Mōkihinui, Mōkihinui, Mōkihinui, Mōkihinui, Eh

Mick Hopkinson tells it like it is, describing a mathematical weekend on the Mōkihinui. This article originally appears in NZ Canoeing 12.1.
Mick Hopkinson tells it like it is, describing a mathematical weekend on the Mōkihinui. This article originally appears in NZ Canoeing 12.1.

Just another trip down the Mōkihinui? No not really. It was supposed to be a staff training trip down Harwood’s Hole with a view to up-skilling the crew on how to abseil and jumar on heavy duty semi-industrial ropes and hardware, as opposed to dicing with death with throwropes and prussicks. However the weather intervened and it became apparent there was a high chance of being drowned in the siphons at the bottom of Harwood’s Hole. Since I had been nearly drowned once before down there I wasn’t that keen.

So the trip morphed into a two day affair on the Mōkihinui where we actually wanted it to rain! It rained really hard on the Sunday and the Mighty Buller was heading for 500 cumecs at Longford (and 5000 at the sea). A great day for kayaking but an average day for flying. So we flew on a sunny day: Monday. After much consultation with maps and Wayne, our pilot, we left a car at the Seddonville pub and drove to the western end of the Wangapeka. The carpark contained a mystery object… a car… a black car… a black car with roof racks and uprights… a black car with a kayak helmet and that indefinable interior chaos that shouted that it belonged to kayakers. Mystery kayakers? Who in their right mind would walk up the Wangapeka?

But we walked. Wayne lied to us. “See you in a small clearing about 200 metres upstream from the carpark” he lied. Obviously distance perspective is distorted from the air. However the rendezvous was met and the trip was on. I introduced the staff and mentioned that our boatslave Matt was interested in learning to fly helicopters on the off chance that Wayne might adopt him and show him a thing or two about cyclics and switches and dials. And such. Instead Matt got a homily on the perils of helicopter pilots and marriage. Apparently they don’t always make a good match!

A stunning blue sky flight over Kahurangi into the North Johnson and we were deposited next to the DOC (basic) but much loved hut. You should all start taking photographs of your favourite huts to show your grandkids. The huts won’t be around much longer. DOC workers no longer walk in to repair them. Instead they fly in to condemn them. (It’s a Cost Benefit Analysis thing you know… cheaper to fly in and knock them down and fly all the bits out than to repair the chimney with six nails, a piece of tin and four kilos of compliance certificates).

But don’t lets get bitter. The North Johnson had water and we didn’t have to walk to the confluence. Well some of us did walk a bit! Daan ran the one class fiver upright for the first half and downright for the second half with just enough cringe factor to make portaging seem honourable.

Thereafter came the confluence with the North Branch of the Mōkihinui. A kaleidoscope of colours, deep blue sky, deep green bush, shining white granite and the water a strange milky colour like chang (the original organic beer… you can still see all the components in the sediment!)

A great flow on a great day that got greater as the tributaries did their bit and we were on a great granite river with gob-smacking granite boulders and rapids and it was in New Zealand, not California. For once we had the optimum flow, which is just less than epic. Epic on class IV is where you seriously think you could die after every rapid because the river almost ceases to be rapid (class IV) and pool (class 0) and starts running into rapid and rapid.

So the Blackball would rate as epic on a really wet day because one horizon line is very quickly followed by another horizon line in accelerating quick succession which is a verbal attempt at describing a complex mathematical sequence known as geometric progression. This is a big term that means that the river is sneaking up on you at a pace that you cannot comprehend because you keep leaving behind any random points where you used to be able to look at the plumbline on the beach and say “the river is coming up”. Geometric progression on class IV means you get scared witless before you have even realized that you should be scared witless. This has happened to me before on the Kākāpōtahi when a group of us were privileged to see a “flood event” from the inside.

None of this happened on the Mōkihinui. It was a seemless delight of eddy-hopping and boat-scouting particularly since we were being led by Daan and Shannon, both hot-to-trot after a season of dicing with similar but much harder rapids in California. It’s especially nice to be at the back and get lots of feedback from the first six paddlers before committing to the horizon lines.

