Whakapapa Epic

This article by Peter Sutcliffe originally appeared in New Zealand Canoeing #22, July 1981.

The chance of doing this fine river is almost a once in a lifetime event, as water is allowed to flow in the bed on only a few days a year while maintenance to dams and tunnels is carried out.

We arrived on Monday, March 2 to find that no water was flowing over the dam. However, a crane was lowering iron gates into the intake ports and the tiny dam filled up in five minutes and then water began to spill over the concrete sill. I estimate 12 to 14 cu secs., not very much, but enough. A car was ferried to Oawhango and the drivers returned which took about 1 1/2 hours; a good time to doze in the sun while the water flowed down to bring the river back to life.

Four of us set off. The first part of the river is a little boney but with care one can get by. The water was very clear, the scenery restful beech forest, and a gentle gorge with no sign of human habitation, however, we saw many blue duck and some goats. We stopped for lunch at a sharp right-hand bend where the driftwood on what must be a huge eddy testified to the size of the river in flood - I don't know if it is allowed to flood these days!

A little later there is a huge slip which must recently have dammed up the river. Some huge blocks remain and make quite a good rapid. In fact, things tend to improve from here as the water flow increases.

Two of us waited at the bottom of one quite steep rapid and instead of the other two joining us, we could just see Tony trying to climb up his paddle. It took a moment to realise that he was in trouble. His kayak had jambed across a large rock and he had tipped upstream, but the force of the water folded the boat around while he was still in it; as it was strongly made, only the deck and seams cracked so that the deck folded across his leg. Help was at hand but by the time we had him out he had suffered a lot of pain, there was a truly incredible dent in his calf muscle and it seemed that the leg was broken. We left Brian and shot off down-river as it was reported that we were a mere one hour to the take out.

We raced away but the river was too good not to enjoy it as it drops 900 feet in 25km and, if anything, the gradient increases as you proceed. There are some good chutes in the lower part. However, it turned out to be a good two hours without a stop except to portage one impossible boulder pile. No sooner had we set off than the sky opened. The clouds thickened and we were treated to some tremendous rumbles, flashes and torrential rain which flattened out the pressure waves.

A big side stream comes in on the left and although, it is a mere five km to go, it takes nearly an hour. There are three long boulder sieves to scrape down and then the bridge comes into sight. I was told that the last rapid was the worst/best (whichever you like) and a quite difficult long rapid above the bridge seemed to signal the end.

I saw the man in front sneak off down a little chute on the left and assumed that he was heading to an exit. As he knew the river I followed, was pushed by the current against a rock, spun around and appeared to be on the edge of a waterfall, going backwards. With mild panic I pointed downstream into the huge hole formed where my side run joined the main flow which crashes in most spectacular fashion over a pile of boulders about 15 feet high. Through the hole, and the river really races against some big square rocks - no place to make a mistake, then under the bridge for an exciting finish.

We negotiated a few blackberries to the car and rushed off to find the other two who must have been having a rough time. We found Brian with a thermos of tea waiting for us and in the adjacent farm Tony was watching T.V. covered in blankets and full to the brim with tea. A subsequent visit to Taumaranui hospital decided that Tony's leg, which had grown to amazing proportions was a massive haematoma which kept him in hospital for the night.

The river trip is 25km, continuous grade 3 but no more. Requires concentration and a strong boat. There are reputed to be 125 rapids - I believe that!