New Zealand, The Land of the “Long White Cloud” or Aotearoa is a very special place to me. They say, Home is where the heart is, my family draws me home to New Zealand. While I’m there of course, I take the opportunity to SUP the amazingly awesome paddle boarding rivers that are there.
Te Wai pounamu, the South Island was my birth place and this year I got the chance to for a good reconnection with my family, epic river sup journeys and a very special trip to Southland, where I was born.
I hadn’t been to Southland since I was there with Operation Raleigh way back in the 80’s when I spent 3 months in Fiordland on Operation Raleigh Phase 3B. Building sections of the Kepler walking track, trapping rats on Breaksea Island to create a native bird reserve, as well as other community and adventure tasks.
I was really looking forward to visiting this area again. My trip south was driven by the passion to SUP paddle white water rivers. Tucked away in the southern most reaches of the Land of the long white cloud, New Zealand’s longest waterfall, was to be next !!
The Wairaurahiri River.
The Wairaurahiri flows out of Lake Hauroko which is one of the southern most lakes in New Zealand. Nestled at the bottom of the Fiordland National park this lake is often visited by Tourists who make the 35 km journey from the nearest town of Tuatapere. They normally venture as far as the road end car park, get out walk to the end of the jetty then turn around and head back. But the adventurous, well they catch the Lake taxi to the northern most end of the Lake and join the Dusky track that takes you over the saddle and funny enough, down to the Dusky sound and on to Lake Manapouri.
Or you can visit Mary Island which is the larger of the 2 islands in the Lake. Named after the wife of John Hay a Government Surveyor. The Island is to the right from the road end access point a couple of bays around to the North on route to the start of the Dusky Sound track.
It would be a good destination for a SUP paddle if you were an experienced open water paddler. Lake Hauroko has a reputation for being a sleeping beast. Quiet and gentle in the mornings, then when awakened by the winds, waves quickly arise making water travel rather risky for most craft. The Maori name for the lake means in English “sounding wind”.
Mary Island is the point of interest in the lake, several myths stem from the island and it is famous for the burial site of a Maori woman. The site was found in 1967 and is known as “the lady of the Lake” by Southland locals.
The burial site is in a small cave on the eastern side of the Island and dates from around the mid 16 to 17th century. The woman is believed to be a Chieftainess of the ngati moimoi tribe and was laid to rest in a seated upright position on a bier of sticks and leaf’s wearing a flax cloak with dog skin collar adorned with Weka feather edging around her neck. The burial is still on the island today and is protected by a steel grille and wire mesh to ensure the burial remains unharmed and interested people can still view the burial.
Lake Hauroko is an S shape and its New Zealand’s deepest lake at 462 ms (1516 ft) deep, it is 30 km long and sits at 157ms (515ft) above sea level. So, if you think about it, the bottom of the lake is lower than sea by around 300m.
Geologists say the lake is said to have formed behind glacial debris being pushed out from the mountains towards the Southern Ocean by a Glacier, but the Ngā Puna Wai Karikari o Rakaihautu say it was dug out by Rangatira Rākaihautū with his Ko ( Maori wooden digging stick) That’s a whole heap of digging, but I reckon he had a couple of million years on his side, so I believe them. The other thing is that all that digging made a lot of rubble which helps explain the 27 kms to the southern coast that the Wairaurahiri flows through or more to the point, flows down.
To the southern end of the Lake lie’s Teal Bay the start of yet another walking track or the end of it depending on which way you are going of course. Adjacent to Teal bay you can find the second and smaller of the 2 islands of the lake. It was here that our journey was to depart for our descent of the Wairaurahiri.
Most of us had either camped in the Department of Conversation campsite on the way up to the Lake or in Tuatapere at the camping ground by the Tavern. I wonder why? Tuatapere was a thriving logging town till the early 60’s when milling of native forests went into decline. Now this sleepy township is mainly farming and caters for the tourist that ventures to this remote part of New Zealand. But it is also known all around the country for its Sausages, and you thought we were there for the Beer!!!
It was an early start on the day. We had to be ready to depart the jetty at 10 am sharp. The Lakes water taxi was going to transfer us and our equipment to Teal Bay. From there we would then paddle the last couple of kms to the end of the lake and set off on our paddle adventure down the Wairaurahiri.
While the group prepared and loaded our various different water craft, a group of 3 inflatable rib boats arrived from down the river. The fishermen who had been down the river on a fishing expedition were somewhat surprise t
hat I was intending to venture down the river on a stand up paddleboard, they were even more amused when I claimed I was going to do it standing up and that I wasn’t intending to sit down on the journey, at all.
