To the average motorist travelling on the Te Kuiti to New Plymouth highway the Mokau would appear just another sluggish river. To some of the original members of the N.Z.C.A. (1954) however, it will bring to mind many beautiful sights and many hair-raising thrills.
The river was explored in two stages. On the first occasion in December 1951, 12 members travelling in two large rubber dinghies, a diminutive one-man dinghy and a two-man folding canoe, pushed off below the tail rave of the Wairere Falls Power Station. They had travelled by truck from Te-Kuiti station late the night before but crawled from warm sleeping bags before sunrise to explore the nearby limestone caves before departing.
The first view of the 'river' which they hoped would carry them 60 miles to the coast, came as a shock until it was realised that the water was diverted through the power station. The tail race bore the boats downstream however, and all went well until an unusually smooth reach ended abruptly at a small waterfall. Consternation ensued as none of the partly had experienced this type of hazard before. A portage was decided on and the boats were carried past and reloaded in the pool below.
Rapids and falls then followed in a quick succession, a peculiar rock formation creating sharp ledges right across the river. The excitement of shooting foaming rapids, many dropping five to six feet at a time, must be experienced to be appreciated.
As confidence in the indestructibility of the rubber dinghies increased, bigger and bigger hurdles were tackled and portages were kept to a minimum. Rain which had been threatening now came down steadily and as they approached what would have proved to be the longest portage, three volunteers abandoned any hope of keeping dry and decided to take it on.
The resemblance to the Waikato's highest fall prompted its naming 'Little Huka'. The small dinghy was carefully lashed over the bow of the 12 foot craft. Three bedraggled volunteers crouched quivering in the stern. The photographic vultures hovered eagerly over their prey. " They're off!" The boat tipped stern foremost over the first rock fall. She swept towards the fall. "Turn her round!" But there was no chance now, the crew were too busy hanging on. Still stern first, she entered the foaming race, took the turn at the bottom, dropped over the narrow fall, boat and crew disappeared in the mass of foam, to pop up and relax in the mirror-like pool below.
The river had now become most attractive. Bush clad banks brought majestic tree ferns right to the water's edge, while in places towering rock cliffs added to the grandeur of the scene. Further downstream the main party were surprised to see the leading boat hauled out on the bolders in the shelter of an overhanging cliff. The river at this point appeared to be full of sharp blue-metal blocks which had gashed the boat's thin rubber floor. The billy was boiled to cheer the crew while the boat was dried over the fire before patching. Lunch and patching completed, we once more took to the boats only to discover an even larger cut in the big boat. A life jacket was pressed over the hole and the trip continued.
During the afternoon the Mokau-iti, a long awaited tributary, appeared ahead. The main stream, indeed, seemed the smaller as it shot down a rocky race towards a towering rock wall which turned both rivers' flow. Down rushed the big boat - thump! Stopped by the wall, its flexible bow, piled high with packs folded backwards neatly dropping the topmost pack upon the pile of bodies which found themselves precipitated upon the flooring.
A very pleasant campsite was chosen a short distance further down the now much larger river. Our visiting Australian student had no sleeping bag but he was used to curling up beside the fire in an immense great coat. The clouds cleared and the full moon shone brightly as we warmed ourselves around the campfire after enjoying a substantial meal.
Next morning, messengers were sent to the nearest farmhouse to divert the truck to Totoro Bridge. The weather did its best to make amends for the day before, the party basking in warm sunshine until the two returned, filled with tales of weird limestone caverns and impassable surges on the reach which the boats were about to enter.
The river was now more suitable for the canoe which had been carried more than paddled the day before. The placid reaches where reflections shone unbroken by rapids were not appreciated as the longer the reach, the steeper the rapid was which sparkled below it. The scenery became grander and crews lay sleepily under the scorching sun, dangling their feet in the water as they munched sandwiches for lunch.
Suddenly a scream broke the silence. The cause of this panic was displayed - a heel ringed deeply with red tooth marks. The victim pointed to where his half eaten sandwich floated on the water. An immense eel slowly disappeared, twisting back to the gloomy haunts from which the smell of meat had attracted it. It was fortunate that rubber was not one its favourite dishes.
Limestone cliffs now lifted above tall Rimu trees gracing the banks. Huge sculptured rocks lay at odd angles to the river bed. Next landmark was the Mangaotaki, a tributary entering on the right bank. Could that be it roaring around the next bend? The glassy river disappeared behind great limestone blocks. Approaching at ever increasing speed, we drew ashore to investigate.
The river tumbled between the blocks, no passage being wide enough to take the big boat. 25 yards beyond lay a sunlit pool into which flowed the Mangaotaki. It was necessary to drop some 20 feet to reach it.
The foldboat, with several stringers cracked by rocks, was dismantled and stowed aboard the 12 foot dinghy. This unfortunate craft was now not only carrying seven hefty adventurers together with their towering pile of packs but also 50% of the boats in which we had started the trip.
Limestone cliffs now rose sheer form the water's edge - their sculptured crests appearing like battlements and balconies high above. Several more portages were made where the whole river was blocked by great masses fallen form the cliffs above. It was at one of these that we overtook some fellow canoeists travelling in aluminium canoes, who, unknown to us, had left Wairere Falls two hours earlier than we did.
The setting sun threw weird shadows across the water as we neared the end of the gorge. We ground over a shallow rapid and there was the spidery suspension bridge. We had completed no more than 10 miles but excitement and magnificent scenery compensated the shortened run. All looked forward to completing the trip to the coast shortly.