Extreme whitewater races on the rise

Guido Wassink laments the refusal of MRP to provide requested flows for Huka Falls.

So what's been happening around the paddling scene over summer? Well, the last couple of months have been particularly interesting. Between all the ongoing issues with power companies and hydro schemes (Arnold, Matiri and the Mokau River to name just a few), irate jet boaters, access disputes (Ngawaapurua rapids) and the relentless spread of Didymo, there were heaps of excellent paddling opportunities to be had. The sheer increase in Extreme River Races and the prospect of more in the pipeline is heartening and reflects the ever increasing popularity of the various whitewater disciplines. Events like the Wairoa Extreme Race, Andy Duff Memorial Kaituna Challenge (more on that later), BullerFest, Women on Whitewater, BlissFest and the Teva River Festival and competitive flavours like Big Air, Rafter Cross, tandem race, sledging and freestyle should keep everyone busy!

The first Huka Falls Extreme Race would have been a fact by now, if it weren't for Mighty River Power (MRP). Disappointingly, they decided to decline the flow request (50 cumecs) stating their perceived liability and interests in public safety as a prime concern. Hold on! Isn't Mighty River Power's business to generate electricity? It certainly shouldn't be to deprive others from recreating on a public resource - the same amenity that MRP makes use of.

This development is vaguely reminiscent of the Taupo Harbour Master, who attempted to exercise authority over kayakers back in the eighties. MRP may perceive the risk of such an activity to be high, but they are not experts in the field. There is plenty of evidence to show that an appropriately organised event on Huka Falls is in no way any more dangerous than other sections of rivers.

Twenty-five years on from when Greg Oke and Nick Kerkham plopped over the lip in fibreglass it has been paddled in every imaginable way at a variety of flows - from hand-paddling to tandem to wave wheeling. Huka Falls is no longer considered extremely difficult. Nowadays, there are numerous people with the skills to safely negotiate the falls as shown by the frequent descents. All-in-all kayakers have demonstrated that they are totally capable of making sound decisions on what they judge safe.

From a liability point of view there is ample precedent too - agencies like the Dept of Conservation approve events like adventure racing on land that they administer, without compromising their interests in public safety. Similarly, Transit and Motorsport NZ have never been deemed to set a bad example by promoting motorsport events that encourage speeding on public roads. Ski-field and helicopter businesses regularly stage extreme skiing events, again with no liability on their part.

Therefore it should be possible for such an event to be held without compromising someone's interests in public safety provided that a decent safety procedure and audited risk management plan is at hand. The onus should remain on the organiser and the competitors. This is aside from the fact that paddlers already use MRP's releases down Aratiatia rapids without their explicit consent. In the end it should remain up to the individual to decide what's safe and what's not.