Helicopters are routinely used to access the steep creeks and rivers of the West Coast. I hoped to discover if the classic runs -- like the Arahura, Hokitika, and Perth -- were manageable in what I consider classic Kiwi-style butt boating: hike up to a hut; sleep; walk farther up to the put-in for the helos; float out.
The New Zealand trip has emerged as a collage of mountains and huts, rivers and tracks, people and bush. From sub-tropical tree ferns and warm, amber creeks to talus hopping songbirds and glacial blue rivers. From a 32 person dorm on a water-taxi served lake filled with people from around the world to a remote tin shack stuffed with girlie magazines and three grinning packrafters.
My skills have improved, my body has leaned, the kit and techniques for making the most of this civilized mountain-forest-river landscape have been sharpened.
All my camping gear and food fits in a 15 L dry bag strapped inside my boat, nothings on the bow.
The center-entry boat with five inches of Velcro closure and air bladders on the belly band has thigh straps and a seat moved forward of the top-off valve with a thick, six-inches of backrest. The seat and backrest Velcro in for easy removal and faster drying.
Overnights in huts provide the best night’s sleep, as the mattresses are thick and comfy. No need to carry a tent or a pad, my partners and I park at the trailhead late in the afternoon and hike-in two hours to the first hut, below which is usually a bunch of boogy water and maybe a gorge with plenty of water and Class III rapids.
In the morning after coffee, we leave the dry bag of camping gear (food eaten) and hike up 2-4 hours with lunch, boats, dry-suits, helmets, throw bags, paddles, clothes –- we then boat down with fully unloaded boats, pick up the dry bag and float out to the car-park, usually with enough daylight to dry our gear in the hot sun and afternoon breeze, two meteorological conditions that keep the flesh-hungry sandflies at bay.
It’s a really good system for seeing New Zealand by foot and packraft.
Back in the Fall, while planning for this trip, the Arahura River sat near the top of my West Coast wish-list, above the Perth, Hokatika, Whitcombe, and Styx, but below the Landsborough. The Lansborough seemed doable, but the Arahura felt unattainable -- that is, before Tim Johnson arrived.
Tim flew in on Sunday. We met at high noon in Cathedral Square, downtown Christchurch among the buskers and their spectators. It was the last day of the 10 day International Busker’s Festival, an extravaganza of gags and acrobatics, street gymnastics, juggling, and jokes. Many of the Buskers stayed at the YMCA where I was drinking cappuccinos, making videos, and writing blog entries waiting for Tim to arrive.
Monday we planned to drive over and hike in to run the Taipo. But when we got there the gauge was out of the water, so dry had it been the last couple weeks.
“Let’s go look at the Styx,” I suggested, and we drove on to Hokitika eating some fish and chips and looking at the shops in town. But the Styx looked too low, also, and the Arahura was just a 10 km gravel drive away.
“Why not?” was Tim’s response. He’d been down it six years before.
By 7 PM we were camped in the Lower Arahura Hut, a dirty old thing currently being replaced with a new one by a three-man Kiwi crew who’d flown in with all their materials.
“Who’s got the boat?” they asked.
“We both do.”
“Oh, packrafts, hay,” said the oldest one. “A couple blokes were spinning yarns about them when I was working in Alaska a few years back.”
In the morning we busted out 3 miles to the usual helicopter put-in for this West Coast classic of multiple drops, boulder gardens and infamous rock sieves. The water flowed clean and low under the swing-bridge.
Within five minutes we’d come to the first big drop, scouted and run it. The next slot Tim hit his tail bone hard -- he has not moved his seat forward and the thigh straps pull him off his seat -- and the drop after that he banged his elbow, hard. All this within 20 or 30 minutes of the put-in. It would be another hour before he was not so gun-shy as to portage a bunch of super drops that I plopped in the sunshine.
We scouted just about every foot in this upper “Third Canyon”, knowing that “Curtain Call” and “Dent Falls” lay lurking behind one of the almost continuous horizon lines set between massive boulders. At least this situation kept the camera dry and the video coming. I was determined to run everything – until the whole river went beneath a single flat boulder. And then came “Curtain Call” where the whole river slipped smoothly and seamlessly into a pool of backwash.
“Oh man, Curtain Call’s super dangerous right now.” Earlier Tim had promised we could run laps on this photogenic drop. “Look at that current coming right back over. It’s like a low-head dam right now.”
I recognized the smooth plunge from a day at Bird Creek when Brad M and Jeff C and I could not get past a similar water structure. We both portaged this.
Soon after we came to “Dent Falls” -- or what was left of it. Its boulders had collapsed leaving a massive sieve twenty feet high, with the 700 cfs running behind and between narrow slots no boat – or body even -- could fit through.
A Blue Duck flew in and landed, foraging in and out of the narrow slots of the bank-side sieves, slipping into and out of the whitewater with ease. Eventually the river’s gradient slackened and the boulders shrank enough that we could boat scout, boulder hopping from eddy to eddy, creeping down the drops one tongue at a time.
Tim’s paddling technique and confidence was amazing. It is a real gift he shows for water, and I was flattered he was here to paddle this in a packraft with me. Twice he posted safety below drops that flipped me and as soon as my head surfaced the throw line was on me. Don’t come to the Aruhara without someone so skilled.
His paddling style reveals his kayaking roots: aggressive strokes; multiple boofs over holes, drops, and rocks; long pauses above big drops circling and eyeing and picking his line; and a tendency to forget he had no stern but with the reflexes and strength to brace unfailingly. While he walked more drops than I, he never fell out of his boat.
Running the river required four boating techniques: the first was easy floating through pools or boogy water (Class II) – this was quite rare in the first six hours – sort of like easy cramponing up a firm, moderate slope.
The second technique was boat scouting by eddy-hopping through boulder gardens, a classic Kiwi style of boating, and quite emotionally draining. Apprehension of big drops or sieves with no way out, quickly followed by the adrenaline of drop-able falls works your body through the hormones sent from the mind. I was reminded of simul-climbing on alpine ice.
The third technique was liked belaying pitches: getting out and scouting a rapid, picking a line, setting safety and then making the moves and re-grouping below. Sometimes you “fall” on these and your “belayer” “catches” you with the throw line. It was good to have a helmet, elbow pads, and above all a competent partner.
Finally, there was the walk-around. We did portage every guidebook-named rapid except “Alzheimer's”, and a couple others un-named but dangerous. After six hours and five kilometers I was wupped and happy to see the river let up.
The best rapid was at the end of the “Second Gorge”, below our portage of the deadly “Billiards”, in the rapid called “Alzheimer's”. This had a an s-turn slalom between holes, followed by a big ferry left, a slot into a pool needing a quick 90-degree right turn and a drop off a six foot waterfall. Stunningly satisfying to run.
We picked up our gear at the swing-bridge near the hut , checking up on the workmen’s progress and amazed that they’d framed the hole thing in the eight hours since we’d left: two hours to walk the 5 km up and six hours to boat it back down. From the hut down it was just boogy water and a couple Class III drops that felt like little more than a roller coaster ride. And the “cesspit”
The final canyon, “Cesspit”, is an ugly name for an amazing horseshoe-shaped waterfall into a deep polished schist gorge. A twenty foot wide falls plunges into a fifty foot gorge that is narrower than it is tall, made of polished, vertically grained schist. Below the main entry drop churned more rapids in a gorge I had no interest in running.
In all honesty, I was satisfied, ready to fly home with the best packraft creeking experience I could imagine. How could it get any better?