Your Self-Guided New Zealand Kayaking Adventure

Life and boating in New Zealand's wild wild west

This story appeared in the 2012 issue of Canoe & Kayak Whitewater. Click here to learn more about paddling in New Zealand.

kayak new zealand

Dylan Thomas paddling down the river. Photo: Benjamin Hjort

New Zealand Kayaking

Words by Kate Stepan and photos by Benjamin Hjort

The sight of a truck in the ditch jolts me from my late-night haze. My German companion, whom I met a few hours ago, pulls over behind the battered Nissan pickup loaded with four creekboats and three of our mates. We’re on a twisting mountain road somewhere between Queenstown and the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s dark. There’s blood. I hop out of the car to see if everyone’s all right, only to find a triumphant Jason smiling and holding a small deer carcass by its hind legs. Someone snaps a photo, and Jason slings the gutted animal on top of the boats and straps it down. I catch a glimpse of Bambi’s body fluids dripping over the scratched hull of my secondhand Dagger Nomad, then stumble back to the car. It’s 2 a.m. and I’m too tired to care. Besides, the real adventure is yet to come.

Tomorrow we’ll strap our boats to a helicopter and fly into the remote Landsborough River for a Class IV self-supported overnight. And after a frenzied week of paddling and the associated partying, we could all use a little sleep.

Welcome to the West Coast. In New Zealand, the term describes the area of the South Island from the mouth of the Buller River in the north, to the town of Haast in the south, where the highway turns inland to Queenstown. To local and international kayakers alike, the two words are synonymous with some of the world’s most remote, rugged, and difficult whitewater rivers. Rising abruptly from the Tasman Sea, and estimated at only about 5 million years old, the Southern Alps straddle a fault between the Pacific and Indo-Australian tectonic plates, which collide to push up the landscape with alarming steepness. Extreme temperatures and rain dump greywacke boulders and scree into the flood-prone rivers draining glaciers and snow-capped peaks. Ribbons of water streak sheer granite walls in valleys shrouded in thick vegetation and misty clouds. If all of this sounds like something out of Lord of the Rings, you’d be right — most of the filming for the popular fantasy trilogy was done in New Zealand.

“It’s a fantastic holiday,” says local guru Bruce Barnes of his backyard boating buffet. Fantastic, if your idea of a holiday includes arduous portages, demoralizing mud, and swarms of bloodthirsty sandflies. But Coast-boating is not without its rewards. When the weather stabilizes, several helicopter services throughout the region are happy to fly you, your mates, and your boats into the bush for about what you’d pay for a pair of stateside skiing lift tickets. The higher you go, the harder it gets; Class V drops littered with shifting logs and deadly sieves keep things interesting for those keen on sending the stouts. It’s like the best of California, without the driving.

As the heli whisks us up the Landsborough drainage, the flat coastal plain drops away and the pilot’s voice crackles over the headset to point out a few “gorgy bits” that corral the otherwise braided glacial stream into dark unknowns. We set down on a gravel bar between the 3,000-meter (roughly 9,800-foot) peaks of Mount Aspiring National Park, miles from the nearest road. The water, siphoned from the glaciers and snowfields above, is finger-numbing cold and silty gray, obscuring the sharp flakes of debris lurking just below the surface.

Luckily, the flow is on the low side of good and the whitewater is a mere introduction to Coast-boating. At the first blind horizon, Jason hops out and routes us around a hidden hydraulic. Our international crew manages to boat-scout the rest, leap-frogging each other to connect the dots between large boulders. When the river opens into the flat plains, we raft up and banter about which rapid contained the “river-wide hole” described in the guidebook.

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Back at Jason’s family bach (a kiwi word for beach house derived from “bachelor pad”) we enjoy a massive feed of seared venison and fresh-caught crayfish. Talk turns to future missions. Aussies Sam and Linden plot a run up the Coast, starting with a walk into the nearby Turnbull River tomorrow. Andy, from Scotland, might join them. The rest of the crew—an American raft guide, an English-born teacher, and a German who’s been picking apricots and cherries for heli money—have already headed back to work. Jason, who represents New Zealand in the freestyle competition circuit when he’s not creeking or killing things near his home in Cromwell, wants to do some more hunting. And so teams of paddlers form and disband like balls of mercury rolling along state Highway 6, pooling around towns like my next stop, Hokitika.

Most tourists stroll the wide streets of this funky seaside village to admire the driftwood sculptures on the beach or window-shop for hand-carved jade. Visiting boaters congregate in the campground about a mile from town, where the owners offer a discount for whitewater “canoeists.” Local Coast paddlers tend to keep a low profile, and boaters plot missions and exchange beta via the message board on rivers.org.nz. When I arrive, the weather’s been dry for weeks, but rain is in the forecast. Plus, Rush Sturges and the Red Bull boys are in town to do some filming. There’s a feeling in camp that anything could happen.

