With whitewater you can never get enough. There is always more, different and potentially better water out there - somewhere - which means that new sections of river hold a lot of appeal. Getting a PFD (Personal First Descent) on something you haven’t paddled before feeds the search for new adventures. Given that New Zealand is quite small and not really famous for its multi-day trips, a PFD on a multi-day run in New Zealand is particularly exciting.
We drive past the confluence of the Waiau and the Hope River many times each year, but never stop. It had been on my to-do list for a number of years, so every time I passed the Upper Waiau, I wondered what it was like down there. The stories are outrageous. Everyone knows someone with an epic tale from the Upper Waiau. Floods, swims, pins, entrapment, boats lost into portages, holes in boats from the walk in, access issues, feral weather and many other stories.
Some friends were organizing an overnight trip down the Waiau and asked us about flows. Processing that we had never been, had free time and there was a trip going, it didn’t take us long to join the mission. Sophia Mulder and Mick Hopkinson were also on board. Even with a good amount of rain the week before, we knew that the flow was going to be on the low side of good. Scenic boat abuse aside, I would rather be on a low water trip than no trip at all.
The Waiau River is the 7th longest river in New Zealand at a mighty 217km. Located in the upper central South Island, the Waiau begins high in the Spenser Mountains and flows southeast towards SH7, the road through Lewis Pass. There, in full view of SH7, the Waiau drains into the Hope River and flows east to the Pacific Ocean. The take out for the Upper Waiau is about 2.5 hours from Murchison, quite close by general boating standards, although getting to the put in is a whole different story.
We set off early in the morning from Murchison, and met our kayaking friend Ernie Li at the take-out a few hours later to leave a shuttle vehicle. After some comprehensive take out reconnaissance, we agreed on the shortest route from the confluence to the car. Once we exited the Waiau, we’d do a short ferry glide across the Hope River followed by a five-minute walk to the car. It is worth noting that this turned out to be the easiest part of setting the shuttle.
After picking up the rest of the crew, 14 paddlers in total, we took a back road out of Hanmer Springs and followed the upper reaches of the Clarence River to its confluence with Maling Creek. Access to the Upper Waiau Valley, and the put in, is via Maling Pass, which is a little bit exciting and quite an adventure once the road becomes a 4WD route. At this stage we were spread across three vehicles, but with not quite enough clearance for an early maneuver, the Subaru in our mob was quickly parked up and we reshuffled into two.
After about an hour of driving and many technical 4WD lines, we were over Maling pass and descending into the Waiau Valley. I was ever so grateful that we could drive in for this trip. For a number of years a locked gate prevented vehicle access into the valley. These days the gate is open for vehicles, saving kayakers a two-to-four hour walk over the pass to the river. There are horror stories of people dragging their boats the entire the way, only to discover they had worn through the plastic by the time they got to the put in.
A good three hours later we were finally at the river. The crew spread out and started the packing process. Not ones to ever skip out on luxury, Mick, Daan, Soph and I were quick to pack some extras for later on. Those new to the overnight process, or those just tougher or smarter than us, went lightweight and basic.
Pushing off the bank, we meandered for two hours through some shallow channels as we settled into the Waiau. The water is easy, the valley wide and open, and we had a lot of time to chat and catch up. The first couple of hours took a bit of a physical toll, as the flows were low and an early afternoon upstream wind had the team pushing hard to make downstream progress.
The group had spaced out a lot, so it was delightful to round a particularly windy corner and find the front crew parked up at what looked like the beginning of the gorge and the rapids proper. After a quick feed, and some epic deliberation and pondering from some of the team, our pod charged off into the downstream goods. We were met with wonderful, technical Class III – IV water that lasted the next four hours or so.
With many different gorges, lots of rapids and amazing scenery, it was awesome to be on more of a cruise program through this stretch. There was plenty of time to catch eddies and enjoy the fun moves. Several long, stand out boulder garden rapids provided really good kayaking. The second rapid was particularly enjoyable as I watched Soph, who did not realize she was first (an honest mistake in a big group), instantly become the probe as she charged down first.
The many rapids were all very manageable (especially at our low flow) and the riverbed looked like it would be a lot of fun with more water. The late afternoon, low angled sun made some of the rapids quite interesting as it was difficult see what was going on in the water. Some considered guessing and committed ‘poke and hope’ action helped keep the downstream momentum going. After a long gorge section we found a collection of boats on the bank, where the team had found a great nook for mass camping.
Daan, Mick, Soph and I kicked off our evening with some wine, much to the surprise of the rest of the team who hadn’t packed the same “extras” at the put in. Dinner was a feast; we ate epic nachos with pretty-good-condition-considering tortilla chips, followed by chocolate for dessert. It was a wonderfully social evening, capped off with some whiskey and a fire.
Those of us without tents rose quickly in the morning after a storm of sandflies moved in during the wee hours of the morning. Bitten on all exposed skin and fighting to keep my nose and mouth free of bugs, I gave in and got up. We got the fire going as the others woke up, and were a good way through breakfast and packing, when someone realized that the team in the tent weren’t up yet. Ah, the joys of sleeping in a bug-free environment.
It was a cold, fresh morning and I spent at least the first two hours of kayaking deeply regretting my short sleeve dry top. At first shining through the clouds in fits and starts, eventually the sun stayed out long enough for me to warm up. The boating was a mix of Class II - III water and we watched with great anticipation as the rock started to change and the walls began to narrow together.
It wasn’t long before we were at some rapids that were considerably steeper than what we had seen that day, and the closing proper of the gorge walls announced our arrival at The Narrows. The Narrows has a legendary reputation, and I was pleased to see that things were going to be good and friendly through there for us. Some punchy laterals gave some of the crew a good ride and before long we were all tucked into the twisting canyon.
One member of our team, Anna Li, had an unexpected encounter with an undercut wall after she eddied out and was gently pushed onto, and under, a wall. In such a tight gorge, and with a large number of paddlers, it was quickly cleaned up and we were back in business. The Narrows is a beautiful place and it was very satisfying to be finally checking it out for myself.
After the Narrows, the happy kayaking continued. It turns out there is a superb Class III jaunt through the lower reaches of the Waiau Gorge, which, if it had easier access, would surely be a well-used section. The scenery in this section provided beautiful views and was some of the best of the trip. This section of the river also allowed me to test my hand paddling skills. During a break Pip Russell and I were having such a great chat it took us quite some time to realize that the stick way downstream in the distance was actually her paddle. I lent Pip my paddle so she could take off and find hers. Soph stayed with me as I hand paddled downstream to find Pip, who was relieved to have found her paddle.
The river kept on giving, and stayed interesting almost all the way to the confluence with the Hope. There wasn’t quite enough water in the optimum channel to the confluence, so we finished things off by dragging our boats out of the Waiau and into the Hope. After the aforementioned quick ferry glide across the Hope River and short walk to the car, a late lunch and four hours in Hanmer Springs waiting for the shuttle, we were all wrapped up. Our Waiau trip was done and dusted, and we set off back to Murchison.
The Waiau exceeded my expectations and I was stoked to get a new run done and another PFD. I would like to go back with more water, although the flow window and the logistics can make it a challenging trip to stitch together. You need time up your sleeve to set shuttle, or even better, have a shuttle driver to drop you off. For me, the Waiau also serves as a reminder that trips don’t have to be hard to be awesome. It was a real pleasure boating with a different crew and being able to relax and enjoy a part of New Zealand that I had not visited before.
Big thanks to the whole team. A mission I would love to do again with you guys.