The Karamea is magic! After hearing from various kayakers and rafters over the years about this relatively inaccessible river and the hair-raising boating it had to offer, a number of us organised a trip. It turned out to be one of those special ones... good water, good company, and amazing country.
The river's headwaters are in Whangapeka Track country in the North West Nelson State Forest and the river has a large watershed in a relatively high rainfall area. In the upper river, creeks like Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, add atmosphere as well as water, as the river grows. This upper section is full of limestone with huge buttresses and escarpments poking out of the bush. At the bend where the Leslie joins the Karamea, the character of the river changes somewhat with the first of the big earthquake lakes which impound the middle section of the river, starting a little downriver from the Bend Hut. At the outlets of these dams, a lot of the action is to be found. Over this section, the river travels roughly north, then west, then finally out to the coast through an impressive gorge. By this stage, depending on flow and rainfall, the lower river can have some good, punchy water in it.
The flight into the river, to a point just below Luna But, was a good buzz for the uninitiated to chopper flying. It seems the lack of a front door on the passenger side was enough for some! Fortunately, the wee Hughes 300 managed to get Murray Watson Snr and our five boats and most of our gear over Kakapo Saddle and another three trips saw the rest of us (Tim Densem, Ian Russell, Greg Landreth and Doug Rankin), safely by the river, and our support party, Tui Elliot, off down to Venus Hut with the bulk of our gear, so we could paddle empty boats in the upper section. The chopper was then to go on to the Roaring Lion Hut with a food drop.
The only problem then was the lack of water. The area hadn't seen rain for weeks, the bush was dry and the river was worse. Thank God for plastic boats. We variously banged, scraped and dropped our way down the upper river, portaging Orbit Creek rapid and the latter section of the dam below Moonshine Lake because there wasn't enough water. 4 1/2 hours later we arrived down at Venus Hut with a few new dints on the plastic boats, a few on the nerves and a suspect paddle shaft.
Next morning dawned with rain in the air. It soon appeared! The chopper pilot flew over to check that the number of boats was the same and that it looked as though he might see us again to get paid. We stuffed the gear into our boats, said our fond farewells to Tui and dropped straight into a section of reasonably tight, steep boating. We bombed most of the drops, stopped to look at one steep one, just below the confluence of the Saturn, and generally managed to enjoy curselves. Just above the Crow, Greg checked out how easy it was to get jammed across some rocks and succeeded but no harm done. After another big limestone-chocked rapid above Slippery Creek, which we variously boated and walked, we made it to the Bend after four hours of boating, the weather still somewhat inclement.
In the poor weather, hut-hopping proved excellent. There are surprisingly few good campsites in some stretches of the river, especially from the Bend down. After lunch and drying out gear, Murray spent the afternoon repairing his broken paddle blade while Tim and I walked down to the first dam outlet to do some fishing. Caught one trout and realised that we were going to be able to boat some of the dams after all. It rained on and off for the day and night. Did some eeling late evening with some others, and had rather greasy eel for breakfast.
Next morning dawned, with showers 15 minutes after the troops took to the water. Boating the first dam, we encountered punchy water with some huge rocks in the river, but, providing you weren't swimmlng, it wasn't too hairy. We then hit the second lake and had a quiet paddle along still, black water with dark green bush mostly right to the water's edge. Bellbirds broke the silence every now and then and we occasionally disturbed pairs of paradise ducks. The next lake outlet was an impressive sight from the top, with the next lake starting about 400 metres away. But meanwhile, the river dropped 400ft through a boulder chocked path. Murray broke the ice with a clean run of the top section; followed by Ian who spun out on a rock halfway down and ended up negotiatiug a tricky bit of water backwards. The lower section uas tight rock dodging and shooting narrow channels while bouncing from rock to rock. Down the next lake to the next outlet.
