Adrenalin and anxiety were steadily rising and so was the volume of the river. We were half way through a full-on river trip, most of us had shat ourselves but we were feeling insanely happy. Then one hole thinks - right, lets do these plebs over.
Eight o'clock Saturday morning I'd phoned Donald Calder... four times to get him out of bed rather than let his answer phone kick in.
"It's been raining all night - lets go paddling". After the usual exhibition of "kayotic" disorder that precedes all epic paddling adventures, a congregation of eight paddlers pulled out their divining rods and headed for water. By the time we arrived at the get-in to the Mangorewa River (a tributary of the Kaituna) we were all amping - primed for a new river. This was only the second run of the river from the Pyes Pa Road get-in while in flood.
The torrent of tannin coloured water rushing down the channel with intense speed immediately got our adrenalin pumping. The river was shallow with micro-eddies pocketed down the banks and plenty of surfable stuff in the channel. Lots of fun until the first decent hole ate three boats at one time, heralding the start of the wide-eye syndrome.
About an hour into the trip we were at out first known portage, a four metre drop onto rocks with only micro-eddies above it and a grade five portage. We were soon back in our boats, it was still raining and we were still running rapids semi-blind with a lot of last second hole dodging.
The river got intense, big river-wide holes sucking harder than mum's vacuum cleaner, big waves, and the odd hell drop. Logan and I made a sweet boof move over a drop to land plush in an eddy that was feeding back into the drop. A boil coming off the bank provided a jailer; tense moments but no carnage.
I avoided another serious trashing thanks to Donald pushing me out of a big munchie hole I'd just managed to get myself into right in front of him. Thanks Donald. I didn't even realise you'd done it till you told me and I'm still wondering how the hell you did it. About this stage of the trip I began to realise my non-directional paddling style was a distinct disadvantage so took some advice and endeavoured to keep my nose pointing downstream, my paddle going hell for leather and my eyes wide open.
In between the rapids there was enough time to take in the astounding scenery. Thick native vegetation clinging to every surface that isn't vertical and shear rock faces plummeting into the river from tens of metres above.
Mike was leading the group, testing all the rapids and loving it until a pour-over got the better of him and again his deck popped (about the third time today) and he swam. I was sitting in one of those eddies from which it seems nearly impossible to get a good view downstream, so was oblivious to the carnage taking place at the bottom of the drop. Donald and Nikki had their share of trouble as well but I caught a glimpse of Rich styling on through, which is when I pulled out of my eddy and started charging on down with my new straight ahead fast attitude. Anyway, I didn't make it and I got the biggest working of my life.
My boat spent a long time going end over end at high speed refusing to let my head get above water, meanwhile I was refusing to get out. I was hit with some big pressure that plastered me onto the back deck. Soon after I was swimming. I still hadn't got a breath and spent a bit more time tumbling about before it felt like I was in slightly calmer water. I surfaced getting a quick breath and a split second view of what I was in.
Uncool. Heading straight back for the pour-over, I sank in the aerated water before I got there to be thrashed around some more. It occurred to me I'd have to go for the under-current to get out but I was hoping for another breath before making an attempt when I was grabbed by a sudden violent rush of water that took me deep. It tore at my limbs and pounded my body from every direction as if trying to extract every last bit of air I had in me.
I was in the pitch black under-current for what seemed like an implausible length of time but eventually came up and started swimming for the side. I saw Nikki chasing a boat/paddle/something down the river and called for help. She grabbed my shoulder but the current caught me again and I was off. My breathing was rapid and shallow so I couldn't get a decent lung full of air before heading down the next series of rapids. Bruce was staying with me on the surface and eventually got me to the side.
I stood on the bank recovering my breath - my brain was still fighting. I had nearly drown but death still felt a long way off, I was not about to give in to the river. Survival instinct had kicked in forcing a clear space through the haze of high speed confusion surrounding my brain and had focused my thoughts on staying alive. Mike had thought his swim was his last and when watching mine had thought it looked worse than his. Richard paddled up and started talking - he wanted to get me to the other side where I could walk along the bank. I responded slowly, waited a little longer to concentrate on getting my breathing rate to slow down then jumped on the back of his boat and crossed.
