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Buller WCO - Colin Leitch Evidence

The information following here is an extract of some of the evidence presented by Colin Leitch on behalf of the NZCA at the Buller Water Conservation Planning Tribunal Hearing. The NZCA is one of a number of organizations that is trying to get a National Water Conservation Order (similar to the USA Wild and Scenic designation) to protect the Buller river for kayaking. The Buller and its tributaries are seen as a good site for hydro electric power development. The NZCA called seven witnesses in Westport to give evidence on the kayaking amenity of the Buller river and our case lasted over a day.


2.1. This evidence is based on my personal use of the rivers in the catchment and on my observation of other canoeists use of the catchment. As a club instructor I often lead groups of paddlers with collective skill levels well below my own and as a recreational paddler I also join groups with skills equal to or superior to my own. Instruction trips are usually single day trips returning to Blenheim. For my own recreation I often camp in the area and participate in successive days of paddling, especially during long weekends and public holidays in the summer months. I have attempted to accurately describe the features which are valued by canoeists and the way they are used as at September 1994.

2.3. There is generally good road access to the rivers throughout the catchment and multiday paddling trips are typically based at one location, with day trips being made on particular sections of river and then returning to the same campsite each night. Often more than one section is paddled in a day.

2.4. The body of this evidence outlines each of the popular paddling sections which I am aware of, within the Buller Catchment. The schedule to the evidence provides a more detailed description of those features within each section which are valued by canoeists. A series of sketch maps have been produced to illustrate the areas under discussion. Sheet and grid references for DOSLI infomap series 260 have been included in the text, to aid accurate location of some of the features mentioned.

2.4. As quantitative measures of river flow are not readily available at the rivers edge they are not generally used by the majority of paddlers visiting the area. The river flow is instead described on a subjective scale as either: low, normal, high, or flood. Normal is taken as indicating an early summer flow with clear water . Flood indicates discoloured water and significant quantities of flotsam. High indicates an intermediate flow with clear or discoloured water and little or no flotsam carried downstream though a significant quantity may be found floating in eddies. Low flows are typically encountered in late summer and through the winter.

The Buller River

3.1 Source of the Buller (Map 2)

(Lake Rotoiti to Teetotal Creek N29 916383 Grade II and III). This section is popular when it is in high flow. It has high scenic value and presents continuous stretches of water of moderate difficulty making it a challenge to the lesser experienced and a pleasant diversion for the highly experienced. This section is further described in the schedule.

3.2 Teetotal Creek to the Howard River (M29 839438)

The section between Teetotal Creek and the Howard River is rarely paddled. The river runs between grassy banks through farm land. It is gently braided and runs over small shingle rapids with a Grade I difficulty, there are few whitewater features.While access to this section is not difficult it is inconvenient and the section is known to be a popular fishing area. This section contains no valued whitewater.

3.3 Howard River to the Gowan Bridge (M29 732437 Map 3 Grade I)

This section is more popular than the area above it and is used for instruction trips from time to time. Access to the river is easy, the rapids are small. Access to the river is also available at a gravel collection and storage area (M29 785452) above Kawatiri Junction and a rest area below the junction formerly sign posted as Keystone (M29 773449). This section contains no valued whitewater.

3.4 Gowan Bridge to Owen River (M29 642465 Map 3 Grade III)

This is the highly valued Granity section named for the large rapid at the confluence of Granity Creek. The overall difficulty of the section is Grade III but it contains a Grade IV rapid and many sections of Grade II water. There are many features on this section valued by canoeists. Those with commonly recognised names include Thumper, Granity and Two Mile Island. This section is valued for its large and technical rapids and many smaller features, these are detailed in the schedule.

3.5 Owen River to Murchison (Map 4)

This long section of consistent Grade II rapids has many access points and is usually broken into two very popular trips which take in more or less all of the section. Individual trips can be referred to by either the get in or the get out point and it is necessary to clarify this when in conversation. There are many distinct rapids none of which have popular names. The only named feature is The Submarine a distinctive rock formation beside the Matiri Valley Road. Trips ending at The Mangles confluence are often referred to as the Submarine Section. The entire section is highly valued, for its whitewater features which appeal to beginners and intermediate level paddlers, and its suitability for instruction trips. This section is further described in the schedule.

