Kaituna River (Okere Falls)
|Stretch:||Lake Rotoiti to Trout Pool|
|Difficulty:||Class III to IV (IV+)|
|Flows:||200 to 600 gates. Check with Sunspots Kayak Shop (07) 3624222 during business hours for flows, as it is not automated.|
|Gradient:||74 fpm average|
|Shuttle:||0.85 Miles (walkable)|
|Featured in A Wet State #122|
To be honest, the idea of paddling in New Zealand always scared me. Mainly because of the West Coast of the South Island. Stacked rapids full of must make moves and in play sieves. It is the same style of boating that intimidated me with a handful of the California runs like Bald Rock and Purdons. Because of this, I always said I had no interest in kayaking in New Zealand. However, over the past few years a few things had changed… 1) I became a better boater, or perhaps I just started believing I was a better boater. Having an enjoyable time in Norway 1.5 years ago did amazing things for my boating confidence for sure. 2) I learned that there are ways to enjoy places without doing only hard runs every day of a trip. In all of my travels I have found that each location has plenty of class IV for “rest” days which perhaps rest the mental side of your body more than the physical… but to me that is where I am weakest. And little did I know, that New Zealand actually has a fantastic class IV selection of runs that run at the same time as the classics. And actually, they also have plentiful class III/IV options too… why this isn’t a destination for intermediates is beyond me… because it is certainly good enough whitewater and of course top notch for scenery and culture to warrant it.
So, for me though, the idea became a plan with the need to make a wedding registry. Diane and I had been together for 10 years, owned houses for the past 8 of those… so when it came time to create a wedding registry there was not a whole lot that we needed (or wanted as we attempt to limit our random clutter and accrual of things). So we thought we would make a honeymoon fund for a big vacation… and New Zealand fit the bill nicely.
It is a place that is pricey to get to from the states (relative to most other mainstream kayaking locations) and once you are in country, gas and long driving distances can strain funds and that is not to mention the helicopter fees for the most classic of the West Coast runs. And as a side note, over the past 4 years or so, those helicopter prices have doubled. For us the Perth was $200 for 5, the Arahura was $170 for 10 people. (price is per person and varies based on how many people you have). Not too many years ago these would be closer to $100 if not even less. So the expensive reputation of New Zealand is only going to get worse it seems for some time. But to my point, it seemed like the perfect trip to have a honeymoon fund applied to, so we put it on our registry and received funds from many of our friends and family… whom we are super grateful to!
The last piece of the puzzle was to get some friends to come with us for the trip. This is where I failed. Several friends had recent injuries or illnesses keeping them out, a few had Grand Canyon permits, and others had significant others who would leave them if they missed Christmas and New Years. So after a month or two of trying, I gave up and resigned to doing the trip just us. And by that I mean that I would spend the first week solo on the North Island before picking Diane up on the South Island once she was able to finish work and get away. This certainly added a level of stress going into this trip… not just the fear of the West Coast rivers… but fear of not getting to boat as much as I was hoping or having to skip runs because of the logistical or safety hurdles a single car and pair of boaters pose. But it was with big hopes and open expectations that I set out.
Our flights were both at 7 am in the morning out of Atlanta, a week apart. We had to fly out of Atlanta in order to take our boats, as Knoxville is too small of an airport. Because of this we needed to stay nearby, so our friends Morgan and Micah were nice enough to open their house to us and allow us to park a car at their place while we were gone. Rather than leave two cars, I got a friend to drive me to Atlanta the night before the flight. The next morning I convinced a dubious taxi drive to let me stuff my kayak in in his van. I think a lightbulb went off in his head on why I insisted being picked up by a van. Thankfully he was game and even praised my work when I got it to fit by deftly flipping it over upside down and gaining 3 or 4 needed inches of clearance. United swiftly checked my waveski in and the trip was a “go.” Good luck continued as my flight to San Francisco was upgraded for free to first class… the perks of traveling a lot for business. I landed and had a 9 hour layover. Luckily I also get access to club lounges which come with an open bar thanks to my business travel… so it was game on! 9 hours of layover and 11 hours of flying later, I find myself in Auckland ready for the adventure to begin!
New Zealand 2016/2017 Day 1 Afternoon:
I landed in Auckland at 5:30 am. By the time my paddles, boat, and bag came out and I was through security it was close to 6:30 am. But, the rental car shop didn’t open until 8, so I sat waiting. Around 8, I checked my kayaking into short term storage as the rental car shuttle wouldn’t allow me to take it with me, a fact I knew in advance and planned for. Picking up the car, I returned and got my kayak… it wasn’t even 9 am yet and I was on the road!
The first stop was the guaranteed to have flow classic, Kaituna. A California boater had been posting video of himself in the area and it turns out he was working there for the summer and said he would be happy to introduce me around the folks who were around. So, 3.5 hours later I met up with Phil for the first laps of the trip on this classic.
The Kaituna is best known for the section immediately below the lake, starting at the town of Okere Falls and going down to Trout Pool. Downstream are more gorges that I got to run later in the trip, but this section offers easy shuttle, a classic waterfall, a stout waterfall if you are so inclined, a slalom course and free camping at take-out. So what is not to love? Many of the world’s best boaters have come up in the sport using this section as their training ground, and now I can see why!