A few quick decisions were made about the rest of the trip. Most of the discussion was washing past me. Donald was soon gone to help Bruce with gear rescue and to make sure he didn't overshoot the midway get out. We were one boat and two paddles short. We estimated the midway get out wouldn't be too far downstream so Nikki and I started walking while the others eddy hopped alongside us.
The gorge sides turned vertical for a stretch. The others didn't have a chance to eddy out above this, and we got separated. Carrying on downstream looked too dodgy so we backtracked to where a small trickle cascaded down through the bush into the gorge. We worked our way up through thick steep bush with lots of slippery bits, thinking we were climbing right out of the gorge and that we were quite clever. This led us to a 30 metre vertical face. Not discouraged we tried traversing in both directions to find a ridge that might carry us out, but this too proved fruitless. Back to river level. I thought a ridge further upstream looked to go on a constant gradient to the top. We set up a more significant waterfall hoping to cross to the ridge at some stage on the way up.
We ended up staying with the waterfall as crossing to the ridge looked difficult, if not impossible. From nearer the bottom the waterfall route looked promising, it got a bit steeper near the top but it didn't end in a cliff like the last one. It looked to involve just a bit of low grade rock climbing, so we kept going. The view from below had been deceiving and the gradient increased continuously as we climbed. The rock was getting slippery and some technical climbing moves were required.
After doing a bit of climbing that our mothers shouldn't know about we were left with about ten metres to the top. It was a short near vertical climb that topped out on vegetation, the rock was slippery and the holds were sparse; we were faced with an impossible finish. We'd already pushed ourselves to the limits of our ability. We took risks that probably shouldn't have been taken. We were desperate, driven by a mutual unspoken desire to get out of the gorge. I'm not sure which motivation was greater, a will for self preservation (not spending a night in the bush in wet paddling gear) or chasing the dignity of self rescue. But now it seemed we were defeated.
Standing on a small rock ledge on steep slippery rock more than a hundred metres above the river that put us in this predicament, we were faced with the treacherous down climb. This left us short a couple of tow-lines and a few karabiners that had been used to get off the slippery rock and back into bush. Keeping to the side of the stream we descended cautiously, hoping there were no drop-offs hidden by scrub. Light was fading as we headed for the kayak where we knew we could bivi. Twilight was turning to black as we reached the kayak and we quickly collected as many fern leaves as possible to make a mattress.
Soon after it turned pitch black the novelty of the "surviving a night in the bush" concept wore off and the realities of the situation became apparent - this would be a challenge for our optimism. The small overhanging ledge provided some shelter from the falling rain but replaced it with an equal amount of heavy drips. The mattress was thin and the damp ground readily permeated its cold touch to thinly clad bits of our bodies that made contact with it. The ferns being used as our bush duvet were soon added to the mattress but with little effect. Life jackets were the best insulation, but they weren't big enough to cover much. Arms and legs on the ground soon became uncomfortably cold or just numb. The first few hours were in some ways the worst, getting familiar with our predicament, discovering the discomforts, what positions would keep us warmest and how long they would last until the cramp set in. The next three hours were a waiting game. Waiting for the half way mark so we'd be able to better gauge the limits of our endurance. It was still raining.
The pitch black turned to a very dull luminescence but not quite enough light to read my watch by. We talked, faded in and out of dreams together and kept regular checks on each other's condition, we seemed to get in sync. Changing positions had become a routine. Every time we got too numb to feel the cold or too cold for our minds to stay numb we'd move to a new position. Nikki, who I didn't know that well before the trip, proved to be great company and was good for morale so she made much of the ordeal easy to cope with when it could have proved difficult... even life threatening.