3.6 Murchison to O'sullivans Rapid (L29 456367)

The Buller is occasionally paddled between Murchison and O'Sullivans Rapid. The gradient is low the river is slow moving, rapids are small the river varies between broad and shallow, and still and deep. This section contains no valued whitewater.

3.7 O'Sullivans Rapid to Newton River (L29 403364) (Map 5)

This section is most often referred to as O'Sullivans after the SH6 bridge below the first rapid. The section has also been known as Sutherlands after the old bridge site upstream of the current one and is sometimes referred to as The Big Four after the four major rapids it contains: O'Sullivans, Whale Creek, Jet Boat and Ariki Falls. The usual get in is down a short track adjacent to SH6 about 1.5km upstream of the bridge. The usual get out point is above Ariki Falls using the look-out track. If the falls are paddled it is usual to climb a water course at the White Creek fault line look-out, though sometimes the Newton River Confluence is used. The O'Sullivans section is highly valued for its large rapids and the safe stretches of water which separate them. The turbulent flow in the narrow gorge below the Maruia confluence is valued for the experience it provides as a 'flood stage river' even at low flows. This section is further described in the schedule.

3.8 Newton River to Harry's Track (L29 353324)

(Grade I). This section is occasionally paddled. The gradient is slight and there are only a couple of small rapids before the river enters the Earthquake Lake. This section has little value as a white water resource. Native Beech forest grows to the rivers edge the scenic value is quite high. Though the road is quite near and can often be heard it can rarely be seen. There is a small little known rapid adjacent to Newton Flat which contains many small holes at low flow and seems to vary greatly with flows.

3.9 Harry's Track to the Iron Bridge (L29 296353)

(Map 6 Grade IV). This highly valued section can be confused with the Earthquake Section of The Matakitaki in conversation. Both are often simply referred to as The Earthquake Section. The Buller Earthquake is also known as The Lyell Section after a popular get out point. The usual get in for this section is known as Harrys Track. There is a popular get out point at Lyell Creek a second popular get out point is at the Iron Bridge . Access to the river at other points is difficult but it is not impossible to climb out of the gorge to the road with a kayak, this is only done in the event of an emergency. The entire section is through a narrow valley with the lower section being a deep sheer sided gorge. The sides are clothed in native bush. Little modification is evident. There are some signs of road making and high tension powerlines can be seen in a number of places These are all high up the valley wall. This section is valued for its scenery and most of all for its scale: the large volume, the large rapids, the high valley walls and tall cliffs. The Buller Earthquake section contains nine named rapids: One Night Stand, Whopper Stopper, Rodeo, Roller Coaster, Socksucker, Gunslinger, Popup Toaster and The Cauldron. This section is further described in the schedule.

3.10 Iron Bridge to the Sea

Below Iron Bridge the Buller flattens out and there is little white water. Historical accounts speak of rowing upstream as far as Inangahua and Lyell. This section is paddled for its scenic values.

The Tributaries

4.1 The Gowan River (Map 3)

(Grade II). The Gowan is usually paddled in its entirety, from the jetty at Lake Rotoroa to the Buller confluence. Paddlers may get out at the Gowan Bridge but often carry on down the Buller, through the Granity section. Access to the Gowan is also available at a bridge across it (M29 758400) about mid-way down. The Gowan runs swiftly through its entire length, there are few eddies or surfing waves. The river is shallow and below the mid-way bridge divides to flow around many tree covered islands. Paddlers need to be swift and decisive in order to identify the correct channel and take it. It is often recommended to follow a commercial raft to ensure a safe route is taken through the islands. The banks are predominantly lined with grass and Willow trees and the nature of the river is that of a rollercoaster ride. This river is valued for its continuous fast flow.

4.2 The Mangles River (Map 4)

(Grade II). The Mangles is paddled at high flows from the Blackwater River confluence (M29 597314) to the Buller confluence (M29 575353). It is generally narrow and runs between high earth banks and rocky bluffs. The rapids tend to be shallow and small. There are a number of rapids distinctly larger than the rest these, do not have popular names and would only rise above Grade II difficulty at high flood levels. The scenic value is high, the banks are densely tree lined on both sides for almost the entire length and there are few areas where it is possible to see out of the river bed to the surrounding farmland. It is most often paddled in high flows. The series of small waterfalls in Blackwater River at the road bridge are sometimes paddled at the start of this trip. The Mangles is valued as a safe trip for moderately experienced paddlers when the other sections within the catchment are in flood and as a relaxing scenic trip for the experienced.

