River: Waiau Uwha River, North Canterbury, New Zealand.
River Conditions: 11 cumecs at Malings Pass. 173 falling to 161 cumecs at Marble Point. Water discoloured, cool & swift. Grade 3.
Weather Conditions: Sunny & warm, light NE winds.
Number on Trip: 19 people.
Time on River: 4.5 Hours.
Comments: When I spotted the announcement for this trip, it looked pretty exciting as I had never run this section, but had often looked longingly across the river at its’ steep rocky gorges. Since this section is normally run as a two day trip which includes The Narrows (a very tight gorge with a number of grade 3 & 4 rapids), I wasn’t likely to run it in the future. The plan was to be transported via four wheel drives driven by the friendly folk at Glenhope Station, from the Boyle Outdoor Education Centre to Tin Jug Hut. We would then put in below The Narrows section and paddle down to the Waiau Uwha / Hope River confluence.
In the week leading up to the trip, the West Coast was batter by heavy rains and Canterbury received a fair amount of rain too. Rivers rose and even the access track looked like it could be compromised. Fortunately the weather cleared up for the weekend and the river flows fell, the access track was given the thumbs up and the trip was definitely on.
4:30am rolled round pretty quickly and it was up for breakfast and to finish loading up the car before racing off to Belfast for the 5:45am meeting. After loading up Hugh’s trailer, we had a brief wait for a few stragglers and we were heading off up State Highway One by 6:05am. The drive up to the take out point was uneventful but when we went to open the gate to get down to the river, it was locked and we didn’t have to combination. We left a vehicle there and then carried on to the Boyle River Outdoor Education Centre and got our gear sorted out before the shuttle vehicles from Glenhope Station arrived.
With almost 20 people doing the trip, the shuttle would take two trips in with the two 4x4s and the trailer loaded up with all the boats and associated gear. When Todd and Chris arrived, we hitched the trailer on and piled in. The drive through the Magdalen Valley was quite spectacular and we got to look down on the Boyle River and consider the potential for a future trip (looked like a nice grade 2/3 run with the right amount of water). The track was pretty rugged and there were a number of creek crossings, so we were very glad to have suitable vehicles and such excellent drivers to get us in.
We crossed a low pass and then traveled down to Tin Jug Hut, that sits looking over the Waiau Valley and marked the put in for our trip.
As we had a quite a bit of time to wait, Matt and I climbed up the track to see if we could get more of an idea what to expect downstream. The view was impressive, but the river looked a little daunting, brown and swift. We could also looked upstream to where The Narrows opened out into the valley and were quite glad we didn’t need to paddle that section today.
We ferried our gear down to the river and then sat around the hut, enjoying the warmth and sunshine, shedding the extra layers of paddling gear we had worn on the way in.
Eventually the second group arrived and then the preparations became a little more serious. Paddling gear was put back on, boats were loaded up and moved to the river bank and then we all pitched in to help Hugh get his cataraft down to the river. Part of the group went further in the vehicles, planning to put in below the first gorge and thus avoiding some of harder water.
We had decided to split into three groups and most of us were on the river shortly before midday. Once I had launched, I felt the current pulling at my boat and it took some getting used to the turbulence and boily nature of the swollen river, it had definitely been awhile since I had paddled anything so high. Concentration was high and my confidence was feeling sapped as I worked my way across to an eddy above the first narrow section where the river turned tightly and some of the flow piled into a bluff. Things definitely looked scarier seated in my boat, down in the current than they did from the hillside above.
Across the river, I watched the more confidant paddlers at play before they disappeared, one by one, around the corner. Eventually I broke out into the current and let it take me down stream, getting used to the power of the water took some time but as long as you kept an eye on where you were going and what was coming up, you could generally avoid the worst of it and by sticking to the centre of the flow, avoiding the boiling water around the banks and keeping a firm paddle blade in the water, keeping up right wasn’t too hard.
Once through the first narrow point without any dramas, the river opened up again and there was a bit of a reprieved before the rock walls reared up and the river was forced through a narrow gorge. I was able to get a bit more comfortable during this section and was soon feeling a little more relaxed. The water was cold and I appreciated having put the extra layers back on, especially as the sun didn’t seem to reach into the gorge sections.
The swift current meant there wasn’t much opportunity for playing but people took advantage of any fun that there was to be had. In the tight gorges, there were not too many places to stop, what looked like a good eddy to take some photos from was usually a turbulent swirl, full of boils. Any swims tended to be long, and recovery tricky, especially if people didn’t hold on to their boats and paddle.
Being in a tight gorge at a high flow can be pretty intimidating, often there are not good places to stop, just small, nasty eddies with boily eddy lines just waiting to trip you up and they can be pretty lonely too as your group can get strung out and there is no way to know what is happening out of sight either upstream or downstream. Keeping to the middle and keeping paddling worked, but I didn’t get many pictures, though seeing other people Go-Pro footage I’m not surprised I didn’t stop for some snaps.
