Too precious to dam

Polly Miller described this trip down the Mokihinui River in NZ Canoeing 10.3.

Sometimes paddling trips go like clockwork. It seemed most unlikely that the 123 person descent of the Mōkihinui River over Labour weekend would be that straightforward. For months in advance, Hugh Canard and his organising committee from Forest and Bird and Whitewater NZ tirelessly emailed, wrote letters and rang people. Rafts came from River Valley in the north and Hidden Valleys in the south. Members of Parliament and media people from the Nelson Mail, the Press and TV3 came along for the ride.

The Mōkihinui is a wilderness river north of Westport and the West Coast Regional Council’s decision to allow it to be dammed marks a watershed moment for New Zealand’s environment. The objective of the trip was to highlight the importance of the river, give this diverse group an opportunity to be part of a journey down the Mōkihinui, and let the river speak to them.

Meridian Energy have been given consent to build an 85m high dam on the river, which will destroy more than 330 hectares of river gorge and virgin native forest under a 14 kilometre long artificial lake. One of the most sobering statements at the Resource Consent Hearing was the opening paragraph by legal counsel for the Department of Conservation who stated: “The Mōkihinui hydro scheme is the largest scale proposed flooding of public conservation land in New Zealand since the Manapouri scheme of the late 1960s and early 1970s.”

The Mōkihinui Hydro-Electric Project is also unnecessary. With the granting of consents for both the Dobson scheme on the Arnold River, and the Stockton Plateau scheme at Ngakawau, the Mōkihinui need not be dammed. The combined output of the Dobson and Stockton schemes will supply all of the West Coast’s electricity needs, with a surplus.

The logistics were alarming and made my head hurt. Three helicopters, $25,000 worth of flying time, ten rafts, more than 60 kayakers, two put-in locations (the forks and the North Fork), nets to be loaded and gear to be flown out from a tramping party of enthusiastic Forest and Bird conservationists who’d walked in the day before and jumped on a raft to paddle home.

Hugh’s sense of humour and diplomatic approach survived a number of challenges. At 6.15 am he arrived at the take out, to find a small tent city of sleepy paddlers. Striding through the campsite, he said, “this is the Civil Aviation Authority, and you are all camped illegally in a landing area.” Leaping out of bed we eyed the inversion layer, which was trying to drizzle. No chance of anyone landing in this, we muttered as we filled nets and blinked at the TV3 journalist, who happily was from Hokitika and understood about early starts and whirly birds.

At two minutes to seven we heard the choppers coming and went from busy to frantic as the two 500s and one 700 landed in the small level area we were all sleeping in a few moments before. I watched one whirlybird lift two sling loads of seven boats and one raft apiece and reflected that our loading struggles might mean I would be rafting from the forks rather than paddling from the Johnston confluence as my boat appeared to be right on the edge of a precarious load.

The peace at the put-in for the North Fork returned my ears to normal and as the bird song resumed we discovered that the plethora of split paddles, first aid kits and EPIRBs were more than enough for a group of fourteen. Splitting into three groups, we sat down on a rock and gave the first two groups time to get underway as we appreciated the view.

Putting on the river at 8.30am was a new experience, it’s a time when normally lazy kayakers are just rolling out of bed. We woke up pretty quickly as we dropped into the first tight class IV gorge and Matty got out in front. Hey diddle diddle and we were off down the middle, eddy-hopping our way through beautiful limestone boulders on water the same colour as Tanqueray gin.

At our first patch of sun in the gorge I got out to let some of the early morning coffee take its natural course, and the team stretched on the rocks. With Matty, Mike and James all planning to overnight at the hut at the forks, we were in no hurry to race through paradise.

The North Fork of the Mōkihinui is indeed what it says on the tin. 7km of fantastic tight class III-IV, with a short 500m break in the middle where the river widens between two gorges. We had a flow on the low side of medium-perfect for the size of the team and considering that this run was for many the first of the season. With that flow and on that day it was possible to do the run without hopping out of your kayak - except to walk back up and run the perfect boof in the middle of the river just one more time.

As the river approached the forks the gradient mellowed, the hills dropped away and a huge open expanse reminiscent of the earthquake lakes on the Karamea River opened up. Drowned trees made weird shapes in the river and the first of the lush podocarp forest appeared as we descended below the beech trees. It takes almost 2km to reach the forks of the Mōkihinui, and we could see the horizon line of the first rapid on the forks run as we made an eddy on the left and spotted the boys dry bag full of food, thoughtfully left by Sarah on the beach.

We draped our dry suits out in the sun and made up for not having much breakfast, noting that the members of the north fork team we’d asked to wait for us appeared to have disappeared downstream.

Paddling with a two person team can be fun - but it’s quite a different vibe when you’ve been paddling in a strong group of five. Miriam and I were conscious of the new big volume feel of the river and a feeling of being entirely alone in the remote valley as we peeled out of the eddy and made the first move from right to left. We ran most of the big rapids on the forks run in the next hour - including a larger one in which I had a wee surf in the hole at the bottom. It wasn’t all that long until we caught up with the last raft and stories from the larger team - one raft had flipped in the first rapid, and all guides were perfecting their backwards ferry glides as they negotiated rapids with rocks.

The forks team had also been astonishingly efficient. Most of boats were on the water by 10.30am. There was a helicopter photo shoot of the hundred strong crew with an absolutely enormous banner made by Forest and Bird and there were some amazing moving and still images taken, illustrating the passion and enthusiasm of the conservation and whitewater community for saving the river. The big rapid caused an understandable amount of faffing as everyone nervously eyed the length of the rapid and the size of the hydraulics. However, all the rafts made it down sunny side up.

We cruised past more rafts floating through deep green pools and played with kayakers surfing waves and catching eddies.It wasn’t long before Forest and Bird people on the river bank waved and told us the takeout was just around the corner.

Beer and a bite to eat at Drifters Café in Granity provided an excellent opportunity to and catch up on other stories on this extraordinary river trip - the whole circus appeared to have run like clockwork.

If you’d like to see more of the Mōkihinui, Whitewater NZ have produced a DVD: A Tale of Two Rivers to help save it. The short film has been shown throughout New Zealand, appearing at the Wanaka Film Festival and various forums in Wellington.

If you’d like to arrange a showing please contact conservation@rivers.org.nz or check http://rivers.org.nz/a-tale-of-two-rivers for more information.

Thank you to all those whose hard work made this trip possible. The Mōkihinui is indeed an extraordinary river, and too precious to dam.