As you might be able to tell from the title of this post, the last ten days have been filled with amazement. For me, it was the most beautiful and rewarding leg so far. I’ll keep to the same format as last time: a short summary, and then the highlights.
Summary: So, starting out from Murchison, we got a flat within 5 minutes and despondently ate a third of our chocolate for the leg. Spirits revived by our reckless rationing, we were soon scooting on again with no problems, a cool 20 km in an hour and a half of evening light to the start of the Tiramea Track. We camped there for the night and transformed the scooters into hiking poles. Starting out the next morning, we wandered up a track which holds the record for most river crossings- twenty within the space of a km- and stayed in a hut. Then, wandering past Lake Rotoroa, we entered Nelson Lakes National Park proper and began to head due south up the Sabine valley. We followed the river for a few days, along the way having my birthday! (more on that below), and watching the river transform from the peaceful lake inlet to a raging stream of whitewater that roared over boulders and down waterfalls. At the top of the valley, the track narrowed to a twisting climb before popping out into the flat that holds Blue Lake, the clearest waters in NZ. Another day, another valley step, and we got to Lake Constance, the base of Waiau Pass.
Jeremy at Lake Constance – tranquil, reflective.
Blessed with fantastic weather, we headed up and over Waiau Pass in one day, a big climb and bigger descent. Our knees were knackered but our souls filled with the immensity of the view and the happiness of being perched in between two beautiful valleys. Descending from Waiau pass, the landscape was immediately drier, very different to the dampness of the Sabine side and the wetness of Kahurangi NP where we’ve spent most of the trip so far. We headed down the valley and on one blazingly hot day decided on a whim to pop into the river a few km short of where we’d planned. So we transformed the hiking poles into paddles, blew up our boats, and began to wade through the water, dragging our boats as it was far too early to properly put in! But, within a few km, where we had originally planned based on satellite coverage and trip reports, the river transitioned into a properly raftable river and ended with a fantastic Gr 2/3 canyon which was hands down one of the highlights of my life so far. In between the start and the end we lost a road, found a road, lost two days, found ripe blackberries, and had some stunning river camps. Now for the highlights!
The canyon: Oh, wow. This is the main source of the ‘Waiau’ing in the title. The whole river was fun, but the highlight was the final canyon – a narrow twisting canyon, mainly Gr 2, with some Gr3 rapids. For those not familiar with whitewater ratings, it goes from 1 (flat water) to 5 (not the place you’d want to swim). This canyon was smack bang perfect for me, as a practicing beginner, and perfect for Jeremy, as a more experienced rafter, as the consequences of falling out of the boat were reasonably low yet the water was challenging, difficult, and rewarding. I was stoked to see that all the paddle practice and river reading I’ve been doing over the past year has paid off, as I was able to see obstacles, maneuver away from them, and put my boat into the line of water that would lead me to where I wanted to go. One of the highlights of this type of trip is that I get to develop skills and challenge myself – it’s not just a static three months of doing what I already know, but instead I get to practise a skill, whitewater rafting, and (hopefully) improve, so that I can incorporate more rafting into my life and trips in future. I like that this traverse is as much about self-development as it is about having a good time and seeing beautiful landscapes.
Canyon glory, once again thank you to Geoff from PACKRAFT for providing this boat and making this fantastic paddling possible!
The canyon twisted and turned, with frothing rapids alternately shooting over bumps and round corners, then leading to clear, calm pools of deep blue-green water. In between were long sections of swift moving water, like a travellator at the airport, that carried us through the striped canyon walls with their waterfalls and secret beaches and caves and moss-scapes. After 13 km of this bliss, we came out into the big wide valley where the Hope, a river of comparable size to the Waiau, joins it, in the process bringing with it glacial silt which turns the water a pale milky blue. We were blessed with a stiff wind at our backs so we literally sailed along, using our spray skirts as sails. And then one more little canyon, very different, dry walled and with a wam wind, and, best of all, ripe blackberries on one side!! So obviously we stopped the boats there and gorged before continuing. What a day.
Gorges of the Wonderful Waiau
Delightful Gr II/III paddling
My birthday: My birthday, which I expected to be low-key and pleasant, was one of the most unexpectedly fun and sociable days of the trip! The birthday eve was spent camping in one of our most beautiful spots yet, a river flat with a grove of trees filled with dead wood, so we made a fire and cooked on that in a misty evening. Waking up the next morning to clouds parting to show rocky peaks either side of us, we ummed and ahhed about whether to push up to the head of the valley, or just take an easy day and go to the next hut. Upon getting to the next hut, we decided to stay there, which was an excellent decision, as not only did the rain start just as soon as we’d stepped into the huge but cosy West Sabine Hut, with an already roaring fire, but also there was a surprise!
~Background to the surprise~ I have a history of sharing a birthday – for most of my life I have shared it with my childhood friend, but when one of us is in a different country, I have always been surprised by a birthday friend – my best friend, Etienne, came as a shock after 8 months of knowing each other, and then one another year a houseguest called Despina. I haven’t yet had a birthday alone (or what I call a ‘lonely birthday’) but I thought that this year was a sure thing, given that I was in the middle of a national park. Still, there was a little voice inside my head saying, ‘I wonder if someone will be in the hut…?’ But having met no-one having a birthday on my travels so far, chances were highly unlikely. But, as you may have guessed- in the hut was another person whose birthday it was!! What are the chances of that? High, given my track record.
