By Jess Lange, Diploma in Outdoor Instruction and Guiding student at Tai Poutini Polytechnic
Glacial blue water flows around huge pounamu boulders created when the taniwha Poutini, turned the woman he loved into his essence, greenstone. Aerated and bubbling, it runs through stunning schist gorges, carving its way from the Alps out to sea.
The Arahura River is a classic West Coast kayaking run and it marks my first ever walk in adventure. Untouched and isolated, the only way in is by walking or taking a helicopter. Being broke polytech students, we take the cheap option, carrying our kayaks and all our gear to the put in. I’m new to the West Coast and reasonably new to kayaking. I came to the West Coast at the beginning of 2019, fresh outta high school and eager to start my career as an outdoors person. I started at Tai Poutini Polytechnic, and quickly became immersed in all things outdoors. I remember our first day kayaking. I was completely fresh having never been in one before. I immediately knew that this was the sport for me. After a year of hard work, getting out on the river at every opportunity, I had transformed from a complete noob into a solid grade 2 paddler. Then, over summer, I started getting into the grade 3. We did the lower section of the Arahura way back in those first days of kayaking, and I always wondered what was further upstream. I had seen the photos of the Cesspool Gorge, heard the hype, and Daymo had been suggesting that I come on this section for months.
We got out of the utes, took our kayaks off the roofs and geared up ready to go. I stood a little hesitant wondering what happens next. That’s when Angus turned to me and said, “This isn’t a group tramp Jess, start walking.” So off I went. On the water we’re a team, but carrying these lumps of heavy plastic to the put in, it’s every person for themselves. After just minutes I was already questioning my decision to carry my boat on my shoulder rather than building a high tech pool noodle carry system to strap it on my back. But, I had come all this way – there was no turning back now. Trudging through deep mud and getting absolutely savaged by hook grass I plodded my way up the track. I arrived at the swing bridge and looked down below me at the crystal blue pool.
Anticipation built within me as I knew it wouldn’t be long until I felt the pressure of that water beneath my kayak and pushing against my paddle blades. I started to get tired. My shoulders ached and my calves burned. Finally I came upon all the kayaks, but the others were nowhere to be seen. “Coooooooooooooooooooeeeeeeee,” I called. I charged through the bush chasing the sound of their voice echoing through the valley. The sound of tonnes of water rushing past every second got louder and louder until I was right down in the Cesspool Gorge of the Arahura River. Around me was huge grey, marble walls. They were smooth, sculpted out by millions of years of water slowly chiseling away at them. In that moment, I forgot about the walk and the sore shoulders. As us Tai Poutini Students would say, I was priming.
I watched the rest of the team run the cave drop, a section just above where I was waiting. Boofing over drops and fitting through narrow gaps between the huge rocks they came hurtling down the rapid. For the most part it was pretty styley. Now, it was my turn. From where I was there were two options. Put on just above a river wide hole or sneak on just below it. I felt brave, I didn’t come all this way to chicken out. Sitting in the eddy, it was the calm before the storm. My heart was racing as I tried to visualise my path through the feature. I splashed the icy water on my face and pulled out into the flow. Immediately I could feel the strength of the river bubbling and boiling underneath me. I tried to keep myself balanced and in doing so I completely forgot to actually paddle and let myself float into the hole. It pulled me under and I felt myself get swirled around. Stay calm, I told myself, you’ll flush soon. I felt a bit of slack water but before I had a chance to roll up the power intensified. I realized that I had just come out of a smaller hole above it, and now I was in the monster. Stay calm, I repeated. You will flush. It spat me out, and I rolled up. I looked around at the crew and they all started cheering. I laughed. One rapid down, many more to go.
So, around the corner we went. I could see a horizon line coming up, a rapid where it seems to just drop away with no sight of the bottom. I was hesitant, my stomach still nervy. I took a leap of faith and dropped in. Within seconds it was over and I was looking up at my friends coming down behind me. Soon after, we left the gorge and it opened out into a valley. Looking up either side of the river were mountains lush with West Coast rainforest. Bouncing our way from the calm of one eddy to another we paddled downstream. Trying to chase one of the others I ended up underwater again and this time I couldn’t hold on. I escaped from my kayak and swam to the sandy bank. We had a joke that Poutini, the taniwha, wasn’t happy with me being on his river so he decided to teach me a lesson. I mean, it would be rude not to take a swim on a first walk in. Sitting in the car on the drive home, I reflected back on my kayaking journey. I felt proud of my achievements and all the energy I had put into my whitewater progression.
Today was what we like to call a peak experience; an altered state of consciousness characterized by feelings of euphoria, wonder and awe. I had been on an adventure with some of my closest friends and seen some beautiful country in the process. Going to places like this builds a strong sense of connection to the land and with each other. The best way to describe it is the Maori word Whanaungatanga. It means a relationship through shared experiences and working together which provides people with a sense of belonging. I feel like I belong on the West Coast, where the forest is rich and green and the rivers run swift and blue. There’s plenty more gorges like the Toaroha or even the Totara just waiting for me to fire them up. Trampers and kayakers aren’t so different. We live for the feeling of discovery. The feeling that no one else has ever been there before. Standing in the shadow of the enormity that is our landscape makes us feel tiny, but it also makes us feel alive.