This we recognised as "Rocky Ariki", so named by a party who travelled down the river last year. At the top it had an impressive slide about eight feet high... hard on the nerves but we made it through surprisingly easily. The rest of the rapid was reasonably straight forward. Next was another impressive flat-water paddle down to where the Roaring Lion joins the Karamea. All of these lakes have dead trees poking out of the water along their edges - remnants of the bush that was present before these lakes were formed in the big Murchison earthquake around 1929. We then paddled back up the Roaring Lion to the hut after having spent 2 1/2 hours on the water.
Snow Meyer was in residence - an old character who has spent much of his life in the area working in the forest service. He recalled numerous trips down the river, including Harry Litchwark's solo trip and John McKay's rafting trip from years ago.
That afternoon it poured so we stayed put. After a night's heavy rain, we left the Roaring Lion at 9.30a.m. and paddled down the rest of the lake in passing showers. The bird 1ife on the lake was tremendous, different varietles of duck and scaup. The side streams were all pouring into the lake and we turned our thoughts to the dam outlet, whlch we figured would be portage material. Holy Canoeists! It made the Mother Rapid on the Shotover look like a Sunday School picnic; the first section, not for the faint-hearted, comprised of a series of drops (up to ten feet), and chutes with sections of river pouring through rock sieves... not the best place to swim!
In the middle section, where things calmed down a bit, we crossed the river. The lower section was plain ugly, big drops with rocks in the bottom of some, pretty extreme boating. We walked for 11/2 hours, or should I say we struggled for that time the portaging was slow and difficult to say the least. Even the patented Densem/Russell boat-carrying technique couldn't handle the terrain. After the dam, we all realised the river had grown somewhat with the recent rain and the succeeding rapids all became very big and powerful. Going into stoppers became something to be avoided and then, when unavoidable, plenty of power was necessary to get through.
Some of the rapids had large, rolling, breaking waves well over head height that you couldn't spot until you were at the top of the preceding wave - then it was a few hasty prayers, a good breath and a deep paddle stroke. On a corner where the Ugly (charming names, some of these side creeks) joined the Karamea, there was a huge hole the size of a hut and for many of the rapids down the Grey's Hut, one travelled down the river sideways, moving backwards and forwards to avoid holes and rocks. At Ferris Creek, we stopped to look at another of the big known rapids - we paddled the top section with varying degrees of success. The big water continued down to Grey's Hut where, fortunately, Tui was standing on the bank waiting for us. The hut isn't at all obvious from the river, but was a welcome sight for five hyped, wet, weary bodies who had been on the go for 6 1/2 hours. Tui had stories of no real problems in the lower gorge, just big water with some big haystacks and holes but with enough room to avoid things.
Next day dawned beautifully fine, and the river had dropped about six inches overnight. Tui disappeared early to catch a few photos of us hoating some of the rapids in the gorge. We finally hit the water at 10.30a.m. and went straight into big, powerful water. Just above the junction of the Kakapo, Greg inspected the inslde of a big hole but got flushed out pretty quickly as did Tim in a similar rapid further downstream. We stopped and looked at some drops, including one where, after a quick look, a drop on the right looked okay. Tlm sailed down, stood on his tail in the drop but got pushed through; Greg ended up sitting on the face of the stopper, paddling hard for about twenty seconds trying to get off it, while the rest of us started looking for an alternative route. Needless to say, if you got it right, it was a bit easier, but, like some of us, when you got it wrong, you had to work hard to get down upright. We passed Tui and continued on down the river; much easier kayaking than walking.
All too soon, the ferocity of the rapids lessened and we all realised it was over - 4 1/2 days of amazing boating and country drew to a close with a sedate paddle down to the main road bridge. I think the smiles on everyone's faces said it all - one hell of a hoot. Our grateful thanks to Kay and Peter in Karamea and to Tui for moral support. For anyone interested in the trip, Terry Belcher in Karamea is outfitting his Hughes 300 with small frames for carrying two boats and gear and will be able to take two people as well. It is more economical flying from Karamea. Good luck and remember, it's definitely plastic boat country, not to be taken too lightly as parts of the river are untracked and the country is pretty rough to travel through on foot.