Dramatis Personae: Andréa, Bolke, Duncan, James, Jens, Nick.
Ah, winter! The time of year for sunbathing, martinis by the poolside, the gentle thwack of leather on willow, and camping at Mangaweka on the way up North for a paddling trip. A game of spot the odd one out?: no, each of the above scenarios is equally implausible, and the sound at the gear shed of feet being firmly put down (and the torrential rain accompanying the electrical storm currently in progress) soon advised Nick that his mistake in suggesting we pitch tents and rough it was indeed an egregious one.
Unfortunately Nick hadn't catered for the possibility that all might not share his enthusiasm for camping, so no alternative arrangements were in place. Hence, some impossibly vague notion of "going to Ohakune and finding somewhere" was suggested by myself. I hadn't thought through the bit about trying to find accommodation on a busy weekend at 11pm, nor the bit about reconciling the movements of two cars (thankfully there were only two), one having two cellphones and the other (ours) none. It had all the hallmarks of a developing epic.
Epics as the staple of good story telling notwithstanding, the upshot was that within fifteen minutes of arriving in Ohakune we'd found a nice, cheap, clean backpackers. Duncan decided to haggle over the price with the proprietor. The poor guy was apparently completely mesmerised by Duncan's bartering skill, crumbling almost immediately and lowering the tariff significantly. Five minutes later we'd contacted the other car which arrived shortly thereafter. After toast, hot chocolate, and a game of pool (pool was the winner on the day - I'd like to say that James was, but Nick probably wouldn't speak to me again), even Nick's body language seemed to be agreeing that playing Scott in the Antarctic at Mangaweka wasn't an essential part of everyone's character development.
Next morning, after breakfast and more pool (which was again the winner), we sifted off to do the Manganui-a-te-ao. At the get-in Nick demonstrated how not to close a rescue knife: after trimming his flash new cork bung (for his boat, OK?), and after being warned "look out, it's sharp", he closed it on his finger. "Look what your knife did!" he complained. "Bastard! You've got blood all over it!" I shouted back. Jens continued the fascinating display of absent-mindedness by driving off to do the shuttle with his (untied) boat still on the roof of his car, from which it promptly came crashing down. Or maybe that's the way he normally gets his boat off his car.
The river being much bigger than the last time we paddled it, it promised a fun ride, and so it proved. Maybe somewhat pushier, and with a few good holes developing - I remember blatting down one rapid and looking down to see James heading straight for a hole. I recall thinking "Where's he going?" while carefully paddling around him - I didn't want to get smacked on the head by his boat while it did all sorts of stylee rodeo moves. He got out OK. It wasn't particularly more difficult than our last trip, although I did manage to make quite a meal of what was probably the easiest rapid on the river, causing much hilarity among my compadres. Most rocks were well covered, making for easier route finding, and the nasty bitey undercut that got Alison last time had a decent buffer wave, rendering it pretty innocuous.
Unfortunately, there were some less obvious and far less innocuous hazards to be found. On one of last rapids before the get-out, James strayed from the line Nick had taken. Andréa, following was maybe ten centimetres to the left of James. James glanced off a rock barely protruding from the water and shot off to the right. Andréa swung left, then stopped dead as the stern of her boat lodged against another rock below the surface (later inspection revealed the first rock to be virtually invisible, the second completely so). Her boat instantly sank, broadside to the main flow. She attempted to rock her boat loose, but it was completely stuck, so, with her deck collapsing she did the very sensible thing and got out of her boat as fast as possible.
I'd been maybe ten metres upstream when this began. I looked down and saw a boat sideways, not moving, with someone in it. My brain flooded with chemicals as I made an eddy on river left in a haste approaching blind panic. I don't think I've ever got out of my boat so fast (even when upside down). Sprinting to the river's edge, I was hugely relieved to see Andréa climbing out of her boat and leaping into the pool below. James and Nick ferried her across to the right bank; I began to calm down and with the arrival of Jens and Duncan in the eddy beside me we began to take stock of the situation.
Andréa's boat was almost completely submerged, broadside to the flow and with the cockpit facing upstream at an angle of forty degrees to level. Soon the airbags and drybag had been forced out of the boat and trailed like obscenely bloated entrails from the cockpit. The boat looked like it was about to die; we were all sure we could see it folding. The stern was about one and a half metres away from the closest point we could reach, but with a powerful and deep chute of water between; close, but no cigar. No physical contact was possible.
