The Upper Waiau River

Whitewater NZ trials drive-in access into one of our best multiday river trips. This article by Whitewater NZ President Polly Miller appeared in NZ Canoeing 09.3.

Whitewater NZ trials drive-in access into one of our best multiday river trips. This article by Whitewater NZ President Polly Miller appeared in NZ Canoeing 09.3.

Dropping into the Narrows I had a familiar learning experience… rapids that look so manageable from the cliff somehow morph once you’re at river level. Surging through the first corner and straightening up to take on a buffer wave, I glanced behind me. Grant was upside down. Flying round the corner towards a drop I hadn’t scouted and a second look confirmed my worst fears - Grant was in the drink. "Swimmer!" I yelled, and ducked as Southy’s throwbag went over my head.

The Narrows is the crux of the Upper Waiau River, a two day trip in north Canterbury. Due to problems with access, in the past kayakers have had to fly in by helicopter (expensive due to the lack of local operators) or shoulder their kayaks and overnight gear and walk over Malings Pass to the put in. St James’ station was bought by the crown in 2008, and due almost entirely to the tireless efforts of Hugh Canard on behalf of Whitewater NZ, we were trialling a drive in trip with the blessing of the Department of Conservation. By taking a DOC official on the trip, we intended to show her how we are low impact, responsible recreationalists, and also share the outstanding character of the river with someone from the Department. Having an epic on the river was something we were naturally keen to avoid.

Trip planning started months in advance, with Hugh wrestling with a range of logistics, lining up enough 4WDs, thinking through how to ensure that we were didymo free, with a com- plement of rafts and kayaks and the all important people who selflessly agreed to drive the shuttle. Southy, who runs Hidden Valleys, improved my life enormously a couple of weeks before the trip, by agreeing to come along. Grant South is one of New Zealand’s most experience raft guides, and he’d rafted the river recently. We breathed a collective sigh of relief at the addition of his expertise and enthusiasm to the trip.

The week before the trip approached Hugh’s emails developed a slightly frenzied edge. Fish and Game were organising a goose cull in the Waiau River for the weekend, so we asked them nicely not to shoot us. DOC said we needed to spray the vehicles as we went over Malings pass, to avoid transporting didymo and weeds from the Clarence valley into the Waiau River, and with the good will of their employees we made this possible.

We met in Hamner on the Friday night of Labour weekend. Like any spring trip, the weather was one aspect Hugh couldn’t control. I was relieved to see that the snow that had been forecast had cleared, and the short window between two southerly storms had magically appeared, promising a lovely medium flow. There were 30 of us, including four rafts, eighteen kayakers, and one brave DOC employee. Various complicated discussions about vehicles commenced and we all agreed to spring out of the morning and be gone by 8am.

The drive to the put in was spectacular, we ogled the Upper Clarence River as we drove up the valley, and had plenty of time to enjoy the view of snow on the tops of Mt Una and the Spenser mountains as the 4WDs slowly made their way over a road that would definitely been the end of Ben’s van. We spread ourselves liberally over the river flats as we contemplated fitting large quantities of overnight gear into rafts and kayaks and I found myself sweltering in my drysuit - I’d packed for southerly cold not bright sunshine. The first couple of hours is a flat, braided section through the upper Waiau Valley - with a view of the St James Walkway and the snowy main divide above open high country farmland. DOC plans to restore the upper valley to its original scrub and forest, which will make the Waiau particularly special.

After a wee nap on a river bank waiting for rafts, we dropped into the first boulder garden and the fun began. Kilometres of fantastic class III+ was kayaking heaven, and most of the boaters left the rafts behind. “Good honest rafting” said Southy as I reflected on the challenges of keeping rafts moving in technical water, and we both looked upstream to where Ian had once again wrapped his raft on a rock. The first gorge provided the biggest challenge of the day, and teams made conservative decisions. Watching Hugh line his raft around the first move, I was grateful that we had an experienced group who knew their limits.

The river opened up again, but the class III rapids just kept going. I remembered a bit more about signalling to rafts - they can take on holes that any class three kayaker would be keen to avoid - and Jon and I bounced over small pourovers, refreshing rusty kayaking skills and practicing baby boof strokes. The second gorge proved equally spectacular, and I thought I could be in northern California, at the bottom of a deep canyon surrounded by dry, rugged countryside. We rounded the last corner in the gorge to see the rest of the team had set up camp on a grassy river flat on the river left. With a glass of wine in hand, sitting in a group around the fire I looked at the smiles - we’d all had an exceptional day out.

Next morning the sun reached the campsite early and warmed the frost on the boats. In no hurry to put on in the cold, we enjoyed a gentle start, drinking coffee and drying out tents. With the promise of the mighty Narrows an hour from camp, we put on to more fantastic class III boulder gardens, with a little more water from some big tributaries, making the rafting more straightforward. Getting out above the Narrows, I was initially unworried about the challenge presented - until of course I found myself in the gorge, where this story started. The Narrows is a 500m-long class IV section, where 70 or so cumecs is pushed through a series of very narrow gorges. Hugh knows how narrow - he ran his 3.3m cataraft sideways through a 3m gap. After a few nervous moments, the ends of the raft folded and the raft kept going.

With such a big team, it was good to see a number of kayakers wisely chose to take on the considerable effort of portaging, and the rest of the kayak team got down without trouble. While Rob and I chased Grant’s boat, Southy put him in the raft and bounced down behind us. Alas, Southy’s best advice wasn’t enough for the recreational rafters; Doug took a couple of dunkings and Ian’s crew took on the biggest swim, as their raft wrapped on a chockstone two thirds of the way down the gorge. John and Barry got out their rescue kit and spent time unwrapping the boat, as the rest of the team convened downstream, warming up with lunch in the sun. It took another 40 minutes after all the rafts had been reunited for the portaging crew to arrive, and we put back on cheerful in the knowledge that everyone had made it down safely.

Hours of more bouncy class II and III water continued all the way to the confluence with the Hope, and our first view of the road. Paddling through the small gorges with glimpses of the mountains behind, Doug and I concluded that the Upper Waiau River is a unique trip in New Zealand - and internationally. The landscape is spectacular, and the river’s best and most special aspect for kayaking is the continuous nature of the paddling.

We expect to hear from the Department of Conservation about whether we can have drive in access over Malings Pass when they confirm the St James Management Plan on 1 July 2010. We hope to have discussions between now and then to agree conditions for access, to ensure that we contribute to keeping the upper river free of didymo and weeds. It’s likely that continued access will rely on kayakers taking responsibility and keeping to the conditions - we trust that everyone will do what’s needed to protect any negotiated access to this amazing trip! For details keep your eye on

Photos of this trip are available at