Fascinated and frightened by the thought of whitewater kayaking, Alastair McDowell embraces his fears (and excitement) to join his mates on a weekend packrafting trip in Mt Cook. After his partner’s paddle breaks, Alastair gets thrown in at the deep end and learns the art of navigation.
Rivers have always scared me. My worst nightmare is being trapped upside down underwater — whitewater kayaking fulfils that terror perfectly. Yet paddling down rivers in all its forms has still fascinated me. Packrafting has taken off in popularity in the last decade owing to the proliferation of rafts used in GodZone and other adventure races.
I met up with fellow GodZone team-mates Rhys John and Emily Wilson for a weekend packrafting trip in Mt Cook. We devised a route that would cover every discipline: 5km paddle down the Tasman River, 25km trek up Gorilla stream and over a saddle into the Jollie, camping by a derelict hut, and a 20km paddle out the Jollie to the Tasman Delta by Lake Pukaki. To finish the loop, we chose a 30km bike ride returning to the Tasman Lakes carpark.
Rafts inflated, we steered towards the outflow of the Tasman Lake straight into the first major grade III rapids. Emily flipped out in her raft and floated down river towards us. We helped her to the bank. She seemed in high-spirits despite being in just a t-shirt.
In the next powerful rapid, Rhys and I ended up sideways and flipped out into an eddy. Rhys managed to swim after the raft and I was left in the midst of the torrents, standing in a small calm patch of river. Eventually I had no choice but to jump back in and swim through the gurgling river, choking on inhaled water. I crawled onto the rocks, gasping for breath.
Approaching the rapids
Rhys swims after the raft
Phew, what an intro! I was glad to be back on foot, warming up on a long hot grind up the Gorilla stream. Hazy air mirrored off the river gravels in the searing heat.
Emerging from bush in the lower Gorilla
At the head of Gorilla, we veered towards a saddle into the upper Jollie. The crossing involved a few hundred metres of easy angled snow on either side. It was ideal terrain for aluminium crampons on running shoes, especially for the glissade below the impressive east face of Nun’s Veil.
Icebergs in the lake below the saddle
Team shot at the saddle
Lyttle’s Hut is a derelict hut in the upper Jollie valley, quite thrashed and forlorn. We camped outside and enjoyed the warm summer evening in the quiet valley.
Camping at Lyttle’s Hut
Despite low water, we were able to jump back in the rafts right below the derelict hut and begin the paddle out. Just as we prepared to enter the water, Rhys made a disastrous discovery. His paddle blade had a huge crack across it. Oh no. How did that happen? It must have been in the Tasman, or bashing up the bush in the Gorilla.
He applied a mass of duct tape to tension the blade back, but it was still very weak for a long paddle home. Rhys was the stronger paddler, but without a good paddle he could not steer. I presumed the rear position and started to learn the art of navigating the packraft down the bony and continuously technical Jollie River.
The river gradually gained flow and twisted through many short bouldery sections, which was fun & challenging. After three or four hours we merged with the lower Tasman heading towards Pukaki. Wind was picking up so we opted to walk across the lower braids towards Glentanner, carrying the raft and putting it in to cross the glacial braids.
The final 30km road bike into a blustery nor-wester finished us off for an excellent weekend of adventure racing in the Mount Cook region.
Jollie River ambience
This article originally appeared on Alastair’s ‘Mountain Adventure Blog’ on 3 February 2022and is reproduced here with permission.