The water is warm as is the air, so dry tops got pushed aside for a t-shirt instead. The sun down here is legit and burns were received within 24 hours. So do yourself a favor and bring a brimmed hat and some sunscreen! With Phil leading the charge we banged out three quick laps with smiles ear to ear. Okere Falls is for sure the highlight, this 12-15 footer is pretty mellow when on line but unforgiving if off of line. I saw the outcome of one such less desirable line that day as a friend plugged and was pulled into the pocket on the left before disappearing for longer than we were comfortable with. Soon his helmet and gear resurfaced shortly after followed by the man himself. Turns out he was pinned on the bottom of the river… so, lesson learned, boof with a little right angle! The dangerous drop on the run is not usually run as take-out is easy just above it. However, it does get run often. I ran it once in my trip just to do it, while others ran it on nearly every lap. Trout Pool falls has seen something like 17 swimmers drown in its large low head dam style hole. No kayakers have perished to date… but without proper safety set it seems only a matter of time. So approach this drop with caution and respect.
That afternoon, as we sat around take-out after our laps, me thinking and dreaming of my bed as I hadn’t slept much during the 25 hours or so of travel, a plan was hatched to head over Huka Falls, 1.5 hours away as the flow had dropped to a nice lowish flow… with my Fear of Mission Out running strong, I drank another 5-Hour Energy and packed up to head off with the group…
For reference, we had 200 release, which is the lowest release. I am sure some of the holes become more stout and some lines change at higher flow. I am also sure that these all have real names… I don’t know them other than the falls.
Next: New Zealand 2016/2017 Day 1 Evening - Huka Falls
- Put-in (III). OK, so this doesn’t count as a rapid… but make sure you use the metal slide that launches you 8 feet into the air and then into the water. Such a great way to start the lap!
Slalom (II+). Just below put in is a small slalom course. There is also a nice blast of water to ferry across both ways. Great place to practice and warm up. The river then passes under the road and opens up briefly.
S-turn #1 (III). A shallow slide that s-turns from the left to the right has some fun eddies to catch.
S-turn #2 (II+). Another S-turning drop is just below, this one also has nice eddies and ferries to hit.
- Powerhouse (IV). You go through an old concrete dam structure and have a choice of left or right of the island. Right is a ledge that you want to be right of center with a little left angle. Left of the island is a slide that gets junky near the end. Both recombine and exit over a uniform 4 foot ledge that you want to clear. Boof and keep your nose up!
- Tutea Falls (IV to IV+). The big show on this run, the reason why I really wanted to come to this area, is this falls. It is straight forward and forgiving, up until it is not and then it can hand out big beat downs. The normal line is to boof right of center with right momentum and a left stroke. There are however lines possible down the middle as well as boofing the left. The main hazard is getting pitted in the recessed hole on the left at the base. It is known for sticking people to the bottom of the river. I witnessed one such working, when Teral disappeared for much longer than I was comfortable with while he worked himself out of the boat which was pinned to the bottom. So, boof and stay right is my take-away. The other hazard is found by people who do not boof as you can plug to the bottom of the river and hurt your ankles. So again, boof. You can scout this falls from the trail before putting on, but not once on the water.
Hole #1 (III). Just down a corridor from the exit pool of Tutea, is a small ramp into a cushion forming off the left wall also forms a hole at the base. The recirculating eddy on the right can hold people and cause swims. Drive down the ramp right to left and punch the edge of the cushion.
Hole #2 (III-). Similar to the one directly upstream, but the reverse direction, drive down the ramp left to right and punch the hole.
Hole #3 (II+). This is the exit of the corridor and just a nice ramp with some waves and squirrely water.
- S-turn #3 (II+). After the last hole, the river opens up and you have an s-turn that can be run down the middle.
Amphitheater (III to IV). A ledge of about 4 feet then the river makes a 90 degree turn where the water goes back under a cave. At low flow the cave is benign. At higher flow the cave becomes a hazard. We boofed far left though there was also a slide line on the right.
Playhole (II+). A nice play spot that is park and played from take-out. Great for enders in creek boats.
- Take-out. Most will use the take out just below the play hole on the left.
Trout Pool Falls (V). If ever a one move rapid that is run regularly deserved to be class V I think this is it. Most catch the eddy on the right part way down the class II lead-in. Then peel out and carry left momentum and a delayed right boof stroke off of the not-quite-vertical 15 footer. The hole at the base is super legit. If you back-ender and get stuck, you will need a rope to get out. Even once out of your boat. To date, no kayakers have died, but something like 17 swimmers have. While I was there, someone (non-kayaker) cliff jumped into it and was recirculated for over a minute while kayakers through rope after rope at him. Finally, he held onto the 4th rope and was pulled out, nearly drowned. So, set safety if you plan on running this.
- Optional Take-out: If you ran Trout Pool just continue under the footbridge to the big pool below. There is a trail on the left just as you enter the pool.
Put-in: From Rotorua, take State Highway 5 South for 70 km. At the junction with State Highway 1, cross 1 and exit onto Thermal Explorer Highway. Follow this for 3.0 km before exiting left onto Huka Falls Rd. Follow this to the parking area. Note that the carpark does close in the evening at the hours posted. It is very expensive if you get locked in. From the carpark, hike across the bridge and up the river 100 yards to where you can drop down into the pool above the rapids.
Take-out: After the falls, paddle downstream 100-200 feet and look for a small rock shelf on the left with a rope to ascend the first tier of the cliff. This then leads to a trail which quickly gets you back to your car.
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