Upper Otaki  Gorgeous gorges

Traditionally, the Otaki gorge below Waitewaewae Hut was the domain of trampers with tyre tubes in low summer flows, and the occasional heli-kayaker when it been raining. Now, like many of the Tararua gorges, this is set to become a classic packrafting trip.

I’ve been wanting to paddle the upper Otaki for years but the grade intimidated me enough that I wanted a very experienced partner. It’s a remote river without a walking track nearby as a backup plan. Luckily Will just moved to Wellington, so before long we were off on a beautiful sunny weekend.

Who wouldn’t be excited for this trip and a sunny tramp in? Crossing the Otaki near Otaki Forks (If you don’t have time to plan and pack well – just bring everything.)

We drove up from Wellington Saturday morning to the Otaki Forks road end. The track had a diversion due to slips and it took us longer than we thought to walk in.  We had big packs (why skimp on an overnight?!) and at a nice leisurely pace, we arrived at Waitewaewae Hut in about 5.5hrs.   I brought a shorty wetsuit with thermals, neoprene socks, and paddling pants; Will brought a 3/4 full wetsuit. Surprisingly for such good weather, we had the hut to ourselves (and as a result spread out during the morning gear up).

Waitewaewae Hut gear up

I had checked the river level Friday evening and it was 1820, just above the recommended kayak minimum (1800) from rivers.org.nz. Once we returned home Sunday evening I saw the level had dropped to 1730. This ended up being a great level for a packraft with really fun rock-gardens and mini chutes. Constant adrenaline and fun on the upper half and a welcome mellow (2+ to easy 3) on the lower half (below Penn creek). Losing 200+ meters in 18km meant constant action. It was the most fun I’ve had on a NZ river (clearly I haven’t paddled enough!)

Put-in just upstream of hut and the excess of gear we carried now weighing down the bow of the boat beautifully.

Once you put in at the hut there are a couple warm-up rapids and then you head into a beautiful gorge. From there the paddling progresses from grade 2+ to 3. We came across a large log caught suspended above the river that marked the first proper grade 3 and it kept ramping up from there.

Scouting the first rapid (just entering the gorge proper)

We had read the www.rivers.org.nz report and knew to expect a grade 4 rapid, and the paddling was steep enough that there were multiple occasion that we thought we had arrived at it. We left a safety with a throw bag on a rock at the first larger rapid and scouted a few more in a row, one of which we did a partial portage.

Running next rapid with safety midway – last photo on the GoPro before battery died, and this was just getting going!

There was a creek on river left just before the Lemming falls 3m drop. At this point we portaged river left due to our late eddy out; the river right portage looked easier. After that drop we felt more confident knowing there wasn’t a waterfall around the corner. This allowed us to paddle with a “read and run” style, with an occasional eddy out to stand up to see what was ahead.

We stopped for lunch about 3.5 or 4 hours into the paddle one km or so upstream of Penn creek. After checking our location on the GPS and reading the river description we realised the river was going to mellow out and decided to up our pace a bit with less stopping. We ran the rest of the river (just over half of the length) in another 2.5 hours.

All up we walked two rapids, placed safety on one, scouted half a dozen properly, and did hasty scout on another dozen. We each had a little swim but managed to get backing boats mid-rapid. What a fantastic time; I can’t imagine a better weekend! We need to go back and do it again with fully charged GoPros as it’s a shame we have so few photos for such a great run. If you’re a confident grade 3+ paddler this is a must do!

Emilie Fetscher moved from Alaska to NZ in 2012. Based in Wellington, she doesn’t go packrafting nearly as much as she wants to… You can read a route description of this trip on www.PackraftingTrips.nz or learn more about the Packrafting Association of NZ

Wilderlife