Nick assembled all the rescue gear from river right, put it in his boat, and ferried across. We had four people, two (?) throwbags, one pair of splits, a dozen carabiners, a roll of duck tape, and two pieces of sling. "Where's the other throwbag? Who's got another throwbag?" asked the Safety Officer. Duncan pointed at Andréa's boat. "Why don't we have more throwbags?" asked Nick again. No-one answered. After a few bitter recriminations and reminders about what Mick had said ("I recommend that every kayaker carries a throwbag, four metres of sling, two carabiners and a prussik loop"), we decided to implement the other bit of his rescue schema: simplest and safest approach first. A long willow branch was hacked off, a carabiner with the gate open duck taped to it, and a throw line attached. I then attempted to hook the stern grab loop with it. It was a bit like playing fish with a magnet that didn't work and a hurricane blowing the tip of the rod from side to side - the grab loop was about ten centimetres below the water level, and the surging water and the flexiness of the willow made it impossible to aim. It was just matter of taking a swipe and hoping something would catch. After a few goes I was exhausted, so handed over to Jens. Same story. Trying to catch the cockpit coaming didn't work either, with the two airbags obstructing the rim.
The next plan involved sending a paddler into the eddy below the boat to attempt to attach a line. Duncan volunteered, but the eddy was too surgy and the boat in too difficult a position to make it viable. Then I decided I'd try to surf on my back with a throw line held by Duncan and Jens upstream, and clip the grab loop with the other line. As soon as I got to a position parallel with the boat I was forced under the surface; thank God the line I was attached to ran out at the same moment and Duncan released me. End of attempt number three, and by now I was bone-chillingly cold. The others took heed and sent me back to bring the car up from the get out, ostensibly to get some more rope but in reality to warm me up. Andréa had come across from river right with James and was also heading back to the car; she later confessed that she'd already written off her boat and was deciding what she'd replace it with.
The run to the car was a good warm up, as was the chocolate I found in it (apologies to whoever it belonged to, but my need was greater). Soon we got back to where the boat was pinned, and peered over the bank down to the river 10 metres below. What we saw was four people hanging on like grim death to a line attached to the end of Andréa's boat! I scrambled down the bank , taking in the raft of two boats that Duncan had ingeniously started to construct. Had it worked? No; Jens, with the patience of Job, had modified the clip stick and continued swiping at the stern of the boat until, incredibly, the carabiner had snagged the grab loop.
At this point we should have rigged a Z-drag, as taught by Mick and Peter. But, in the spirit of improvisation, and with a convenient car, we opted for the more brutal, but significantly simpler, expedient of towing the boat off. Lines attached (we needed both throw lines and most of the roof-ties, plus a sling or two), I started reversing, with Andréa guiding. With the tension taken, it seemed to require an inordinate amount of force to do anything, and I waited for something to break. But no: eventually the boat came free and was beached. The two pinning rocks were revealed to be a perfect boat trap: it was like a giant Lego set in the river, with Andréa's boat the missing piece to finish the construction. Next came a survey for damage. By rights, the Kinetic should have been bent like a banana and split in two. Again, no: one small dimple which soon popped out, and a few new scratches. An engineer would have pointed to the strength of a boat constructed from cross-link plastic in the shape of a trapezoidially-modified box girder, but we just stood in awe, looking at the boat that wouldn't die; and marvelling at the fact that all you need to unpin a boat is three carabiners, two throwbags, one roll of duck tape, a car and a Jens. Lucky, too, because Duncan confided two days later that the third throwbag had not been in Andréa's boat at all: it was in his all along!
Pre-empting the possibility of Nick suggesting camping again, I decreed that we should head to Whakapapa village for the night. Promises of beer and pool tables brought Nick around, so we scuttled off to assess the possibility of accommodation at the Skotel (I remembered they had a pretty funky spa). Arriving there, I was nominated by Duncan to do the haggling. I muttered something like "what country are we in?" but went off to negotiate anyway. No backpackers accommodation was available, but we could get two rooms at $120 each. My look of disdain must have been stupefying, for the clerk instantly came back with the counter offer "but we'll do them for $85 each." The others having arrived to watch my negotiating prowess, we went into a huddle to see if this was acceptable to all. The sight of so many hardened bargainers must have struck fear into the poor woman's heart, for she immediately capitulated and said "OK, best I can do is $75 each room." Unwilling to let her off for such a trifle, I immediately shot back "Does that include the spa?" By now a gibbering wreck, she mutely acquiesced, even giving us two time slots (a whole hour of hot water hedonism - bliss).
