Labour Weekend 2018 @ Ngaruroro
The first u-turn was less than a kilometer into the drive as we decided to trust Google Maps on Labour Weekend. Good call as we speed out of Auckland almost catching up to James’s ute at BurgerFuel for dinner in Hamilton, u-turn count up to three. With driver swaps at either end of the Napier to Taupo Road we arrived in Kuripapango at half past one, and a u-turn count of six.
As we rolled in another group of campers flagged us down, “stop stop stop”. Concerned we would hit something, I opened my window and then quickly declined as they drunkenly asked, “sing us a song”. However, our rejection did not phase them as they continued raucously singing to a guitar under gas heaters through to three in the morning.
Highs and lows
Long weekend sleep in, awake and at it for seven, packing up and into boats for a pickup from “Young Christopher”. Note for any future groups, the track to the ‘river’ goes straight to the heli pad, whereas the ‘helipad’ track takes you to a freakn’ marsh??? Breakfast by the pad quickly tidied just before half past nine. A safety briefing and more importantly many photos. I was grouped into the second flight.
After a 35 minute return journey Chris was back and taking the hotties in the front seats, Claude and I were relegated to the back. My second time in a helicopter I thought that I knew what I was in for, the turbulent drops as we crested over ridgelines were both stunning and terrifying. Jacqui in the front middle had made it clear she was nervous. Erica to her right was there to support her, over the flight they were both squeezing the others leg.
Back on steady ground the concern was how to get gear down off the bluff. Unfortunately DOC access restrictions require everything to be dropped at Boyd Airstrip not down by the river. The sun was beating down over the plains, making a path through a cutting Provo found gave us a way down the last six meter drop. Not committing to what looked to be a one way track I stayed above. A pile of dryware and helmets quickly accumulated as we tried to manage the heat.
When the fourth flight returned without the net of kayaks we were all concerned, our estimate of 30 kilograms a kayak was well under, and the heli could not lift off even with the operator’s tolerance. Contemplation of our walk out was soon quashed or more correctly squashed as Chris returned swinging the net around like a wrecking ball, he did say he would drop them where we were standing... Coming back to collect the net, "sorry about that I lost the pedals" was not well received by Jacqui.
Kayaks were lowered down to the river and inflatables pumped up. Baby stuck on the gravely first rapid a telling sign for the next three days on the river. Crystal clear alpine water balanced against the harsh midday sun overhead to help manage temperature. Starting at the back of the kayakers I quickly found myself dropping back, catching on rocks even when following directly behind others. Ally said, “It was just inexperience”, my first frustration with the Phat, its draught. Water splashed around my ankles walking down rapids and quickly accumulated in my kayak as I paddled without a skirt. As it became more repetitious I took out the foam backband, moved my throwbag, and then left my cows tail clipped to the front security point all to make walking easier. With the efficiency came increased risk which struck as I broached across the river on two rocks, Ally was sliding down towards me and water poured over the cockpit rim, I quickly stepped out to right the boat. Frustration two with the Phat, the lack of a drain plug.
Not to say I wouldn’t do it again, after two hours walking and shuffling a kayak down stream we dropped out of this stunning environment, stark, almost alien. My pace meant I was still relegated to the back of the pack, only just catching up to the raft as they finished a late lunch. The river narrowed with larger rocks making the rapids more technical, still requiring sliding the kayakers made quicker progress. This change did not help the inflatables as they continued to get stuck. Forming a group of four with Ally and I, James and Claude gave lines to the raft to try and aid their progress. As the day cooled off and the light dimmed we were concerned that the front group would not stop leaving us to paddle in darkness through to Ngaawapurua Hut. Fortunately, by six we found them seven kilometers short of the planned stop.
Camping on a bluff ten meters above the river, spongy soil and dry firewood made for a comfortable night. Except for Jasmine complaining about mosquitos and bringing the wrong sleeping bag. Rigging the mountain radio from east to west, we checked in with a hobbyist operator from Christchurch planning for a big day tomorrow.
