Waikaia / Canton Bridge to Piano Flat, IV-V (P)
Central Southland is not renowned for its classic whitewater runs, perhaps due to their complete absence—at least that was the case until the 1994 discovery of the Waikaia gorges. Words and pictures have spread far and wide now and their reputation is as good as the rumour.
The Waikaia originates in the Garvie Ranges between Roxbourgh and Kingstown, and flows north-south onto the Southland Plains. The lower section between Post Office Creek and Piano Flat has long been used by the Southland Canoe Club and is a good but short class-II run with a handful of rapids, heaps of eddies, clear pools and nice scenery. To put in for this run, park at the small clearing 300m before the Post Office Creek bridge, then it’s a very short walk down to the river.
For a lot more river and as much excitement as you can handle, try the upper Waikaia. From the put in to Piano Flat takes between 3 and 7 hours. The river is characterised by plenty of rapids and short segments of flat water, all set within a deep, beautifully green (and slippery) gorge. The first rapid pretty much sets the scene for the rest of the trip. When things first start to gorge up, run a few small drops, catch the big eddy on the left, clear a few sticks out of the unlikely looking void, drop into the tunnel and prepare for some good honest air time. From here on the river drops at 40m/km with a huge variety of class IV-V rapids, including the classic ‘Waterfall of Death’ and ‘Spears Falls’. All the drops are runnable at varying flows, as well as scoutable and portagable—perfect!
Then, like a TV infomercial, just when you thought you’d had enough, ‘wait there’s more, for no extra money...’ head back to the Canton Bridge for the west branch of the Waikaia. One of the most exciting pieces of whitewater in the country, the only detraction being the 2-3 hour walk to the get to the put in. Dropping at 70m/km for 2 km, this STEEP run out-steeps the steepest on the Coast so far. It has countless drops, all big and clean, with not much space between them. Yet all are surprisingly runnable, portagable and scoutable. The river gradient eases significantly after the east branch confluence. From there to the take out at Canton Bridge takes about an hour. The entire trip takes about 5 hours with just above normal flow (0800mm) being ideal.
To get to Piano Flat from Queenstown: head towards Invercargill on SHW 6, turn left at Lumsden on SHW 94 to Riversdale, from here you turn left again onto the road signposted ‘Waikaia’. Do not cross the bridge at the Waikaia township, but continue straight ahead to Piano Flat Camp Ground. All sections of the river can be accessed by continuing along the same road.
To get to upper Waikaia: continue up the road for half an hour to the normally locked gate beside the DOC ‘Fragile Area’ sign at the top of the gorge rim. The road to this point is steep but most kayak wagons will get through, 4WD is not a prerequisite. From the gate, walk the 20 minutes down to the Canton Bridge and put in.