Waiohine epic  Up sh#t creek with only a paddle

A lost packraft, flooded rivers, wetsuit tramping and SAR callouts: a reflection and analysis of an ill-fated paddling trip to the Waiohine Gorge.

This article is adapted with permission from the author’s original report. FMC expresses it’s thanks to Robbie John for his willingness to share a very personal tale, in the hope that others can learn from this experience. 

Sitting in Powell Hut for an unexpected second time, with the warmth of the fire on my face and the feeling coming back into my hands, I began to reflect on the past 48 hours. This time two days ago, Hamish and I were enjoying a hearty meal in the very same spot, unaware that it would be our last feast…

Hamish had done the trip before, and encouraged me on this May mission to the Waiohine Gorge in the Tararua Range. I was excited: this was going to be my first ‘decent trip’ for a while. 

It’s mostly grade 2 with a few grade 3, and we can bail out at Totara Flats Hut if we need to. 

Our waka for the trip was a 2 person inflatable kayak, a bit like a super tough version of a double packraft. One of us would carry the IK and paddles, the other would carry everything else… 

The forecast included a heavy rain warning, but it arrived the morning after we were due out. The first of the ‘alarm bells’ rang, but Hamish reckoned it’d only take us 5-6hrs of paddling.

No worries mate! 

When I arrived to pick him up, Hamish was having trouble getting his brand new InReach device set up. We sought some help from the local shop where he’d bought it, but still couldn’t get it going..  Deprived of our chosen communications device at the last moment, and with the local shop not hiring out PLB’s, the second alarm bell began to slowly chime. Maybe we heard the noise, but we figured we had a good alternative plan; 

We both have a phone and a spare battery pack: surely we can just bail out a high ridge and call out if we have to?

We left our intentions with our partners, then finally got out the door after all the last-minute efforts, making it to the Holdsworth Road end several hours late at midday.  3rd alarm bell. 

You can scroll around this map here on Wilderlife, or open it full screen in another tab to follow along on the story..

The problem was that the original plan was Mid-Waiohine Hut (which is where the paddling starts) that evening. DOC reckons it is a 6-7hr tramp, but with heavy loads, we expected to be a fair bit slower.

But if we made it to Mid-Waiohine by 10am the following morning, we’d be back on schedule… 

Arriving there at 5pm, we adapted our plan to stay the night in Powell Hut, then make a very early start the next morning.  We were facing challenges to our plan, but we were adapting on the fly. That’s how it works right?

12 hrs later the alarm buzzed, and once more we checked the forecast: “Increasing rain from Sunday night” We knew the rain was a threat, but Hamish’s previous experience and our early start meant that we thought we still had a good amount of fat in the plan. Plus we could re-assess at Totara Flats Hut and take our pre-planned bail out if needed. We were away at 6.30am and enjoyed the sunrise whilst we slogged over the tops in strong winds.

It was a punishing descent with the big packs, and we arrived at 10.45am, later than we’d hoped. Paddle gear was sorted, raft was inflated, an early lunch prepared and we were on the water an hour later.  

Nearly two hours behind schedule

Ironically, with the heavy rain forecast, we quickly found the river was running at a comparative trickle. The “good lines even at low flows” that Hamish’s mate promised weren’t to be found. Scraping through the first two rapids, we had to portage over the next small drop. It was easy enough to do but it quickly turned from a cool paddling mission to a crappy, “canyoning with a kayak” mission. 

This was going to take a lot longer than expected; all we could do here was push on as hard as we could to Totara Flats, paddling where we could and portaging the kayak and gear as efficiently as possible when needed.

Still in the gorge at 5pm, we were only a few km’s in distance from Totara Flats, but a long way away in time. We eddied out to re-assess, and made the call to bivvy whilst we had light, rather than commit to more rapids as it became dark. Our spot wasn’t the greatest, as we couldn’t get much higher above the river with the coming rain.

As we went about collecting some firewood to make the best of it, I realised this was the point I began to regret going on a trip without a PLB of some sort. 

Why couldn’t I have told Hamish that it just wasn’t worth it?

All we could do was hope that our contact person would raise the alarm at 6pm as planned and that a helicopter might appear in the darkness.  Settling in for an uncomfortable night, we had to brew up in empty tuna cans, as our frypan had been lost in the portage. But as we sipped the stock, I realised that my partner might have assumed we were hunkering down in Totara Flats Hut after a longer day than planned. We were probably on our own till at least 11am tomorrow.

It was a cold, wet and uncomfortable night. Pelted with rocks from above and in drenched sleeping bags, morning couldn’t come soon enough. But when it did, we were able to see the fury of a Waiohine in full flood.

Paddling was out of the question, so all we could do was wait. As the rain eased, eventually so did the flow; still raging but a little less like death. Staying another night on the slip risked hypothermia and rockfall, so we needed to paddle onwards to a safer spot where we could make a better fire, maybe even make it to Totara Flats. 

We managed the first few rapids ok, but soon disaster struck: our raft flipped, and we were both swimming for our lives in a flooded river. Both of us made it to the shore, but we watched our raft with all our equipment take all the perfect lines through the rapids until it disappeared from view.

We were left with only the rafting clothes we were wearing, plus one paddle. To make things worse, Hamish had temporarily dislocated his patella and lost a shoe during the swim. We attempted to start a fire with a lighter from our PFD’s, but it soon broke, as did our spirits. It was 11am the day after being due out…

Truly up sh#t creek with only a paddle.

