Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Hurunui Hooley: getting my packrafting mojo back

A couple of years ago I bought a packraft with the intention of using it to augment my tramping trips. Mostly to cross lakes and rivers that were in the way of a respectable loop route. And maybe to run some easy Grade 1-2 rivers. Since most of my tramping is solo, I felt that running anything technical by myself on a river was downright foolhardy.

Since getting my packraft I've done two safety courses and gone on lots of great expeditions, but my confidence in whitewater took a bit of a bashing in January at the PRANZ national meetup

For two reasons:

First, we'd had a LOT of rain prior to the meetup and all the rivers were super pushy. There was no gentle easing in to it, the first day being a long succession of rapids with little rest in between, the second day was talked up as being harder (though it wasn't), which psyched me out, and the final day was actually enjoyable. And then I had another rafter be quite rude to me on a trip after the meetup.

The second reason was the general vibe of the meetup. My initial feeling was that running high grade (2+ and above) was where the meetup participants wanted to be, and there were a fair amount of experienced rafters who felt that newbies shouldn't expect to be mothered. I felt like I was simply a liability and I didn't feel at all confident after the meetup to hookup with others on trips. When I was asked to join an easy float down the Matakitaki I thought that would be fine, but then that didn't go well either. I've let that experience go, but at the time it just fed in to my own feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

Since the national meetup I hadn't run any rivers until I joined a mini-meetup on the Hurunui in North Canterbury. Organised by the exceptional Sheralee, whom I'd met at the meetup in January, there were 25 or so participants, a much more manageable number than the almost 100 we'd had at St Arnaud. In particular, I actually got to have a decent chat with everybody, and to realise there were more people like me than I'd thought.

Over 3 days we ran three different sections of the Hurunui River, which flows out of Lake Sumner and through numerous gorges. It's very popular with whitewater kayakers, and has rapids from Grade 1- 4. We would only be running up to Grade 2+.

We stayed in some shearers' quarters near Lake Taylor, which was a handy base, with most people arriving Friday night.

Saturday we drove down to the Jollie Brook confluence and spent the morning doing safety drills. We swam, we self rescued, we threw throw ropes, practising these important skills. Those in wetsuits were feeling pretty chilly by the end of that session. With a slow leak in my drysuit I too was a little damp after all that swimming, and was glad to get paddling in the afternoon to warm up.

In the afternoon we paddled downriver in groups of about 6. The rapids were all quite manageable, with only one requiring portage. It was a very pleasant afternoon. I had my mojo back!

Sunday we parked at Sisters Stream carpark and walked the couple of hours up to Gabriel Hut and the outlet of Lake Sumner. Having tramped that section myself back in January, I was able to inform them of the shitty overgrown section between Sisters and Jollie Brook and advised avoiding it and to do a car shuttle instead. I was particularly thrilled that I would be packrafting this section as I hadn't wanted to do it solo on my previous trip.

The walk up to Gabriels was a breeze, but at Lake Sumner it was more a gale! Definitely not a day to be out on a lake! We walked down to the outlet and out of the main blast of the wind before inflating our packrafts and heading downstream.

Again in groups of 5-6 we made our way, through two beautiful gorges, past Sisters Stream swing bridge and all the way to our put in at Jollie Brook the day before. One of the gorges had a small drop, my first, which was fun and I made it all the way through in one piece without a swim.

Until the last rapid!

We got out and scouted it, watching others get through, and planning our line. Someone was on safety with a throw rope and a couple more were in boats downstream. The runout was pretty tame anyway, but the rapid itself pushed you towards some rock shelves on river right, the plan being to stay to the left and "paddle like f%^ck!!"

I started out OK, but the current pushed my boat far too quickly to where I didn't wish to go and then I went in to a big hole. I came out the other side, and in hindsight should have kept paddling. But I didn't and capsized instead. I'm extremely grateful to Niels for this photo sequence. There are at least 3 shots of me doing nothing, but remember the water was moving fast and the camera was on burst mode, but it teaches me that I still had the opportunity to stabilise my boat and paddle out....