So, that was the surprise. Hope was turning 25, I was turning 24, between the two of us, her two hiking buddies, Jeremy, and the other solo traveller, we had an incredibly fun and rowdy birthday. Hope’s group shared their hot chocolate and Tim Tams for a Tim Tam Slam fest, we shared our banana pancakes with melted chocolate, and then we had a ‘Hut Olympics’, in which every participant elected something they were good at and everyone competed. I garbled the alphabet backwards, Jeremy took the opposite tack and held his breath the longest, we had planks and headstands and standing long jump, but the funniest sight you’ve ever seen is two Europeans madly wheelbarrow racing each other around a blazing stove, benches and tables cleared away, legs held high and arms flailing, to win the ‘intracontinental wheelbarrow race’ component of the Hut Olympics. 17sec is a very respectable time. Team Australia was a poor showing, coming in at 23 seconds, but Team North America also did very well, at 18 seconds. Hilarious, incredibly fun, and we were clattering round the hut until well after dark with bonus rounds of ‘knock over the chapstick using only your nose’ and ‘pick up the vitawheat packet using only your teeth, balancing on top of three mats’. So, basically, a fantastic, and very unexpected birthday.
Waiau Pass: A highlight for me. I love the big views. I’m also terrible with heights. A strange combination, but it feels good to work so hard for a view, slogging away at getting up something, at times being afraid, and then being rewarded with such an expansive and relaxing view of space. There is so much space in the world! What a huge place we live in. On top of Waiau Pass, we could see Lake Constance to our north (oh yeah!) and the valley we’d soon descend into stretching out for ages to the south. It felt great to look ahead, both literally and metaphorically, and consider that we were a third of the way through the island, heading south, sometimes indirectly, but on other days such as this, very directly. Also, the quietness up there, after the loud roaring of the river in its upper stretches, and then the constant chatter in my head as I negotiated a scree slope of “Oh, don’t step there, uh oh, slippery, ow, my legs hurt, ugh, when will this upwards grind end”, is so calming. Watching birds do their thing, wheeling across the skies, hanging out in a draft, chatting with friends on top of a mountain top – life is good on the high passes. It felt like a fitting end to a birthday week, ascending to Lake Constance and then leaving it behind as we headed over the highest pass yet.
Jeremy dancing on top of Waiau Pass, looking south.
Constance overexcited on top of Waiau Pass, looking north at Lake Constance. Or rather the camera is looking north, I am looking south at the camera as I take a selfie of ‘Constance with Constance’. Yeah girl…
Scrambling down from Waiau Pass – pretty steep!! For scale those poles directly under my feet are my height, standing vertically.
St James Cycleway: golden grassed, smooth wheeling downhill, if you’re in NZ with a bike, go bike it!! Truly beautiful.
Looking over the vast St James Walkway
The day of difficulties: Despite the name, a highlight! Towards the end of the trip, although we rationed food, we were still running out, so we were on slim pickings. Our planned end came a day later than expected due to a road lost and found. When we put out of the Waiau river to portage around the Narrows (translation: stopped rafting, began to walk around a section of rapids that were too dangerous) we planned to hop onto the road that ran parallel to the river on the map, but lo and behold, was there a road?
The pull out before the portage
The portage didn’t go so well…
So, after deciding to bush bash up to a ridgeline to see if we could see it (unsuccessful, could only see another hill) and getting well and truly tangled in every spiky viney plant thing NZ has to offer (big spikes, small spikes, some as big as your head – 0:42) we made our way back to the river, six hours delayed, and literally, SIXTY METRES DOWNSTREAM. Ridiculous. So! Never have I been happier then seeing Jeremy with a sly smile, sitting on the river bank, as I grumpily and hungrily marched up to him thinking, ‘Why isn’t he looking for the road?’, only to see a hallucination of glistening, plump blackberries in his hand, and hear him casually say, ‘Oh, and there’s more by the road.’
The travail of a road lost is only made up for by the joy of a road found, and the annoyance of hunger is far exceeded by the euphoria of unexpected food!
The crazed eyes of those who have searched for a road and finally found it, plus blackberries!
P.S. The non-existent road, NZ Topo’s idea of an early April Fools’ joke, does come into existence further down. For future trampers/rafters, just north of the entrance to the narrows, about 50 m up, you can access the road on river right. Don’t bother looking for it any further north. topomap.co.nz appears to have the correct beginning of the road, at, topo apps for iPhone and Android show it starting 2km north of where it actually does. Best to pull out where safe upstream and just walk along the riverside until you can access the road.
The start of the Narrows
Writeup in The West Coast Messenger: check out p.14 of this publication! They wrote up a little article on our trip which we are quite stoked on 😀 Photo credits in the article go to Richard Rossiter.
Ok, that is it from us for now! The next section, we will leave the rafts and all rafting gear (pfd, helmet, throw bags, dry suits, water booties, spare thermals….) at Boyle Village, and go ‘lightweight’ for the next ten days, before returning to Boyle Village for the Southern Hemisphere packraft meetup over Easter! Very excited for it.
Bonus photos! For my mum, who asked for more photos…
The sandflies got pretty bad at times… this is the top of the tent, luckily, outside the flynet!
A misty river camp, first day on the upper Waiau
Floating in the sun with some splooshy splashes
Beautiful evening walking, as you can see much drier than the wet Kahurangi.