Dinner was created and despatched with almost unseemly haste, with Nick's thoughtful inclusion of two bottles of wine in the shopping trolley a nice touch. Classy. Spa time saw Jens discovering that the puddle' on the path was actually a shin deep pond, with his heuristic method being to plant both feet squarely in it. How we laughed. The spa conversation was the usual combination of wit and drivel, with Nick contributing liberally to both genres, sometimes almost incoherently at the same time. Having rendered our appendages prune-like, we headed for the bar, but not before Duncan, Andréa and myself had turned the unit's bathroom into a drying room. Every single inch of space was strung with various bits of cordage with soggy gear dangling from it; the thermostat cranked to max, and the heater switched on. Soon a satisfyingly foetid smell attested to the efficacy of our arrangements. In the bar, Andréa most generously bought a round for our efforts in unpinning her boat. Nick and James went to the mezzanine floor for a game of pool. Their game didn't bear much resemblance to pool, however; instead, they appeared to be vying to put the most divots in diner's skulls, as pool balls rained down into the dining room from above. Mercifully the pool table was far enough away for us to be able to disown them.
Predictably, the next morning was even slower and siftier than the previous one. By the time we'd got to arguing about what to paddle, Jens and Andréa had announced their intention to have a rest day. Interest centred on the Whakapapanui: was there enough water in it? Several complicated phone calls later, including one to Ray in Wellington to get the number for the Tongariro Powerhouse, got us the information we wanted. We deduced that the flow in the Whakapapanui was about 30 cumecs - ideal, according to the guidebook. However, I was feeling nervous; a combination of no-one knowing the river, its remoteness and difficulty of escape once on it, and fatigue from the previous day, all conspired to make me feel anxious. The events of the previous day didn't help either, so I resolved to paddle the first couple of rapids then escape if necessary before entering the gorge proper. Nick's comment that if I didn't paddle he didn't feel confident about doing the river with three earned the rejoinder that I'd paddle if I felt up to it, not because he wanted a foursome. But he had succeeded in making my decision more difficult.
Finding the get-in was the first hurdle. Despite what he claims, I don't think Graham Charles has actually paddled this river, as his description of how to locate the track to the river has almost zero correlation to where it actually is. On finding the track it became clear that our problems had only just begun. A precipitous track/climb required lowering of boats with a line, and it took over an hour from leaving the car to getting to the water's edge, a total distance of about 800 metres. By this time I was cold, a result of standing around in not quite dry paddling gear in a biting southerly.
Nick ordered me to eat a peanut slab, which tasted like mud. My stomach was churning; I just hoped that on the river it would settle down. The first rapid was just around the corner, and approaching it I felt like puking. So, I got out of my boat, saying I was going to scout but also ready to bail if things looked nasty. Well, it looked OK, so I got back into my boat and followed Duncan down. Same for the next rapid, so I figured that, as the guide book said the trip was only 1-2 hours long, I might as well stick it out.
Once in the gorge we were rewarded by the most spectacular scenery. The river had cut a vertically-sided slot about 20 metres deep, festooned with mosses and ferns and with native bush overhanging the rim. Side streams had not cut down to the river level; instead they plunged from the rim in graceful arcs straight into the middle of the river. The rapids were frequent and interesting, requiring a bit of manouvering but not offering too many serious difficulties and no major hydraulics. However, the rapids were long and the flat sections short (the Whakapapanui falls at 18 metres per kilometre, steep for a river with no major drops), the only way out was down, and the consequences of any major hiccup (even of someone swimming) had the potential to be serious. I didn't even want to capsize - I was still cold, and each time we got out to inspect another rapid (not always possible) I got colder still. Everyone knuckled down, with no playing and all keeping a careful eye on each other, a seriousness of purpose commensurate with the situation.
