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Solo on the Otoko

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"Less than three should never be..." this phrase echoing in my mind as another horizon comes into view with that familiar sound of cascading water drawing closer with each paddle stroke... What am I doing here? What possessed me to throw myself headlong into such an adventure? Kilometers from civilization, hours from hope of rescue, carrying limited resources, self-confidence dwindling with each hour... who would contemplate paddling a class V river on their own? And a river that has only been negotiated by kayak once or twice before, at that! Continued after images...

Upper Otoko descent

Album: Upper Otoko descent

A rare descent of the Upper Otoko River, West Coast.

(22 images)

Well I did, but it is only due to opportune circumstances presenting themselves to me that I ended up here... though in hindsight I don't think I would change very much. However, I do not endorse solo kayaking. No amount of skill or experience will ever substitute for the necessity of safety. In assessing a rapid for solo descent I made critical judgments based on their safe descent with the least risk involved. Only you as the paddler truly know your own ability and paddling alone you have to be as honest as you can to yourself about it. Safest bet, just don't do it! In my case I have benefited from solo kayaking with an increase in my self-confidence, technical abilities, knowledge of fluid dynamics and it has heightened my perceptive awareness for the sport, particularly in matters of safety.

One such experience I had is my solo descent of the Otoko river, an arterial tributary to the Paringa river, 70 kilometres south of Fox Glacier. Three years prior to this adventure I had hiked up the Otoko river with my kayak to Reynold's flat, some four hours from the road. This rewarded me with a short but exciting class IV run, yet I always vowed to return knowing that a hidden gem still lay in the upper reaches of this river. In December 2001 an opportunity arose to explore the uncharted Otoko valley as a reconnaissance run for future kayaking expeditions within this area. As an avid whitewater paddler it was difficult to refuse a free helicopter flight for a paddling descent, solo or not... so I accepted, and the adventure began.

Kayakers were scarce during December 2001 and January 2002 due to the unseasonably high levels of rainfall in South Westland. The region was under siege with storms falling back-to-back over a two month period, at times recording the highest levels in known history. Slips were falling into rivers and creating new rapids, forming unrunnable sieves and in some cases even preventing access to rivers. Paddlers were seeking refuge in the safer kayaking regions of Queenstown and Murchison whilst I remained in South Westland (Lake Paringa) to enjoy Christmas with family and friends. Frequent breaks in the rain tempted a spell of fine weather which ultimately fuelled my anticipation to paddle again. One evening over a glass of red wine with Barry Guise, conversation led to the planning of heli-adventures up local rivers between the areas of Fox Glacier to Milford. Most of the rivers here run as clear glacier-fed water and are set among some of the most remote and majestic landscapes this country has to offer - an absolute gem of a location for the pioneering whitewater kayaker. Topographical maps were spread on the floor and kayaking routes were established as Barry, an expert helicopter pilot, was familiar with the valleys over this vast area.

The day had come, 27 December 2001. A quick check of my resources; safety, rescue, first aid, food, water, emergency equipment, split paddle, spare thermals, flare, map, compass... all packed into drybags and stuffed into the rear of my kayak. A final arrangement was made with Barry to make a fly-over eight hours after drop-off in case of any delay. 8:45am saw us low-level contour flying in Barry's Robinson helicopter for an aerial reconnaissance of the Otoko river. Having been air-lifted up more than fifty rivers before this was definitely the most memorable. The helicopter was small, seating only two people. With kayak strapped to one skid, paddle firmly-held inside the cockpit with one blade out the door (where a door should have been but was absent due to Barry's profession in deer recovery), and the rotor's turbulence trying to wrench it from my grasp while I was frantically videoing the river below, this was indeed the most exciting helicopter flight of my life... and to think the river alone was going to get my blood going... not!

Just after 9:00am and I'm standing alone on Stag Flat on the shore of the Otoko river to self-video a kayaking epic. Suddenly the realization of this solo descent dawns on me... it is frightening. The helicopter is gone, not to return for over eight hours, the air is cool, clouds cover the mountain tops and sheer cliffs line the valley as a light drizzle begins to fall. Hesitation and doubt obscures my mind as I drag my kayak to the river. The water is very cold to the touch...

