Huka Falls: One of the last dreams

Greg Oke describes the first descent of Huka Falls.

For many years people have been looking and longing to conquer the awesome power and beauty of the Huka Falls. For many paddlers, "Huka" has seemed the ultimate challenge - the last remaining dream.

Times are changing it appears, with conquests of rivers thought impossible, the upper Rangitikei, the Motu, the Wairoa now conquered. All are now being challenged and beaten, no longer are the impossible dreams impossible.

First descent of Huka Falls

First descent of Huka Falls

(3 images)

For myself and Nick Kerkham, the Huka has always seemed possible; as for many other people. But conditions have always been different - water level, state of fitness and mind, and the factor of the Huka's awesome power, has always seemed to outwit the canoeist. Like many people in New Zealand my dream had always been to canoe the Huka Falls. I had envisaged it as a spectacle; T.V., jet boat rescue squads, spectators lining the banks, but this was not to be.

After a Full James weekend which had not been eventful on the paddling scene, Nick and I took the usual pilgrimage to the Huka on the way home. Never before had the conditions availed themselves. Two paddlers in a good state of fitness and mind, a brand new Olymp 6 boat and the correct water conditions - less than full flow, but not low.

After a first check of the rapid and falls, Nick posed the inevitable question, "Shall we do it?" "Yes," I said - committing myself to not only the biggest fall I had ever canoed, but to the Huka Falls. A very careful inspection of every inch of the falls took place.

It was just by chance that Evan Stubbs, President of the NZCA and Liz Godfrey, Secretary of the NZCA, happened to turn up to view the Falls. With a little deliberation, we decided one should canoe it while one waited at the bottom with a rope, just in case.

The canoeist, wearing two life jackets - one a Harishok life deck and another, a new Quality Kayaks life jacket - both of which had been tested that very weekend and proven more than satisfactory, crash helmet, paddle and paddle jacket, made his way to the top of the main rapid, leading up to the fall.

Nick was first and I eagerly waited for his spectacular arrival at the bottom of the falls. Many people, cameras cocked, lined the banks. Nick made his way with skill down the rapid, cutting in twice on his descent through the Pencil Sharpener.

Finally, over the falls he came while I waited, not 3 metres from his entry at the base of the fall. He resurfaced some 5-6 metres from his entry, all smiles - a great hoot to see him.

Next was my turn, using the same gear, except with my own paddles. I made my way to the top, quickly adjusting the footrest to fit. I entered the water, using a different line cutting in just under the bridge. The drops in the gorge are bigger when you are on the water. A can-out here would mean severe trouble. Just before the 12 metre drop at the end there lies a giant stopper wave of at least 2 metres in height, which is quite tricky to negotiate. After this there lies a stretch of relatively calm water before the drop. Three paddle strokes and over the fall. The water went clear and then jet black.

The boat, as in Nick's case, did a complete loop under the water and resurfaced about 7 metres downstream, rolling up to find Nick a mere metre away - bearing smiles and congratulations. For Nick and I, full concentration all the way; the ultimate challenge fulfilled.

Now we have done it, we have had many different reactions from as many people - mostly congratulatory but some not quite so. Some people have said that now some idiot will just go without the experience or fitness needed and kill themselves on the falls. I cannot see this myself. Canoeing is an individual sport - the choice is yours - and with the Huka there is a big decision to be made. I don't feel we will see it done every weekend as it still remains the same awesome size and power - the Huka Falls.

For Nick it's back to training for the European Cup and the World Champs in 1983. For me, back to Australia to University, to paddle on some lakes.

An experience not to be forgotten.