Hokitika’s weather patterns are known to deliver “perfect storms” for kayakers—the coastal town averages more sunny days per year than Colorado, while dark clouds regularly dump moisture on the mountains to the east in short, predictable bursts. You can sit in the campground and watch the storms blow in from the Tasman Sea, slam into the peaks, and pour rain into the valleys below. And then it’s on. The campground lawn sprouts brightly colored creekboats between puddles and tents, with more than 20 boaters buzzing about which rivers will come in first, and which drainages can take the most water.

Over Weet-Bix and coffee we watch as the TV news reports 99 millimeters (3.89 inches) of rain overnight. It’s still raining. Teams from the U.S., Norway, Czech Republic, and the U.K. snowball together, picking up a random German and the few token Kiwis in camp to descend upon the Kakapotahi River, one of the classic local flood runs. A veritable test piece for those looking to chase the harder stuff in the hills, the drops of the “upper Kackers,” like most of the West Coast rivers, ease to Class IV then mellow read-and-run as the river wends its way to the sea.

Simply putting in—below the burliest sieved-out slot moves—involves lowering people and boats via a fixed rope down a slippery side creek. This leaves us one fun auto-boof over a hole, a few scenic gorges, and several scree-filled bends to the takeout. The rain continues to fall.

Back in camp, pasta simmers on the stove while the goon (Kiwi for bag of wine) gets tossed around the steamy kitchen. Once it’s empty, someone has the bright idea to tear off the plastic dispenser and fill the bag with a mixture of cheap whiskey and a certain energy drink known to sponsor extreme sports athletes, which, along with rain pounding the tin roof, fuels the party into the early morning.

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When Bruce Barnes arrived on the West Coast in 1990, he found a much different scene. Fresh off an international paddling junket that included stops in Nepal, Alaska, and the western U.S., the then-30-year-old was hungry to explore what his tiny home country had to offer. A city boy from Hamilton on New Zealand’s North Island, Barnes was “hot on paddling” but found that most rivers in the sleepy post-gold rush valleys around Hoki had not been explored since the mining boom days, and certainly had not been plied by kayak.

“I do a lot of things in the backcountry,” says Barnes, which these days include mostly hunting and fishing with his two dogs. “I’ve walked up the valleys and interacted with the landscape in a different way than most.”

He began picking off the first Ds, usually with just one other person, taking advantage of traveling paddlers’ skills and companionship. By 1994, the first edition of Graham Charles’ New Zealand Whitewater guidebook came off the press, and in 1999, the freestyle world championships were held at the Full James wave near Taupo on the North Island. “Every international rodeo paddler and his cuzzy came out,” recalls Barnes from a cozy couch seat in his living room overlooking the takeout of the Kaniere River, a local Class III. Soon, the campground at Lake Mahinepua saw as many as 80 kayakers in residence during January, the peak month of the West Coast paddling summer. Occasionally, Barnes says the area enjoys a “flavor of the month” resurgence among paddling jetsetters, much like the White Nile or Chilean Patagonia.

A high school physics and outdoor ed teacher who spent a short stint as a meteorologist, Barnes is still the go-to guy for keeping track of local weather, the ever-changing rapids, and river flows. He now spends most of his boating days leading students down the Kaniere and other play runs, but there’s no mission you can plan that he hasn’t done or considered. “Paddling the Arahura is now like sport climbing, we know all the lines,” Barnes says. “It’s quite a different feeling from the first time.”

Even with the influx of skilled paddlers, the Coast retains its exploratory feel for those new to the scene. Most West Coast rivers have some kind of trick, like secret levels in a video game. Locked gates, shifting debris, and marginal “tracks” through thick bush have thwarted more than one expert team’s attempts to sample the goods. Committing gorges, fluctuating flows, and sometimes cold water (like that of the Fox, which flows directly from the face of a glacier) up the excitement and difficulty.

Today’s young guns are plying the side creeks and the “upper upper” catchments of the classics, while others eye rivers like the Poaroa or the Cook within boundaries of national parks, where helicopters are forbidden and a walk-in seems as yet impossible.

Twenty-four-year-old Jordy Searle is arguably the most eligible local paddler to take the reins. One of Barnes’ many disciples, Searle learned to boat Class III by carrying his boat into the Styx. These days he gets after it on his days off from milking the 900 cows on his grandparents’ dairy farm about an hour north of Hoki. The past summer has seen Searle and his crew fly higher than anyone’s ever been into the Perth, Wanganui, and upper Whataroa drainages.

“Back in the day, they had more time to fly around and look at stuff,” Searle says. With rising fuel costs limiting chopper time, the new generation of explorers relies on Google Earth and a final scout from the air to ensure a good paddle-to-portage ratio before getting dropped in the bush.