Huddled together, saying nothing for a while, I managed to ignore the discomforts for long enough to relax, I slowly slumped backwards till I was lying flat, I fell asleep. I have no idea how long for, but it was the only time in the thirteen hours of darkness I slept. It was dreamless. I woke suddenly into a powerful shiver. I'd stayed still for too long and the cold had started to sink its teeth in. It was the last official day of Autumn but we were lucky. The heavy cloud and the cyclonic weather coming in from the north meant the temperatures were relatively mild. We could have been a lot worse off, and if it were a week later when the southerlies arrived we would have been...
We talked of the others - generated scenarios of what probably happened after we were separated. We reassured ourselves with the thought of a helicopter thundering up the gorge at first light. Although we preferred the idea of finishing our adventure with a self rescue, we were imminently aware of the dangers this could present to us and the precarious situation it had already led us into. Although we had discussed the distinct possibility of the others rescuing us in a raft, this scenario seemed to get lost the next morning as our ears were repeatedly fooled into thinking we heard a helicopter. We found out later it was probably a local farmer who was out honing up his flying skills in a small plane.
With the first hint of light we sensed dawn but knew we had another hour or so till it would be light enough to do anything. The night had been long and we sat still and quiet for the first ten minutes of daylight as the realisation slowly permeated our minds that the night was finally over, we'd made it. We were hungry and cold but not frozen. If it was possible to walk or climb out of here we still had a good chance of doing it.
After another failed attempt at traversing the slopes higher up we resorted to following the river banks. The rain had stopped just before dawn and the river was dropping quickly. The banks were mossy and travelling along them was sometimes precarious. I was ever wary of the river knowing how such a little bit of water can suddenly seem so wet and black and chunderous when you're under its surface. By 10 o'clock we'd discovered we were trapped in a large alcove nestled in the side of the gorge. The upper perimeter of the alcove terminated in abrupt vertical faces. As we'd worked our way downstream the gorge sides slowly steepened and narrowed, sending the river into another chundering mess of rapids. Walking back upstream we were thinking surely they wouldn't leave us out for two nights, but never-the-less contemplating where and how to make a better bivi than last night's one.
Occasionally I'd take concentration from under foot to look ahead for the next obstacle. My eyes flashed up and were caught by Donald's illustrious black and orange helmet. I shouted to him then turned back to Nikki "it's Donald". I looked back to Donald as he asked "are you guys alright?". Both thumbs up, I replied "yeah, sweet as" with my first smile of the day. As I said this, I think the picture in front of me was permanently etched into my mind. Donald in his paddling gear seemed to be highlighted in vivid colours with a huge Donald grin spreading across his face. The backdrop was washed with dewy sunlight streaming into the gorge adding brilliance to the lush greens of the vegetation and a river that now seemed to gently cascade down its course with a musical ambience.
With the rescue team reassembled from their search of the gorge slopes, we rafted the short stretch remaining to the midway get out. Nikki and I decided being rescued by our friends was definitely better than being rescued by a helicopter. I sat on the edge of the raft eating muesli bars and drinking hot chocolate, which seemed to taste better than a Fat Dog Cafe hot chocolate even though it didn't have the marshmallows. I think the magnitude of an adventure is measurable by how good the food tastes at the end of it.
The weekend action wasn't restricted to the riverbanks though. While Logan was heading for the get out on the rescue mission, five little warriors in a stolen Morri van came flying around a bend and lost it wide into the front of his car. Two of the little buggers fell out the back and hit the road. Small consolation since they gave false details which left Logan with no car and no insurance. Even getting across farmland to the road was an adventure, thanks to the generosity of the farmer. He lent us his motocross bike to tow boats across paddocks and then took all seven of us (with boats) tractor riding up the last couple of km of farm track. To top the weekend off, while stopped for a bite to eat at a fun park, Chris was shown a bit of commercial operator camaraderie and got to have a blast around a do-it-yourself 4WD course.
Big lesson for the weekend was realising the importance of safety equipment and survival gear, especially on remote and unfamiliar rivers. By Sunday evening I felt profoundly aware of the brilliance of life, a unique feeling gained from having stood in the shadow of death.