Thursday, February 4, 2010

Taipo: Never a Dull Moment

As we left Murchison, Mick offered us a final tip. “Go have a look at the Taipo. It’ll be a nice one at these summer flows for your little thingies.”

We’d bailed on the Oparara due to no water and abandoned the plan of meeting the fisherman-with-packraft, Aussie Andrew Allan and his fishing buddy on the Karamea, since the water thre was racing so high that we’d be walking the Karamea Gorge both in and out (sorry Andrew!).

So the Taipo it’d be.

The Taipo is a West Coast run just west of Arthur’s Pass National Park. It has a 4x4 road-accessed lower gorge and helo-accessed upper run. It’s structured like many Kiwi rivers: the lowest bit cuts through a gorge with a highway bridge downstream. A marked and mapped trail follows the river past a series of three huts. The lowest hut makes a good camp, just a couple hours from civilization. The upper huts are good fro blowing up boats and putting on dry suits out of the sandflies. Follow the track up from the lowest hut for an hour to run Class I; two hours for Class II; three hours for Class III; four hours for Class IV – you get the picture – but we haven’t yet hiked five hours above the lowest hut.

Erik Tomsen and I left his car at 6:30 PM or so, the river gauge reading 2.4. We found the hut among thickets of pokey gorse and muddy paths and fresh cow pies. Leaving the hut at 9 AM the next morning, we wandered up an increasingly beautiful valley following a splashy aquamarine stream through mixed podocarp woods. Snow clung to craggy peaks beneath blue skies.

Where the trail climbed uphill we caught glimpses of the river crashing through big granite boulders in smooth tongues that ended in misplaced rocks. Twenty-something Erik is the strongest walker I’ve hiked with in a while and the only way I could keep up was to take off from the hut before he did and have the skimpy trail markings and faint trail slow him in confusion while I made wily time: “Old age and treachery stay ahead of youth and fitness every time,” I couldn’t help thinking.

By noon we’d made it to the Mid-Taipo Hut, below which Graham Charles had described “13 kilometers of class II-III” in New Zealand Whitewater and above that was moderate class IV for four kilometers . We walked another km to the swing bridge and put in at 2 PM for a fast and furious roller coaster ride, twisting and turning steeply between smooth granite boulders, like a NZ version of the Little Susitna River.

Lower, from the Mid-Taipo Hut downstream, the run was characterized by wide splashy runs that funneled into steep, boulder-choked drops, crashing downward into 3-4 foot tall breaking wave trains. After each of these I’d look back and see Erik’s big grin. The valley was open and the river braided around islands in the flats, but the river never slowed.

We reached our gear at 3:30 and shoved off for the last steep boulder funnel at 4 PM. From there the creek picked up water and channelized, then entered its Class III canyon, reminiscent of a fall-time Talkeetna in its constrictions, wave trains and water color.

“Heh Roman! I gotta name for this. If we were to give this run a title it’d have to be, ‘Never a Dull Moment’!”

And here I thought it couldn’t get any better than the Sabine….

Upstream of the final canyon the cow pies and gorse had detracted from the walking, making the route four stars rather than five. But the final canyon made up for that.

The Taipo is world-class packrafting.

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