Back in the day  The origins of a packrafter

Hugh Canard reflects on a few past (mis)adventures which make him grateful for the modern packrafts we have these days.

Having spent my early years in Fiji, all my leisure time involved water; swimming, diving, sailing, paddling and snorkelling. Compared to the tropical heat, the ocean and rivers were havens of coolness. The ocean teemed with life, and the rivers offered journeys that held mystery around every bend. The Fijian bush was more to be feared as it contained hornets, bees, and things that crawled on the ground that bit your bare feet  (I got my first pair of shoes when I turned 10). In the bush we stuck to paths and rarely strayed, but water represented freedom and excitement all in the one medium.

As a 4 year old I remember going on a bilibili, (a bamboo raft), down the Navua River, a journey that is now a commercial rafting trip. There were no roads back then, so we walked in. I recall vividly being washed off the raft into the whitewater with no lifejacket and having a really long swim.

The Navua is a spectacular river with steep gorges and waterfalls. The water is cool by tropical standards but would be well over 25C.

And yes, there are rapids worthy of the name on the Navua.

At age 13 a friend and I built a corrugated iron canoe and set off to cross the Whangamarino Swamp (sorry, wetland) near Meremere.  I have no idea why. Perhaps it was inspiration from Huckleberry Finn, a favourite book of my youth. The Whangamarino is about 8 by 5 km and the section we attempted to cross is 3 by 5 km. It comprises willows and floating islands and it’s quite deep in places.

An example of a more sophisticated corrugated iron canoe. (image from www.canoeandkayak.co.nz)

As Murphy would have predicted, the canoe sank in a very deep place. After swimming for quite a while, we started getting harassed by large eels around one of the bushy islands. A low hanging willow branch seemed to offer the only refuge from the eels, so we took to the trees. No maps and no sense resulted in a search and rescue mission, that found two boys shivering on a branch above a pool writhing with large eels…. I’m still scared of eels.

By now I was starting to accumulate some idea of what NOT to do, but unfortunately I still had much more to learn.

When I finished a year at Auckland University in 1961, I moved to the South Island. At the tender age of 18, I was expecting glaciers, snow and polar bears, but it was 35C on the day I arrived. I found my way to the New Brighton beach and as as I waded in for a swim, quickly discovered that the sea temperature was closer to 12C. That shock still lives in my reptilian brain to this day. A kind gentleman told me that Cantabrians never swam in the ocean, but migrated inland to the many shallow braided rivers that cross the Canterbury Plains, as they were “warmer.”

So off I went to discover the Ashley River by inner tube (only 17C). Kids still tube the Ashley today, and I’m so pleased; getting inner tubes from tyre companies can be a hassle. I was turned away recently because their H&S manager said no.

I had never seen snow so was easily persuaded by a mad friend to try tramping in the Southern Alps. I had heard of tramping and thought it sounded silly; it just seemed like a lot of heavy work. My transport for the arduous journey to Arthurs Pass was a motorbike of ancient lineage, a Matchless 350cc single cylinder. Back then the seal ended at Springfieild and the creeks were un bridged. Today it’s called State Highway 73….  We arrived after many hours, two broken chains and some flat tyres. Having finally arrived, we quickly set off up to Crow Hut carrying rifles and the heavy gear that everyone had in those days. I was exhausted, and as we followed the flooded Waimakariri River on the way home, I had a thought.

This would be a lot better if I was floating.  I don’t mind walking up the valley but it seems such a waste to have to do the same on the way out.

 Thus was the moment of conception of a cunning plan. Walk, or even better, take the train, and float back to the ocean.

So there we were, two 18 year olds staring up at Punchbowl Falls on the Bealey River pumping up our truck inner tubes. We had a vague idea the river would be chilly (wai makariri translates as ‘water’ ‘cold’), so we had a dry suit each. In the 1960s, wet suits had just been invented and were too expensive for most people. Our drysuits were NZ Navy surplus rubber frogman suits, made of 100% latex rubber. They weren’t comfortable and water vapour transfer was ignored. They were waterproof, in that they only allowed water to flow one way – in.  Our supplies, consisted of a spare woollen jersey, a shirt, shorts, a small bag of rice, some milk powder, tea, and some dried apricots packed in a bag of oiled cotton. I had a billy with some matches inside all sealed with duct tape.  No paddles, no rope, no tent, no sleeping bag, no hat. Our list of things not invented yet; GPS, Gore Tex, breathable anything, weather forecasts on demand, flow gauges, global warming, the Coast to Coast Adventure Race, polythene kayaks, polyurethane anything, edible dehydrated food, satellites that talked back, river guidebooks, and McDonalds.

We’ll be at Springfield before closing time, mate. 

Noting it was 6 pm closing then.

Into the Bealey River, sh!t it’s cold, past Arthur’s Pass village, and straight into a wooden power pylon. Into the river we go; our short swim saved by a pile of rocks and steel reinforcing bar.  (A lethal strainer followed by a sub-lethal one). Luckily the tube remained airtight and thanks to platelets bleeding stops after a while.  By midday we were somewhere near where the Coast to Coast paddle section, which starts at Mt White bridge. We didn’t quite realise that it’s over 60km to the gorge bridge, and we conveniently forgot another 60 km from the gorge bridge to the sea, and 20 km to the Avon estuary, and 12 km up the Avon to Cathedral Square. All this with just bare hands for locomotion.

