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An Adventure on the Oparara river


A bout of thunderstorms on the West Coast sparked a sense of anticipation deep within me. I was keen to challenge myself to some serious white water as recovery from a 16-month-prior injury had healed well and the lust for adrenaline was ever growing within. Having negotiated a successful descent down the Oparara River last December (then measuring the lowest recommended level) I was anxious to do a repeat adventure and the prospect of high water presented a good challenge.

Adventure on the Oparara

Album: Adventure on the Oparara

An adventure on the Oparara.

(5 images)

Barry and Lane were taking a 3-day holiday in Karamea with Pat and May accompanying them, so naturally I insisted they take their kayaks. Upon arrival to Karamea's Last Resort my immediate attention was to the omission of roof racks and kayak from Barry's car. Pat had his Huck and thank god you did mate!

Brett had joined me in Christchurch for a quick 2-day trip to Karamea, arriving there on Saturday evening to the continuous rain and thunderstorms. The forecast had been promising a break in the weather with showers over the weekend so I assumed the water levels would recede' but this was later proven to be a mistaken judgement. Never assume with the weather!

Sunday; after checking the level at the take-out I advised Pat not to paddle and he seemed content so Brett borrowed his Huck and we drove to the Oparara Arch put-in with Barry and Lane. Lane insisted coming along for the drive, as she couldn't resist a shuttle run' even as a passenger. The following are a series of omens we paid heed to on our way to the river:

Omen 1: only a couple of corners along we came upon a tree across the road, which was promptly cleared on one side for us to pass.
Omen 2: we were briefly delayed when a herd of cows crossed the road, which ultimately gave us time to contemplate the situation we were about to put ourselves in.
Omen 3: Lane was intrigued with the ferocity of the ocean breaking on the beach, overlooking the dead cow in the middle of the paddock in the foreground.
Omen 4: there was debris for Africa all over the road on the way to the put-in but no more obstacles would obstruct our route.
Omen 5: I suppose you could say was the river itself. The water level at the put-in measured about 5cm above the highest level recommended in the guidebook, but it was not coloured and I was confident all rapids could be portaged if need be.

We were aware of our passing omens but blissfully ignored them, so Brett and I set off on our adventure with kit in tow. Energy food and drink, extra clothing, survival kit, first aid kit, strobe, torch, thermal heat packs, hot milo thermos, throw-lines, slings, carabiners; we seemed well equipped. Oh, and of course the most crucial accessory - cameras. Barry ran down to the Gates of Moria to photograph us paddling through it and then we were on our own.

The first rapid was portaged, as there was a log at head-height just as you went over the lip of the drop and there was a hole below the log which you had to punch through. I'm sure with a bit of bravado we could have managed, but neither were interested in taking the risk so early on in the trip and there was more to running the rapid then first conceived. A couple more interesting blind drops that required a bit of frantic paddling and edge-of-your-seat boat scouting but were ok, and then some very cool class V was upon us.

The real adventure began as we were standing on rocks scouting one of the more serious rapids when suddenly Brett's boat slipped off the rocks and floated down the rapid on its own to be last seen going around a corner, over another drop and out of sight. Oh my god! "Kerry, chase the boat!" yells Brett, "I'll climb up and run through the bush!" Hell what a state!

I quickly scrambled around the rocks to put in below the rapid we had scouted and paddled around a relatively flat corner, only to be bluffed out with a horizon of white, thrashing water below me and no evident line through it. So I scrambled up the cliff and tied my boat to a line, then climbed for all I was worth with boat in tow far below me.

I immediately met up with Brett to find we were in a boxed canyon... no way out so back to the river. This is where we departed: Brett climbed a slippery rock face to the bushline and along a narrow ledge that permitted his escape from the canyon. I hopped into my kayak, took some deep breaths, splashed water on my face then crossed my fingers, said a quick prayer and went hell-for-leather over foaming brown and white water to disappear down the next rapid.

Episode One: Brett's 'death-march', by Brett Miller

It was a dark and stormy night at the last resort; I had never seen rain fall so hard in my life and I have been to some very wet places before! Kerry and I had what you might call 'a wee adventure' and Americans would call 'a Betan death-march' or in this case the 'Oparara death-march'. Yes, we ignored all the warning signs: trees across the road, cows impeding our forward movement, the band Entrance playing the Bee Gee's favourite 'Staying Alive' but who cared, we were going boating and neither hell nor high water was going to stop us.

My death-march began after the boat I borrowed from Pat went on autopilot down the river without me! And I did go and lose my camera again ('son of a b****!') But this time I defiantly knew my camera wasn't coming back! At that point I imagined $2,000 flying out of my wallet (compensation for Pat's boat so he wouldn't kick the living s*** out of me). So I decided, as any ignorant American would, saying 'Gee that sucks, I guess Kerry you should look for the boat and I will begin my Betan death-march'.

Kerry thought that would be just fine and boated down. To make a long story short I 'tramped' through the densest jungle a boy who grew up in a pine forest had ever been in. ('S***!') The vines were thick as hell! I was expecting Tarzan to come swinging by on one of those things beating his chest crying 'me Tarzan' you screwed!'

The only time the 'tramp' became scary was where one minute I was walking on what I believed to be terra firma (but wasn't) and the next second the ground was giving way! And just as I got that really bad sinking feeling I landed on the shaft of my paddle with it under both arms and blades propped off the ground. God bless that heap-of-crap paddle for saving my life! I remember looking down and everything below was black as night, without sight of the bottom, and I thought 'Jesus! Bilateral open femur fractures are going to sting a bit'.

