When planning an adventure to New Zealand forward planning is key because the chances are it’s going to be the trip of your lifetime! Summer is the best time to come ‘down-under’, so be sure to book your holiday between November – February to ensure the good weather.
For most European paddlers, Auckland is the logical starting point for your NZ road trip. Despite being a whitewater desert it has a large international airport and it is a great place to buy or rent a vehicle. Chances are that upon arriving in Auckland you’ll want to get out of the city ASAP so my advice is to have everything lined up before you arrive. If you are coming for less than 6 weeks renting is better than buying, as it’s a hassle free option , which allows you to get straight onto the road, and exploring the spectacular country.
If you want to buy your own vehicle www.trademe.co.nz is the best website to use. There are also numerous backpacker car markets but be aware these people have probably done as many oil changes as you plan too. Unlike in Europe, getting insurance is cheap and easy so make sure you get it. After buying your van stop by the nearest hardware store to buy materials for your bed then it’s ready-set-go.
Once on the road, the North Island paddling hub of Okere Falls is based just 15 minutes out of Rotorua and on the banks of the Kaituna River. This is where you need to be heading.. Unlike many rivers that have risen to international acclaim, what makes the Kaituna River so special, is not its difficulty but its ease. Its short length, reliable flows, warm water and roadside access make it one of the best after work runs on the planet. As a result many of the World’s best paddlers have chosen to make Okere Falls home or their summer training base.
The often overlooked, but spectacular lower gorge run also provides some of the best kayaking you’ll find. The narrow and constricted nature of this run means often wood can be get trapped so it’s always good if you can convince a local guide to join you. If you happen to be around during summer and it’s a Sunday, the dam released Wairoa River is another great class IV pool drop style run that is worth checking out.
After a few days warming up at the Kaituna River and having had your fix of German beer at the local store (run by German paddler now local –Andi Uhl.) you’ll be ready to head South. On the way make sure to stop in and check out Huka Falls, on the Waikato River and near the city of Taupo. If you’re feeling game this is your chance to get your ‘park-and-huck’ on in front of the most spectators you’ll see while NZ kayaking. Most first timers like to catch the falls between about 40-80 CUMECS and at this flow it has a pretty manageable lead in and in the class IV-IV+ range.
About now you’ll want to start booking your Cook Strait ferry tickets to the spectacular South Island and home of heli-boating. There are two companies you can use – The Interislander and less frequent but cheaper Bluebridge.
En route in the past it has always been tradition to stop by the Bliss-Stick factory inland from Taihape and paddle the Rangitikei River on the way South. Many paddlers also chose to work for a couple of weeks at the factory in exchange for a discounted boat which they make for themselves. Unfortunately our rising dollar has made it more difficult for them to compete on the international market. Despite this, the owner Charles is still a character and I’m sure would be stoked for a visit if you have time.
Next stop is Wellington where you will board your ferry to Picton and New Zealand’s picturesque South Island. Depending on how you’re feeling in your boat you now have a couple of options.
Option 1: If you feel like you could do with a bit more training before hitting the committing and more technical class IV-V+ runs on the West-coast then head to Murchison. According to Spanish paddler Gerd Serrasolses, Murchison is the “arse hole of NZ”. Despite this, Murchison has some great class II-III+ whitewater and offers many paddlers the final chance to prepare for the more challenging heli-boating. On the first weekend of March it also hosts the Buller-Festival. Mark this date in your calendar now!
Option 2: If you’re already feeling bomber in your boat and the Kaituna River was a good easy warm up then by-pass Murchison and head straight for the West-coast.
Once on the coast Hokitika is the kayaking Mecca where you’ll want to base yourself for all the classic heli-runs. Despite being a small town with a population of only 3000, it’s high rainfall and close vicinity to the spectacular Southern Alps, make it the perfect kayakers playground.
Unlike destinations like California where logging roads have etched their mark into the sides of much of the state, the West-Coast has very few roads making access difficult. Luckily for kayakers, New Zealand just happens to have the highest number of helicopters per capita in the World. Local legend Bruce Dando of Kokatahi Helicopters knows the hills better than most and is the man you want to contact to fly you into the rivers.
In the past most paddlers tended to stay at the Lake Mahinapua campground 10km south of town. Much of the reason for this lay with it being just down the road from the legendary ‘Poo pub’. Unfortunately times have changed and the bar has closed meaning many kayakers now opt for the comfort and showers offered at the local Kiwi Holiday Park.
Time is of the essence on the coast and allowing yourself plenty of it will give you the best chance of lining up as many of the classics as possible. Don’t expect to roll in with a hit list and to tick everything of in less than 2 weeks.
Generally you save the higher elevation runs for a couple of days after rain. When it pours down save your hard earned helicopter dollars and make the most of the lower elevation flood runs that many don’t get the opportunity to hit e.g. the Bluebottle and the Totara.
Often it’s good to ease into your first run on the coast before jumping into the more committing runs. The Toaroha, Styx and lower Kakapotahi are great examples of runs with a varied flow range that provide a great warm up for the Coast virgin. Traditionally the Arahura was regarded as the premier classic Heli run. These days for kayakers solid on class V-V+ who are looking to push the envelope, nothing compares to the Kokatahi. This spectacular river is characterized by it’s steep gorges, drinkable turquoise water and ultra classic ramp and slide style bedrock rapids. In my opinion this run is one of the best in the World!
Once you’ve exhausted your heli budget it’s time to move on to Queenstown (QT) a picturesque town nestled on the edge of Lake Wakatipu. QT is also party central and has more bars than you can shake a stick at. So it’s a great place to have a wild night out. Get there via the scenic Southern route and check out the Franz Josef Glacier on the way. The Turnball, based just inland from Haast is another stellar boulder hopping and boof style class IV-V run that is well worth the effort on the way too.
After your first night on the town, you will be ready to blow out the hangover and cobwebs, luckily there’s no better place to do it than the Kawerau river. Uncharacteristic of the tight and technical nature of most NZ rivers, the Kawerau is high volume and allows you to get your big water groove on. It offers three sections ranging from the mellow class III ‘dog-leg’ run through to the big water class V test piece – Nevis Bluff. If you’re feeling game you can even complete the triple-crown and paddle the three biggest rapids – Nevis bluff, Citroen and Retrospect in a single day.
Chances are your month in NZ is drawing to an end, so now’s the time to line up that work visa for next year, or better yet, marry a Kiwi and immigrate!
Useful sites and advice:
www.facebook.com/gradientandwater For the best images and video clips from New Zealand rivers.
Organising a helicopter on the Westcoast: Phone Bruce Dando on 03 755-7912
Where to Stay in Hokitika: Kiwi holiday park- Tell them you’re a kayaker and you can camp for $10 instead of $12 a night.
How to Get Around: If your coming for longer than one month most tourists tend to buy a station wagon or van. (If planning on coming to the West-coast it helps to buy something with a bit of ground clearance as many of the roads are gravel and rough)
www.trademe.co.nz is a great auction site to buy a vehicle off!
– New Zealand Whitewater guide/bible- By Graham Charles Great resource for river beta and directions.
www.rivers.org.nz – A great website for buying, selling and swapping kayaking gear.
Feature from adventure 187 –
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