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Upper Waiau, 7-9 November 2003


I knew it would be a long and adventurous weekend when the Upper Waiau Gorge was suggested by Ollie but no one could have guessed just how good this one would be.

Upper Waiau

Album: Upper Waiau

A descent of the remote and beautiful Upper Waiau river.

(10 images)

The weekend started with the usual mucking about as the crew of Ollie Yeoman, Stu MacGowan, Josh Woodside, Mike McWhirter and myself gathered late on Thursday night. Boats loaded, petrol and stomachs full we rolled out about 10pm. A few hours sleep in Christchurch and many hours drive saw us in Hanmer on time at 9am to sign our lives away with the landowner.

Over Jacks Pass the road deteriorated and the wind picked up. It wasn't long before a distracted driver, Woodside, got the van rapidly slowed in two consecutive pot-holes. The boats on the roof promptly took the opportunity to spread themselves over the road in front of us. Recovering from laughter we reloaded the boats and continued on our way to the turn-off near Lake Tennyson.

Pre-expedition planning, or lack of it, showed as boats were packed and boat-carrying systems fitted for the four hour walk to the put-in. After labouring up Maling Pass with a hail-beating norwesterly in our faces and nearly 30kg loads on our backs the sight of the river 6km away and 400m below us was surprisingly refreshing. Down in the valley, two hours of scraping down the humble beginnings of the Waiau saw us cold and tired as we pulled in to camp just above the first gorge. Thanks to Stu's huge yellow tent fly we had a somewhat comfortable night after a day I will put in my 'character building' box!

The morning dawned cold and clear but with the appearance of the sun paddling kit was donned and our ragged camp stowed. What ensued was possibly the best day I'd had on any river yet. Three deep gorges with continuous class III+ boulder gardens provided plenty of entertainment as the sun climbed high into the blue sky.

Stopping for lunch at a disused bridge, appropriately named 'old bridge', we checked out the huts marked on the map. One turned out to be derelict, the other fully equipped with pillows, running water, and LPG burner.

Still more bouncy wave-trains and boulder gardens brought us unexpectedly into the famous 'Narrows'. The guidebook offers the advice 'don't swim in the Narrows' and the reason became obvious as we scouted the first 500m of narrow bedrock gorge with some sizeable hydraulics and no opportunities for bank rescue. The crux move, called The Weir, was successfully run, by the book, after receiving too much scouting. The next section was the narrowest on the river, the whole river moving through a slot less than 6m wide pushing off both sides for probably over 20m. Here Ols got a good trashing after involuntarily catching the worst eddy on the river (being less than boat size and high on all sides!), but came out unscathed.

Keeping well away from 'Ollie's Mistake' we joined him further down the sculptured rock gorge. One more move, this time requiring you to paddle towards the left wall atop a buffer wave that skirted you around a large rock in mid-flow, saw the end of the Narrows section. The whitewater didn't end though; neither [did] the beautiful gorges and another hour of boating saw us at a grassy campsite with clear skies and time to relax before dark.

The final day paddling consisted of 10km of unique bush-clad gorges with fun rapids and it was with great reluctance that we paddled out of the mountains to the open valley and the Hope River confluence.

The take out we knew was around Calf Creek so we made a beeline for it only to find ourselves staring at steep gorse and blackberry covered banks rising over 50m above us. Choosing the direct line, Ols, Stu and Josh took advantage of their throwropes and belayed boats up the steep banks to the amusement of all including Luke, our shuttle driver, in his clean white Commodore. Mike and I though it wise to bash up without boats then return once we had found the track. This proved folly as my track ended 10m above the river bed and Mike's, the actual track, required a long walk down river. All up we took longer getting from the river to the main highway than we spent actually paddling that day!

For me, Ols and Stu it was to the Hanmer bakery and hot pools while Josh and Mike drove the long shuttle with Luke in truly honourable spirit. All that remained was to pay off the shuttle driver and make the long haul back to Dunners, the long journey providing plenty of time to reflect on just how good the trip had been. The awesome crew, lot of laughter and continuous whitewater in a remote and beautiful setting really made for good times!

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