I probably should have had another go, but by the time I had got back into my boat, with help from others, I had floated downstream a bit and didn't feel like walking back up. The takeout was river right so I just called it a day and began packing up. One chap ran that rapid 8 times, at least once without paddling at all!! Ah to have that confidence....

The final day was a put in below the grade 4 rapids of Maori Gully and involved a very long car shuttle. The description of the rapids as given by Hugh Canard, an absolute legend in whitewater kayaking and rafting, put me off, so I decided to finish on a high and sit out of the paddling, instead providing logistics for the final group of paddlers, who had driven the over one hour car shuttle to get all the vehicles to the takeout, on a horse farm way downstream.

I farewelled the first two groups and then began pumping up the rafts for the remaining group. There were Alpackarafts, Kokopelli rafts, and RobFinn rafts, the latter made in Czech Republic and imported by Viola, another experienced rafter and kayaker. All three had different inflation valves and systems, so it was quite an exercise in problem solving. The wind was again gusty and very strong, so it was good that I had stayed there to look after the gear, with the added bonus of all seven rafts being almost fully inflated by the time the gang turned up from their long road trip.

Once they were on the river I drove down the dirt road and all the way to the main highway, to buy a dozen bottles of Speights as thanks to the landowners for allowing us access through their land to our takeout at Hawarden Gap. Then, after popping in to the farmhouse to hand over the beer, I continued down to the river bank to welcome the paddlers. There were two others who had also sat out the paddling, someone needed to ferry the shuttle drivers back to the put in, so I had people to chat to whilst waiting. Soon the first group arrived, and not long after the second, and they all said Hugh's descriptions were a little exaggerated. The wind, however had been horrific.

The third group were a long way behind, and only a handful completed it. The rest, being blown upriver by the wind, had deemed it too dangerous to continue and had walked out through a neighbouring property and hitched back to the takeout. Since I probably would have been in the final group, I was glad that I had chosen to sit it out.

All in all, it was a really enjoyable 3 days, and I felt considerably more comfortable paddling whitewater. There was a group of us who then headed up to Hanmer Springs, and the next day, in freezing conditions, we hit the Waiau River for a fun float, being Grade 1-2 in low flow with a few nice gorges.

We put in above the Waiau Ferry bridge and floated past the two jet boating operations, having informed them that our party would be on the river. From time to time we had to pull over to the side to let the boats and their happy customers pass, but they were always courteous and were soon out of both sight and hearing.

It was a cruisy end to four great days paddling, with a really awesome crew. This time I didn't feel a liability, and really enjoyed getting to know more people in this fairly small Packrafting community.

Since I needed warming up after that day in the frigid waters of the Waiau, I booked in to the backpackers at Hanmer, had a hot shower and a good night's sleep and then headed off north for more adventures.

That's next....

Friday, April 23, 2021

Hakatere ramblings: exploring between the Rakaia and Rangitata rivers

Heading out of the Banks Peninsula I decided to ring my friend Alex, to see if she was back yet from working on Waiheke Island over the summer. Unfortunately she wasn't, but she did offer me the opportunity to stay in her tiny flat in Methven, which I did for a few days.

The weather was a bit unstable, so I did a little blogging, some laundry, watched a few Netflix movies, and went off on some day trips.

First I did a couple of trips exploring the gorgeous lakes in Hakatere Comservation Area, a huge expanse of tussock and lake country sandwiched between the Rakaia river to the north and the Rangitata river in the south. 

I drove out past Mt Somers village, heading inland. There's an old stone cottage to visit, the only remnant of numerous dwellings housing workers at the nearby limestone quarry. The limestone from this area has been used extensively in buildings both in NZ and in faraway Melbourne, which was going through a massive boom at the end of the 19th Century. 

Further along the road is the old Hakatere Station buildings, with another nice stone cottage. 

