It’s New Zealand’s waterways, snaking their way through the mountains, that truly hold its magic. The Kiwis agree. In 2017 they gave a river the same rights as a person. To see what all the fuss is about, Explorer Xavier Anderson jumped the ditch in search of canyoning and packrafting adventures.
The water lapped at our boats as we floated down the river. The walls of the gorge were rising up around us. We just sat, our feet resting on the edges of the packrafts. This was the last river of our hectic trip, so the silent floating was welcome. James, Jason, Mark and myself were the last ones remaining from the army of eleven that had travelled across the South Island for the past three weeks. The others were pulled away from this extraordinary place early to head back to work.
The goal of our trip was to explore the life of a river. We rappelled, slip- slid and sometimes stumbled through New Zealand’s epic canyons and packrafted rivers ranging from class I-III+.
Canyoning is the sport of travelling through a canyon using a variety of techniques such as walking, scrambling, climbing, jumping, abseiling and swimming. Mark seemed to put it best: “It’s like a waterpark for adults”.
Waterfalls are great to look at and all but being pounded by a raging one while you try to catch your breath in the middle of a 30m abseil is a totally different experience. The most epic canyons we found were around Haast on the West Coast. Here are some memories from some of our favourites.
The Perfect Canyon Doesn’t Exi…
Cross Creek, which is located just near Haast Pass might not be the most technically challenging, remote or secretive canyon but it’s damn good fun. The never-ending series of jumps and natural waterslides keep your adrenaline pumping for pretty much the whole 4 hour canyon.
The abseils are fantastic as well. While you’re rigging the anchor you can take a step back and appreciate how spectacular the canyon really is! If you are worried about your skill or experience level, this canyon is run commercially and it’s a perfect side trip if road-tripping the West Coast.
It’s Not Always Fun And Games
When you are slipping and sliding your way through a canyon it can be easy to forget that they can be dangerous places. It is probably the most difficult place to be rescued from. We were very aware of this going in but after James hurt his back after landing awkwardly from a jump it became even more salient.
I was glad that our group was experienced, not only in the technical aspects of the activities we did but in wilderness first aid as well, so if anything went seriously wrong we would be prepared. I would highly recommend taking a Wilderness First Aid course if you regularly head outdoors.
Sometimes Adventure Is Right Under Your Nose
The word adventure conjures up thoughts of wickedly long treks to remote corners of forgotten countries but Imp Grotto taught me that epic places can be closer than you realise. This little firecracker of a canyon is accessed straight off the road by disappearing into a wall of bush, Narnia-style.
It takes about 20 minutes to walk up to the first 12m jump and about two hours to make your way back down the canyon. It is a short, sweet canyon that has truly earnt the title of Imp Grotto. Along with Cross Creek this is a ‘must-do’ if road tripping the West-Coast.
This peculiar sport has been kicking around for a little while now. However, in recent years it has been picking up steam. So what exactly is it? A packraft is a one-person inflatable boat. They are super lightweight, incredibly durable and can fit in your backpack. They are the ultimate tool for adventure, allowing you to reach remote rivers and take on some challenging white-water. Trust me, these aren’t the kind of inflatable boats that you buy for 20 bucks at the department store.
We paddled a mix of different packrafts on the trip. I stuck with my trusty Kokopelli Nirvana Self-Bailer XL, Tom the adventure racer was never far from his Alpacka Gnu, which can be paddled solo or as a double. The rest of the crew went with a great Aussie brand called PacKraft. We managed to avoid any major punctures or leaks the whole time, which was great because patching a boat halfway down a river is not my idea of fun.
The Guidebook Isn’t A Bible
In planning our trip, we used the ‘Canyoning In NZ’ and the ‘New Zealand Whitewater‘ guidebooks as our main sources of information, along with some handy local knowledge from the Department of Conservation (DOC) and other local paddlers. They were pretty damn accurate for the most part but as we learnt on the Arahura River, blindly trusting a guidebook written almost a decade ago isn’t the greatest plan.
