With covid restrictions starting to ease up and border restrictions being thrown out the window, I think it’s time that I tell you all a little bit about my home and where I learned to paddle. New Zealand is a little island country down under at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere. This makes it a perfect summer location to head to while the Northern Hemisphere is banished into the darkness of winter. NZ is split up between two main islands, north and south, both very accessible via a short ferry ride, both with loads of cool whitewater to enjoy. However, I am mostly going to be talking about some of the paddling found on the North Island as that is where I am from and most familiar with.
Okere Falls is the little town that is home to an amazing community of people. It is also where you will find the famous Kaituna River, which has been the training ground that has produced some of the best kayakers in the world. It is a place that is located in a pretty convenient central location to everything you could ever want or need. If you are not big on kayaking but still want to have the experience of a lifetime through whitewater, then you will find the rafting company Kaituna Cascades (and others) which will take you down the world’s tallest commercially rafted waterfall, if you are brave enough. And just up the road the Okere Falls Store sits, which is a great place to hang while listening to locally produced live music and sipping on some good beer. The Falls is a short ten-minute drive from the city of Rotorua, famous for its bubbling hot pools, Maori culture and some of the best mountain biking in the country (maybe even the world?) It is also only twenty minutes from the Pacific Ocean on one side, and two hours away on the other side is the Tasman Sea. Both these beaches are ideal for swimming and surfing. Mount Ruapehu is a short two and a half hours drive away, which is where you’ll find the closest ski fields (and great hikes in the summer). New Zealand’s biggest city, Auckland, and its international airport are also only two and a half hours away. I would also consider Okere as the central hub for North Island kayaking as there are rivers that are almost an hour’s drive away in every direction, which I will go into more detail about shortly. Over the summer months the kayaking community here comes alive with kayaking events like Xmas @ The Kaituna, The Kaituna Time Trial and the Okere Enduro being held. These are all great events catered for all kinds of people! And to cater to all your Palm Equipment needs you can check out Paddle Power NZ (paddle-power.nz), an online store run locally by Andi Uhl.
The Kaituna river is one I will always hold dearest in my heart. Here is where I took my first ever strokes in a kayak and was allowed the freedom to be able to grow into the person I am today through the experiences I was able to have on the river.
In terms of paddling on the Kaituna, the first and main stretch (the Okere Falls section/rafting stretch) is primarily a grade 3 pool drop river with a few bigger drops that are up in the grade 4 range. The biggest of which is the seven metre Tutea Falls that is located halfway down the run. In terms of river logistics Okere Falls is as easy as it could ever be. This section is just shy of three kilometres long and can take you anywhere from twenty-five minutes to an hour to complete. It all just depends on how fast you want to go or how much you want to play around. From memory I think the fastest lap time ever put down from top to bottom was in the five minute range, and I have also definitely done laps that have been longer than two hours. So the world is your oyster. The shuttle is as short as a minute’s drive, five minute run or 10-20 minute walk depending on whether you are carrying your kayak or not. In the summer time the river can get as warm as twenty-five degrees and the pools are often deep and friendly. You will quite often see the local kids hanging up their paddles in the peak of summer and opting for a pair of flippers and pool toys to get them down the river!
Okere Falls also offers a lot of potential for people who are not after the adrenaline fix of boofing off waterfalls. As all the main drops are in the first half of the river, there is an option for people who are just starting out in their kayak to put in right below Tutea Falls and paddle the seven fun pool drop rapids to the take out. Or you can play around in the slalom course and surf waves at the put-in to build up confidence to make your way down. With the warm water and deep pools it is never really a problem if people swim!
The river then continues after the take out of the Okere Falls section and is an epic mission for those wanting to turn their thirty minutes fun paddle into a full day long adventure. However, these next sections come with a lot of risk and are not to be taken lightly.
Straight after the take out is Trout Pool Falls which is a waterfall with a super sticky hole and huge recirculation feeding back into it. Swimming here is never fun and should only be run with someone standing with a throw bag on the side. The pool below makes for some epic cliff jumping though! The river then opens back up again and then shortly after the walls start to build up beside you and the river gets narrower and faster. This is the start of the Lower Gorges run. The lower Gorges are made up of three sections. Awesome Gorge, Gnarly Gorge and Smokey Gorge. When the river is flowing at its summer levels, Awesome and Smoking Gorges are mostly class 4 in difficulty. But these sections are super susceptible to new bits of wood falling into the deep gorges and getting stuck. Due to this the risk is often always class 5 as the river is very tight and narrow, you never know if you are going to come around the next corner to be surprised by a bunch of new logs. Swimming is not an option down there! Gnarly Gorge is the second section after Awesome and (as the name is given) is the hardest of the three and is rarely ever run nowadays due to the amount of wood that is stuck in there and the difficulty of the white water. Due to this you have to hike out of the gorge right before Gnarly starts, and portage your way around, to then put back in where it ends. This can take a bit of time but you are very much rewarded when you put back in and make your way into a Smokey Gorge. It is named Smokey Gorge because if you get in there with the right conditions the gorge can fill up with a fog that gives a ‘smoky’ haze. This is the longest section and hands down has to be one of the most breathtakingly beautiful sections of river that I have been down. At one point the river gets as narrow as three metres and the gorge walls as tall as forty metres. Quite literally a crack in the earth!