“It’s a no-joke destination for sure,” Searle says, with a grin that probably melts Franz Josef Glacier a little each time he stops in the popular tourist town to party with the coeds fresh off the Kiwi Experience bus. He’s been known to win more than one “goon race” and wholeheartedly promotes bringing boaters to the Coast. Searle spends a lot of time paddling with international visitors, and advises that those seeking Class V be prepared to show some credentials if they want to fall in with the locals. “It’s a lot of really stacked Class IV-plus. There could be upwards of six moves in a row in close proximity to hazards,” he says. “In California, what’s the worst that’s going to happen, I’m going to get beat down and swim?”

Boats loaded and hangovers in check, a rutted, muddy logging road leads us to the put-in of the Totara River. With windshield wipers working double-time in the downpour, I watch the Subaru ahead of us ease into a stream ford. Another of the classic flood runs, the Totara ranges from a Class III scrape to a pushy Class IV-plus rager. As the boat-laden Suby takes a pummeling from a waterfall pulsing over the road, I begin to suspect we’re headed for the latter. A scout of a particularly steep-looking section confirms it: Between a maze of massive holes, there is a line. As swollen tributaries pump in the juice, the river gains a full head of froth before the gradient steepens and pours it into a twisting canyon. Through the driving rain and crashing waves, I struggle to keep sight of the red Jefe in front of me. The rapids become long and continuous. Crashing through the big waves to avoid even bigger holes, the guys finally find an eddy on river-right. Below, the river rolls around the corner in much the same manner. We’re right above the crux gorge.

The water is the color and consistency of cappuccino, and peeling out into the current is like hopping a freight train. Here in the gorge at least the lines are a little more predictable—dodge a massive reactionary off the wall here, ride the boil-line as the river careens around another corner there. The holes get bigger and blinder, picking off my mates around me; one-by-one they get spun, surfed, and spat back out into the main flow. While facing upriver after a particularly swirly hit, I manage to shift my weight to the back deck and take the brunt of two more large breakers. Shoulder muscles screaming, I dig deep for a big eddy where the group is gathering below.
And just like that, it’s over. We’ve unknowingly caught the peak flow and finished with no flood-induced epics. As more and more boaters roll downstream into the takeout, the scene begins to resemble a dam-release weekend in the States. People cram into shuttle vehicles, pull beers out of coolers, and wriggle into dry clothes in the abating drizzle.

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The road-accessible runs, or “free boating,” are the easy part. Between storms, one can experience almost all elements of the West Coast: four-wheel driving, vehicle carnage, perfecting your carry system, superb boofs, and boulder gardens amidst a spectacular mountain backdrop. All it takes is a walk-in to the Arahura or the Styx, Bruce Barnes’ go-to after-work run. As the flood of a “big fresh” tapers off, locals bash their way up the Crooked and Toaroha canyons. Once the forecast is stable, helicopters are cleared for takeoff into the classics—rivers like the Perth, Whitcombe, Hokitika, Whataroa, Kokatahi, and Waitaha.

On a sunny day, we rally a team to fly into the lower Hokitika. The chopper meets us in the middle of a farm paddock, and we hand a wad of pink and blue currency to the pilot, tie our boats to the skids, and stuff people and gear into the cockpit two at a time. Our scenery dollar proves well spent, with clear skies reflected in impossibly turquoise water swirling through gnarled schist. We scout and scrape down, but the relatively low flows do nothing to dampen our spirits—proving that sometimes, with all of the potential for epic around the West Coast—things can go exactly as planned.

IF YOU’RE KEEN on New Zealand Kayaking

Fly Air New Zealand into Queenstown (about $2,050 from Los Angeles via Auckland) on a Tuesday. If you’ve brought a boat, paddle a few hours later at locals’ night on the Roaring Meg section of the Kawarau just outside Cromwell —meet at the takeout along Highway 6 at 6 p.m.

Thumb your rides, or buy a car on trademe.co.nz — the Kiwi eBay—and flip it at the end of the season. Look for a station wagon with side rails on which to attach a pair of two-by-fours for a passable roof rack.

Find flows, and boating buddies, on rivers.org.nz.

Camp at the Hokitika Holiday Park ($10 per night if you tell the owner you’re a “canoeist”). Fuel up with a flat white (coffee with steamed milk) and grab a sandwich or meat pie to stuff in the drybag for lunch at one of several local cafes.

Get the beta in Graham Charles’ New Zealand Whitewater (the updated Fifth Edition is out this month) with its spot-on descriptions of the character and relative difficulty of most runs. Defer to locals as to the status of locked gates, private roads, and changing rapids.

Catch the flow on the drop, not the rise. Consult the satellite images and forecast charts at metvuw.com before heading out. Print a few (free) screenshots from topomap.co.nz — it could mean the difference between a night in a comfortable hut or a bivy in your drysuit if you get caught out.

Have a post-paddle feed of fish ‘n’ chips at Dulcie’s near the Hokitika River mouth, or, after a particularly long day out, splurge for superb curry at Priya Indian Restaurant by the beach.

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