Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Oparara Mishap

“Walking in? Never heard of anybody walking in, but plenty of stories of people walking out!” quipped Mick when queried about the possibility of doing the Oparara, the West Coast’s northernmost class IV run, as a packraft loop.

On the map it looked superb. A “stunning new” trail leading 8 miles from the take-out to Moria Arch, the limestone gateway to the Oparara River.

The Oparara had come highly recommended but carried with it a warning: “too much or too little water in the upper bit leads to more walking than you’d bargained for.”

“This is the nicest day I’ve ever seen on the West Coast,” observed Erik as we headed up the trail with blue sky showing above the tree fern crowns.

We made good time on the new trail of granite cobbles, twisting and climbing through a valley full of mossy trees covered with climbing pandanus.

“Boy, I’d hate to have to walk through that. It looks really thick.” Unlike the new trail we walked that was suited for mountain bike racing, the woods were filled with diverticulating shrubs, vine tangles, and mossy tip-ups.

After about three hours the trail passed over the massive Moria Arch. The arch is so massive that it offers no indication, other than a disappearing river to the side, that the trail passes over the arch and the river. We scrambled down a slimy trail into a cave that opened to a massive chamber where the Oparara River slid through. Water dripped from stalactites and the cave floor was polished limestone and sand.

“Let’s put in here!” Erik was excited by the magic.

Brown water rich with tannins slipped by and clouds now filled the sky. The guidebook had promised flat water after an hour or so of “wood and rocks”. Unfortunately we never got to the flat bit. We spent more than an hour portaging and scouting in the low water.

Rocky shallows crowded with black soggy wood led to narrow crashing slots and boiling pools. We portaged almost immediately on limestone cliffs and boulders when the river slid in a half dozen sieve holes beneath sharp sticks and rocks.

We rafted through a nether world of dripping, overhung, black walls above water the color of a deep porter brew. We made maybe five drops and another two portages, the last following a swim and a paddle that was swallowed up by a sieve. While the moves were generally simple the consequences of a swim were not always safe.

The very low water exposed the ragged black heart of the Oparara, a heart jammed full of tree trunks and spiky, honeycombed boulders. In higher water all of this would be covered but it still all looked like entrapment.

We paddled a few more wonderful drops but each horizon line prompted us out of our boats for a scout. The last one showed a big drop of maybe thirty feet through a sieve of enormous granite boulders down to a sharp left turn. We’d be unable to extricate ourselves should we commit to this.

“Erik, it’s time to exit.”

“Maybe we can put back in to the calm stuff below. The guidebook said there were flat bits.”

We traversed under a limey overhang on a narrow goat trail choked with vine cane. It was slow going. We made a 100 m in half an hour.

Eventually we deflated our boats and -- pinched off by a cliff below and discouraged by the deep base sound, if not the sight, of plunging whitewater -- we climbed out. Passing paddles and pulling up on hardwood handles and limestone grips we climbed vertical jungle for about 100 feet.

I knew the trail would be somewhere “uphill” but without map or compass we’d have to follow the topographic gradient and hope that in this veg-covered karst landscape we didn’t end up confused atop a limestone spire.

The gorge walls ended and we scrambled through a kie-kie thicket, a climbing pandanus that obscured the knife-edged ridge. It was technical bushwacking in our water suits with packrafts strapped to the back of our PFDs. The twisting brittle stalks of the kie-kie supported huge grass-like blades obscuring sinkholes and pockmarks. This ridge, too, ended eventually in a flatter ridge that we followed tentatively upward for another half hour until we stumbled onto the cobble covered track.


Erik busted out of the bushes and held his hand high. “Give me five!”

I pulled off my dry suit and readied myself for the two and half hour hike back to the car.

“You know, ya gotta have a day like this every so often. A real adventure to keep you honest.”

Maybe so, maybe when your twenty-something. But I’m looking at 50 soon, and these kinda days are hard on an old guy like me.

And I don’t think I’ll be going back to the Oparara....at least not on this trip.


  1. "...ya gotta have a day like this every so often...and these kinda days are hard on an old guy like me." Too true. Some great drops, but a scary looking swimming hole, there. Great stuff, Roman! Thanks for posting these. Play hard, have fun, be safe!

  2. Thanks John for the encouragement -- been playing hard with Timmy J, who's super fun and kept me safe, super safe!



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