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A month in New Zealand 2011/12

In the winter of 2011/12 I took the opportunity to spend a month in New Zealand, for paddling and general travelling. Several friends had shown interest in a paddling trip to the country with a professional guide we all knew well. This was easily the most expensive holiday I have taken, ever, and the farthest possible to travel from Europe without leaving the planet. To make it worthwhile, I readily accepted the offer of two friends to travel round North Island with them before we would kayak for two weeks on South Island.

Two weeks without paddling

Our flight goes to Auckland on North Island via Vancouver, where we stay overnight to cut the hassle of two long flights. From Auckland, we first drive north up to Cape Reinga, then back past Auckland, down the east coast some distance before turning into the mountainous centre of North Island and continuing to Wellington in the south.

The northern part of North Island is somewhat tropical in places, with huge ferns and big Kauri trees. A nature trail we walk shows the New Zealanders' humour in a plaque describing a vine called the Bush Lawyer. The northern cape, Cape Reinga, is nice but not extraordinary, similar to other wind-swept corners in Europe.

In the eastern Bay of Islands region, I walk a trail through a beautiful mangrove swamp while my friends do an island cruise. The next day, bad weather catches up with us, and stays with us all through the normally beautiful centre of North Island. We visit a nice but overpriced geothermal park (not recommended) and a wildlife park in Rotorua. A less spectacular geothermal partk called "craters of the moon" has a much better cost-benefit ratio. We also visit Huka falls and manage to catch Aratiatia Rapids with water (which is only turned on for two quarters of an hour each day). The weather stays so bad the following days that we cannot do the Tongariro crossing walk, and I get wet through on a shorter walk.

By the time we arrive at Wellington, the New Zealandian capital, the weather is improving again. Wellington is a nice city with its parliament buildings, the town square with a fern-wrapped metal globe floating above it and the waterfront. Curiously, one of the main streets has more than 15 bank branches and ATMs. On our way back to the car park, we encounter the scariest public toilets I have ever seen.

Sea kayaking in Abel Tasman National Park

After crossing over to South Island, we spend two nights near Abel Tasman National Park. On the evening of our arrival we walk an hour along the coastal trail before turning back. The weather is sunny again, the vegetation is lush and the sandy bays idyllic, so this trip is beginning to feel like a vacation again. On our full day at Abel Tasman, we rent sea kayaks and paddle up the coast up to the "mad mile" and back.

Meeting up on Buller River

We finally meet our pals for the first day of whitewater paddling at Murchison, the metropolis of Buller River (kidding - it has about 500 inhabinants). The others have flown straight to Christchurch, and our guide has already fetched the larger van, trailer and kayaks from the different rental companies. We are ten people altogether, seven paddlers (including one woman) and three non-paddling wives.

The Buller is bigwater in drop-and-pool style, fast-flowing open whitewater with the occasional rapid. The Ariki Falls section features beautiful red and pink rocks. We paddle for three days on the Buller and do one afternoon run on its tributary at Murchison, the Matakitaki. We drive up what probably was the wrong (Eastern) side of the river and may have put in too far up, and as a consequence have to portage a confluence of river arms blocked with rocks.

Helicopter flying on the west coast

From Murchison, we travel to the west coast, home to the steeper side of the main mountain range on South Island and as a consequence the steepest rivers there. Another consequence of the steep mountains is that the put-ins of many rivers are often accessible only by helicopter (or by hiking trail, which is not an option for paddling if you are aiming for a day trip). We do two helicopter runs, the lower Mokihinui and Whataroa rivers. The charge (200 and 140 $NZ per person, respectively) has apparently increased significantly compared to twelve years previously, when our guide was last here.

Kayaks and paddles may be fastened in pairs to the helicopter's landing skids (as for us at the Mokihinui) or transported all in a large net attached to the external load hook (as at the Whataroa, see photo on the right). The latter is safer, as it prevents packs or other bits escaping from the kayaks from crashing the chopper by getting into the tail rotor, but can reputedly make for a rougher flight (ours was smooth). Flying to the put-in allows to do a little advance scouting — the bottom left photo was taken at the exit of the rapid seen from the air in the centre left.

The lower Mokihinui is largely open whitewater. At some rapids, it becomes very wide, and orientation is part of the difficulty. The lower Whataroa is narrower most of the time, flows through three canyons and has beautiful green water. On both, most of us portage some rapids. Besides, we do the Milltown run of the Arahura River, which is easy but has a nice gorge, and the Waiho. The latter is a short glacier river of medium difficulty. Only a few of us go on the river despite the deteriorating weather, and we curse the guide book that that fails to mention the distance to portage to the put-in from the glacier car park.

In between paddling, we spend a day driving down the impressive rocky west coast. We visit its main tourist trap, Pancake Rocks, peculiar layered rock formations that make impressive thumping noises when waves crash underneath them.

