First descent of Sargood's Weir on the Kawarau. Also mentions Nevis Bluff and Huka Falls. This article by Mick Hopkinson originally appeared in NZ Canoeing newsletter #19, October 1980.
Procrastination is the thief of time, as the old saying goes. How true! Course, I had my chance - who didn't; it's been there for years. I first saw it in November 1978 and fell deeply in hate with it on the spot. I'd been shown Huka Falls (which I thought was very nice - a bit noisy; but nice if you like waterfalls), I'd been pointed at Aratiatia - also very pretty. Deep blue water, very colourful. And always the inevitable question, "What do you think?" "About what?" I'd ask innocently, "About canoeing them". "Oh!" But logic always prevailed. In both instances the amount of pure luck involved far outweighed the skill necessary to make a successful attempt. Huka Falls could be attempted by either the fit, skilful, experienced paddler or by some equally determined suicidal geriatric patient: both would have an equal chance of coming out alive I thought.
But Nevis Bluff (and to a lesser extent, Sargoods Weir) there was a rapid - a real canoeists rapid - big, powerful, fast. A real test of skill, strength and determination, and furthermore the guide book had given it the ultimate accolade and said, "the rapid is NOT a feasible proposition." As a paddler whose team had dissipated the energy of its youth wandering round Europe with a German guide book - paddling all the V and VI for training and doing the X (for impossible!) stretches just to prove that they weren't - this was like a red rag to a bull. Though my interest in canoeing was on the wane, that old word was there, "impossible" and as far as I could see had mentally hamstrung a whole generation of New Zealand canoeists who had the ability but couldn't overcome their complete lack of confidence in themselves.
But I digress - I procrastinated didn't I? I saw Nevis Bluff twice - fortunately both times with the ultimate excuse - no canoe. But you can always produce excuses can't you: too hot, too cold, too wet, see later... And it wasn't until January this year that we finally arrived at the Kawarau with canoes - having been flushed out of Aspiring National Park with the rest of the flood detritus. We saw it on Thursday, along with the Christchurch Club who were making their annual pligramage to worship at the Nevis Bluff shrine. Fine excuse - bloody freezing - huge flood - the second 100 year flood in two years? the papers said (I think!)
We were going home, but a chance fine day of sun lured us back and we paddled the Shotover and the raft trip on the Kawarau. The river had dropped by Saturday - tomorrow!
Anyway tomorrow came like it always does and we had a look. Perverse river - risen again. Decided to paddle Sargoods as a consolation prize. Didn't look too big from the road, 300ft up! There is an almost continuous stopper across the weir with a five to six foot break in the middle. Hit that and you're OK I said, then miss that big rock on the right and she'll be right. "Oh God - picking up the vernacular!" But enough. Hit the break OK, capsized in the boily bit - did the slowest roll in history - jibbered into the breakout on the left and stopped for a breath. Must be getting old! Only the easy bit left! Course it never is... big and bouncy - great fun if I'd had any adrenalin left...
Fortunately, I didn't read the guide book until later. Apparently the rapid is "at least Grade 5 plus or 6" and "ON NO ACCOUNT should the weir itself be shot" - tut! tut! I thought.
No it's definitely only a good piece of V(+) if you do it four days after "the second 100-year flood in two years" and if you only had a lowline slalom boat like I had - which leads us to procrastination again. Now I had a fine excuse for not doing Nevis - the water was very big and I needed a bigger canoe and besides, I was cold and wet, etcetera. Another day, I said.
Back to Nelson to bullshit about it... horror... I had procrastinated too long (by now you should have looked up this big word in the dictionary!). A chance for the best known descent thrown away - to whom? A youth, a stripling of eighteen - the bright light of Nelson Canoe Club, Chris Moody. Apparently Chris had smuggled himself into the Kupe Canoe Club South Island tour - they're a bit slow and didn't notice him till he demanded to paddle Nevis Bluff. Andy Martin reports that Chris got well down the main line of the rapid before a stopper took the end off his decrepit old boat. He was last seen by the bank support team rolling a canoe full of water - which apparently finally disintegrated and left him to swim the bottom end of the rapid.
No doubt people will split hairs about whether Chris did it or not, but to my mind that is immaterial. The point is he obviously had the skill, courage and determination to try and with a better canoe would have arrived at the bottom of the rapid in a slightly more dignified manner. As it is he proved that a safe attempt could be made on Nevis Bluff and in doing so he has broken the biggest psychological barrier in New Zealand canoeing.
Still, Sargoods is only the second biggest rapid in the country.[Webmaster: In 1993, Sargood's Weir rapid was drowned beneath Lake Dunstan as part of the Clutha hydro development.]