Old man river

Graham Charles describes a source-to-sea descent of the wild and scenic Buller river in a single day. This article appeared in NZ Canoeing, 03.1 (Autumn 2003).

It seemed like the obvious thing to do. The Buller from its source at Lake Rotoiti to the river mouth at Westport - but in a day and in one boat all the way? That's where the adventure lay.

I knew Mick Hopkinson had paddled from the Lake to the Iron Bridge in six hours during a huge flood but couldn't find out if anyone had ever done the whole thing in a day. Not that I really cared anyway - it looked a great trip and was perfect training prior to departing for Tierra del Fuego and our Adventure Philosophy expedition to sea-kayak 600km into the Chilean Fiords and then swap paddles for ice axes and traverse the Cordillera Darwin back to our start point.

A spur of the moment decision meant pre-warning potential paddling partners (yes, there were others keen to play) was out of the question. 'Off-the-couch' specialist Dave Ritchie was really the only choice available and he was as exhausted as I prior to beginning thanks to three days of gib-stopping and house-gutting. Fatigue is a great way to start because life can't get much worse. Jenn Bestwick supported us as chief cook, driver, backup videographer and motivator.

We unpacked the van on the shores of West Bay, Lake Rotoiti, December 18 at 5.45am. The early morning bird chorus was an excellent accompaniment to our first 'hard to swallow' muesli bar of the day. We slid into the calm lake waters at 6.20am and Dave nearly fell in straight away. It's lucky he's a fast learner.

Westport seemed a very long way away as we skimmed across the lake and rounded the corner at the birth of the Buller. We were ushered into the river channel like good friends into a home. That's how we felt. Between Dave and I we have been pleasured, entertained, humbled, frightened, awed and taught by the waters of the Buller for over 35 years and this journey was a mark of respect for this place and to hear the stories it had to tell along every inch of its path. Flows were up slightly in the upper river catchment - just enough to cover the rocks and make manouvering our Prijon Seayaks possible. Our main task was just to keep the boats running true and avoid getting spun sideways or caught on a rock.

Cruising the class II and III water in the upper section was a delight as we got the feel for the boats in whitewater and we managed the first 21km to Harley's Rock bridge in 1.5hrs. In no time at all we swept under the Gowan Bridge and entered the familiar territory of the Granity Creek section. A brief video stop at Granity and fun lines through the 'graveyard' we put rudders down and settled into the long haul as the old man river swung south-west towards Murchison.

4.5hrs and we made our fourth eddy-turn of the day into the Murchison Campground backwater and were met by a team of supporters and a plate of bacon-and-egg butties. A quick scoff and cup of soup and we were off again. Our apprehension towards the end of the first leg was mainly due to not eating enough and the lowish water in the upper section.

The rivers of the Four Rivers Plain joined forces to help us on our way and between them pumped up the volume considerably and our average speed crept back up as we straight-lined it to O'Sullivans Rapid. Fun waves, huge boils and whirlpools made the O'Sullivans section very fast and exciting. Ariki Falls was filled in but the narrow gorge immediately afterwards had sea kayak-sized whirlpools. I paddled past Dave up to his spray deck spinning around in one whirlpool - not bad in a 5-metre long sea kayak.

The section of river from Ariki Falls to the Lyell Creek put-in was a section of the river I had never seen in 22 years of paddling on the Buller. It is a scenically stunning section of the river and also contained the biggest hole/wave on the entire length of river much to our surprise as we cruised around the corner in complete relax mode.

In no time at all we zoomed by the Lyell Creek put-in and fair flew down the earthquake lake. All the known rapids in the Lyell section were big but very straight-forward and at 3.30pm we made our 7th eddy-turn at the Iron Bridge. More bacon butties, a welcome stretch, change of clothes (we paddled the rest in t-shirts, caps and sun glasses) and grabbing a head torch (just in case) we pushed off for the final 62km down to Westport.

The Buller is a huge, wide river in its lower section. Far more so than either Dave and I had realised despite numerous trips alongside it in a vehicle. Like the famous song 'that old man river just keeps rolling along' and we went with it. Still averaging about 11-12kph we paddled through beautiful sub-gorges, past amazingly sorted river stones and verdant, green forest. Our silvery highway was happy to play as we followed it towards the setting sun.

By this stage we were both hypnotically happy with our journey and our paddles seemed to turn without much effort at all. Besides a numb bum we were in fine form. In no time at all, it seemed, the Westport Bridge appeared around a corner. We stopped briefly to film the finishing sequence and then cruised the final couple of kilometres through the port and out past the tip heads at the mouth of the Buller. The moon was full, the sea was inky calm and the last vestiges of the purple hour of sunset filled the sky as we introduced ourselves and our friend the Buller River to the Tasman Sea.

We made an easy landing on the beach and finally climbed out of our kayaks for the last time 15.5hrs and 156km after climbing in them for the first time. Jenn met us on the beach with the perfect accoutrement for any West Coast adventure - a cold Monteiths ale. It doesn't get any better.

The Buller River is the longest undammed section of river in the country. It is a magnificent river in its entire length and is a true jewel in the crown of Aoteoroa. Dave and I were truly honoured to have been able to explore and travel its length and go through its growth states from small bubbling river to powerful and majestic in the middle section and to finish with true class and vastness as it settles into the final leg to the sea. It is a fantastic journey, regardless of how long or short you might choose to do it.

I go to the river to soothe my mind
To ponder over those crazy days in my life
To sit and watch the river flow
(Natalie Merchant, Where I Go)