After we were all ready our flotilla of Kayaks, pack rafts, rafts and a SUP headed off across to the outlet of the lake and the start of the Wairaurahiri River. A small white sandy beach on the right hand side of the lake, made for a great place for our lunch break. The beach squashed between the native bush that had been growing there for a few thousand years and the crystal-clear waters of the lakes outlet that had been flowing for as just as long.
After everyone had finished their food and final stowing of equipment. We were ready to set off. I was making do with a SUP portage bag on this trip to carry my equipment in. I was longing for the deck bag set up I had created for the Yukon 1000 race in Canada. Sadly, I had to leave it at home in Wales for this trip as I didn’t have enough weight allowance on the plane for this trip.
The excitement of the journey ahead was starting to build. Maybe it was impatience. But soon enough everyone was setting off around the corner and into the unknown. This was a new river to all of us. 27 km of grade 2 to 3 rapids (depending on flow), generally thought of as a safe paddle. Jet boat operators use it to ferry hunters, fishermen, trampers and paddlers up and down. That’s a good indicator that it’s a good, fun river for paddling on.
The point of exit from the lake is a green water flow, the surface is unbroken and the flow picks up speed as the volume of the lake water exiting is squeezed by the shoreline to the point where the land starts to slope away. It’s at this point of no return, that you realize what you have let yourself in for.
The rapids were littered with trees that have been undermined, these ancient monuments that once towered on the river bank now protected the river banks from the erosive waters of the river and defend their still growing kin in the forest all around you. The river is wide enough and deep at this point the trees in the rapids could be navigated safely in an easy flow. I would definitely think twice about doing this trip when the river to high and faster flowing.
As the trees gave way the river swallowed, so did the clay and earth lined river banks. The river bed began to get much wider as the harder base layers of gravel and boulders deposited by glacier activity eons ago had been exposed by centuries of rushing waters. This had formed a definite river bed and paddle lines were much more defined. The river was pretty easy to read, lines where easy to choose. But at times trees lay in the flows, trap in the stones of the river bed for eternity. You had to have your wits about you to have the correct river position to negotiate these obstacles.
The water was crystal clear on the day of our trip. The colour and patterns of the stones below you were ever changing, not that there was much time to stop and look. When you are on a 17-foot paddleboard on a river that’s running down a slope you can get a bit of speed up. My board had the longest waterline so I was the quickest. I’d start at the back work my way through the paddlers and when I found an eddie or a safe place to pull over, I’d hold up and allow the group to catch up, pass and I’d start off again.
The board I use has been nicknamed “the Beast” by a few local paddlers, it was built for long distance challenge paddle journeys, long and skinny, for speed. Low and flexible so it would stick to the water and have a good center of gravity for stability. The 27 km where eaten up by it, with its rockered nose we had little problems dealing with rough waters that the Wairaurahiri through at us.
The walking track bridge at the bottom of the river loomed into view; this was the signal that our paddle had come to an end. For around the corner the river would widen, flatten out and flow across the beach and enter the Southern Oceans formidable crashing waves.
Our get out point was on the right; a short narrow track had been cut in the steep river bank. On top of that river bank was the Wairaurahiri lodge. A private lodge that walkers, hunters, paddlers could book into and stay.
The sand flies took no prisoners, they knew they had but a short time to bite you as you got your equipment up from the river to the lodge. Once inside the lodge to relative safety, you had running water, hot shower, electric lights and a real stove to cook on. At the bottom end of New Zealand, about as far as you could go south on the South Island of New Zealand, surrounded by native bush, bird song and waves crushing, pounding the beaches. Was this little paradise in a garden of Eden.
Once we had all our things drying and gear stowed it was time to explore. A quick walk down the track to admire the pounding surf of the Southern Ocean. Colorful Para shells normally brought in the tourist shops of the country lay trapped in the rocks.
The waves of the Southern Ocean crashing on the shore line marked the demarcation line of an battle of eternity between the sea and the forest. The steep narrow line of boulders that formed the beach showed just how fiercely this battle was being fought in places. Land and sea only a few feet apart.
I stood looking out across this Southern Ocean, a rain storm approached with black foreboding clouds, you could see the rain falling from them as it made its way across the sea scape blown by a fierce southern wind. The night was coming and time to walk the native bush trail back to the Wairaurahiri lodge, the trees had emptied of bird song as we neared the lodge, the wind and rain had arrived.
The night came and went, the day dawned bright and sunny but with showers. The water taxi was arriving to return us to our vehicles at the lakeside car park. The trip in the Jet boat up the river was pretty exhilarating, but when compared to my trip down the river the day before I was resenting being taken away from such an amazing experience. It wasn’t long before we had emerged from the forest and where blasting our way across the lake.
I sat quietly, for the reality was I wanted to do it again. But that wasn’t going to happen again that day. New SUP Adventures awaited, we had permission to paddle a new section of the Shotover river near Queenstown, so no time to waste. So many places to see and SUP.