The Karamea - A seven day epic

Ben Willems and friends endure an epic descent of a continually flooding Karamea river. This article originally appeared in NZ Canoeing & Rafting #39, September 1988.

It was mid-October 1987, and for any varsity-bum like myself that means tension, stress, study, sweat and exams. It's about this time you begin to dream behind the desk about what you're going to do in the holidays. I had made up my mind that a trip down the Karamea was a must, it was just a matter of finding three others of equal ability and enthusiasm.

Doug Rankin (Dr Doogle) was the first on the list, having been on the river twice before, his experience and knowledge of the Karamea in retrospect saved us all from doing anything stupid (particularly me!) - there was plenty of opportunity. Ian (Bear) Russell, the next to commit himself, had also paddled the river before. When I rang him up and asked him if he wanted to paddle the Karamea, he said, "Anyone who's paddled the Karamea wants to paddle it again - I'll come!" Ian Macbeth, not having set foot in a boat for months, (the front end's the one with the stickers on it Ian!) after a certain amount of arm twisting also joined the group. With the addition of myself (XTC - it's a long story and one I wish to forget) off we set, four hardy young souls, to explore the unexplored, to paddle some hooty rapids, and to drink plenty of cups of really hot tea.

The Karamea is a relatively large river and takes its catchment from the Northwest Nelson State Forest Park. It is remote, with access to only some parts of the river by track, while other parts of the river are virtually inaccessible except by helicopter. Like all West Coast rivers, it's very susceptible to flooding - flooding of amazing proportions. Little did we know that we were to be on the river in the worst flood for 15 years.

We arrived in Karamea on Friday 20 February 1988 with the intention of flying into Luna Hut, 58km up the river at an elevation of 480 metres, on Saturday and spending the next four days paddling out. The first night would be spent at the Crow Hut, the second at the Roaring Lion Hutt, and the third at Greys Hut, with a half day paddle out through the Lower Gorge on the 4th day.

Saturday morning was overcast with very low cloud, the weather map was for "clearing from the south". After some delay while the cloud rose sufficiently, the chopper arrived, and before we knew it we were being whisked up the Lower Gorge, and then over Kakapo Saddle into the heart of the forest park. A gear and food drop at the Crow Hut and a food drop at the Roaring Lion, meant the first day's paddling would be with empty boats, and less food would need to be carried from one hut to the next.

Travelling by chopper into a river is an awesome experience. One minute you're in a pub supping ale, then twenty minutes later you're in the middle of nowhere with four days of paddling before you're back in civilisation.

As the sound of the chopper faded into the distance a strange sense of excitement, anxiety and anticipation overcame me. We were on our own. There was an acute sense of loneliness in a landscape so dominant. It was up to each of us as individuals and as a group to get down the river with maximum enjoyment and safety (expedition mentality).

(Image in original article: Luna Hut. From left: Ian Macbeth, Ben, Doug Rankin, Ian Russell.)

After the prerequisite 'team photo' outside Luna Hut, we were on the river, which at this point was only flowing at about 10 cumecs. The first section was boney and tight, as the river cut through bedrock. Everybody was trying to get into a rhythm, cutting in and out of eddies, to get those skills working. A strikng feature of this river is the sequence of dams and dam outlets caused by the 1929 Murchison earthquake. The river level backing up behind each dam had drowned the forest, and paddling through a forest of dead tree trunks on each lake was a weird and eerie feeling (let alone bloody hazardous on some occasions).

The first of these dams of Orbit creek was a good 50 foot drop and wasn't paddled due to lack of water (this was never a probiem later on!) Looking back up the river from the bottom of the dam, you could easiiy see how thousands of tonnes of boulders had rolled off the mountains and choked the gorge up completely. A pleasant stretch of G3 water followed before Doug put an eight inch split in his Mirage, over a rocky drop. Great! Two hours into the trip and one incapacitated boat. After a quick repair job with F2 and canvas (he came prepared), in about the only half hour of sun we experienced on the whole seven days on the river, we were off again.

This was the first of many spiits Doug got in his boat. He would repair them each night in the hut, which was a continual source of amusement, as he tried to manoeuvre a four metre boat into a three metre hut! After about one hour of surveying the Moonstone dam outlets Ian Russell and I jumped in our boats to do it. The dam itself was tight and steep, with large boulders and tree stumps in the most awkward places. There was iittle room for error, as Ian found out when he missed an eddy, resulting in a backward vertical pin over the next drop. That was exciting but not terminal. By now it was pissing down with rain but the river was a real joy of bouncy haysacks, sticky holes and tight rocky drops and manoeuvres.

