A Nevis River trip - Nevis say Nevis again

Ben Willems describes one of the earliest descents of the Nevis River, in a trip that pushed the team to their limits, as "an unforgettable experience." This article was originally published in NZ Canoeing & Rafting #40, 1989, p6-7.

It was mid-November, and what better thing to do after the exams then to 'seek and consume, the cheapest and the best tasting jug of raspberry and coke'. Off we set, four hardy young souls; Martin (Captain Marvel) Bell, Mike (the cool person) Parsons, Karl (I can't see a bus from 20 feet) Murton, and Ben (X.T.C) Willems. To take time out and relax from our hectic schedule of raspberry and coke stops, and from push-starting Mike's Ford Cortina (hereafter referred to as "The Bitch" [1]) we embarked upon some of the more challenging rivers of the deep south. This is an account of one such river - the Nevis.

For those of you who don't know where this river is, I'm not going to tell you! For those of you who don't really give a damn anyhow, being typically perverse, I'll tell you so that you can paddle without question the most difficult, technically demanding river that any of our group had paddled including New Zealand and overseas.

The river flows into the Kawarau just upstream from Citro├źn Rapid and empties the Nevis valley which lies parallel to, and directly behind the Remarkables near Queenstown. The Nevis valley is peculiar in that it gains most of its catchment in a shallow basin 1,000 metres high and then plummets through a narrow gorge-type-canyon and then as an outlet to the valley. A typical hanging valley.

None of us knew much about this river except that it existed, so before we left on the tour I shot off to the library and photocopied the necessary inch-to-the-mile maps. To my shock, horror and amazement, the section we planned to paddle dropped over 1,650ft (980m) over 10 miles (15km) and in one section dropped over 1,000ft in 4 miles while by comparison the Upper Waiau drops 50 feet per mile. So it's the kind of gradient that epics are made of - our trip was to be no exception. Fresh from paddling the Hooker, Shotover and Kawarau we toodled off to Queenstown to see if we could find out more information about the Nevis from the local rafters. One bloke of Kawarau Rafts was particularly hospitable offering beers [2] all around at his mansion at Lake Hayes as he told us it had never been successfully paddled from start to finish before except by a couple of Americans - even they broke 4 paddles between them and pretty much walked the bottom sections.

Undeterred by this (some people call it the lemming instinct!) off we set to camp at the Nevis Crossing, our get-in, so that we could have a clean get-away the following morning. Mike and Sarah camped with us that night, mainly to offer moral support, however I believe Sarah's motive was to try and prise out any canoe club gossip which I had become privy to - my lips were sealed of course (your secrets remained safe with me Mad Mac).

We talked over dinner of the potential horrors that lay in store for us the next day. Mike 'the cool person' decided to pull out and I was getting shit-scared myself. It was about this stage that I realised I should have listened to what my mother had told me [3]. That night we got things organised for an early start the next day. 'WO split paddles, 2 first aid kits, 3 throwbags (one each plus food and emergency blankets in case we couldn't complete the river in one day and had to bivvy out. We arranged with Mike Parsons to mountain bike to the halfway point (4-wheel drive was not possible) with two extra paddles.

By now you might have gathered that we were all a bit paranoid about breaking paddles. Walking out of the gorge would take more than a day and was nobodies idea of fun. Of course if Ian (Yogi Bear) Russell had come along on the trip our paranoia would have been justified (3 broken paddles in 10 minutes on 2 occasions is a pretty unbeatable record Ian!)

At 6.55am the next morning after eating our respective bowls of muesli [4] we slipped into our sleek hootmobiles (Dancers). ,The river was flowing at about l0 cumecs (about the size of the Ashley), the sun was rising and the water was cool and calm.

To save you all the stress of a climatic build up (nothing to do with the Greenhouse effect) which I had planned to write, I might as well tell you the calamity count now:

  • 2 dancers with seats wrenched out
  • 1 dancer with an 8 inch split in the tail (the committee knows all about this one);
  • 1 crooked paddle l damaged cockpit
  • 1 slightly bruised shoulder and one close shave, but that's the way Margy prefers it
  • 1 battered body
  • 1 battered ego to go with the aforementioned battered body.

