Adventure on the Upper Hokitika

Nic Thomas describes an eventful descent of the Upper Hokitika. This article originally appeared in NZ Canoeing 11.1.

Adventure can be found in many places. The measure of the adventure is in the minds of the participants and audience in turn. This January Paul Mason and I had something of an adventure on the Upper Hokitika.

The week had been a tumultuous one for the Wellington crew. Episodic heavy rain caused rivers to yo-yo, up and down, and with it the grades to rise and fall daily. High water resulted in considerable carnage on the Rees, and nearly scuppered a two day adventure on the Waitoto.

The storm that fueled the Waitoto pushed north and we followed. The tour was drawing to a close and there was an unvoiced expectation of ending on a high. The trick was to find a river to cater for everyone. We choose the Hokitika which has a harder upper section and a lower run suitable for the experienced intermediates amongst us. A few days without rain meant the rivers were dropping.

Paul and I would fly into the upper section while the rest of the crew paddled the lower. As we flew upstream, confidence and expectations of adventure mingled with a fear of the unknown and the remoteness of location. The valley sides closed in and steepened. The rapids swept into and out of short inescapable gorges. Impenetrable bush clung to the valley sides, punctuated by huge slips. Bruce flew low, allowing us limited scouting, and pointed out key rapids and new slips. Bruce's words reassured us: "Yeh. It's not that high.", he said. Twice!

Soon we were alone as the sound of the chopper faded into the rush of the river. This was a remote and inaccessible location, something we were continually reminded of as the day wore on.

Initially the run was easy, fast flowing class II. The water was very cold and grey with concentrated silt, sand and sediments. Our 'warm up' was like paddling through icy treacle in dense water, which made it hard going. Every eddy was worked for, every hydraulic hard hitting.

The first rapid was fast, heavy, read and run (IV) easing briefly before Viagra (V+/VI). A sneak line and 2m boof saved some portaging but the main line was definitely best left unrun.

A short paddle brought us to the entrance of the first gorge, normally portaged on the left. The portage was flooded. On the right was a 5m waterfall. After scouting both left and right, we decided that the easiest and safest option was to run the waterfall, a concentrated voluminous kettle spout with an unseen landing. With cool commitment Paul hucked the drop perfectly. A whoop and holler from below meant it was my turn.

It had been a while since I paddled at this level and I was a little intimidated by the flows and the exposure of the gorge. However, this is what class V paddling is about. Stepping up to the mark. I committed… well, at least to the break out!

Insufficient power and edging too close to a marker boulder caused the kayak to spin on the lead-in. Unable to correct my error, my keystroke was a reverse sweep followed closely by a reverse fold off of the falls. Winded, the sharp crack of my ribs was more than apparent as I rolled. I could sense that I was free from the fall but where? As it happened, I was trapped between a rock -undercut- and a hard place -the gorge walls. The roll was hindered by the aching ribs and the gorge wall but, thankfully, it was there.

"Get hard, stay hard". Commit. No room for error. With that in mind we portaged some of the drops below, including Mikey's waterfall. A bit of blind faith got us through the entry hole into the second gorge. The paddle eventually proved more appealing than the prospect of portaging up over slips and thrashing through bush.

More scouting and portaging followed with some easier but continuous rapids (III/IV) took us to the third and final gorge containing the fabled Gates of Argonath. Cautiously we scouted the entry rapid (V - perhaps harder), looking deep into the gorge at line after line of hydraulics disappearing out of sight; vertical, inescapable and unknown.

The decision to split was not taken lightly. Arguably, it is not the wisest of choices, certainly not a textbook decision but it was the one that was made. For my part I was tiring, I was not paddling as well as I would like and potentially had broken a rib or two. In contrast Paul, was paddling exceptionally well, rising too and reveling in the moment. He was willing and able to paddle the drop into the gorge, and if all went well down through the gates, he would return to help me with the portage.

The roar of the rapid was deafening. I watched as Paul meditated and centered himself on a large table topped boulder above the drop. He launched straight into the line in - no eddies, no second chances. His lead in was perfect: cool, calm and above all on line. Skirting a curler he gained the clean water for a textbook boof over and through the hole of the falls. Landing upright he paddled into the gorge. Flicked by a stopper, he rolled, a process that was repeated twice more. When he disappeared from view he was halfway through his third roll. I watched a good friend disappear into an inaccessible gorge. At the time the portage seemed like an easier option.

The slip that forms the entry rapid to the Gates of Argonath is steep, exceptionally loose, highly mobile and easily in excess of 200m vertical metres high. With extreme care I traversed across into a small side creak then pushed, pulled, dragged, roped and swore my kayak up the waterfalls and through the bush in the creek. It was becoming clear that this portage was no small undertaking.