Then you start getting into Lake territory. There's a nice little one called Lake Emma, which has a track around to an old historic hut by the water. A nice stroll for lunch. 

Further along is Camp Lake and Lake Clearwater, which has quite a substantial community of holiday baches. Further along are more wetlands and then the road descends to Potts River with great views up the Rangitata. Nearby is Mt Sunday, but since I'm not really into LOTR sites (Edoras if you must know) I gave it a miss. 

Once the rain had cleared I attempted a big day walk. With moody skies and not a skerrick of wind, I began early. I started my tramp at the turnoff to Lake Emily on the Lake Heron Road. My Subaru doesn't have the clearance to drive in to Lake Emily, and since I was doing the walk as a loop there seemed no point anyway. The walk in, along an eroded 4WD track was an enjoyable stroll, with the lake looking rather pretty.

From Lake Emily the walking track climbs up and over a ridge into the Stour River west branch and follows the valley up to Manuka Hut. This is a lovely, character filled gem just off the main track up a side stream, and fairly heavily used as it's on the Te Araroa. 

The track continues up valley, past Manuka Lake which was almost empty due to lack of rain to a low saddle before a gentle descent to Seagull Lake, also lacking water. The hills on each side crowd in through this section, before opening out into a wide shingle river bed.

Rather than continue on the track I veered off to the right, walking up the dry shingle bed, crossing the Swin River south branch not far from Double Hut. It's in a fantastic location with expansive views right down the valley to Lake Heron, and the southern alps beyond.

A friendly chap who had biked in and spent the night there offered me a cup of tea, so I gratefully accepted and enjoyed my lunch sitting out in the sun soaking in the views.

The walk to Lake Heron was all downhill, so I walked briskly as I knew I still had a long way to go if hitchhiking proved unsuccessful. It was a glorious walk, but it only took me one and a half hours to cover the 10km. I didn't think I could even walk that fast!!

There were a few cars at the Lake Heron carpark, but only one car drove out, and they didn't stop to give me a lift. Unlike on my last tramp, this time I was putting my thumb out, as I really didn't want to walk all the way back along the dirt road to my car.

Once on the main Lake Heron Road, which is a gravel dead end road, I had another 9 km to walk back to where my car was parked. The third car to go by stopped to give me a lift, which I was very grateful for, having walked well over 20 km by then and about half way back along the main road to boot! Much easier to do those sort of distances with just a daypack! 

The next day, with a few days of fine weather forecast, I headed off on a multi-day trip. I drove up the southern side of the Rakaia River, to park beside the road and head up Glenrock Stream to Turton's Saddle. I was back on the Te Araroa again, this time heading south. Rene and Anna and Renee and Billy, whom I'd met at Stone Hut and Crooked Spur Huts respectively, had already walked through this section and were now further north. I'd seen their entries in the hut books at Manuka and Double Huts, and it was now very late in the TA walking season, so I didn't expect much company. Walking up to Turtons Saddle, however, I passed all the weekend warriors walking back to their cars below. Which left my car the only one left in the carpark...

The climb up to Turtons Saddle was a steady switchback route, which made it a fairly energetic, but not gruelling, experience. I drank in the views at the top and then sauntered down the track through the tussock to the very cute A-Frame Hut.

After some lunch sheltered from the biting wind I continued down the valley, following Turtons Stream. It was only another couple of hours down to Comyns Hut, a welcome refuge from the wind, but unlined with an open fireplace. The track skirted high above a gorge just before the hut which allowed for some more nice views. 

Once the sun went behind the hills the hut got very cold. I put on all my layers, had an early dinner amd then hopped into my sleeping bag. Some time in the night the wind either stopped, or began blowing from the north, because it definitely was warmer when I got up in the middle of the night for a pee. 

The next day I left the orange poles behind and headed down the North Branch of the Ashburton River. Just below the hut Turtons Stream joined the larger river coming in from the right. I would be following this river all the way downstream to Cookies Point, where I would turn back north to find my way over to the Rakaia River valley again. Yep, another one of my loops!!

