An ill-prepared rafting trip down the Franklin River in the 1980s helped create one of the nation’s top environmental proponents.

Story + photos Andrew Bain

Inside one of the deepest ravines in south-west Tasmania, Geoff Law stands atop a boulder as large as a house. Cliffs tower hundreds of metres overhead and the surge of Franklin River rapids reverberates through the Great Ravine. Almost 40 years ago, Geoff played a pivotal role in saving this river from dam construction, but in his eyes the river helped save him.

“I was an aimless youth before I became involved with the Franklin River campaign,” he says. “I owe much more to this river than it owes to me. If I hadn’t been there, it still would have been saved. But the river helped to give me direction and a fulfilling mission.”

Geoff, 61, has been one of Australia’s most prominent conservation activists for almost four decades. In 2013 he received an Order of Australia medal for services to the environment, and two years later the German Commission for UNESCO named him one of 26 heritage heroes. 

It all started here on the Franklin River, a waterway Geoff first encountered on an ill-equipped rafting trip in 1981. Though he’d bushwalked extensively while growing up in Geelong and Camberwell in Victoria, the idea of rafting a river felt well beyond him. And yet everybody he met while bushwalking in Tasmania in the early 1980s seemed to be talking about rafting the Franklin River, as a campaign mounted to prevent it from being dammed. 

“The idea of it just scared the crap out of me,” Geoff says. “There was a death on the river about once a year in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It seemed to me that you’d need reflexes and coordination beyond what I had ... But then I was hearing people’s tales and anecdotes, and it forced me to rethink because these were just ordinary human beings. I just felt compelled to do it in the end, because of everything I’d heard about the scenery and the importance of saving the river. I sure got more than I bargained for.”

Wearing a pair of Stubbies shorts, with a couple of woollen jumpers and a balaclava fitted under a bicycle helmet, Geoff set out onto the Franklin River with two random companions, each in separate rafts. Geoff capsized his within seconds. Fourteen cold and wet days later, they popped out 100 kilometres downstream at the Franklin’s confluence with the Gordon. They’d succeeded in navigating the Franklin, Geoff says, through a combination of youthfulness, ignorance and luck. 

This story excerpt is from Issue #126

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2019