4.3 The Matiri River (Map 4)

(Grade IV) The Matiri is paddled from near the end of two-wheel drive vehicle access on the right bank to a point down stream of the bridge where the road is very close to the river. At low flows the river is Grade II and the bottom rapid is generally considered too shallow to paddle, at low flows it is usual to get out at the bridge. The Matiri provides opportunities for instruction at low flows. The Matiri is most popular at high flows. The river is confined between high bluffs and the gradient is steep. There are many rapids close together with large holes and powerful eddy lines present. There is a large rapid below the bridge which requires inspection from the side before it is attempted. This is said to become Grade V during high floods. Because of the requirement for high flows the Matiri is not well known. The first section is a wide gorge with some shingle banks, there are many play spots against the right hand wall. Popups and whoopies can be performed here.

Below this the river widens slightly and surfing waves are present, soon the river narrows and becomes extremely confined, the water velocity increases markedly and the drops which punctuate the continuous rapid flow form river wide features which must be negotiated with care and speed. The river widens again and slows flowing under the Matiri Valley Road Bridge then plunges into the last rapid created by many large angular boulders apparently the remains of a substantial slip. The usual path through this rapid is to the left. There is a beach on the left bank which allows paddlers to inspect the top portion of the rapid and pick a route though the many waves to a small eddy on the left. This provides a second opportunity for scouting, to plan a route through the larger more threatening waves of the bottom section. There are other possible routes through the rapid also it is possible to portage the rapid. A vehicle track leads out to the road a short distance from the get out point. The Matiri is highly valued at high flows for its continuous and extremely swift water. It is held to be the most difficult and therefore the most challenging section of white water within the catchment. It is paddled by the highly experienced in preference to all other sections when in ideal conditions.

4.4 The Matakitaki River

4.4.1 The Matakitaki River top section (Map 7)

(Grade II & III) Horse Terrace to Six Mile Creek. There is a get in point above the Horse Terrace bridge ( M30 569105 ) which enables the very narrow gorge under the bridge to be paddled. Access to the river is also available at the Glenroy confluence, this is downstream of the narrow gorge. The top gorge is a valued white water resource at high flows. Below the short gorge there is a long section of Grade I water this is slow moving and gently braided with many shingle banks. There is a second much longer gorge below this. In recent years it has become popular to put in just above the start of the second, much longer, gorge. Trips starting here are referred to as the Middle section of the Matakitaki. Access to the get in is across farm land near the site of recent gold mining operations. There are two small shingle bank rapids before the river enters the gorge. In the gorge there are many small rapids created by large boulders and shingle banks. There are two distinctly larger rapids. The first a large hole near the right bank is a particularly valued play spot. At low flows it has significant holding power and is usually avoided but at higher flows it is an ideal place to side surf. This rapid is an attraction for intermediate level to experienced paddlers. Below this the second large rapid is a narrow chute against the outside of a right hand bend, there are a number of small stoppers and surfing waves. The usual get out point is across farmland on the river flats between the bottom of the second gorge and the Six Mile Creek confluence. The top of the gorge is lined with trees and the walls are an interesting variety of sedimentary layers. This section is valued for its scenery and for its white water which holds attractions for beginners and experienced paddlers.

4.4.2 The Matakitaki Earthquake Rapid (Map 4)

(Grade IV) Access to this short section is up the West Bank Road. The single long rapid is often paddled by its self with a get out point at a bend below the last set of rocks being used frequently, alternatively the SH6 bridge is used as a get out point. A massive slip, during the 1929 Murchison Earthquake, into the river bed has formed a natural earth dam and diverted a section of the river from its original course. Many large boulders in the present river bed create a long and technical rapid which has outstanding value to canoeists. There is a short flat section at the top with many eddies. There are a myriad of possible routes through this rock garden and there is great sport to be had in ferrying across currents to different eddies to work back upstream as far as possible. At higher flows there is a valued ender spot at the top near the right bank.

Below this short section the current divides to flow around a number of small islands. The usual route is to the right down a series of steep drops, this avoids routes which become shallow and choked with trees. This route leads around the edge of the slip and becomes slow moving. There are many rocks with eddies and small surfing waves. The route leads back toward the left hand valley wall where there is a short steep rapid with many protruding rocks and some very fast chutes. Below this is the largest and most difficult section a steep rapid runs straight down a section of river bed filled with many boulders left there by the slip. The majority of these are covered at normal flows creating a confusing succession of waves of different size and shape. Those rocks which protrude have small eddies which can be very difficult to catch.