It was a long day, taking 5 hours to get to Cookies Point. Initially the walk downstream was easy, along wide shingle beds. There were a few easy river crossings, nothing hairy, but as I got further along the walls got closer and there were a number of gorges to get through. There were lots of animal tracks to follow, sometimes through some unavoidable clumps of matagouri, and there were countless river crossings when the side I was on bluffed out. Some of the gorges were quite spectacular.  Usually one side or the other offered a way through, but there were some places where the only way was to walk down stream in the shallows.

The river had some decent rapids on it, but also lots of relatively shallow calmer sections where crossing was easy. Rarely was the water above my knees, and only once did I cross at a point where it was flowing a little deeper and stronger than I would have liked. The water pressure was never strong enough for me to feel unstable on my feet, and my packrafting experiences have taught me how to read rivers, and to use eddies to my advantage. The river wasn't deep enough to float down in a packraft, and I suspect some of those gorges might get a bit gnarly in higher flow. 

Not far from Cookies Point I found a dead bull tahr on the shingle beside the river. It hadn't been dead long, but I couldn't see any blood and hadn't seen any hunters around. Later, at Cookies Point, I saw a herd of tahr climbing a particularly crumbly scree slope, and some much smaller goats nearby. 

Once around the point the going got a lot easier walking up Swift Stream. The crossings were shallower, and the terraces above the stream were less covered in the dreaded matagouri, making travel considerably easier. Still, it took another hour to Cookies Hut, where I called it a day. The hut used to be a private musterer's hut but is now, after tenure review, on Conservation Land and a DOC asset. Another lovely gem, and with a bit of sun still around and a light wind I had a go at trying to dry my socks out. My boots hadn't a hope in hell!

The sun was shining in the window so it was nice and toasty. There was a wood stove and some dry wood but I didn't light the fire, leaving the wood for a cold rainy day, when it would be needed. The door had been decorated with the names of successive groups of musterers (top) and deerstalkers (below) as well as a lovely charcoal drawing of a shepherd with his dogs.

Overnight the temperature plummeted and the next morning I had to put back on cold wet socks and boots, which wasn't pleasant. The good news was there were only a couple of river crossings all day, so my feet warmed up as I walked. There was no doubt that summer was well and truly over as low clouds moved in, and a cold breeze blew. Not windy enough to need extra layers, but cold enough to not work up a sweat. Perfect tramping weather! 

From Cookies Hut to Tribulation Hut there was an old 4WD track of sorts to follow. It was only an hour upstream so I continued on, crossing the river a second time to begin climbing up onto a terrace above the river with paddocks full of sheep on Cookies Flat. This is where I left the track, to climb over the fence into private property and walk along the station road on Black Hills Station.

I had rung ahead to ask permission. Instead of continuing along over Redcliffe Saddle and down Redcliffe Stream to the Rakaia, I walked back through Black Hills Station. This would not only cut off quite a few kilometres to my loop but also meant I could visit one more hut and my final night's accommodation at McIntosh Hut. The usual cost is $20pppn, but I was getting it free of charge in exchange for cleaning it. Deal! 

I arrived at lunchtime so got the wet boots and socks off and put them out in the anaemic sun to dry, but the temperature remained icy, so after lunch and cleaning the hut, I got the fire going. It was a coal burner, so before long I was nice and toasty. And then I had a hot shower (there was also a gas califont!) and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening having hot drinks and reading. A very pleasant final night on a tramp!

The walk out the next day was also along the Black Hills Station Road, joining the road heading up the Rakaia about 2km west of Redcliffe Stream. Not expecting much traffic mid week I set off along the road and about 20 minutes later an older gentleman stopped and gave me a lift back to my car. It's a very scenic drive, so after changing into muftis I drove up the valley a bit further to enjoy the spectacular braided river valley and the peaks beyond.

Back down the Rakaia and on the main road again I headed to Sheffield for a pie and then continued north. I had an appointment with another river for the Anzac weekend. That's next....