Me: It’s taken us half a day to get to Mt White Bridge, which is the last place we can catch a train back to town.

Him: No worries, the current will speed up in the gorge.

Eventually we saw the high cliffs of Carrington Gorge (about 1/4 through the gorge) just as the sun dropped behind the high peaks at the head of the Waimakariri. We were sodden, hungry, sun-burnt, and dehydrated. The temperature dropped from somewhere north of 20C to somewhere well south of that. Luckily my billy and its contents were dry and we got a fire going. Everything else was wet, but the rice and apricots weren’t too bad (a meal of rice and apricots was standard fare for real trampers I was told).  Dehy food was available in those days only if you dried it yourself and it all tasted like cardboard anyway. There is a well-known saying which I’ve just made up, that If it’s not planned, a long night is 10 times longer in the outdoors.  We kept the fire going and nodded off intermittently despite the cold and hard ground.

Eventually dawn arrived and we set off again. Now we discovered that tubes don’t handle wave trains very well. We also discovered that big bluffs and their eddies were a challenge to scoop our way out of with our bare hands. Many swims ensued. The current did get swifter but there seemed to be no end to the gorge and our morale and confidence evaporated as we realised another night out was inevitable.

Another thing I learned was that inner tubes are very easy to climb back into after a capsize compared to canoes and kayaks. This is the distinguishing advantage of a modern packraft, but only if you can master the technique and not have to rely on brute strength. A capsize, therefore, made no difference to our progress, only to our dignity and shins.

The Waimakariri was starting to discolour, so we decided to stop in near darkness at what transpired to be Staircase Stream. Another night loomed and we were filled with dread as we quietly downed a meal of rice and apricots about half the size of the previous diner. We had decided to conserve our food, having by now concluded that this gorge was never going to end. In the middle of the night we were scared out of our wits by a loud whistle, and a thundering noise as the train went right over our heads on the Staircase Viaduct. Coal fired steam trains are an awesome visual and aural experience at night…

This is the Waimakariri gorge back in the day. What many young people don’t realise is that the whole world used to be in black & white. Colour was only introduced about 1968 in New Zealand due to demand from tourists. Inner tubes were black. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, that was the consumer’s choice.

We were becoming resigned rather than accustomed to our permanent state of discomfort and fear of the unknown. I have entered this mental twilight zone in the outdoors many times since.  You go beyond scared to plain miserable, to the twilight zone state of knowing that if you just stick it out it will eventually stop.  Late on the third day we arrived at the gorge bridge, and on hearing traffic high above, we decided to find our bearings. We climbed up the wrong side of the gorge to the highway and tried to look respectable. A small truck stopped and backed up.

Farmer: Bloody hell, where have you guys been?

 Us: Down the Waimak Gorge from Arthur’s Pass.

 Farmer: B*llsh!t. Hop on the back, you’re not getting in the front with me. 

We bade farewell to our trusty boats and joined the two friendly dogs who adopted us because we smelled as bad as they did. Very soon were dropped off at Springfield, and having forgotten to bring any money, we hitched back to Christchurch. Two years later I would complete the whole source to sea journey but in a wood frame canvas covered kayak.

My face, neck, arms, thighs and feet were bright pink and blistered from the sun. I drank water for two days before I could produce saliva again. My armpits were raw from chafing on the suit through coarse woollen underwear. I had a crick in my neck, bruises on my butt, and cramps in my arms that were painful and embarrassing as they made me look like an escapee from an institution. My friends were impressed at my bravery, but I don’t recall ever being scared, just being thoroughly miserable, hoping it would end.

More recently Sir Peter Jackson filmed a re-creation of our famous journey.

I think he embellished it a bit for narrative purposes.

Meanwhile safely back in the city; 

Flatmates:  How was your trip?

 Me: Good, thanks.

 Flatmates: Would you do it again?

 This was the searching question we applied to all such adventures to test the veracity of the storyteller.

 Me: Yeah…. I might. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, but I would need to get a bigger truck wheel diameter but smaller tube profile so you can sit up more, and a better wet suit. Yeah, and carry a tent and a sleeping bag and more food, without getting it all wet, and it would good to have some sort of paddle.  A floor glued across the tube at water level would keep your bum out of the water. The tube is a bit wide to paddle and it doesn’t track at all, and you have to reach too far to paddle, so you could squash it into and elliptical shape and use the floor to hold that shape. I don’t know how but it needs to stop flipping on its back in breaking waves. The bloody thing needs to be light and not so stretchy too.

 In 1961 I had unknowingly specified the modern packraft.

With those improvements, then I would… yeah, ….. na, ….. I’d definitely do it again.

Hugh Canard is a founding member, and current patron of Whitewater NZ, with more than 50 years experience as a white water paddler. Hugh’s exploits include many first descents of rivers including the Arahura, Taipo and Turnbull.

Wilderlife