Though as the day wore on the hydraulics did get bigger (probably only arithmetically not geometrically) and stickier. What an inane word for having your whole sense of control violently ripped from you by a surging mass of recirculating water! Hydraulics should be measured on the Richter scale for the physical force and on the thereiwasohshitshouldhavebeenthere scale for pseudo-psychoanalytical damage done to the kayakers ego. Ironically it’s where GoPros cease to show what’s really happening. A point-of-view shot from a head camera attached to a kayaker in a hydraulic can be achieved either by sticking said kayaker in a giant hydraulic or simply chucking the GoPro in the washing machine.

Eventually the river slows as does the vim and vigour of the day and we proceed on a slow cruise through the tall standing timber strangled by the earthquake lake at the confluence of the North and South Fork. The hut, so perfectly situated at the confluence that its bound to be condemned. The chimney flashing has fallen off. And since a new chimney flashing, flown in by helicopter will cost more than the original cost of the whole hut put together then it is doomed to die by CBA. After all what price can you put on seven tired but happy kayakers sitting around a blazing fire at the end of a perfect day in comfortably non compliant hut.

The toilet was even more non compliant! It had been built below water level, at least it had been built below geometrically progressing water levels. And there was the evidence: two inches of thick brown sediment on the toilet seat and a tide mark on the dwang! Putting two and two together (I was tired) it dawned on me why the walk from the river to the hut (200 metres) had turned into a muddy plod. The whole area at the confluence, hectares of it, had been under water. But not swiftly running water because the tall grass was still standing. The South Branch had completely backed up from the North Branch as the flood had tried to squeeze through the narrow gap cut into the rock band that announces the beginning of the Mōkihinui mainstem.

The next day it rained and in our absence without our permission the Mighty Buller shot back up to 550 cumecs at Longford (our Murchison plumbline) and we were off to Seddonville. But not a KAVU day. Much more a West Cost of New Zealand day. Dark, brooding, heavy with rain and presentiment. The river goes geometric on us! Da da da dah! No plumblines, just the water changing colour so that you have to keep reminding yourself it’s the same river you started out on earlier except it looks different and feels different and tastes different and its raining and you are surrounded by water. And for some reason its not shining white Cali granite. Its sandstones, siltstones and mudstones. Darkstones, dropped randomly into the river bed by endless earthquakes to form lots of “only class III white water". Except that its not white water its brown water and its geometricating (I think I made that word up… but you get the idea!)

But as the epic potential increases and the weather deteriorates so the gradient slackens and the difficulty eases, unless you consider paddling into a 30 knot gusting headwind difficult. We struggle across the rain-soaked paddock as the cocky rescues his cows (again) and get changed outside the pub. The coal fire is burning and yes we can buy a meal, on a Tuesday morning… in Seddonville! Two of the crew drive shuttle whilst we luxuriate in the heat and afterglow.

The pub owners are friendly. They have been there four years. They have never been “up the river”. There is a sign next to the bar that says, “The only true wilderness is between a Greenies ears”. Did the present owners put the sign up? Did they inherit it? Is it a reflection of local attitudes? What is a Greenie? (Most of the “Greenies” I know have PhDs!) Had the locals ever heard of Vajont? If you have never heard of it Google it and DO NOT buy a holiday home in Seddonville.

According to Dr Mark Mabin Senior Environmental Scientist for Meridian, “The Mōkihinui Hydro Project will have a less than minor effect on the landscape geomorphology of the Mōkihinui area. The total footprint (4.5 km2) represents only 0.4 % of the landscape area. The landform directly affected, the Mōkihinui River gorge, is a type well represented in the region. The dam and resulting lake will be features not unlike other landslide dammed lakes that are common in this area.”

Is there anything between his ears? Building a fucking great 80 metre high concrete dam and flooding 14 kilometres of gorgeous river and drowning over 450 hectares of West Coast Rainforest is a “less than minor effect”? He could get a job for DOC doing the business, CBA, on nice old huts. Maybe his dad worked in a concentration camp? “Arbeit Macht Frei.” Understatement probably runs in the family.

Me? I was floating down the Moki, chased by the storm, in a trance. I kept thinking that damming this place could only ever be justified as an absolute last resort. We had to need power so bloody badly that life as we know was about to cease to exist. We had to combine every last kilowatt of power on earth to fire up the rocket ship to get the survivors of the nuclear disaster off the dying planet. Maybe I was just hypothermic… But I kept thinking “How could they? How could anybody…?

P.S. The mystery car? The Rileyites walking into the Karamea! It geometriced on them to the tune of 2,300 cumecs. Time for a “less than minor effect” to take place on that river as well. Save those lunatics from themselves.