Besides this the trip was accident free.

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Off we set, the first half hour or so of paddling was basically flat with 2 or 3 drops of 5-6 feet to break the monotony. Soon after though the river took on a more continuous rapid-pool-rapid-pool formation. The rapids extremely tight with a great deal of precision required. Breaking into eddies was becoming essential as we surveyed the next rapids from our boats. Although at this stage the rapids were only grade 3+ a missed eddy or missed paddle stroke would have been serious. The river slowly became more difficult, the drops were becoming larger (8-10 feet) and the pools at the bottom were becoming non-existent as the river took on a far more continuous nature.

Catching an eddy in the right place was as vital. Surveying the rapids from the bank was now the mode, progress was slow, stress levels were rising and I was beginning to wonder if it was going to get any more difficult. After another half hour or so we reached our first portage, 1 drop of about 15 feet into the guts of a huge boulder, spraying the water each side of the rock. Since none of us particularly enjoyed vertical pins, we decided portaging was a wise move (the portage itself was grade 6 - ask Karl).

More grade 4+ water continued, my confidence was growing and 10 foot drops were now commonplace. It was astounding the rate at which the river was dropping. It just kept going on and on and on and then I had a nasty encounter.

Being the last to paddle a drop, Karl and Martin in the eddy below, I found myself bracing hard and forward on the edge of a ravenous hole, going backwards. I was overcome by that sinking feeling that occurs when you know you're about to backwards loop. Having gained control after several loops (backwards and forwards all thrown in for good measure) I was bracing hard in the slot, not getting much air. My attempts at paddling out didn't work and as a last resort I popped the deck to sink out. This failed and I decided to get out of my boat. After a brave rescue by Karl I was pulled free from the hole, my boat still looping, only to flounder down the next drop of about 15 feet onto some rather nasty rocks. I clung to the bank, exhausted as I watched my paddle float down the next series of drops into oblivion.

Martin rescued my boat above, but Karl unable to eddie out after rescuing me did the drop backwards. It is here, of course, that the 8 inch split and ripped seat are obtained. Nothing that a fire can't fix though. Bruised and battered and only one and a half hours into the trip we assessed the situation, and had a really hot cup of tea.

It took me a while to gain my confidence back, especially with the split-paddle, but there really was no option but to continue on down. I found my paddle washed up in an eddie 10 minutes later.

By now the river had taken on a most serious nature. Reading the water, placing the paddle and timing were critical, cascade after cascade of grade 4-5 rapids were paddled with the odd grade 6 portage. And then came the steep section, about two miles of 'Gates of Haast' type water (basically death on a stick) [5]. After two long portages of about 2 hours and a bit more paddling we came to our arranged rendezvous place with Mike who was nowhere to be seen.

We had lunch, the river was getting easier - grade 3 with the odd grade 4, it was on one of those grade 4's that Martin, tired from leading most of the way and so far the only person not to get a casualty, took a nasty knock to the boat, shoulder and close shave on the chin (literally) by hitting a submerged rock whilst upside down. Not the best place to practise your rolling skills!

After 9 hours we emerged on the Kawarau, elated and relieved. As we munched on our Moros waiting for Mike to find us, comments such as "amazing", "neo-cosmic", "truly awesome" and "gosh I've got a sore shoulder" were the order of the day.

Without a doubt, this river is one of a kind in New Zealand - an unforgettable experience.

By the way, in case you're wondering, T.H.C. in Milford Sound has the cheapest raspberry and coke in the South, at $2.00 a jug, which included a newspaper thrown in for free.

Happy Hooting - X.T.C.


  1. Those who feel more comfortable may substitute 'bastard' where the word 'bitch' appears.
  2. We would have preferred raspberry and coke. but beer is better than a kick in the face. This depends entirely of course on the kind of footwear the kicker is wearing - jandals, sandshoes, steel-capped boots, crampons etc.
  3. To make out a will.
  4. Let me point out here that I really hate muesli, and feel it severely affected my performance on the day.
  5. This section of the river was really mind-boggling, amazing - quite unbelievable.