Monday, March 18, 2019

Packrafting 101

So I've been thinking of getting a watercraft for some time. Then I see a packraft for the first time and I immediately fall in love. Then I mull it over for a while, then I purchase one. But I'm yet to actually use one. I've never even had a trial run!!

When Arno sold me my packraft, he recommended I do a packrafting safety course, to gain some elementary skills in paddling safely, on rivers especially. I also got a discount off the course price. My packraft had not yet arrived, but I was able to use my newly purchased four piece carbon fibre paddle and personal flotation device (PFD).

There were six of us in the group. Two of us were doing just the two day safety course, the other four were continuing a further five days paddling the Hollyford Pyke circuit. This trip has become an iconic loop trip to do in a packraft, because 10 days of tramping in very wet conditions can be reduced to only 2 days of walking and 3 days of paddling. The Hollyford flows downstream through a lake to the sea, and then the Pyke flows the opposite direction back into the Hollyford only half a day's walk from the start of the track. There's some walking to be done from the coast to the Pyke headwaters, but that's the least difficult part of the otherwise rather wet and monotonous route that is better done by watercraft. It's on my list of future adventures....

Back in Te Anau we get introduced to all the gear, something I've already been through with Arno when I purchased my raft. Then we pack the van with the gear and head in to town for coffee at a local cafe where we meet Andy, our second instructor, and then drive out to the control gates to begin the practical bit.

The Waiau River begins at the outlet of Lake Te Anau, flows down into Lake Manapouri, and then out of Manapouri to discharge on the south coast. Since the building of the hydroelectric scheme at West Arm on Lake Manapouri, the flow of water out of both lakes is controlled, so the river between the two lakes is generally a Grade 1 with a few small rapids. Perfect for our first day.

First step was to do a car shuffle and blow up our packrafts. Being the first time it took a while to get the hang of inflating the large bags, twisting the top shut and then squeezing the trapped air into the raft. The rafts have one way valves for inflation, which makes the job pretty simple, and with practice, should take less than 5 minutes to have a fully inflated raft. Needless to say it took all of us a lot longer!!

Next, into wetsuits and a bit of swimming in the river to test our self rescue skills. It is an absolute given that at some stage when using a packraft you WILL end up in the drink so we needed to learn about safety, especially how to swim across a current and to keep our feet up at all times to prevent them getting caught on obstacles that could then pull us down and drown us. Both Arno and Andy took care to make us understand and respect a river environment, and to not underestimate how dangerous it could be.

Lucky for us it was a warm sunny day, so our time in the water wasn't too unpleasant, and soon we were allowed to start paddling our rafts and learn skills like reading the river for various features that could help or hinder us, paddling into and out of eddies, ferry gliding and a few different paddling strokes.

We stopped along the way for lunch and then continued our float down the Waiau, trying out our newly learnt skills as we encountered small rapids and negotiated our way through them. We finished up at Queens Reach where we deflated and rolled up our rafts and took the van back to Te Anau.

Day 2 we headed out to Gunns Camp on the Hollyford River, where we inflated the rafts again and donned our wetsuits. It was another glorious sunny day and the sandflies weren't that bad at all....

The Hollyford was definitely a step up from the placid Waiau River with much more gnarly Grade 2 rapids and quite a few overhanging tree trunks, otherwise known as strainers, which are to be avoided at all times. I, however, managed to overturn my raft and get trapped behind a log, but the water was thankfully not flowing strong enough for me to get into any serious trouble. I did, however, give both Andy and Arno a huge fright, and my paddling efforts got considerably more strenuous after that little episode!!!

By the end of Day 2 we had successfully paddled a small section of the river through numerous Grade 2 rapids, had scoped a few rapids that we had chosen to portage rather than run, and had all survived the day! The beauty of the packraft is that being so light, carrying it overland to avoid scary looking pieces of whitewater is hardly any effort at all. They are also extremely stable, and even when you hit rocks there is so much give in their inflatable hulls that you seem to bounce off easily and keep going.

I drove back to Te Anau with a new respect for the raw power of a wild river, and a bit of trepidation that I would soon be using one of these craft by myself. I still had to wait for my packraft to arrive from the US, where it is being custom made. So off on other adventures in the meantime....

(My apologies that there are no photographs. I had been hoping to get some photos sent me from others in the group, but that hasn't happened. Time to remedy that situation and get some waterproofing for my camera!)

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