At the bottom there is a large stopper which can not be avoided. Entering this wave sideways to the current or without enough speed usually results in the canoeist becoming stuck in the hole and being flipped, often more than once, before an exit can be made. The speed of the current decreases significantly at low flows and there are many more eddies which contribute to make the run easier. This section is popular with experienced paddlers at high flow but is rarely paddled in flood. Experienced and intermediate paddlers enjoy this rapid at normal flows. This rapid is highly valued for its level of difficulty, it provides a real test of ability in manoeuvring a boat quickly and accurately.

4.5 The Maruia River

4.5.1 Maruia River Shenandoah Section (Map 8)

(Grade II) From Warwick Junction (L30 455005) to Ruffe Creek (L30 440142) Access to the river is obtained either at the Boundary Road bridge or down the Warwick River from Creightons Road, the usual get out is at the confluence of the Maruia river and Ruffe Creek. Below the Warwick River SH65 turns away from the river and the road runs over the Shenandoah Saddle. The Maruia flows through a narrow gorge on the other side of Mount Rutland. From the Boundary Road bridge the river flows wide and shallow with occasional braids, there are many views down stream of the Victoria Range and up stream to the Spenser Range. There is a short area of river flats below the Warwick confluence and a few Willow trees as the river enters the gorge. The gradient through the gorge is mild and there are many small rapids, three distinctly larger rapids can reach Grade III difficulty.

The gorge is undeveloped. Hillsides clad in native beech forest descend to the riverbanks. There are mountains on both sides and bends in the river alternately reveal views of the peaks of the opposing ranges. Canoeists in the gorge must rely on their own abilities to get out again, it is not practical to consider carrying a boat out to the road. Low flows make this trip difficult as many of the rapids become unpleasantly shallow. Floods take it beyond the ability of many paddlers while increasing its attraction for the more experienced. This is a miniature wilderness trip, it allows paddlers of moderate ability to experience a river trip away from developed areas without the need to: spend a night out, overcome demanding rapids or to arrange an airlift into a truly remote area. This section is highly valued for its scenery and the aesthetic value of being away from the sight of civilization.

4.5.2 MARUIA FALLS (Map 5)

(Grade III). Get in at the top observation point, get out at the bottom observation point. The Maruia Falls are frequently paddled at low and normal flows. There is a degree of 'suck back' at the bottom, a surface current which tends to recirculate anything floating back into the waterfall, this increases at higher flows. At flood level timber floating in a large eddy on the left tends to be swept out under the falls and then recirculate back into the eddy. Increased spray from the base of the falls at high flow levels makes an evaluation of the currents at the bottom difficult and unreliable . An assessment of the suck back and the presence of flotsam at the bottom of the drop are the over riding assessments before a decision is made to paddle the drop. The Maruia Falls are a highly valued whitewater feature presenting an extreme challenge to the confidence of canoeists.

Unknown Areas

There are many areas within the catchment which are not currently popular paddling trips but remain as a resource for future exploration. Among these areas are the Deepdale River, Newton River, Owen River, upper sections of the Matiri, Matakitaki and Mangles to name a few. The upper section of the Owen has been paddled and has good vehicle access, it is said to be good at high flows. The Matiri was paddled from the lake around New Year 1994, it has been said that the flow was found to be insufficient at that time and the type of kayaks used not ideally suited, it is believed that a return trip is planned by members of the same party. Helicopters are becoming more widely used by canoeists for access to remote areas and may well be used in the near future to gain access to those areas of the catchment where there is no road access. All the major tributaries seem to offer potential beginner trips of grade I and II. I am not aware of these currently being used by paddlers.


The Buller catchment contains an array whitewater features not found in a similar local concentration anywhere else in the the country. Many of the paddling sections are highly valued for their natural scenery and wild flows. The size of the catchment ensures recreational opportunities are available to canoeists of all levels of ability at all natural flows. As personal skills improve individuals seek out higher flows to increase the challenge presented. The freedom to meet nature at anytime and on its own terms in this area is highly prized as are the opportunities for practise and instruction.

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