Monday, January 15, 2007

Heli-kayaking in Kiwi land

My trip home to New Zealand was full of so many fun times. After a long time away a real Christmas in the sunshine with my family was nice. Catching up with my friends was great even when the heavy rain drowned the BBQ. As was revisiting my favourite spots, swimming in Able Tasman National Park, chilling out in Murchison, running the Minga-Deception (the infamous Coast To Coast river bed run), climbing at Paynes Ford, cycling on the Port Hills, visiting Charleston, and soaking in the Welcome Flat Hot Pools. However if there was one thing I'd wanted to do this trip it was heli-boating in my favourite place on earth, the Wild West Coast. And there was no way I could rest until I had done it.

A typical heli-boating day starts somewhat like this. First there is the requisite slow breakfast and coffee followed by "H*ly sh*t is that the time?". Then it's a mad dash to the chopper pick up site. This is where the excitement starts. The wet and rough four wheel drive tracks are always a challenge especially when you're travelling in mum's lovely little town car with low ground clearance. "Sorry mum, I didn't warn you the water would come up over the bonnet...."

When you finally make it to the pick up site, or as close as the car will make it, there's normally only a couple of minutes left to throw on your kayaking gear. However, the chopper pilot is pretty clued up about kayaking time, so after all that mad rushing you usually find yourself waiting around and the nerves start to grow.

Finally you hear the chopper in the distance and everything happens at once. The heli is as small as they come but when you're you're under the rotors tying on your boat the "thump thump thump" is frightening. With that finished it's time to go flying and what a treat it is. As you fly up the valley, sneaking a peak at the river below, the heli pilot suddenly leans the chopper over sideways. The next second, thud, the wind rushing down the side valley hits you. Ooooo! Exciting!. And the paddling hasn't even begun.

Those days on the Coast we paddled many rivers. We slogged our way up the Styx with our boats on back for an eddy hopping feast. Then it was off to the turquoise blue-green glacial rivers. The Whitcombe is big water with big rapids, while the Whataroa intersperses hard paddling with scenic gorgeous gorges to lie back and float through. Finally we hit the cute Toaroha with some nice spots and gorgeous mossy scenery.

But one river stands out in my mind and that undoubtedly is the Arahura. This river has a fearsome reputation and it's well deserved. Paddling the Arahura is a real journey from the mountains to the coast. It covers two long days walk, and the tussocks at the put in really bring it home that you're in the high country. What follows is a whole day of paddling one and two meter drops mixed with a couple of big rapids that get the adrenalin really going. The water is crystal clear, and the scenery is out of this world.

This is committing paddling and it's a real wilderness experience as I found out after ripping my spray deck on a rock only minutes into the trip. This made for a rather cold day. But if that was bad, then worse was in store for Boyd after his deck popped on Dent falls. Paddling out with only hand paddles was certainly an impressive feat.

So our day on the Arahura was a mini-epic where we were constantly on our toes wondering what was round the next corner. And at the end of the day when we were cold and thought we had had as much as we could take we came to the grand finale. The seal launch is high, and I nearly didn't do it. But I'm glad I did it as this last stretch blew me away. In less than 500m this river has every sort of paddling you could ever wish for, a seal launch, a must boof drop and then a big-water-like roller coaster. All of this in a beautiful hidden gorge which only shows itself to those who dare to take the plunge.

I don't think the West Coast bush (which I've always loved and thought was spectacular) has ever looked as lush and green as it did paddling the final class III rapids to the take out. There was an unmistakable joy of coming out in one piece, but despite my relief I already felt a burning desire to go back and do it all again the next day.

When it comes to excitement there is very little that can compete with a days heli-boating in the wilderness of the West Coast of New Zealand. Thank you Ali, Boyd, Chris, Dan and Mo for being great river buddies and looking out for me. Because there's only one problem with a trip like this and that's the worrying sensation that perhaps nothing in the world will ever beat it!

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