Focusing, I thrashed on through the bush. The bush thrashed back. Scouting, I managed to find a route through a sideslip and past the gravel cliff that had been forcing me ever higher up the mountainside before traversing the steep return slope towards the sound of the running water and the river. I emerged in a steep, open gullied tributary with 2-3 cumecs of flow. It reminded me of some of the Welsh streams back home and I flirted with the idea of a first descent as I left my boat and followed it towards the Hokitika river.

Looking over the edge of a 30 metre waterfall into the Gates themselves, inspiration for a first descent deserted me. The waterfall occluded one half of the river whilst the other sumped under the boulders of the Gates itself. Thoughts returned to Paul and what had become of him in the gorge below. I could see downstream to steep near vertical bush, landslides and slips; impassable and quite frankly dangerous. Heavy-hearted, I returned to my kayak.

In the tributary there was no way downstream. Scouting upstream through the bush narrowed choices further. It was not yet getting dark but it was late and there was no sign, let alone likelihood, of anyone appearing through the bush. Strangely the bubbling and gurgling of the stream echoed like the distant blades of a helicopter.

The decision to stay put and overnight was the sensible choice. I was not in a position to make it out that night and it would have been risky to try. The probability of the lower Hokitika crew paddling out was high and they would be able to get help. In the open gully I was visible, in stark contrast to the invisibility that the bush offered if I chose to continue in the failing light.

The tributary contained freshwater and an abundance of dry wood. I had time to set camp and dry clothes. More importantly I needed time to rest and to collect my thoughts. Being prepared to overnight with spare clothes, food and a lighter made it a comfortable night - almost five star!

I awoke at first light and began scouting again. Upstream the valley walls of the tributary steepened into loosely consolidated gravel cliffs. Downstream, was just as impassable as before but the Hoki had dropped, a little. After each reconnaissance I returned to camp in the trib, rekindling the fire each time and adding ferns to make blue smoke.

Clouds started to gather so, with a dwindling supply of muesli-bars, I made the choice to invest my remaining energies in the walkout. Ditching the kayak and taking only what was necessary I began the trek. Paddles are awesome to wedge between trees and swing off. They make great walking sticks too. A map helps as does the ability to use it. Progress was remarkably quick. I made it to the get-in for the lower Hokitika much faster than expected. Further progress around the lower gorges was arduous but still much faster than expected.

The last kilometre of bush began with a perilous accent of another loose slip, I dubbed it 'The Slip of Death', mockingly. Two steps up, one step back. As I entered the bushline for the last time the thrumming of helicopter blades began to fill the valley. Rushing back to a small clearing atop the slip I could easily see the Solid Energy Rescue Helicopter scouting the river. They were flying slowly with all eyes on the river. I wasn't in the river. They flew by at eye level, less than a stones throw from me. I consider it rude to throw stones at rescue choppers, so I didn't.

I watched the helicopter fly slowly on and out of sight. The thrum of the engine faded and roar of the river returned. Surely they would spot my kayak. The fire may still be burning. They did. Gradually and reassuringly the thrum of the engine grew closer again, fading in and out as it searched side streams in adjacent valleys.

I climbed back down onto the scree of the slip to improve the contrast of my clothing against the background. On an ash grey slip the chances of being spotted in an orange cag must be a little higher. I waved as they came into view. They flew right by. Crap. On the return sweep I was spotted. And that is pretty much that. The rest is history.

Airlifted directly to Greymouth Hospital, extensive investigations could not confirm whether ribs were broken, cracked or bruised. Medical advice remains the same - don't do anything stupid, rest up and dose up on paracetamol and ibuprofen. Paul collected me from hospital. He had a very different journey. No less adventurous.

After he disappeared from sight he rolled in the turbulent currents running into the Gates. The gorge was blocked. As I had seen from overhead, the waterfall which fell into it blocked one line, the river flowed under the boulders of the Gates themselves blocking the other. Paul managed to eddy out above the Gates and climb steep slippery boulders below the waterfall. Hauling his kayak onto the boulders with a sling he managed to seal launch around the hazards and continue.

He sneaked the rapid below, despite eyeing up a juicy mainline which he begrudgingly, but sensibly, let go. Paul did hike up into the bush to try to meet me to assist with the portage. He found the same dense impenetrable bush that I found and wisely decided to paddle out and call in professional and aerial support.

Two days later Paul and I flew in to the Lower Hokitika put in, hiked back up to the camp above the Gates and retrieved my kayak. I owe Paul a huge debt of thanks, as that operation would have been impossible to complete alone.

And so ends the tale. There is much more to it; the emergency service response, the press response and indeed Paul's full story. This adventure made my first short kayak movie. But was it adventure or mis-adventure? Were we prepared or unprepared? A walk in the park or a storm in a teacup? I guess that is for you to decide.