I’d enjoyed a great couple of days over easter at the 2017 Packrafting Meetup in Lewis Pass. With 50 or so other keen pack-rafters, we’d done a bunch of short trips around the Lewis Pass area; The Boyle, Lewis, Nina, Doutbful and Waiau. But as the meetup came to a close, most of the folks were forming teams for multi-day adventures in the days that followed.
I’d been eyeing the upper Waiau River in the weeks leading to the meetup. Its a well known river among kayakers, who carry (or 4Wd) their hardshell boats over Maling pass. The paddling was supposed to be challenging, but manageable and the scenery through kilometers of gorges and high-country just fantastic. So it was with some relief that I managed to find myself in a small group of awesome, keen and capable folks who agreed to put together a packrafting mission.
Just looking at the map, the options for our approach to the river were plentiful: But with a really promising forecast and a fit team, we eyed out a route that took us up and over the Trovatore tops and via the Henry valley. The meet up had been a little hectic for some of us, so the concept of a late start to a high camp was really appealing. Not so appealing is the slogging uphill to make it happen. Although packrafts are incredibly light when you consider what they are capable of, with all the associated river stuff (helmets, paddles, PFDs, throw bags, dry suits etc) it does add up to an extra 4-6kg. Even with heavy packs, our team of 6 made it to the bushline at the head of Foleys track in good time. Half the crew were visiting from Australia, and were suitably impressed with the views of craggy summits and steep forested valleys.
We sidled below Travers Peak, then up and over the shoulder of Trovatore, to set up camp by the high tarn beyond. Although it had drizzled for the last hour or so, once the tents were up the skies cleared and we were treated to a dry but chilly night.
After enjoying a gorgeous sunrise, we broke camp and continued east towards our objective. The Opera Range was straightforward travel, and the early autumn weather was perfect. The descent into the Anne valley was a little steep in places, but nothing too crazy and before long we found ourselves on the St James Walkway. Again, the hot, still day had created plenty of puffy cumulus clouds, which now began to drizzle on us. Passing the empty Anne Hut, it was a little tricky to keep going expecting a wet night in a tent, but we wanted to get to a spot where we could begin paddling immediately in the morning. Here, the Henry was too low to paddle, so we kept on going toward the Waiau confluence. Thankfully, after an hour or so the rain stopped, and we were treated to a great night camping on the banks of the Henry. A little campfire, good food and good company made the little bubbles of our world seem blissfully perfect.
Next morning, camping and tramping gear was hidden a way in drybags within the tubes of our packrafts. Drysuits were donned, paddles assembles and throwbags coiled. We scraped, bounced and blundered our way down the meagre flow of the Henry River and into the might of the Waiau. Just before easter, Cyclone Cook (or was it Debbie?) had wreaked havoc through much of the country and had dumped huge amounts of water in the region. Most of the little rivers around the Packrafting meetup had really benefitted from higher flows, but as arrived at the Waiau, we wondered if the 4 dry days had been enough for levels to drop enough for a safe descent for our team.
Straight away, it was clear that this was a solid flow, with rapids that were pushy to us in our little inflatable crafts. The team skill levels ranged from expert kayak instructors to keen intermediates, as one of the latter I found the paddling quite challenging. Getting the team work going, we kept good spacing, kept eddy hopping and scouted anything that we couldn’t immediately see a safe line through. One of the harder rapids of the trip was very early on. A long grade 4 boulder garden with some decent drops. Straight away, I knew it wasn’t for me, so I portaged my packraft to the end of the rapid, and positioned myself with a throwbag as safety for the others. One of the team had a swim part way through and was throw-bagged quickly. However the paddle dissapeared into a hole and stayed there for several minutes before re-surfacing. Whilst loosing a paddle here wouldn’t be the end of the world (as a walking track loosely follows much of the river) walking out would certainly be a lengthy endevour.
Sustained grade 3 boulder gardens had me working near the peak of my ability, and I was very grateful for a decent rest at lunchtime. Up high on the peaks, the tell-tale signs of a canterbury Nor-wester made us even more grateful for the amazing weather we’d had on the walk in. Back on the river, the difficulty eased a little but we made sure we kept our guard up. There were more than a few nasty holes and tricky rapids which needed the right lines. Everyone (apart from Mark the Kayaking instructor) flipped at one point or another, but we were soon rescued by team mates if we couldn’t quickly self rescue. Unlike a kayak, its quite achievable to climb back into your boat after a flip. This basic self rescue is a fundamental packrafting skill, and one that needs to be practiced! Rolling a packraft is possible, but requires thigh straps (not standard on many packrafts) and good technique.
The upper Waiau has a grade 4 gorge section called ‘The Narrows’ which have quite a reputation. Depending on who you talk to, (and the flow when they were there) the reputation varies from extremely nasty to very managable. We knew the flows were up a bit, and that there was a very easy by-pass track, so it was an easy decision to make camp not far from the track and walk around in the morning.
Below the narrows, there were still a few grade 3 rapids, but it was less sustained, so I was able to devote a little more head-space to appreciating the magnificent surrounds. The gorges in this section were just incredible, and amazingly without any super nasty hazards. I still didn’t trust the river; with all the twists and turns of the gorge, I made sure that I was in a position to always catch an eddy before the next bend, and made sure that I could see around the corner to the next eddy before committing.
Part way down, we stopped to explore a wee side canyon. Scrambling up from the river for a hundred meter or so, we climbed little waterfalls in the slot canyon, till we were halted by an unclimbable 15 m drop. Although most of us were wearing drysuits, the overcast skies, cold water and cool breeze kept it pretty chilly. I for one was feeling like I was looking forward to the end to warm up a little, but after lunch the sun came out and what a difference it made. All too soon the last gorge opened up to reveal familiar mountains which border the highway. 4 magic days with great people in a magnificent place.