First attempts at GPS logging

At our two helicopter trips on the west coast I use a GPS logger on the river for the first time. It works in principle, but not without hitches. Several times the logger seems to switch itself off on its own account. I have yet to work out the reason; it may simply be accidental pressure on its off switch through the somewhat elastic waterproof enclosure.

After conversion of the logger's internal data format to a KML file suitable for Google Earth, it becomes clear that the logger's and Google's ideas of the ground height differ slightly, which leads the track to vanish and reappear as one zooms in and out. This annoying effect can be prevented by disabling the 3D view.

Despite this partial success, my original intent with the logger may be defeated by technological limitations. I would have liked to create a river height profile, to be able to see the steepness of different parts of the river. In the event, the height coordinate fluctuated wildly, going up as well as down frequently. I will try to find a way of smoothing the height that still leaves the information I want intact.

Dodging jetboats in Queenstown

At the southern end of the west coast road, we move inland to the Queenstown region. Queenstown is the New Zealand capital of those outdoor sports that require neither skill nor common sense and therefore enjoy great popularity. Bungee jumping was commercialised here — you get the idea. Jetboats operate on many parts of rivers, so don't think of running a section without checking it is free.

Adventure tourism notwithstanding, the Kawarau and Shotover rivers offer great landscape and great whitewater. We do two sections of the Kawarau (Dogleg run and Roaring Meg run), which is open bigwater similar to the Buller. Roaring Meg run is curious — the bed is narrow for a river this size, there are few spectacular rapids, but the water pushes and shoves so as to make the "flat" passages interesting. Our woman kayaker accidentally goes through the middle of the most notable rapid, "maneater", and gets through unscathed.

If I had to choose, the Shotover would be my favourite of all the rivers we did in New Zealand. The adventure starts with getting to the put-in, on a road infamous enough that rental car insurance is not valid there. The packed earth surface is actually rather good, but prone to becoming slippery when wet, and the road is narrow and winding around sharp rocks. And then there are the rafters, who barrel down the track with a trailer and never go back, leaving the hard work to our shuttle drivers. The same rafters are also rather rude on the river, as we occupy part of an eddy they have a standing reservation for. But the gorge is spectacular, surrounded by menacing moutains of slanted shale rock, chunks of which have broken loose and lie in the river. I rate it on a par with Verdon in my private ranking. The most impressive rapid is a steep chute called "shark's teeth" (bottom left) that I still regret chickening out of. But the other, lesser rapids still make it worth the road trip.

Into the mountains

After leaving the Queenstown region, we drive North on the eastern side of the main mountain range and up into the highest mountains of New Zealand. When we arrive at the conservation campsite at Aoraki / Mt. Cook, it is raining and cold, and indeed the following two nights will be the coldest of our trip. But the weather on the following day is great, proving this moutain region's reputation for abrupt weather changes. That day is the birthday of one of us, so we decide not to paddle and walk up to the glacier lake under Mt. Cook. In the evening we have a feast with barbecue and several deserts, and invent the Post-Barbecue Seat Warmer™.

Before departing the following day, we run the lower Hooker River from the first swingbridge of the glacier trail. The water is cold and grey, but the difficulties decrease over the section. The weather stays spectacularly good and gets us some nice photos.

Wrapping up

This leaves us two more days of paddling before returning home. On our way to Christchurch we do Rangitata. Though not as remote as the West Coast rivers, this is still a wilderness trip. The main difficulty is in a canyon towards the end. Most of us portage the entrance, and so many people have a swim farther down that I get really nervous, but I make it. After collecting all the gear and catching our breaths, we continue the short stretch to the take-out.

From our last campground near Christchurch, we do Ashley as our last river. Appropriately, it is at a low enough water level to remind us of small rivers in the (European) Alps. The deep gorge is still quite beautiful. The Ashley is said to be New Zealand's most windy river, which is confirmed as two of us actually capsize due to the wind! In places the rock walls next to the river narrow and channel the air so strongly that one thinks of using one's upper paddle blade for sailing.

After a farewell restaurant dinner and a brief visit to Christchurch we part ways and start on our flight home.

So was it worth it?

So was all this worth travelling half way around the globe for? As regards sightseeing, I am ambivalent about that. New Zealand has many beautiful places, but many of them are similar to beautiful places closer to home. In particular, much of the landscape is quite similar to Europe. That said, we had bad weather in the mountains on North Island, so we have not seen all the nice spots.

With regard to kayaking, however, I have to emphatically answer "yes". The beautiful turquoise water of the Whataroa is truly extraordinary, all the more so in combination with the impressive whitewater. The remoteness of the west coast rivers, and the helicopter flights to the put-in, are an experience in themselves. I am also aware of no river in the European Alps that has both the size and the typical glacier water of the Hooker. Generally, the alpine rivers left for paddling are small upper sections, while in New Zealand many lower sections are unspoilt big whitewater. So yes, New Zealand is definitely worth the long flight, though I would like to spend more than two weeks paddling if I went again.

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