That night in the Crow Hut with our warm gears on we listened to the tinroof as it rained and rained and poured and rained (and rained and rained and rained etc). The next day, both the Crow and Karamea rivers were in flood, having risen about three feet. The river was now a furious torrent, and I expect that's what the trees and branches were thinking also as they floated downstream. One thing was for sure, we weren't going anywhere that day, but the weather was breaking. It's about this time you begin to wish you hadn't eaten such a huge meal the night before. Doug saved the day (somewhat), having caught a big trout the previous evening. The trout steaks were great, it's the fishhead soup I couldn't handle. Doug was determined that we should eat every last scrap of this fish and so boiled its remains in water for about three hours. What was left was oily, fleshy, glutinous water (call it soup? Doug did!) I hadn't seen anything quite as repulsive since I happened by accident to see lan Macbeth just out of bed one morning! What really got me though was when Doug picked out an eye and started crunching on that.

(Image in original article: Ben, Lower Gorge Karamea (I think) February 1988)

The next day the river had dropped, although it was still much higher than when we had arrived. In spite of the fact it was raining again - off we set. The river was much bigger now, rapids were wider, faster, and bouncler, and the holes had to be avoided, they were nasty. The only rapid of note before the Bend was the one at Slippery Creek.

Although not particularly difficult, it was very powerful, with lots of holes and rocks. Afterstopping in on the 'Search and Rescue HQ' at the Bend (and eating big hunks of fruitcake courtesy of Snow) to inform him we were a day behind schedule we were paddling the flat water (dodging the dead forest) of the first of the big dams. This section of water down to the Roaring Lion hut is made up of three dams, each with a G3+-4 outlet. Each lake takes about 20 minutes to paddle with at least that time again to survey the outlet and decide on a route. (By the way - it's still raining.)

The first outlet was probably the longest, a good 300 metres, with plenty of rocks and holes and eddies. After agreeing on a route down Ian Russell tried his best to go where no paddler had gone before - but made the potentially hazardous situation look easy. With the addition of the Leslie upstream, the river was now flowing at about 200 cumecs and the hydraulics were severe. Ian Macbeth had to roll in this one (roll No. 1, but who's counting) just because he got caught by a nasty hydraulic at an inopportune moment.

The next dam outlet was steeper with only one route possible, down the true left. Massive boulders in the rapid were creating huge buffer waves and some dynamic eddies, but we all managed this one cleanly. Our lunch spot was a real delight. A muddy sand island in the middle of the river, in the middle of a downpour, in the middle of a swarm of blood-thirsty sandflies, remember these are West Coast sandflies. Needless to say, that was a quick lunch stop. The final dam outlet was a simple drop, about twelve feet, but it made some great photos.

After about 30 minutes of flat paddling we turned up at the Roaring Lion Hut, and the food we knew would be there. Looking over the wide shingle expanse from the hut, which lay at the confluence of the Roaring Lion and Beautiful rivers, I contemplated the day's paddling, and what lay in store tomorrow with the largest dam yet to be encountered.

There are no prizes for guessing what happened that night - yes, it rained, but this time seriously. When I woke up in the morning I couldn't believe my eyes. What had been a shingle expanse at least 10 football fields' worth was now a dirty brown lake, and what's more its level was rising. Our marker tree trunk 8 feet up the bank floated away, which was so funny it was sickening. One thing was for sure, we weren't going anywhere today - déjà-vu. By midday the lake had reached its highest, about 15-18 feet above yesterday's river level. It was frightening to think of the water that (had backed up behind the dam downstream (This was the day of the fifteen year flood.) And so it was another day stuck in a hut, being bored out your tree, because most of those were fioating down the river. I got so bored in fact, I made a chess set, and promptly got beaten by Ian Bear (bastard) who never let on he was a good player. Meantime Ian Macbeth was reading magazine, which contained an article on the sexual habits of the US male. Apparently the average US male has sixteen sexual partners in his lifetime -what a useful piece of information.

Even though we had all brought 3 days extra food along, rationing was the wisest idea - who knows how long we would be in here. Doug on the other hand was oodling over his boat, which by now cou1d be described as canvas held together by bits of plastic.

