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Deep in the Wilds of Fiordland


Early on Waitangi Day we drove through the dawn gloom past lakes Te Anau, Manapouri and Monowai, and then through native mixed beech forest to Lake Hauroko. Be wary of any place with "hau" in it - hau means wind. Hauroko means 'howling of the wind', or similar. How prophetic this was to prove.


Album: Wairaurahiri

The remote and beautiful Wairaurahiri river.

(3 images)

The Wairaurahiri River drains Lake Hauroko, falling 185 metres in its 27km rush to the sea on the southernmost shores of the South Island. I remember Rahiri being the ancestor from whom all Ngapuhi descend. Since Ngapuhi are the people of the north, maybe this has nothing whatsoever to do with this river. A more literal meaning could be wai = stream; rau = many; rahiri = welcome. That's real comforting in a place that measures its annual rainfall in metres. Lake Hauroko is the deepest lake in New Zealand and one of the ten deepest lakes in the world. It is largely free of introduced species and the water is so dark that nothing grows below a few metres depth. This is pre-human Aotearoa.

The river is about 6km from the road end, and although we are keen, we're not that keen, so modern technology in the form of a tonne of aluminium, two V-8s and twin jets is a sensible option. Take us to the start and pick us up at the coast. $120. No worries.

"Do you see many kayakers on this river?" I asked.
"You're the first for a while."
Johan then proceeded to tell me of the island in the lake with a cave in which a Maori princess is interred. Her skeleton can be seen sitting in the gloom of the cave, cloaked in kakapo and kiwi skins, arms folded.

"The cave is tapu. Two kayakers paddled over there some years ago and were never seen again".
My confidence at paddling an unknown river was now at an all time high.

The five of us got busy - Geoff Price, Clarke (ex-president of the WWCC), Mark and Kath from Southland via the UK, and me. Twin V-8s burst into life, almost drowning out the sound of sandflies gathering in squadrons around us, and off we went on our big adventure.

We were dropped off at Rata Burn - a rather apt cross-cultural name for a river, where the river starts to become purposeful. And move it does, never relenting for 26km. Being lake-fed and having few side streams, the Wairaurahiri never really floods, so the banks are completely bush-covered, and eddies are scarcer than greenies at an ACT conference. Moss-covered trees overhang the river and the banks are littered with logs. The water is like Guiness. There are plenty of rapids, none more than class II, but higher flow would raise the bar in a few spots. The amazing feature is the gradient - it just keeps on keeping on. There are plenty of play waves and holes mostly in the middle third of the river where the bed is intruded by rather splendid geological stuff (ask Geoff, he's a geologist).

Look on a map of new Zealand and you will see that the Wairaurahiri River is about as remote a place as you can find in New Zealand. The river mouth is about 40km from the nearest road. On one side is Fiordland National Park and the other the Rowallan Forest. This is SILNA country. What is SILNA, I hear you cry? The South Island Landless Natives Act. The government, many years ago gave 'landless" (read 'dispossessed') Maori large tracts of land in Southland so that they could be economically independent. After about 140 years they are still trying to fathom out how you can do anything but clearfell these magnificent forests. Asset rich and cash poor. There is more than one side to the conservation debate. This forest is quite unlike Canterbury forests. The undergrowth of ferns and ferny planty things - you can see I spend my weekends kayaking not gardening - are head high and the trees, mainly silver beech and red beech are massive. Plesiosaurs lurk in the pools and moas roam amongst the ferns. Giant eagles soar overhead.

We passed Kaikokopu Stream ('eat kokopu', a native fish), the Waikakapo (kakapo stream), the Wairere (flying water), the Kaituna (eating eels), and the Francis Burn (incinerate animal loving Italian saints). Off the east was the hump-like shape of The Hump (1067m) - what a coincidence! Clarke and Geoff played in the waves and mainly drifted lazily on the conveyor belt to the sea. After about five hours we rounded a corner and there was the sound and sight of surf. These waves started life as wee ripples off the coast of Tasmania, and despite the rigours of 26km of paddling the team headed into the waves with abandon. Way off to the south one could see the misty outline of Stewart Island, and the steep craggy outline of Solander Island.

We were invited by a kindly gentleman into Waitutu Lodge to escape the sandflies. Maori believe that the gods placed sandflies in New Zealand to remind humans that this is indeed paradise, but we're not totally in charge. Waitutu Lodge was constructed mainly out of clear, plastic sheeting but to us it was a lodge with five stars. Dry clothes, a cup of tea and great yarns do a great finish to any paddling trip make. Then it was super shuttle time. There is nothing as nice as the sound of a V-8 idling. (Women, skip this bit.) Ah, but two V-8s, ecstacy! Then it's hang on, shut your eyes and trust in your gods, or in this case, Johan the jet boat guy.

"The other jet boat operator ran into a tree a couple of weeks ago. Wrote the boat off and had to be choppered out."
Silence from the passengers.

"The lake's cutting up a bit with the northerly."
That's nice.

You realise how far you've paddled when you take 45 minutes to go back up river with about 500 HP up your transom. Lake Hauroko was living up to its name. Water was smoking off the lake, which was a seething mass of whitecaps. The waves were up to two metres high and seemingly about a boat length apart. We got very damp and our spines are 50mm shorter.

The Wauraurahiri is not difficult, but it is a true wilderness experience. You are constantly aware that you are entirely dependent on technology and your own preparation and skills, and that of your companions. We are the luckiest people on the planet to be able to just turn up and enjoy a truly remote and wild place that has hardly changed since New Zealand broke away from Gondwanaland 80 million years ago.

I don't care if this river and the other rivers I haven't paddled in Southland are 700 km from home, I'm already planning my next trip.

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