While most of the group chose to paddle a kayak, Chris bucked the trend and was paddling his big open canoe. He did well navigating the rapids and even though his boat was crammed with air bags, it often seemed to need bailing out. Definitely some impressive paddling with half the paddle and twice the boat.
The trip had a real adventure feel to it, as I had no idea what was round each corner or what was coming up. With trips on the Ashley or Hurunui, I know each rapid and the best ways to run them, I know where to stop to get that photo, where the play spots are and how far it is to the get out. With this trip, it was all new and nothing was expected.
It was quite a relief to finally get out of the first gorge, the sky opened up above us, giving us the opportunity to relax a little and appreciated the splendor of the country we were moving through, with it’s rocky faces and bush covered mountains. At some stage after this, we met up with the rest of the group that had bypassed the first gorge. It was hard to tell exactly where this happen as our party was quite strung out.
Hugh did a great job organising the trip and provided an extra layer of safety with his cataraft, as an extra person / boat could be transported if necessary. It was also great to see him powering through the rapids, though I did make certain I was well away from it in case I got run over.
We worked our way down the river in loose formation, with groups forming and breaking up as we went along, depending on whether people wanted to play or if additional support was required. One of the responsibilities on the river, is to always look out for the others in your group, to always be ready to lend a hand if needed and to make sure no one is left behind.
During one of the more open sections, I was enjoying running down a big wave train, bouncing up and down, feeling the slap of my hull against the troughs and the splash of water in my face, when the “wave” I was just about to punch through turned out to be a biggish hole. Too late to avoid it, I dug in to keep my speed up, made it through but ended up tipping over. I soon rolled up with no dramas. John H noted that he was surprised I didn’t notice the hole earlier and that I had dropped into it. Well I guess it looked like fun at the time.
With all the tight, rocky gorges we had to pass through, the were some impressive rock formations, carved out by passage of water over the ages. It was also interesting looking at the satellite images on Google Maps, trying to trace our route, picking out specific locations and realising just how tight some of gorges are from above.
The second major gorge wasn’t as tight or as challenging as the first one, but we had some less experience paddlers with us and this resulted in a couple of swims. Responses were good, with the experienced paddlers ready to help with recoveries and having the gear and technical know how to reunite paddlers and gear, and to get them back on the river again.
Our groups split at this point, with Matt, Hugh, John H and others disappearing into the distance and not to be seen again until the get out, as they made a good pace while the odd swim slowed things up for the others.
At one stage, an empty boat swept past with two other kayakers trying to maneuver it towards a bank or nonexistent eddy, I was about to set off in pursuit when I decided I wasn’t exactly comfortable and my little boat would probably just get in the way, rather than helping. Upstream another kayaker helped the swimmer to shore, while I waited in my eddy in case anyone else decided a swim down a flooded river would be fun. Once everyone and everything was “rescued”, then the tricky operation of reuniting the paddler with their boat and paddle begins, this involved through ropes, controlled swims and tows. Fortunately this didn’t occur too regularly as this wasn’t a good day to be spending excessive time in the water and we had a long way to go.
Later we spent quite a long time parked up, while most of the group scouted one of the bigger rapids. I remained in my boat but got the information from some of the others, it was a good exercise but I often find the longer you spend looking at a rapid, the worst it gets. Eventually a couple of others broke out and then I followed on down and got in to a suitable position at the bottom. No dramas as the rapid turned out to be easier than a number we had already done, but we did have at least one swimmer.
In some places, the gorge became very narrow (though probably not as narrow as The Narrows) but just how exciting the section was generally depended on the gradient, as well as geomorphology of the river. The gorge pictured above must have had a fairly gentle gradient as there were no real hydraulic features and you could simply float through it, though it would be interesting to see what is was like at a lower flow. Somewhere near this point we passed under a narrow wire swing bridge, high over the river.
The valley widen a bit before entering another gorge, this one was the least challenging of the three, which was probably a good thing as we were probably starting to get a little tired.
The high flow still provided plenty of challenges, especially when the current and bluffs interacted. The random boils, swirls and pulses caused more than one kayaker to adopt a worried expression.
One of the plus sides of all the recent rains was the number of waterfalls running down into the river, made the scenery even better.
Once we exited the last gorge, the valley opened up and the end of our trip neared. By this stage I was pretty tired and was looking forward to getting into some warm, dry clothes. We passed under a very long suspension bridge that looked a little like it had been used in an Indiana Jones movie, complete with missing planks. From here the river split into multiple channels and we stayed in the right most in order to be in the right place when the Waiau Uwha joined the Hope. At the confluence, most of the group walked upstream to cross over the Hope to where the vehicles were parked, while I sort of ferry glided / paddled across and then walked up the opposite bank. We were off the water around 5pm, so it had been a long day out.
We got changed, packed up and headed back to town. On the way home, we stopped off at the Brew Moon, a few of the group ordered some tasty looking pizzas and while tempted I knew I’d be having dinner when I got home. It was with some relief when I finally made it home and tucked in to a Hell pizza ordered whilst at loading up at the Belfast.