Kaituna river access

Lower Kaituna Gorges. Photo: Ryan Lucas.

Bay of Plenty Regional Harbourmaster Peter Buell has announced his intention to close the Awesome, Gnarly, and Smokey gorges citing safety reasons.

Several kayaking fatalities (2015, 2007) have occurred in the gorges. The primary hazard is entrapment on logs in the river, that often appear to be from adjacent logging operations.

Update: 6 December 2019

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council Harbourmaster, Peter Buell, will not re-issue a closure directive for the section of Pari Tūkino (Gnarly Gorge) on the Kaituna river that has been closed since 1 May 2019. Some important changes and restrictions apply.

Update: 17 July 2019

Plenty of behind the scenes work has been going on to facilitate safe, legal and sustainable access for kayakers in the lower Kaituna gorges.

Whitewater NZ and community representatives recently met with the Lake Rotoiti scenic reserves board where we proposed an access track through the scenic reserve land on river left, from the bottom of Pari Whakahihi (Awesome Gorge) to the end of Pari Tūkino. We also raised the possibility of a track from the end of Pari Whakahihi back to Trout Pool.

The board understood our request to portage Pari Tūkino on river left for safety and legal reasons. They saw this as an option that will make the status quo safer, providing a legal alternative that keeps people off the private land on river right.

The board were very clear that they do not support a track upstream from Pari Whakahihi. This is due to the issues and impacts from tourism and freedom camping at the trout pool end of the scenic reserve. The cultural significance of the area was again raised and we were reminded that there are people who don't want us down there for good reasons.

The board told us they understand that the reserve is public land and that they cannot restrict access but they can restrict impacts like cutting trees down for tracks. We are proposing a very basic marked route, with minimal impact that will be made and maintained by paddlers.

We have the board’s permission to scope out a track for their approval. This will be subject to a Department of Conservation botanist agreeing to the route and minimising any damage to indigenous species. The board recommended that we involve an ecologist and create an assessment of environmental effects.

We also have permission to scout on river left to inform an operating plan for the removal of navigation hazards in the river.

For now, the voluntary closure is still in place until the nature and exact route of the portage track is fully agreed. We’ll let you know as soon as anything changes. This is a major step in the right direction and we want to thank everyone for their patience and support while we’ve been working through this process.

Update: 1 May 2019

The Bay of Plenty Regional Council Harbourmaster, Peter Buell, has issued a directive to close a section of Pari Tūkino (Gnarly Gorge) on the Kaituna river from 1 May 2019 until 1 November 2019.

This is not an unexpected decision. The Harbourmaster indicated that he was looking to close all of the lower gorges in March and since then WWNZ has been working alongside members of the local Okere Falls whitewater community, to advocate for ongoing access to this wild place.

On April 16, the WWNZ team attended a facilitated hui to discuss recreational access and safety in the Lower Kaituna Gorges. The hui was also attended by the Harbourmaster, Bay of Plenty Regional Council staff and councillors, the Jull family, land owners, iwi and Te Maru o Kaituna. We believe this meeting was a real step forward, the spirit was mostly positive and constructive, relationships were built, positions were shared and options were discussed but no formal decisions were made.

At the meeting the WWNZ reiterated our belief that there are better options than legal closure. We made it clear that there are other essential steps that should be taken and that there are better tools to improve safety in the lower Kaituna gorges.

However, safety requires the ability to portage Gnarly gorge, or to return back to Trout Pool after having descended Pari Whakahihi (Awesome Gorge). Previously, portaging has required trespassing over private land. This is not acceptable and the trespassing must stop.

For this reason Whitewater NZ and the local paddling community have put a voluntary closure in place for all three lower gorges, Awesome, Gnarly and Smokey (Pari Kohukohu) until further notice while alternative access options can be explored.

Appeal or accept the Harbourmaster’s directive?

With positive engagement, our efforts have resulted in much progress and a significant reduction in the initial scope of the closure. While we do not agree with the Harbourmaster's decision, we prefer to focus our energy on long term improvements and avoid taking an adversarial position at this time. With the closure limited to 6 months, we have a lot to gain by using the time to improve access and therefore safety in the Lower Kaituna Gorges.

For reference, the section of the river that the harbourmaster has closed is indicated in the two yellow markers shown in the image below.

Next Steps?

Build the foundations for ongoing access, safety and relationship management, including:

  • Work with the BOPRC on a plan for the extraction/removal of navigational hazards.
  • Work with Te Maru o Kaituna to find ways to respect wahi tapu sites and other cultural concerns.
  • Work with the Lake Rotoiti Scenic Reserves Board and Rotorua Lakes Council to open up a portage option on river left.
  • Improve online river information regarding planned gate level changes.
  • Improve safety culture in the whitewater community.

Respect for the awa is at the heart of our conversations and we are committed to making this work for the long term.

Want to help?

  • Attend the Info Session - Kaituna Lower Gorges, 7:30pm, 27 March 2019, c/- Rotorua Rafting.
  • For the moment, cease paddling Awesome, Gnarly, and Smokey until the legal access can be resolved.