At the confluence of the Whakapapanui and the Whakapapaiti (becoming the Whakapapa), the river went from 30 to 50 cumecs. It became much broader, less technical, but fast, bouncy, and with some good-sized holes appearing. By now I was getting seriously cold, and wanted out - chocolate wasn't helping any more. For me, it was a matter of trying to stay focussed and out of trouble - I didn't want to get worked in a hole. On a warm day, near a road, it would (for me) have been one of the most enjoyable bits of river I'd done, but the circumstances kept any ebullience in check. Duncan did a magnificent job of leading down the rapids, which were big enough to make the chance of getting lost and straying into trouble real. I had only one major brush with a hole - after being spun around upside down a couple of times I managed to roll up and grovel out, only to fall into another hole and then another, neither of which, fortunately, detained me too long. But I'd been properly soaked and now I found myself shaking and feeling that I was becoming careless. I was at the point of wanting to walk rapids rather than risk another dunking. But I didn't want to slow the others, and we'd been on the river for over two hours now so surely we couldn't be too far from the end.
The relief of seeing the dam's intake structure appearing around a bend was enormous. I punched the air with joy; the others must have felt it too, and there were whoops of delight from everyone. Andréa and Jens were relieved to see us too; we were twenty minutes from the cut-off time after which we told them we'd be overdue. I changed as quickly as my club-like hands would allow, in between forcing down gulps of hot chocolate, glad that I'd paddled the river, but also profoundly glad to be off it.
By now, even Nick seemed to be getting into the not-camping swing of things. We headed to Turangi to Habitat backpackers, which again promised James and Nick hours of pool playing delight. For some reason Duncan completely forgot to haggle over the price (though it may have been that the young filly with the cute accent behind the counter had rendered him temporarily speechless). After we'd wrecked havoc in the drying room, everyone except Nick went to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Nick went to the bar instead. Upon being summoned for dinner he seemed genuinely grateful for the effort we'd gone to for him. We left him to do all the dishes.
While in the Nick versus James contest' air hockey and pool were again the winners (I'd like to say that James was but Nick would probably thump me), Duncan tried to talk Andréa and myself into playing darts with him and Jens. "You can play with Jens, if you're not confident, Jens is really good, and I'll play with Bolke" said Duncan to Andréa. Duncan spent the next half hour eating his words, with a side dish of humble pie. What he did not realise was that, on Kapiti (where Andréa spends her summers), there are only about four things to do: eat, sleep, count birds, and play darts. By the time Jens and Andréa had run up a cricket score (with Brian Lara and Mark Waugh on the same team) against us, Duncan offered them a draw. Instead, Jens offered the coup de grace by throwing a bull's eye with his last dart.
We'd booked the spa for 8.30 pm. We finally managed to kick out the previous occupants at five to nine. In hindsight, it might have been better if we hadn't succeeded. The water was a sort of grey soupy colour, with bits floating around in it that we were loathe to identify. Nick began speculating on how many people had done the wild thing in the spa since the water was last changed, which was an interesting, if stomach churning, theoretical exercise. At this point the conversation took a downward plunge, with Nick recommending that, prior to getting out, we do all sorts of unspeakable acts in the spa (you'll have to ask Nick for elaboration). Everyone raced for the showers, convinced we'd caught all manner of hideous diseases, and for the rest of the night every time I felt a slight itch I was sure it was my flesh dissolving.
Fortunately I was still alive and pretty much intact the next morning. Nobody felt particularly keen to do anything long or difficult in light of the still-blowing southerly, so we settled on the Kuratau. The Kuratau is a bit of a silly river (as Duncan put it, "badly designed"); it has only four or five easy-ish rapids, followed by a long flat paddle, and has a tedious shuttle. But, in spite of Nick's scorn, it was a pleasant enough experience, a suitable end for the trip. James enlivened things a bit by needing a buddy rescue on an entirely flat section of the river (and being subsequently unable to explain himself), and Nick took a series of group photos, a serious business requiring careful posing and "saying cheese". We were off the river by 12.30 pm, which left enough time for a leisurely lunch. Having run out of bread, we tried various novel ways of consuming toppings: as Jens discovered, tuna on gingernuts = weird, tuna on lettuce leaves = much better.
On the road by 2 pm, at the Brown Sugar in Taihape by 4 pm, we were home by 7.30 pm, an unusual if civilized experience.
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