Paddling whitewater in New Zealand

This article by Antonia Harmer originally appeared in Australian Whitewater, Winter 2001. An international team enjoys several weeks exploring the Buller and West Coast regions, kayaking on the Buller, Matakitaki, Wanganui, Taipo, Toaroha, Kakapotahi and Grey rivers.
Paddling whitewater in New Zealand

Album: Paddling whitewater in New Zealand

An international team tours Buller and West Coast rivers.
(5 images)

Roaring waterfalls, snow capped mountains, bloodthirsty sandflies, scenic gorges and truck-sized holes, is an excellent description of paddling in New Zealand.

Tonille Crombie originally from NZ gathered together a group of international expeditioners to conquer the many rivers of the south island in New Zealand. The team was made up of Andrew Moss (Canada), Gerd Schrodder (Germany), Sooty Love (NZ), Ruth Paterson (AUS), Antonia and James Harmer (AUS).

Tonille, Toni and James began their adventure by arriving at Christchurch airport on the 26th Jan with three kayaks and paddles, three sets of paddling and camping gear all balanced carefully on one trolley to the dismay of customs officials.

On the 27th Jan Andrew, Tonille, Toni and James travelled to Murchison, a paddling mecca 3 & 1/2 hours North West of Christchurch. Murchison is in the centre of the Buller Gorge Heritage area and is famous for its earthquakes in 1929 and 1968, which have significantly affected the topographic features in the area. Hundreds of paddlers descend on Murchison every summer to paddle the Buller River and its many tributaries, which offer trips for all levels of paddlers.

Ruth had spent the previous week brushing up on her whitewater skills with the New Zealand Kayak School located in Murchison.

Our first day on the river was spent warming up on the easier sections of the rivers with a trip down the middle Matakitaki River an easy class II section with an excellent play hole half way down. We were amazed by the aqua coloured water and the numerous pressure waves created by the high volume of water in the river.

At the end of this trip we came across our first adversity, having to make way through a paddock, past 20 horny bulls and over an electric fence and wading through a muddy swamp to get to our cars. Fortunately the bulls were too occupied to cause us any grief.

The second paddle of the day was a section called Doctors Creek, which is a scenic trip through a rain forest gorge on the Buller River.

We finished our first day paddling down the Lower Matakitaki Earthquake Run. This was a fantastic trip to end a great day. Toni's seal launch went horribly wrong with Toni high and dry and her boat floating downstream. Pride and a fingernail were the only casualties as she swum down the river to retrieve her boat before it went down the first rapids.

Technical manoeuvring through the rock gardens at the top of the section helped hone slalom skills that we needed to successfully paddle the West Coast. Halfway down the trip the river splits in two and when it rejoins, provides an excellent place to whoopee (tail stands).

This section ends with an exciting roller coaster ride through a class IV rapid finishing with large standing waves. James drew the short straw and was sent down as a probe once safe at the bottom the rest of the group followed finishing the day on a high.

We noticed that the Australian grading system of rapids seems to exaggerate the difficulty of rapids in comparison to New Zealand.

Day two on the river started with (quoting Tonille) "a wee walk up a mountain to view Lake Rotoroa". Once we recovered we headed to the Granity Creek run on the Buller River. This section proved to be a favourite as we paddled it twice whilst in Murchison. The water was again fantastically clear. After paddling the first few class II rapids we found a great recirculating eddy, which was great for whoopees and cartwheels. At Granity's Rapid, we got out of our boats on river right to scout the rapid. Luckily Tonille knew the rapid and was able to steer us away from the nasty hole down the middle and onto a forceful buffer wave that would see us clear the rapid nicely. Andrew felt the need for a challenge and for some reason or another chose to run the rapid backwards. We then spent a half-hour surfing a great wave at the bottom. A few things were learnt from this trip; ferry gliding is not easy while swimming and the international OK sign means hole in NZ!

When we returned to the campsite, Gerd was snoozing under a tree waiting for us and recovering from his epic journey from Germany, fighting off sandflies. Sooty Love also joined the party to celebrate the successful arrival of all team members, duty free vodka, kahlua, baileys, red wine and local beers were consumed in moderation after some games of cards. As Gerd starts a PHD at ANU this year we decided to give him an Australian nickname, "Gazza". A midnight swim was had in the cold river until the managers of the campsite asked us to be quiet.

A hangover cure was provided by Sooty, waffles with ice cream, chocolate sauce and maple syrup.