Friends that pin together stay together
With 26 kilometers to get back up to schedule we started early packing down off the bluff campsite, putting on before nine. The raft was on the water first knowing that their 2.1km/h average for the first day would make the day a long one. Group separation at the front yesterday had led to some questionable lines and a double pin, “…said that this would be grade two!” -unnamed. Leaving last, the kayakers grouped into fours, the u25’s first. Quickly passing the raft, on a section with the same style as the end of the first day with a touch more gradient. We caught up to the inflatable kayaks as Provo was out with a throwbag pointing out a syphon. This caused more anxiety than the feature itself. Everyone cleared the main drop, with varying levels of cleanliness down the rest of the shoot.
Progress was slow at the back with the average dropping below 2km/h, every rapid requiring baby to shuffle, with most requiring two rafters walking around. We bumbled down within line of sight of the back group, sitting idle in eddies and playing the game who can hit the least rocks. Tyler was at a distinct advantage going second, but I still clinched some rapids.
Still short of Ngaawapurua for a late lunch, the adults had lots of serious talk. The call was made that if we made it there by four we would push on another five kilometers to Rocks Ahead Hut. A weird occurrence happened, the adults were all standing in circles with pants around their ankles, bizarre. Again, the inflatables were on the water first, the river opened up and that did not improve the situation for the raft.
Again, we quickly caught up to the raft passing it stuck mid rapid. As first in the group, I got down choosing a slot to the right for the final drop. Looking back, I saw Jasmine almost go under the raft getting pulled up by Vania. Pushing back out onto my line she pinned sideways on a rock spinning around and rolling over without her paddle. I blew three whistles, Mark was running downstream from the raft as the pink boat was pinballing down the rocky river. Just a meter before the main shoot and almost ten seconds under water a hand came into sight, Jasmine made a hand of god move pulling herself up off a rock before just missing another pin and sending the shoot backwards without a paddle. Terrifying, I would have swum.
Through the rest of the afternoon a group mantra of “Friends that pin together stay together” formed as the style of rapid flattened out. Pins, multiple pins, re-pins, and pile ups, I was the worst and Jacqui avoided most. Progress remained slow with the average dropping further to almost 1.5km/h for the day.
Making it down to Ngaawapurua with half an hour to spare, the rafters looked shattered but continued. The next five kilometers lifted to be the cleanest section so far. Tim was stoked getting into Rocks Ahead, “We made two rapids in a row without getting out!”. Slightly more depressingly Vania summarised the first two days, “You know it’s not good when you’re looking forward to the flat sections in a raft”.
Stunning campsite overlooking the river, I was less helpful with dinner (Ally’s stunning multiday pasta) on mission to start a fire with only a flint and steel. In front of a fire flickering away into the evening overlooking the river with a clear sky above, the places we go.
The paddle that broke me
At eight Tim heard back from the mountain radio operator that a heli had been organised after lunch for the raft and his inflatable. To get a head start on the 34 kilometers left to finish, Provo and Jacqui had already left. The remaining seven kayakers put on at nine, aiming to hold a pace of 6km/h. In the style of the previous section from Ngaawapura we exceeded our goal making good progress with three and a half hours before lunch. The Phat never quite took its third strike but it was close, the big round tail becoming difficult then painful to hold straight. Back on the river and within ten minutes we saw the rest of the group, the heli flew over and we passed Jacqui and Provo as they were finishing their own lunch. Down to the last five kilometers into Kuripapango we slowed down, taking out at three. Averaging just below our aim at 5.6km/h.
The walk up to the campsite was a killer finisher, a swim and repack we were on the road by four. Generally I hold myself to be a good passenger, staying awake with the driver even if I’m not in the front left. This did not happen, knocked out before we left the coast contorted up against the paddle bag dribbling down onto my shoulder.