Unable to progress down river, and unable to keep warm without moving, we hatched a plan to escape up the steep slip in an attempt to get to a hut or track, hopefully to meet SAR as the began their search in the logical places.

Clad in neoprene, freezing and terrified of stopping I resisted the call of nature #2’s. The constant nocking kept me walking, so up the spur we continued, finding a sign for Totara Flats after a few hours.

 FMC comment: This sign was on an old track that is unmarked on the Topo50, going from the Totara Flats swing bridge to .1330m via High Ridge as described in Tararua Footprints. Robbie wasn’t sure which initial ridge they climbed, but in hindsight, he’s sure they travelled via .814 then via Flaxy Knob to High Ridge

The sign was lying neglected on the ground, but the map was long gone, and we were totally disoriented. Choosing the direction we thought Totara Flats was in, we travelled a few hours, before realising we were actually ascending High Ridge, so Powell hut became our new objective. 

With only a few hours of daylight to spare, we emerged from the bushline near exhaustion. Working together to encourage each other, we knew we’d run out of options and Powell was really our last chance, especially since our head torches were probably in Lake Waiararapa by now…  

Passing a functional signpost near .1330m, we felt the final relief of being able to walk downhill to the hut and salvation. We busted through the door, much to the surprise of Mark and Bevan, two trampers who had the fire roaring. 

I turned right back out the door, down the stairs to the outhouse in order to exorcise the demon that I had been fighting all day. It had grown stronger but so had my will to live. Ten minutes later, after all of the sounds you would expect from a successful exorcism, I emerged a new and enlightened man into the now dark sky. This really hit home how close it had been. If I had stopped to release the Kraken or we had actually taken the rest breaks that we wanted, then we wouldn’t have made it to safety before dark. 

That would have been the end of us. 

Our new-found best friends gave us their spare food, called the Police, and let us phone our loved ones to tell them we were ok. The Police had only just started the search, and were able to dispatch a small land team to walk into Powell with food, fresh clothes and sleeping bags.

After they assessed Hamish’s knee, their plan was to fly out in the morning, but when the bad weather persisted, the SAR team assisted a one-shoed knobbly-kneed paddler to hobble back down the ridge.

Looking back a few weeks later, I can’t express enough thanks to LandSAR, NZ Police and all Search and Rescue operations and volunteers around New Zealand. Knowing that help is on its way gives you one more hope to cling to when you are fighting for your survival. I also implore anyone who may read this to donate generously to your local or national Search and Rescue organisations, or even become a volunteer.


A summary of a few key lessons:

By Dan Clearwater, FMC Development Officer.

Thanks again to Robbie for agreeing to share this story so that others can learn.

Widely used by the aviation, health care, engineering and emergency service sectors, the ‘Reason’ or ‘Swiss Cheese’ model of accident causation theory posits that most incidents are the result of a culmination of a series of minor errors slipping past latent (existing) failures in our defences. Each alarm bell is the feeling you have when you notice an error slipping past a defence.

The Spinnoff published an animation which is a helpful example of the model as applied to NZ’s COVID-19 response.

Next we look at a few of the errors and the failures in defences that allowed them to progress through to causing an incident. 

Human factors and heuristic traps

In the lead to the trip, there were a number of alarm bells (errors) that our friends could have heeded, but a number of heuristic traps meant they justified their plans to continue (latent failures of defences)

  • Familiarity: Hamish had done the trip before, so he was confident it could be done, even with the alarm bells present. 
  • Consistency and the opportunity to validate prior actions: They had made a timeline, which they tried to stick to. “If we can make this time, then it’ll be all good” so they continued to keep to the plan
  • Scarcity: This was the first ‘real’ trip in a while for Robbie, meaning it’d be much harder for him to pull the plug and miss the opportunity. 

See the Wilderlife article on heuristic traps for more information. 

Being aware of our own decision making psychology is the start of a defence against poor decisions.  When plans change, you have an alarm bell, tingle up your spine or near miss, ask yourself, which of these heuristic traps am I in danger of falling for? 

Insufficient margins

The time investment for the river section was highly flow dependant, with a high degree of commitment (paddling a gorge) at a time of year with short days. 

These factors, combined with the forecast rain meant the planned margins (defences) were insufficient to cope with the slower than expected progress (error) on day one and the flip in high water on day two.  

See http://www.packraftingtrips.nz/waiohine-river-iiiii-from-park-forks/ for a more detailed description of the route. 

Communications

Failing to take a PLB (absence of a defence) almost certainly delayed their rescue and could have been critical for survival if they had sustained an injury which meant they couldn’t walk.  

The group did well by providing good intentions to a trusted person: if the sign for Totara Flats hadn’t been misleading, those intentions would have seen SAR check that hut as one of the first actions. 

Separation from your equipment

Although paddling presents a significant risk of being separated from your raft, other situations like ‘just leaving your pack for a side trip to the summit’ can end in the same result if an incident occurs. Keeping a bare minimum of survival gear (such as storm clothing, comms device, 1st aid, Torch, fire lighting equipment) on you whenever you’re away from your main gear is a wise habit and good defence against an error.

Often, a PLB is regarded as a bit of ‘group’ kit. However, on a trip (like when paddling) where there is a high chance of separation (from gear or group), each individual should carry a PLB and/or satellite comms device on their person. 

Its worth reading the very popular Wilderlife article “How and where do you carry your PLB?” for a more detailed discussion on the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of satellite communication devices

Also, journey with a small group (and one raft) means that any loss of gear affects the entire group. Larger groups provide a degree of redundancy. 

Wilderlife