By the next day the lake had disappeared and the shingle island reappeared. As we ate our muesli, Ian Russell looked at his watch and commented that it was about now the guys at work would be wondering why he hadn't turned up. Paddling down the lake toward the dam took about 40 minutes. The river was still very high, up in the trees and much higher than when we had arrived. Soon we were upon the large dam outlet. This outlet has never been paddled in its entire to my knowledge - even on a good day (by the way it's raining again).

Describing this rapid in this flow is difficult - you just had to be there, needless to say I would have preferred to paddle Nevis Bluff. Approx. 500 cumecs dropping 150 feet over 1 km, formed some the biggest drops and nastiest holes I've ever seen. Any one drop by itself, in this flow was at least G5 but stringing 20 or so of these together with no eddies in between, made this rapid unpaddleable (walking beside it was scary enough!) The portage was a nightmare too. It took 1 1/2 hours and meant scrambling up and down 30-foot boulders, bashing through bush and crawling under rock slabs.

(Image in original article: "Nothing gets in my way!", Ian Russell)

The paddling from here on down was with the utmost caution. Every rapid was inspected, and for good reason too; most had one or two 'lunch' holes in them (i.e. if you get stuck in these you might as well ask for your lunch be thrown over because you'll be there for a while. And while they are at it, might as well throw you your dinner too and a sleeping bag in case it gets chilly at night). This section down Greys Hut was the most enjoyable. The rapids of G3-4 were big and bouncy and spaced about every 500 metres. There were huge rocks, buffer waves and unpredictable hydraulics. Doug can vouch for this - in the middle of a relatively quiet stretch, he got sucked up by the river, out of sight, only to be contemptuously spat out again a few seconds later, on end, and almost totally airborne, followed by some frantic paddling to avoid a wicked hole (it was frantic - I saw the expression on his face!)

Ferris Creek was the other rapid of particular note on this section, a continuous grade 5 section 300 metres long with at least a G5+ drop in the middle, needless to say this was the second portage of the day. The arrival at Grey's Hut was a relief, we'd completed probably the most continuously difficult (or so we thought) of the river without major incident.

That night for something completely different, it rained again, heavily, and by morning the river had risen 6-8 feet. What was a pathetic braid by which we paddled down to get to the hut, was now a formidable slalom site - the water was lapping at the camping site and one thing was for sure - we weren't going anywhere today déjà-vu, déjà-vu. This whole scenario of a day paddling, a day stuck in the hut was becoming a very bad joke. By now even the hardiest of spirits would be waning, and ours certainly were. We were all pretty pissed off with the bad deal we had got, the rain and the flooding.

We all wanted to leave that day in spite of the flood (especially me, I had just missed enrolment at varsity) but Doogle convinced us that paddling the Lower Gorge in this flow would be very much less than clever (and he was right too). So another day was destined to be hut bound, the only highlight of which was the discovery of 1/4 of a bottle of brandy somebody had left. The next day patches of blue sky appeared (about time too, it was only our seventh day) and the river had dropped 6 inches on our arrival 2 days ago. The Lower Gorge is very confined and made up of 6 or 7 rapids with very large boulders and holes in strategically awkward places, making the rapids about G4+. I was not a happy chap.

I had expected today's paddle out to be straight-forward, and that's exactly the direction I found myself heading on the 4th rapid in the gorge - straight-forward toward a hole. It was a hole, when surveyed from the back was one we all decided you didn't want to be anywhere near - you could throw a bus into this one and never see it again. It was half-river wide, (about 50 feet) with a 12 foot face on it, and my mistake, or lapse of concentration led me to punch the edge of it, any further to the right and I think I would still be in there today rotating. The other rapids in the gorge were equally menacing, and although we took the chicken routes (these were the G4+ pits) every time, none of these rapids could be taken lightly, not with the speed and volume of the water and lack of defined eddies.

But like all good bedtime stories, this one too was a happy ending. By 3 o'clock, all four of us were drinking milkshakes in Karamea (these took so long we were convinced she was milking the cow as well), and retelling the events of the last seven days including a classic comment by Doug. After just inspecting a rapid on the Lower Gorge, for route and eddie cutouts, walking back up to his boat he turned around and said "Now where the f--k was that eddie?!" Moments like these are only memories now, which I hope will be revived the next time I paddle the Karamea.


Special thanks must go to our chopper pilot Terry Belcher who did an excellent job with the minimum of fuss. He and the Karamea police were concerned enough about our safety to fly in on Friday in search of us, complete with a food drop. It was not required. Also thanks to Kay and Pieter of Karamea for putting us up.