Rohan Does "Th' Coast" (Finally!)
So there I am, sitting in a little one boat eddy, when this mad man, totally out of control, comes flying into me. I used all my strength to prevent myself falling out of the back of the eddy. The mad man went past, went upside down, and went through a rock sieve.
Mr Charles, (Graham to his friends) survived this episode. Which is wonderful news as this will enable him to write his long awaited follow up book to 100 Great New Zealand Kayaking Runs. He even managed to get his paddle back, eventually, from under the rocks.
My first (and only) encounter with Graham Charles occurred on the Lower Kakapotahi Gorge. It was my first trip on a West Coast river. It is an easy section and does not require a helicopter. The only hard rapid is early on, just after a swing bridge.
My West Coast trip was a long time coming. Being a student for years, I had put off travelling down to the Creek Boating Mecca of NZ. The cost is reasonably high due to the helicopters required for most trips. They are worth every penny.
My trip really began in Murchison. I was sitting there wondering how I was ever going to get my sorry arse down to Hokitika when I met Derek. There are some people in the world I do not understand. I do not "get" their approach to life. Derek is one of these people.
Derek is happy. He smiles. He is always happy. He is always smiling.
No problem. Rain is good.
Derek, the car won't go.
Nice place to stop.
Derek, your boat has been stolen.
Really? Would you believe it? (smiling).
Derek, me and your momma have been intimately involved for several months now.
Your father too. And your sister, and the family dog.
Derek offered me a lift to the West Coast. We went the long way ... And after a day or two we ended up in Greymouth, a tantalising 48 km. from Hokitika and the paddling Mecca. (But everything was under control Derek assured me). The youth hostel was putting on a free BBQ so we decided to be soft and stay in beds for the night.
The hostel was built in the early 1900's on a steep bank. The front veranda offered a splendid view of the street below. In fact, perching on the railing with the evening sun on my face, sausage and bread in one hand watching the local police carry plant after plant of marijuana from the next door neighbours place was a rather wonderful way to pass the time.
The next day we finally made it to Hokitika. Here I met up with the Rochfort Trio, Grant, Paul and Mark. (And Grant's partner and their dog). They informed me that the rivers were all a bit low.
That night it rained like I have never seen it rain before. It was like standing under a balcony where there are several thousand Otago students above, who have spent the afternoon enjoying kegs of free Speights in an establishment with limited toiletry facilities.
As the sun rose the next morning, the rain was replaced by brilliant sunshine and the moisture evaporated off the ground. It was time to try out the bath tub (aka the Overflow) on a bona fide West Coast river. Unfortunately everything was a bit too high to paddle so we did the eminently forgettable Lower Kakapotahi. Actually, it's not a bad section but it is pretty difficult to cope with when one is all "barred up" for a hell mission on the coast.
HOWEVER, the next day we got the real thing. Conjure up in your mind a dirt road, and a patch of grass and a long line of parked vehicles. You're on the West Coast which is in the middle of nowhere and now you are in the middle of nowhere in the middle of nowhere. In fact there are about 30 or 40 of you in the middle of nowhere.
The steep walls of the valley around you start to reverberate to the familiar whakka whakka whakka that can only mean one thing: a mighty Hughes 300 is surging forwards. A fistful of dollars in one hand and an Overblow in the other you are leaping towards the helicopter.
The Hughes 300 is not a big helicopter. It is best to ignore the warning panel on the dash that tells you how much weight may be carried in the helicopter (they run them on a 1/4 tank of gas to keep the weight down!!) With the pilot and two punters, there is no personal space in the cockpit. Rising into the air and doing a sweeping arc to face up the valley the view from the chopper is superb. And more than a little misleading. How could you possibly paddle the little stream below that you follow up the valley? Those drops don't look that big!
I must admit that as we circled the landing site (a comparatively flat piece of river bank) the slow English words of the Germans who remarked surprise that there was no landing platform at the take off point amused me even more.
And so it was that the Rochfort trio and myself began a decent of the mighty Arahura. The section of the Arahura that is paddled consists of 3 gorges. The section took us a solid 6 hours with a meagre break for lunch. Although if Paul had managed to not break his foot on Dent Falls we may have been 20 minutes quicker. You can read about the section elsewhere, but basically it is a mother that will spank you badly if you cock up. It was the first trip in years where I have felt genuinely and totally exhilarated. I was on the edge of where I wanted to be and I was glad to be in a bathtub. This was particularly the case on "Billiards" where, having been a little casual, I found myself badly tail standing in two consecutive holes, before the main drop! (And for the record, Paul was pretty staunch and didn't let on just how sore his foot was until we got off. It was so sore that he preferred to trust our explanations of the upcoming rapids rather than getting out and scouting them with us!)
The next whirly bird trip I did with the Auckland University Canoe Club. We had a dodgy day on the Whitcome. I think the Whitcome is a little overrated. It has a fun gorge section but it is much shorter than other things. And then there were the Aucklanders ...
They all had small boats that did some really great tricks. My favourite trick was the "Sucky Tail Gets The Aucklander Stuck In A Hole Whirly Whirly Thump Splutter". They were fairly proficient at this move as my bathtub went like a freight train through most of it. The other move that I liked was the "Walking Around The Hard Stuff As Our Small Boats Mean That We'll Get A Thumping". I simply do not understand going to the West Coast and walking things because you're in a small boat ...
My third and final heli trip was on the Upper Wanganui with Graham Noble, Chris, some American guy and some Canadian guy. This was a really fun section. There is about 200 yards that takes over an hour to paddle after scouting.
I probably had my closest scrape on the Wanganui. We had scouted one rapid that involved going down the first bit and then getting out of the main current before most of the water disappeared under a big rock. "The first bit", however, munted me. My boat got submerged, I was thrown against a cliff and went upside down. This was about as fun as I would imagine being "known" (in the biblical sense) in an "unnatural" way (biblical again) by an elephant would be. I have never rolled as quickly in my life and I have never needed to before. Even so I came up to a chorus of "PADDLE PADDLE PADDLE" from my companions. I made the eddy.
The next drop took a lot of scouting. Eventually Graham paddled it in his Dagger Redline (a smallish boat but not rodeo). After getting back-looped, side-surfed and generally chundered a bit, Graham pulled himself out. My turn next. By my reckoning Graham's problem was that he was in a smallish boat and slowed down just before going over the drop. I would have neither of these problems. I got into my boat and pulled out of the eddy. I "wound up" to get as much speed as I could before going over. About two feet before the drop I discovered why Graham had slowed down so much as I came to a grinding halt on a submerged rock. I had about two strokes left to get any speed up, and basically opted to try and "boof" it and hold on to my hat. I went deep into the foam but was spat out it a big tail stand. The recirc tried to reclaim me as my adrenaline kicked in and I paddled like a demon and pulled through. The Overblow has its advantages. Chris and his Zwo and the Canadian walked the drop.
That night I ended up hitching to Greymouth and sleeping on the porch of the place Derek and I had stayed earlier in the trip. There was not a bed to be had in the whole town, so I waited till they closed up for the night and dossed down. I got up at dawn and went to wait for my shuttle bus.
After arriving in Picton I had a 2 hour wait for the ferry. I decided to buy the cheapest bottle of port I could get my hands on, sit in the sun at Echo Cove and cook 2 minute noodles while drinking.
A pleasant trip. The West Coast is more bang for your buck than anything in the North Island I have paddled. Be careful though. People have died and there is ample opportunity for spankings on every section.