Paddling Day three had us choose the Buller River Earthquake section. Great scenery, boily eddy lines, huge pressure waves and volume of water provided excellent surfing and cartwheel spots. Sooty in his Luv machine was showing us how to carve up Lyell's Creek wave, where we all surfed up a storm!

Day four on the river was another section of the Buller, O'Sullivans to Ariki Falls another earthquake-affected section characterised by large boulders in the water and great eddy lines. The climax of this trip was the Jet Boat Rapid, which is run on river left avoiding a hole on the right and missing a mean recirculating eddy whose eddy line is about 3 metres wide. A rope has been placed in this eddy so that people can climb up a 10 metre rock wall because getting out has proved very difficult for previous paddlers.

Tonille ran the rapid first picking a great line down the tongue of the rapid. We were concerned with Andrew's line down the rapid, when he was briefly held in the hole, capsized and fortunately missing the nasty eddy. Andrew described the experience as "being churned up in a washing machine". Ruth and Toni chose the bushwalking alternative while James and Gazza survived the experience. We cooked lunch at the finish of the trip and then paddled the Lower Matakitaki section again!

After 10 days straight of paddling Ruth decided to have a break and take Christoph also from Germany for a flat water paddle on Lake Rotoroa while the rest of us paddled the Granity's section again. Gazza was the master of whoopees and James learnt to do cartwheels in the Luv machine. Andrew successfully paddled Granity's rapid forward while Toni chose to roll in the middle of it. The water had dropped and the wave below Granity's had disappeared. At the end of the trip we decided to practice throw bagging and other rescue techniques that hope fully we would not need on the challenging west coast rivers.

After paddling the lower Matakitaki for the third time, Tonille, Gazza and Christoph paddled the last 2kms of gravel races to finish at Beechwoods Café. It was Christophs first experience of whitewater, so he capsized a number of times. His patience was excellent as he managed to stay in his boat until Tonille and Gazza could upright him.

Andrew, Toni and James were enjoying a beer at the Murchison Pub when there was a knock at the window. We had forgotten that Gazza's dry clothes were in our car. Retrieving the key off us, Gazza in true paddling style undressed in the middle of town to the delight? of the locals.

The West Coast of New Zealand is quite different from Murchison. It has more rain and is surrounded by rainforests, glaciers and the Southern Alps. Due to the mountain ranges, the rivers on the West Coast are steeper and much more technical with less volume. Access is very difficult requiring helicopter or long walks to access put ins and take outs.

After researching the range of rivers on the West Coast that suited our group's ability, we decided to paddle the Wanganui River. The Wanganui River flows down from the Southern Alps and the only access to the put in point is via helicopter. Therefore the trip required a lot of preparation to ensure we had the correct rescue gear in case of misadventure.

On day six we headed to Hokitika, via the Maruia Hot Springs, where the group enjoyed a warm bath. Once we got used to the sulphur smell, the springs were very relaxing. We stopped in Greymouth to stock up on supplies, such as knives, food, emergency chocolate and baby air mattresses to give additional flotation to our kayaks.

We set off early at 5.30am on day seven, as we had arranged for a helicopter to pick us up on the banks of the Wanganui river at 8am. James and Tonille were the first passengers in the three person helicopter which looked like an overgrown sandfly. After strapping the kayaks to the helicopter, they asked the pilot, Bruce Dando, to fly low over the river so they could scout the rapids. The size of the rapids were deceiving from the helicopter, as the river looked quite low and easy to paddle from 30 metres in the air. The pilot scared James by landing on a cliff at the end of the trip. Toni and Ruth enjoyed the flight and scouted the hot springs which were 2km from the take out point.

The clouds on the surrounding mountains cleared for us to see majestic snow-capped mountains and glaciers. The river was a blue-milky colour, due to the glacial flour found in rivers of melted ice that flow off glaciers from the suspension of finely ground rocks. The river was also very cold!

The first few kilometres turned out to be relatively easy, the river flowing through gravel banks with large boulders and rapids up to class III. The NZ Whitewater guide book warned us about the class IV Slip rapid halfway down which we all chose to portage.

A domino effect almost occurred on one rapid. Ruth was being worked over in a particularly bad hole at the bottom of a drop. Tonille was so fascinated by her performance, she lapsed concentration and was forced to role just above the hole, narrowly escaping a similar fate to Ruth. After a couple of rolls in the hole and some impressive side surfing, Ruth pulled the pin and swam out of the rapid while her boat continued the acrobatic display for some time.