Tom, Galina, Jess, Mark, Jason and myself had split from the rest of the group in Hokitika to tackle the Arahura River, traditionally an important source of Greenstone for the Ngāi Tahu tribe. It would be a short 3 hour paddle with an easy 10km return walk along a mountain bike trail; or so we thought. To be fair, the guidebook was at least half right, the paddle was a pleasant 3 hour jaunt through a stunning gorge.
We ran into trouble on the walk back when we came to an abrupt stop as the ‘trail’ which we had been following ran into a thick wall of bush. Jason sarcastically remarked:
‘You might not be able to get a mountain bike through that’
After two more hours of retracing our steps and scouting out potential ways through we came to the agreement that it would either get dark before we would make it back or we would be ‘cliffed out’ by the gorge walls and not make it back at all.
So, for the second time that day we inflated our packrafts and paddled down the Arahura to our take-out. Both our cars, containing our overnight gear, were back at the put-in and we were faced with a 40km walk/hitchhike along a little-travelled country road with darkness looming not too far in the future.
We decided to swallow our pride and approach a nearby farmer who we had talked to earlier that day. He very kindly gave us a lift back to our cars. On the ride he said that for as long as he had lived there he had never heard of a trail that ran up the river. What a day!
Proper Planning And Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance
This popular British Army adage rang true for all but one of us on our overnight hike/packraft of the Poulter River. Nearing the end of our road trip our group were now feeling confident in our abilities and the grade of the river. We (all except Jason) decided to save on weight by not packing our wetsuits. Great idea, right?
Well, we were blasted on both days by freezing 80-130km/h winds. By the time we reached the take-out all our faces were frozen in grimaces, our hands were locked to the paddles and our legs were beyond numb. Jason though, sat snuggly warm in his wetsuit, enjoying the beautiful river. Trust me when I say, you’ll never see me without a wetsuit in New Zealand again.
Packrafting Offers A New Take On Popular Places
The Waiho River may not ring a bell at first with those who have travelled around New Zealand’s South Island but its source, Franz Josef Glacier might. It is a popular stop-off for many and for good reason; it’s amazing. Loaded up with packs, helmets and paddles, we were quite the sight on the tourist path up to the glacier.
The odd looks increased as we began to inflate our boats and get changed. It was an entirely different experience to regular packrafting. The sport is all about getting to remote places, away from people but here we were in front of a gathered crowd.
The crowd vanished from our minds though as soon as we pulled out of the eddy into the main flow. The water was insanely fast and cold (there were literally chunks of ice in the river!), the rapids were demanding and we finished the paddle completely exhausted, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. It’s so close to the crowds of tourists but the Waiho is worlds away in terms of experience.
Always Make Time For The Classics
The Waimakariri River or ‘Waimak’ is a stunning river located in Arthurs Pass. It lies in an immense valley and is regularly run by pretty much anything that can float. We split the gorge section of the river into two days, staying in a magical hut within the gorge itself. The towering walls of the gorge and aqua blue water of this section take all the words out of your mouth. My tip? Just sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
As well as paddling the popular gorge section we also sought to redefine this classic. Instead of the regular put-in at one of the major bridges that cross the Waimak we set out on an overnight trip to the upper Waimak, staying at Carrington Hut and paddling back down. This is a much less popular section of the river as the only boats that can access it are packrafts. This section held the most interesting whitewater and rivalled the gorge for views, all without any jet boats. The Waimakariri River is a must!
Before You Go
I would highly recommend any of the places that were mentioned above but do make sure your party are competent in the activity you want to do (e.g. anchor construction or swift water rescue). Also, check in with the local DOC office before you set out. They can be super helpful (a lady at the Arthurs Pass office was a rad packrafter!)
If you don’t feel confident to head out yourselves, then join a guided group. There are heaps of great companies that run guided trips for both canyoning and packrafting in New Zealand.
It is also important to adhere to ‘Check. Clean. Dry’ when moving between waterways on New Zealand’s South Island in order to prevent the spread of freshwater pests, particularly Didymo. More info can be found here. Also try to stick to the trail on canyon approaches as the moss and other plant life around these areas is very delicate.
Thanks, to the NZ team and to the ANUMC for making this happen. It was a hell of a trip.
All photos thanks to JMacqueen Media