The Upper Karangarua

   Whitewater
New Zealand - December 2015
It has always remained a mystery to me why no one had flown in and paddled the Upper Karangarua. In December 2015 the Gradient & Water team finally committed and made the trip happen.

   Whitewater

New Zealand - December 2015

It has always remained a mystery to me why no one had flown in and paddled the Upper Karangarua. In December 2015 the Gradient & Water team finally committed and made the trip happen.

The team

There is plenty of virgin river upstream and a designated helicopter landing zone at the headwaters, so this river had always beckoned to me, but there had to be a catch or someone would have already picked this seemingly low hanging piece of fruit."


After being away from New Zealand for a couple of years, I was fired up to get home and put some strokes in on rivers I hadn’t paddled for far too long. And to make things more exciting, I had been awarded an expedition grant that would provide the means to attempt the First Descent of the Karangarua River. The lower had been paddled from Cassel Flat, but there is plenty of virgin river upstream and a designated helicopter landing zone at the headwaters, so this river had always beckoned to me. There had to be a catch though, or someone would have already picked this seemingly low hanging piece of fruit.

Once I landed in NZ, I made quick work of the family time and bee-lined to the West Coast to get in position for a scouting mission. After some flood boating and a few days of being reminded why the coast’s whitewater has such a reputation, Ari Walker, David Bain and myself flew into Christmas Hut at the headwaters of the Karangarua Valley. The flight explained a lot. The river forked at Cassel Flat and lost at least half of its flow to the Douglas. Then the Karangarua itself climbed 100+ meters in a series of cascades up above the flat. Shortly above this was another huge cascade, and above that a series of locked in gorges. Then the river lost half of its flow to the Troyte and climbed again to Christmas Flat, our intended put in. Not to be dismayed, it seemed everything would, or we hoped, be achievable at river level. Two days of hiking and scouting helped confirm this and we were keen to get in there with kayaks as soon as possible.

Ari Walker - Karangarua River - Photo Jordy Searle
Ari Walker - Karangarua River - Photo Jordy Searle

Fortunately rain events on the coast are pretty common before the New Year, and soon we were making a call to the heli pilot and asking him in a raised voice, to combat the rain. “Can you fly us tomorrow afternoon”, to which he replied, “Of course, if you’re sure you want to go in”. We were sure!

The next day the same crew that completed the scout, this time joined by the infamous Barny Young, flew into the river and the flow looked prime. High enough to make the top navigable, and low enough to allow us to portage the massive cascades at river level. This was going to be a mission, we knew it and were prepared for it. The first day went off without a hitch, the river was at close to a perfect flow and we managed to paddle everything down to the ‘Upper Gorge’. This narrow slot presented a few issues, culminating in having to rappel around an impressive pinch in the river. All good and spirits were high at Lame Duck Flat that night.

Barny lowering Jordy into the Upper Gorge - Photo David Bain
Barny lowering Jordy into the Upper Gorge - Photo David Bain

We knew that day two was going to be big, plenty of whitewater and the two cascade portages. We got an early start as we wanted time up our sleeve, just in case. The hallmark drop on the run was first up, but would be left un-run as the flow was too low. There was some classy whitewater down to the cascades, but is kind of a faded memory as we were charging, and once we hit the first major portage we were blown away by the beauty of this river. No point in trying to describe it, the pictures can tell that story.

Jordy Searle on the last slot section before the first cascade - photo Barny Young
Jordy Searle on the last slot section before the first cascade - photo Barny Young

One big surprise, how easy the portages would turn out to be. Not literally easy, but not the 2-3 hour technical slog we thought it may be. This would be true for the second one too. And both cascades ended with a clean drop, like a reward for our hard work.

Barny Young bottom of 2nd Cascade portage - photo Ari Walker
Barny Young bottom of 2nd Cascade portage - photo Ari Walker

Below the second cascade, the river lost its gradient and meandered into Cassel Flat. We had done it. All that was left was a night of feasting in Cassel Flat Hut and then paddling out the already established lower section of the Karangarua River. We were stoked.

Jordy and Ari putting on for the last day - Photo David Bain
Jordy and Ari putting on for the last day - Photo David Bain

There is plenty of virgin river upstream and a designated helicopter landing zone at the headwaters, so this river had always beckoned to me, but there had to be a catch or someone would have already picked this seemingly low hanging piece of fruit."


The Gear that Made This Possible