The Wanganui river provided some large standing waves, rocks and holes to contend with, before flattening out near the junction of another river which was the landmark for the hot springs. After a short walk, we came across the natural hot springs. Once adjusting to the hot water and removing the algae blooms, we relaxed while Andrew served the emergency chocolate. We were pleasantly surprised when we returned to our kayaks to discover that the sand of the beach had been warmed from the hot springs. The water in the eddy was also warm which made the transition from the warmth to the freezing waters of the Wanganui easier to bear.

We soon completed the trip and arrived at the cars, relieved that the trip had been injury free. After 6.5 hours on the river, the next stop was for ice-cream! That evening, we decided to wash all of our thermals, as wearing them for a week and swimming in hot springs had made them almost unbearable.

On day eight, James and Toni went sightseeing to Franz Joseph Glacier to avoid the excruciating one hour walk in to the Toaroha River. The others chose to paddle the trip, even though the water level was just slightly above the minimum. The river ran through a breathtaking gorge with ferns on the walls and required technical skills to keep the boat straight and to avoid getting pinned on one of the numerous rocks. Close to the take out point, we carefully scouted the last major rapid and decided to keep right of four rocks aligned in the centre-left part of the river. However, while Gerd was running the rapid, he was unable to distinguish the correct line and got pinned in a spectacular position with the tail of his boat halfway up the rock wall. Even though Andrew was prepared for a throw-bag rescue, he decided to delay the actual rescue for a photo of the victim!

The West Coast is renowned for its rain and day nine of our trip was no exception. We elected to do the Taipo River with a couple of other paddlers staying at our campsite. The Lower Taipo is an easy class II+ trip, but the put in was a class IV with only four-wheel-drive access and a 30 minute walk-in. The water was rising at an alarming rate due to the heavy rains, so most of the rapids were washed out, but there were still some great waves to surf. The trip was over within two hours and we all waited in the pouring rain for the car shuttle.

As we were soaked to the bone, the Regent Café in Hokitika seemed like a better place to spend the afternoon than our campsite. We played cards, read books, wrote postcards, drank bowls of moccacinos and ate scones and pizza. The coffee shop was part of the Regent Movie Theatre famous for its fifties décor, cheap prices and out-of-date movies. The Regent Café turned out to be quite a paddlers meeting place on the West Coast. Sooty Love rejoined the group at the pub that night, which is a regular stop for the Kiwi Experience Bus.

As it had been raining for three days, we assumed the Totara River would be a good level to paddle on day ten. This river is known for its technical and steep descent and contains tea-coloured water from the trees. Unfortunately, the river was too low and after Tonille was dangerously pinned at the top of a rocky rapid, the group decided to climb out. We put our rescue skills into practice for the second time that day, by climbing out a 15-meter embankment and lifting our boats to the top using throw bags.

As the morning trip had been a little disappointing, Sooty, Tonille and Gerd were still keen to explore another West Coast River. They were able to hook up with some experienced paddlers to conquer the Kakapotahi. This trip was the most exciting trip they had done with big drops, waterfalls and scenic gorges. Most of the trip was class IV and challenged each paddler to the limit. It was essential to hit the right line and every eddy to avoid disaster.

The Grey river was the last river we paddled. After enduring the two hour car shuttle, we were treated to some spectacular scenery. The river starts and finishes in farmland, but flows through the most beautiful scenic gorge in the middle of the trip. Cascading waterfalls tumble down all around you and the boils, swirling eddies, tree ferns and mossy covered walls creates a feeling of complete wilderness. We had a fun time floating down the class II river which was the most ideal way to finish a superb trip.

While Andrew, Gerd, Ruth and I were waiting for the car shuttle, we invented a new game of plate hacky tennis. It's amazing how creative you become when you are bored! When the cars finally returned, it was almost dark. We all said our farewells as Sooty and Ruth were heading back to Murchison, Tonille and Andrew were going to the Coast-to-Coast multi-sport event and Toni, James and Gerd were going to Queenstown and Mt Cook.

The whitewater rivers guide to New Zealand, by Graham Charles was an excellent resource for our trip. It contains clear descriptions of rivers, specifies the grade and standard of river and has maps and directions for reaching put-ins and take-outs. The rivers described in this story came from this book and I recommend it for anyone who is planning a whitewater adventure to New Zealand.

I would also like to thank Tonille Crombie, our competent leader, for her time and patience, which assisted us to have the time of our lives. We are already looking forward to a return trip to the whitewater rivers of New Zealand.