By now I imagined my wife would kick the s*** out of me for losing the camera a second time, which we had needed for our trip to the United States the following week. And for the thought she would see or hear Search & Rescue had been called out for some fool paddlers who got lost in the Karamea bush, and not to mention the six hour drive she would have to make to come over and pound me into the ground. So, I weighed up my options; just lie down and die peacefully from hypothermia or walk out in a tag-team effort that will collectively make my life worse than it was at that point; tough choice, so I walked.

Anyway after all the Indiana Jones escapades of falling in huge holes and swimming kilometers of flat water I happened upon Kerry's drybag full of snickers bars and energy drink floating in a calm patch of the river, which I promptly consumed. I then began mountain climbing again, taking one step up and sliding on my ass back down to the river, whichever came first.

I was happy when I came upon a marked track on the side of the river, knowing I could make it out safely from here. I began to run and run I did as fast as my little rubber booties would allow me!

Just 10 minutes of my Olympic cross-country sprint (and I testify I have not taken performance enhancing drugs), when I ran into Kerry and the $2,000 which took flight of my conscience earlier in the day. Kerry and I had our hugs (but we are not gay), told our stories and got our asses out of there minus one camera and throw line. What a great trip! I will never divulge that I saw Kerry cry because he got cold. There I said it!

Episode Two: Kerry's adventure continues after separating from Brett...

The first rapid proved insignificant, just a steep and fast blind drop with breaking waves at the bottom, but this lead directly into a cliff and tight rock garden which was all confined within canyon walls. I took the obvious line and eddied out where I could; in this case it was a cavern under the cliff. The most direct exit from this cavern was simply not an option; the cavern narrowed to the point of being undercut with the river feeding directly into it and there was a lot of whitewater spraying up over blind drops with narrow chutes leading into them. There was just no scope to permit any quick reaction, so I did one of the fastest ferry-glides of my life into a turbulent whirlpool then dropped over a blind ledge which submerged me and boat all! That got the old ticker pumping!

Every subsequent rapid after that seemed a little easier and a lot of flat stretches gave me relief to the thought of tackling hard rapids on my own. I was certainly experiencing the adrenaline I had wished for... though not by calculated choice but more with a sense of necessity and haste. The Narrows, the next significant rapid, just looked evil. It consisted of about a 2m wide chasm where the river banked up and dropped into a massive hole with a huge tree protruding out of it. I portaged over the cliff.

Further down I came across the 4m waterfall made infamous in Graham Charles' first edition guidebook. It was so different to that image I care not to explain... except that I portaged the drop and had to launch into the bottom of it as the canyon was still boxing me in. And though I was on edge it seemed I had more adrenaline still to come!

The waterfall was flowing at such a level that the outflow created a surging boil against the canyon wall which would rise and fall at random to more than a metre high and then feed directly back into the waterfall. I launched into this while the water was flat, as I had no other option, then prepared to brace as the surges rose to meet me... but trying to time my exit between the boils and waterfall proved elusive. I paddled hard into a boil as it was receding but my tail got sucked into the drag of the waterfall. I consequently found myself doing end-over-end between the waterfall and boils and every time I surfaced I'd see another boil forming. I thought I was going to be in there for a really' really long time.

It seemed an eternity to me between submerging, rolling, looping and cartwheeling, though from a spectator's point of view it probably wasn't very long at all. Eventually I managed to hang on to a deep brace and scull my way between the boils and the waterfall and slip through a narrow chute, which evidently permitted my escape from the certain doom I had imagined. Boy did I need a rest after that, if only to steady my quaking nerves!

Still edgy from the ordeal I arrived at the confluence of the first major tributary where I could see track markers on the left bank and decided then to cease chase of Brett's kayak. But once I stood up from my kayak and looked around, lo' and behold there was the hull of Pat's kayak perched upside-down amid a shallow rapid about 100m downstream - beckoning to me like a bright blue beacon. Elation overwhelmed me as I leapt out of my kayak and danced my way through the water toward the upturned kayak with arms flailing through the air and singing whoops of joy in the process!

Unfortunately in my state of euphoria I tripped a couple of times landing face splat in the water. And when I was mere metres from the kayak it decided to upright itself and float off down the next rapid... leaving me on my knees, arms raised, wailing 'NOOOOOOOOOoooooo'!' after it. It was a real struggle to get back to my kayak then I pursued downriver once more arriving at the runaway kayak a couple of corners later where it had lodged itself between two boulders. Thank goodness too because two more corners and the true brunt of the river would have embraced me!

I spent the next half hour hauling both kayaks to the top of a ridge using my throwline to pull them up, but I couldn't stop as my mind was constantly on Brett and his wellbeing. A quick recoup atop the ridge with some energy drink then I picked up my drybag containing survival kit and food supplements and raced off along a marked track in the direction I had last seen Brett.

I must have travelled only five minutes before we ran into each other! A good hug and a bit of tale swapping then we hiked back to the kayaks, had a break with more food and drink then spent the next hour on the track back to the car. God damn what an adventure! One I don't care to repeat, but will certainly acquire and retain wisdom from.

In hindsight the river was not outside our limits and all rapids had scope for negotiation (given a bit of courage in some cases), but due to unfortunate circumstances our situation became volatile and extremely risky. We persevered with an option we deemed most pertinent, given the uniqueness of our plight, and thankfully all turned out ok, with the loss of a camera, throwline and some very sore bodies as a reminder of our ordeal... and no Brett, I didn't have a wee cry... it was just raining a lot...

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