UNCHARTED: AN ADVENTURE ON NEW ZEALAND'S RUGGED WEST COAST
By: Liv van Leeuwen • liv.vanleeuwen
In a land where kayaking is by far the preferred method of transport, it’s not easy to find a canoe, let alone well documented details of ideal trip destinations. It’s a case of having to paddle your own canoe, and discover the places for yourself.
Having been overcome by the art of paddling on a trip to southern France a few years back, I was desperate to get a boat of our own, and introduce my husband to the rhythmic glide of a well paddled canoe. I just knew he’d love it.
We’d been on a trip to the West Coast earlier in the summer, chasing waves and falling in love with the lush native rainforest, when we’d driven over a bridge, just north of the tourist town of Punakaiki. On glancing up the river I’d seen what could only be described as paradise. Vertical limestone cliffs, a dense canopy peppered with palm trees and mighty Rata and a placid, golden river. If there ever was a perfect place to canoe, I was convinced we’d found it.
As soon as we got back I mentioned it to our friends, who already had their own hand built wooden canoe. I figured we could paddle upstream, into the national park and find a place to camp for the night before heading back. It would be a mellow expedition into some unexplored territory. We just had to find a vessel of our own to make it happen.
We’d been looking for something for a while, but nothing decent had come up until I was fortuitously picking wild blackberries near our home on Banks Peninsula when I saw a group of school children paddling in the harbour in what were, undoubtedly, canoes. A quick chat with the guy in charge confirmed I’d just run into what was probably New Zealand’s only canoe instructor, only minutes from my home.
After what felt like the world’s most extensive search for a canoe, one had turned up almost at my front door. I didn’t think it was the prettiest thing, a white plastic boat around 16ft, with blue foam glued to the deck, and a funny white tank in the middle. A result of ‘kiwi ingenuity’ apparently, and the fact the canoe was built by kayakers.
My husband wasn’t convinced about buying a canoe, but when he saw it tied to our roof racks he experienced what I can only describe as love at first sight.
All week I nervously watched the weather forecast. Notoriously wet and wild, planning a trip to the West Coast is never without the worry of bad weather. Thankfully a weakening front looked set to pass through on the Friday night before leaving us with a weekend of mostly fine spells. Although as we travelled deep into the Southern Alps and over the pass to the coast, the driving rain and low fog didn’t have any of us convinced that there was settled weather to come.
We woke on Saturday to clear skies. I had been stressing all night, organising a trip seems to carry the weight of expectation, and I couldn’t rest with the thought that we might be turned back by bad weather. I’d been holding out for this adventure, an all consuming kind of thirst for the unknown.
With a fresh brew warming us from the inside we headed to check out the river. Our friends were yet to be overcome with the same kind of deep bridled love my husband and I gained over summer for this particular part of the coast. But once they saw the subject of our impending exploration, we got the feeling it wouldn’t be long until they too, had a little place in their hearts for this magical part of the country.
We set off, and were only just hitting our stride when we came across the first rapid. I hadn’t expected to encounter any white water on the trip, so I was a little taken aback, but confident we could eddy hop and handle the mellow flow. As we made our way further upstream we entered a gorge filled with bottomless pools and huge boulders. The breathtaking contrast of rich green forest set against the deep blues of the river had us gushing over the beauty we’d stumbled across.
After the lush setting we’d just left it was a shock to find the devastation of a huge storm just minutes upstream from the gorge. The entire forest canopy was missing, with lone Rata piercing the sky only every so often. The river banks were littered with fallen trees, like soldiers wounded in battle they’d found their final resting place.
We reached the river forks and spied a campsite not far ahead, hidden through the gauntlet of fallen trees. It didn’t take long to make the sandy bank our home, the discovery of a leaking dry bag and wet sleeping bags did little to dampen our spirits. A few hours beside the camp fire quickly sorted out the latter.
There’s something about the way a fire draws out the conversation, holding the party together long after the cool of dusk starts to settle and the impending darkness closes in like a heavy cloak. Then there’s the chocolate, passed around as if it’s a newborn, everyone craving the sweet warmth of it’s taste. We huddled around til the fire burnt down, the embers faintly glowing, sending us to bed with warmth in our bones.
Dawn stirred the campsite with it’s crisp intrusion, nothing a hot cup of coffee beside the rekindled fire couldn’t fix. The river had gone down we noted, the flow of the rapid opposite our campsite slightly less imposing, as the creeping sunlight left a golden haze right above it.
We hit the water reasonably early, before we lost too much more of the flow that would see us safely back down to the spot we’d left our cars. The first rapids proved easy, after a little instruction on the nature of the water, the eddy and the angles. We reckoned we’d be alright not scouting each one, there wan’t anything unmanageable that we’d passed the previous day.
We ran them without trouble, well without trouble from the water. I was paddling at the back and a wife steering her husband is not a happening thing without being subject to some questioning of technique!
All quarrels aside we thought we were doing pretty well. One was a bit close for comfort, a long flow building into the main wave train, an unfortunately placed rock jutting out from the bank, sluiced by the main flow of the rapid. We managed it, swinging with a hard pry stroke, powering forward, the rock glancing off the back of the boat. Could have been worse, could have paddled it better.
But as we watched our friends follow we realised they mightn’t be so lucky, no hard pry stroke, lining them up before entering the main force of the rapid, no hard forward paddle. A gentle submission to the course of the water. A desperate yell to change their direction, but too late, straight into the rock and straight into the water. Piet dived in, not a second thought. Grabbing desperately at what wasn’t tied into the boat. I dragged them onto shore, anxious to see they were safe.
They were laughing.
Alice having panicked in the middle of the river, not sure what to do.
“Just stand up” Matt said, “it’s only waist deep.”
Thank goodness for that decrease in flow.
We emptied their boat. Tipped it over, a thorough inspection. Shit. A hole, puncturing the stomach, right through to the other side. We still had over half the river to paddle, the deep gorge the main feature of what remained.
Duct tape, in the chilly bin, only a tiny bit but better than nothing. We tore strips, creating a frail patchwork across the gaping wound. They tested it, we couldn’t believe it, nothing leaked in.
Like true explorers we limped home, counting our losses but more feverishly our blessings. We’d made it, safe and sound. All accounted for, other than the drink bottle and shovel, fallen victim to the incident upstream.
The canoe could be repaired, but in ways the scar would always remain, the mark of the adventure we’d just shared. The one that filled our souls with beauty, kinship and a thirst for more.