To get down these sections you need the river to be at the right level, as if you go in too low the logs that you would normally be paddling over become super exposed. If you go in too high and are not sure where you are going, you could end up in an extremely difficult situation. However, if you find yourself here wanting to paddle these sections but are unsure if the conditions are right, you can usually find a willing and experienced local to help give you good beta or to even show you down (which I’d recommend). I love these gorges more than most sections and can guarantee that it will be an experience you’ll never forget.
Moving on from Okere Falls and the Kaituna, within an hours drive south you’ll find yourself at Huka Falls. This is an epic place to step up your class 4 game and your down river freestyle! The section is a 500 metres long gorge and consists of four rapids that’ll keep you on your toes. You have the entrance rapid which drops you into the amphitheater-like gorge, which is then followed by a weir that can get quite scary with higher flows. After the weir you float under a bridge and then down the pencil sharpener which is a huge ramp into some big, crashy waves and swirly water. You then go on to sneak around some big bobby waves as you line yourself up to hit the huge rooster tail which sends you flying off the 10m waterfall! The water here is a vibrant blue and is often really warm as well! Good first time flows would be anything less than 80 cm but with 60 cm being prime class fun flows! Huka Falls is also one of New Zealand’s most visited natural tourist attractions, so you are often paddling with almost a hundred people (I might be exaggerating a little here haha) at a time watching, that are just blown away by us ‘crazy, death defying, senseless kayakers’ reactions definitely keep things entertaining. As intimidating as Huka Falls can look (and it does), I think it is definitely a right of passage for anyone who is comfortable in class 4 swirly water because it is just that much fun.
If you drive an hour in the opposite direction to Huka Falls from Okere Falls, you will then get to the Wairoa River. The Wairoa is a class 4-5 run with a few small waterfalls and some steep bolder garden rapids. It was once the busiest rafting section of river in New Zealand up until it got dammed and before the Kaituna came into the picture. However, due to the epic work of the kayaking and rafting community we are able to enjoy this river every Sunday during the summer through an agreement with the dam to release water. The Wairoa is such a treat of a run on a hot summer day. The water is cold and refreshing and can also be enjoyed by those who are just starting out kayaking or just like bobbing down on some fun class 3. All of the big rapids are in the first half of the run so there is plenty of potential to put in later on. Choose your own adventure! My favorite part of Wairoa Sundays is just down the road from the take out, there is a corner store that sells real fruit ice cream, which is a must have! You can’t really say you went to the Wairoa if you don’t stop for ice cream after, just saying …
The pinnacle of North Island kayaking in my opinion is found in the Kaimai Ranges. This is the same mountain range that the Wairoa river comes from. Due to the steep terrain these steep drainages only come alive with big rain events. If you are in the area when such events happen you’ll find creeks filled with huge slides and big waterfalls and epic whitewater. There was once a summer when the Kaimai rivers would flow every second week. But nowadays they seem to be harder to catch with the right conditions.
I’m not going to get into it too much but there are definitely some honourable mentions to help plant some seeds in your mind about what’s down in the South Island. For people wanting to push their grade 3 and 4 paddling abilities, the small town of Murchison is the perfect hub to base yourself. Home to the Buller River, one of New Zealand’s longest rivers and its tributaries, there is plenty of potential and sections to get yourself on. For those wanting to push it ever more, the West Coast of the South Island is perfect. The West Coast is no joke, it is rugged and the rivers can be quite difficult but with all its steep and difficult but beautiful rivers, there is plenty for you to get your wits about yourself. A lot of these runs are only accessible by helicopter and most of the others you have to hike into and work to get there but it is always so worth it.
There are many other rivers throughout New Zealand that I could mention, rivers around Queenstown, Fiordland and more back in the North Island. For more information there is a very good river guide book New Zealand Whitewater: 125 Great Kayaking Runs by Graham Charles and a website www.riverguide.co.nz, which has current flow levels and info on many of New Zealand’s rivers.
Hopefully this has inspired you to come visit my home. Catch you on the water!