Steve Bungays, New Plymouth Kayak club.
At 8.30 a.m. on Sunday, February 12th, Grant Williams, Lloyd Evans and myself began a paddle down the flooded upper section of the Waiwhakaiho (spelled Waiwakaiho in original article) River. We entered the Kaiauai Stream where Alfred Road crossed it, approximately 400 metres from the confluence with the Waiwhakaiho River. The Kaiauai Stream is fast-flowing, tight and very bouldery, but is canoeable in flood and when paddling plastic.
At the confluence with the Waiwhakaiho, the water flow doubles and a large, steep, bouldery rapid is formed, which flows under the Main Road South Bridge. Down from the bridge the river takes a sharp left hand turn down a steep drop and into a large wave which cascades into a cliff face. Following this were a couple of fairly easy graveyard rapids; despite their size, Lloyd managed to be tossed over, but, to our amazement, he rolled up.
Paddling along at a leisurely pace, we suddenly found ourselves on top of a weir, causing a nasty, back-sucking wave across the channel. A quick exit was made to inspect it, before we successfully dropped over the obstacle. The next rapid was a right hand bend, very steep and littered with large boulders. I decided to paddle down the middle, jammed the nose of my kayak under a rock, but luckily managed to swing the kayak around and continue through. Grant opted for the right hand side, close to the bank. He also jammed his kayak under a large boulder; the water pressure held the kayak in tight and he was forced to abandon it and swim the remainder of the rapid. Lloyd made a clean run through, and, after recovering Grant, we used a rope to pull the kayak from the rapid (had he been paddling fibreglass instead of plastic, he would have had to walk out.) This accident scared us a bit, so we decided to check out all rapids before running them from then on.
The following rapids were all very steep, bouldery, fast-flowing and of long duration (200-300 metres) compared to those on the lower Waiwhakaiho or Waitara. They all demanded a high degree of concentration and determination to stay upright and avoid rocks. A long swim in those types of rapids could easily end in disaster.
We next passed the intake station for the water storage lake, followed by another weir and a series of similar rapids to those already paddled. We came to a long, tight rapid which we carefully inspected from the bank. I ran the rapid first, followed closely by Lloyd. We waited at the first pull-out point to watch Grant shoot the rapid. After a couple of minutes he was nowhere to be seen; we immediately thought the worst and grabbed a rope and took off up the bank along the river. Half way up the rapid we saw piece of flotation from Grant's kayak, floating down amongst the boulders. At any moment we expected to see Grant swimming through the rapid, or worse, pinned under a rock. To our relief, he was still in his kayak and just about to start his run through the rapid. We later found out that he had fallen out of his kayak while trying to get into it and in the process, lost his paddle and some flotation. The situation had turned out to be a false alarm but it sure gave Lloyd and myself a few hair-raising thoughts at the time.
During the next rapid, the river narrowed considerably; Lloyd went first, followed by Grant. then myself. Lloyd suddenly disappeared from view, likewise, Grant disappeared a few seconds later at the same spot. Suddenly, I rose over the top and dropped into a massive, recirculating hole, which was holding two overturned kayaks in its grip. This was very quickly increased to three as I became the third victim of its irresistible sucking action.
I managed to roll up but found myself sucked back, tossed over and recirculated through the hole for a second time. On the second attempt at rolling, the water surged at the right moment and spat me out into safe water, away from the hole. Both Grant and Lloyd were swimming by this time. Lloyd didn't roll because Grant's kayak was on top of him, and Grant didn't roll because he feared that his paddle could injure Lloyd if he tried rolling.
The river now flowed through a narrow gorge, surrounded by cliffs only 10-15 metres apart. Large boulders were deposited at regular intervals, causing large waves to be generated. 3 or 4 metres above our heads we could see where the water level climbs to when in flood. In a really big flood, this enclosed rapid would be like a miniature Devil's Creek rapid on the Susitna River. Not far after this was the familiar sight of the Meeting of the Waters, the spot where we usually canoed the river from. The trip had taken 4 hours, a good paddle considering we spent little time checking the rapids or for other stoppages.
It is amazing that this particular section of the river has not been paddled very much before (only 2 or 3 times previously). It was a real challenge to paddle water of this type, grade 3+ on many of the rapids. Undoubtedly, this is the best section of water in the Taranaki area, and is another river which has been opened up with the use of plastic kayaks. Hopefully, other paddlers will now run the upper Waiwhakaiho and it will get the recognition it justly deserves.