Karamea in flood

Deirdre Hiller and companions enjoy an adventurous descent of the Karamea river in flood. This article originally appeared in NZ Canoeing & Rafting #37, Winter 1986.

"Mid-January you want to paddle the Karamea? It's dry, not much fun at all," we were told. However, plans were already underway. Living in Nelson it is too easy to put off a trip to do something else and we weren't going to be put it off again

D-day dawned with rain in the Karamea, however the troops -Bevan Walker, Dave Tudor, Konrad and Deirdre Hiller were not disconcerted so preparations went ahead. We arrive at the pilot, Terry Belcher's, to find him screwing the canoe racks onto his helicopter: The rain was heavy and visibility bad, the crew began to hesitate a break in the clouds appeared and Terry was optimistic; we were off!

To our amazement that tiny Hughes 300 actually made it off the ground with Dave and Bevan's ton weight -fully laiden canoes. On returning to collect us Terry told of having to hunt for a hole in the clouds to clear the Kakapo Saddle and he had only [just] been able to make it back.

It was a strange feeling on the banks of the upper Karamea as we waved the chopper goodbye -there was only one way to get out now. After a quick round of scrog in the Trevor Carter Hut we set off in the drizzle to conquer the Karamea. There wasn't loads of water; but enough and spirits were high as we arrived at the first rapid. Caution prevailing we all got out to suss the situation -a tight 'S' bend with drops on both corners. Our first portage perhaps? No, Konrad is used to such small technical rivers back in Europe and negotiated the section without any problems. Hence the team followed suit. Luna Hut was spotted to the right and we continued on to the shallow and bouldery Orbit Creek Rapid. Konrad was in his element again and lead the way with rock supports and seal slides, portaging a short section in the middle. A few panic strokes proved useful for us New Zealanders.

The Karamea consists of a series of lakes formed from earthquake landslides. We reach the first one, Moonshine Lake, just as the mist was lifting. It was an eery feeling canoeing amongst the dead trees which had previously thrived on the river banks, the silence only broken by the plop, plop of the paddles. Some paradise ducks accompanied us, continually diving for safety and leaving behind a few feathers. Towards the end of the lake the river became audible again and a roar grew louder and louder. Time for another inspection. The river had grown and its powerfulness in the small gaps between the boulders that were only too numerous led to our first big portage through scub and over these huge boulders, we dragged, carried and dropped the boats. Plastic is fantastic, portaging is not. The second half of this rapid provided good canoeing.

Thor Hut saw four happy canoeists arrive, however it was already full of trampers. Despite offers of the wet floor, tents were pitched and the fishermen set off. Meanwhile veges were prepared. As unhappy fishermen returned we settled on a can of sardines instead. No substitute for those huge Karamea, trout we had seen in the shallow sandy pools though!

During the night the heavens opened -wow what a thunderstorm! The ground shook with the deafening cracks and it rained and rained and rained and RAINED. The result: Next morning the river was a dirty, brown, raging, torrent. However the sun came out making our hut day quite pleasant. You can't fish in a muddy river though, can you? Oh well, veges and rice for tea.

The river had dropped and we were off to an early start on the third day. What an excellent day's canoeing! There was never a boring moment -almost continuous rock- dodging and white water down to the Leslie and then lakes followed by exciting rapids.

We zoomed past Venus Hut too busy concentrating on the huge boulders to take much notice. As we were behind schedule rapids were inspected only by the 'long neck' technique. By lunch time we had already reached the Karamea Bend but more fun was to come. Another big-looking rapid... neck technique... survival... survival... boom... Dave got jammed. Nothing serious though and he had just disturbed a few trout having their afternoon nap. Then the river split in two. Bevan pulled out his rod while we did a recce. The canoeing was good, the fishing?

At the end of another lake the tops of the trees were visible below! Rocky Ariki -a drop of about two metres lay ahead. What a hoot! We would have done it again had the boats not been so heavy. Roaring Lion Hut was reached just in time to do some more fishing -huh! We're getting sick of veges and rice.

After another fishless breakfast we set off, knowing that the big meany was waiting for us at the end of the lake. Bevan feeling more than hassled was taking every opportunity to redeem his fishing career -he even started fishing from his canoe... and it worked and worked again- trout for tea at last, a good omen perhaps?

The thunder of the Roaring Lion rapid increased. It was definitely time to investigate, for all except Bevan who carried on fishing nonchalantly. The rapid consisted of several powerful drops and bends with boulders the size of houses. Taken individually they may have been possible, but one after the other...? We portaged the first third of the rapid on the left bank, canoed the middle section where a little meany forced two of us to roll, and portaged the rest on the right bank.

The next major rapid was at Ferris Creek. Here, led by Dave, we took the chicken route to the right and portaged the funnel drop at the end. No doubt it is canoeable but we were not ready to trust those boils and backwashes. The river was gaining power and volume from all the side creeks. There were still rocks to be dodged but one had less say in the matter. Bevan was seen to be doing tail-stands and pirouettes in a stopper. Terrified and excited I panicked past Dave who had succeeded in pulling in behind a rock. Konrad headed to the left for safety, only to find that it was far more difficult there. Fabulous water -what a buzz! The troops were on a high as we pulled into Greys Hut and ...trout for tea.

But then the rain came tumbling down, and down, and down. Again the Karamea was in flood and writhed in its bed like a restless snake. The sheer mass and speed of the water passing by was incredible. The beach where we had landed the day before had vanished. So another day was spent erecting and observing river level markers.

Day six dawned. Although the river had dropped about two metres it still looked threatening. Food supplies were dwindling. So near yet so far. The group weather forecasters predicted more rain ...the river would probably rise again. Would we have to spend another day or three in Greys Sandfly Hut? The Karamea Gorge lay ahead... "Let's go for it!"

The water was humongous. Every chicken route available was taken and when there wasn't one, we portaged. At the end of one rapid was the hugest, meanest, man-eatingest hole we'd ever seen! We didn't even throw logs in to see what they wouldn't do. Hearts shook with fear and trepidation. Onwards and outwards. Finally we emerged from the gorge -tired, satisfied, victorious and safe.