‘You’ve got to see this one’ an excited Sean Waters babbled over the phone after the first descent of the Burke River in 1996. Sean regaled me with stories: eight kilometres of continuous, steep, class V water that was mostly runnable - then a gorge, looked like V+ to VI for 1.5 kilometres, but they didn’t run it. Caught by dark they spent an extra unplanned night out, but were convinced it was a classic trip. Possibly why it is waiting a second descent maybe??
Here’s Sean’s description: the Burke River flows into the Haast River opposite the Burke Flats (on SH6 below the Gates of Haast). The run from the Monument (dedicated to a hunter who died up there years ago) is superb, continuous pool-drop paddling. The riverbed changes from huge boulders to a bedrock gorge, all of which is incredibly scenic. The Churn Rapids gorge near the end of the trip is 1.5km long and will challenge serious future hair boaters. Expect a gradient of 60m/km in the first kilometre 'easing' down to 35m/km for the rest of the run.
From the Monument to Cowan Creek the river flows in a mostly open valley with very steep (60m/km) bouldery rapids. Most are runnable, but rain would add some cushioning to the hard rock landings. If the river is very low, contemplate putting in around Cowan Creek. From this point the river runs into a gorge with excellent pool-drop paddling almost continuously to below the Hidden Rivulet confluence. About 200m below this, the river turns right into a tight, churning, bedrock rapid. It is a very good idea to get out here and scout the ensuing Churn Gorge. If you decide to walk, this is the last place to do it. Below, the river enters an incredible gorge up to 200m deep in places with some very big drops. From the safety of the gorge rim everything looks possible, but there is no chance to portage or scout at all! We portaged the whole gorge on the left side using parts of an old tramping track and dropped back into the river via an abseil just past Raving Torrent Stream. This allowed us to run the last drops in this outrageous gorge.
To get to the take out: find Burke Flats on SH6 about 40km inland from the Haast township. Park in the gravel pits and leave some room for the helicopter. The put in is at the Monument in the upper Burke valley. If river levels are low, put in near Cowan Creek.