Rapids came thick and fast, only a few hundred metres from the put-in and it's already full-on class IV and V with them not easing up for at least 4 kilometres - time to switch on! Much of the run requires quick responses and confident boat-scouting in the few eddies that are available. Regular investigation of drops is done on foot to assess their lines. The first rapid (Surprise!) was a real surprise. It seemed to be an insignificant class III slalom around the rocks but to my horror disclosed a sieve just below the surface which completely blocked the river. The bulk of the river flows under a rock to resurface in a boil and continue through the slalom. It is very difficult to see this rock without spending a considerable time scouting so, due to my ignorance and haste for time, a close inspection of the nether-side of the rock was made... with a hand-roll in the following boils to recover and the luck of the Irish for my paddle to surface near my hands. I required a rest following this to ease my nerve and regain my senses, although it assured more caution was undertaken in the investigation of ensuing rapids.

Rapid #2 is a portage. It has a beautiful ramp which could make photo enthusiasts envious, however the river runs directly into a solid wall of rock with no easy means of escape. I could see no possible way of establishing a line through it although a high rainfall descent may present one. The next series of rapids are class IV with fast and technical lines, some requiring confident paddling to maneuver through. All very photogenic and good to go.

I believe every river possesses at least one gem that makes the effort worth going back for. The next rapid (Sweet!) has a small drop then ferry-glide lead-in to a 3m waterfall which has to be the gem of the Otoko. It is clean, blue, smooth, photogenic, of good height for boofing, posing, free-wheeling or simply running, and has an idyllic backdrop for that postcard image. Sweet! Unfortunately I could not set up the video to capture this drop due to constant rain, which subsequently rose the water level from this point and changed the hue of the water to a murky grey. The air temperature cooled down and a blanket of cool mist hung above the surface of the river - 'twas an eerie but surreal sight to behold.

Rapid #6 is a solid class IV+. It follows the waterfall and leads directly into tight slides around both edges of a large boulder. Tight lines and a bit of knuckle grazing but a real rush all the same. Rapid #7 (Twister) is another portage: a class VI drop which turns on itself in funky ways that I can't describe... something like a fluid twister - awesome hydraulics but with lots of sieves. Another class IV leads into another technical class V then a flat spell through a very short but scenic gorge. Two house-sized rocks (Twin Sisters) mark the gateway of this gorge as the river eases for a period.

The following rapid of significance is the crux and most formidable of all. It is sheer evil! A multi-terraced staircase with multiple lines through it, all unrunnable and dropping at a gradient that even legendary paddler Tao Berman wouldn't consider. This leads directly into constant class IV, IV+ and V rapids, each indeterminable as to where they start and finish. It is a solid rollercoaster to run and total commitment is imperative. Scouting them involved almost a kilometre of bush-bashing and having to memorize each line in sequence to enable a complete and successful descent. It was a truly hair-raising experience. Once through, the final rapid completed the hair-boating with the river weaving its way in a tight line through rocks that imitate a serpent's tail.

Finally I can relax... eight hours to travel only four kilometres, wow! A few minor class IV rapids easing into class III before the familiar sight of Reynold's Flat came into view. 5:00pm brought the distant sound of Barry's helicopter approaching to do the safety check (as I was now overdue and still had a two hour paddle out). Below Reynold's Flat is a small gorge which holds three significant class III to IV+ rapids. It is then a nice gentle float for 1.5 hours to the main road for much needed R&R.

The Otoko river flows between 10 and 20 cumecs in volume. It normally runs clear with a slight blue tinge due to the Otoko and McCardell glaciers feeding it. It is as remote and majestic as they come. The paddleable quality ranges from easy class IV to portages around at least two class VI rapids. It consists of a solid day's paddle and is only advisable for the very experienced. My solo descent took ten hours due to the scouting of each rapid and setting up the video to record it, while the descent led by Tony Ward-Holmes took 7.5 hours for a party of four confident paddlers.

The helicopter flight takes only ten minutes and the run is about 15km in length from the Stag Flat put-in to the Paringa River bridge on SH6, with a gradient of 40 metres per kilometre over the first four kilometres. The Otoko river is one that I will return to for it's sheer isolation, challenging rapids and photographic opportunities. It holds significant respect for me as it was my father's local hunting ground while he was in deer recovery from 1954 to the 1980's.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Barry Guise, an adventurous helicopter pilot, loving partner and doting dad, who tragically met his fate on January 14, 2002 whilst recovering wild thar from the headlands of the Cook river. He will be missed and remain in the memories of those who knew and loved him.

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