell River fire breakout was the most spectacular of all the 2016 fires, and it was sobering to observe from the ground - There was almost no vegetation left here at all. We arrived at the junction of the Maxwell and the Lancelot in the afternoon, and were relieved to find it wide, deep and flowing strongly.
After camping the night in a burnt tea tree forest, we launched onto the Maxwell and were soon making good progress. The river had dropped about a foot overnight but was still running well. The burnt section only extended for a few kilometres, and we were soon travelling through the country that we had spent so much time coming to experience – untouched temperate rain forest and Huon Pine groves.
The Huon pines of the upper Maxwell really are spectacular and the standout feature of the region. It was an amazing experience to see them lining the banks thickly for hundreds of meters at a time. In many areas pines leant over the river from both sides, making a tunnel of branches and foliage. It’s well known that Huon Pine is slow to rot – this resulted in some of the more impressive log jams I’ve seen. Some of these were several meters high and tens of meters wide. It was remarkable to smell the distinctively sweet huon pine resin as we manoeuvred our boats through them.
The difficulty of access really enhanced the sense of wilderness and remoteness we felt as we travelled down the Maxwell. The lower area had remarkable limestone features, including some magnificent caves and undercuts.
We only encountered one serious obstacle requiring a portage – these were the falls marked on 1:25,000 series map. We portaged these over the hill crest on river right. This was straightforward, although we ended up going too far down stream and running into very thick scrub around the river flats.
All up we spent three days on the Maxwell, and were a little sorry to finally reach the Denison River. We camped not far below the Maxwell-Denison junction, on a large shingle bank.
Next morning we finally managed to dry some gear before launching. We soon arrived at the start of Denison Gorge. This has some of the best rapids that we had seen so far in the trip. We found the Gorge pretty straightforward, and ended up camping that night just near the junction of the Denison and the Gordon.
Day 11 saw us launching onto the Gordon, which seemed to be running fairly high. Paddling the Gordon was an interesting experience – the power of the water in full flow is impressive. The rapids were all completely covered – some of them were only marked by a few wave trains and the bend in the surface of the river. Sunshine Gorge was the most exciting part. The wave trains here were most of the length of the gorge, and around 4-5 feet high.
We had lunch at the Franklin River junction, and arrived at Sir Johns Falls in the early afternoon, where we met some photojournalists working on a story about Huon Pine for an American magazine.
Stormbreaker had already left that morning and wasn’t scheduled again for another day, so we decided to paddle the final 22 km to Heritage Landing. This turned out to be fairly gruelling. The weather deteriorated again, and we ended up paddling into strong winds and rain squalls, averaging about 3-4km an hour. To make matters worse, Heritage landing wasn’t marked on our maps, so we had to find it based on our estimated position. I was expecting to see it around 8 PM, and it was quite a relief to see the pylons right at the edge of my head torch beam at around ten past eight.
By now it was raining heavily, and we had a fairly cramped camp on the cruise boat walkway. We were both fairly tired and sore, having paddled about 50 km that day.
The last day was cool and clear, and we packed up quickly, looking forward to getting picked up. We had heard the boat was due at 10 AM each morning, but as the minutes ticked by we began to doubt whether it was coming. Possible explanations included off peak trading hours, weather, and lack of bookings, so it was quite a relief to see the Lady Jane Franklin II hove into view at around 11 AM with 100 people on board.
We felt a little out of place dressed in our best thermals and footy shorts amongst all the R M Williams and Arcteryx outdoor wear, but passengers and crew all made us feel very welcome, and I can thoroughly recommend a Heritage Landing Pickup by Gordon River Cruises. On the other hand, if Stormbreaker is in at Sir Johns Falls that’s a great option too.
After regaling the passengers with tales of our wild adventures and enjoying our first decent meal in 12 days, it was time to hitch hike back to Derwent Bridge and our car. I was a little dubious about our prospects for hitchhiking in Strahan on a Friday afternoon. Fortunately a group of Chinese tourists who recognised us from the boat gave us a lift and by late afternoon we were back at the car, still somewhat in awe of our experience and feeling very fortunate that it was still possible to have such an experience in 2016 - thanks to John McLaine and companions for the inspiration!
Put some photos on facebook.
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set ... 37447e213b
Packrafting trips and tales from down under.
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