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Whitewater Rush

14 Sep 2015

The Karamea River holds legendary status as one of the best rivers to raft in the world. There are seductive and fascinating tales written describing a place, deep in the wilderness of Kahurangi National Park. A place that is rugged, raw and beautiful, totally removed from the normal day-to-day; this was the adventure and inspiration that I was craving. This time it was my turn. I wanted to see and experience the river for myself.

With the children shipped off to their grandparents, it was time for me to join the rest of the team and travel to the small and remote town of Karamea on the West Coast. The drive up the Coast gives a real sense of how isolated this community is, and yet how that comes to be one of the big things that define the characters found living there. Meeting our chopper pilot and river guides reassured me that we were in good capable hands. The team is from Ultimate Descents New Zealand (based in Murchison), and they are intimately familiar with the Karamea River and have a flawless safety record. For the three day journey that lay ahead, both flying up the river and making our way out by river rafting, we were to be guided by some of the most experienced and highly skilled river rats in the country. When the journey that lies ahead includes some of the most technical grade five whitewater rafting in New Zealand, it's important to have confidence in your guides!

As we fly up the Karamea River, we stay low, and I'm totally enchanted by what I can see. It has that uniquely New Zealand landscape of sub-tropical bush meets towering mountains and clear rivers. The river itself incessantly winds and rushes its way to the ocean. I notice that the river guides, scan the river continuously, looking for any new hazards or changes to the river. This is a totally wild part of the country, and one should never underestimate and assume, or so it appears. It feels good to sit back, relax and enjoy a sensory intake of freedom!

The first day consists of some good training grounds, a few fairly grunty rapids followed by some drifting pools helps to engage my confidence in our team and what to expect. We're building a wonderful sense of camaraderie that occurs on these types of trips. When we aren’t reveling in the amazing landscape, we're laughing and chatting about anything and everything. The whitewater, teaching us to trust the way we work (or not!), only resulting in laughter – no tears.

Making camp beside the river takes on a whole other pace. Guides get the fire going, and you get to make it as homely as you like, rope washing lines, and driftwood couches included. Yes, time to relax and enjoy a whiskey beside the fire where the evening meal is prepared in this rustic setting, but not without a lot of thought and culinary finesse from the crew. The food is divine, and it is inspiring to see it prepared on the fire, next to the natural beauty of a river.

Great place to spend the night
A great place to set up camp

During the night we hear Kiwi calling and in the morning the Kea wake us; the heartbeat of the river is constant. With a wholesome breakfast and good strong hot coffee, we load the rafts and set out to tackle the longest grade five rapid in New Zealand “The Roaring Lion”. The height of the river on the day dictates how much of this rapid we inevitably have to walk around (portage). I was thankful to not be rafting some of it; not just because it looked dangerous, but walking also gives me the chance to be face to face with the legendary house-sized boulders that have fallen into the river from the mountain range above. Coming out of the Roaring Lion, we know a huge obstacle is behind us, but the journey is not over yet. More tributaries flow in, to join in their unrelenting search for the ocean, and, along with the boulders from the mountain range, create more rapids to keep us on the job (accompanied by the occasional cuss word).

The last night we set up camp with our amazing fire at centre stage. It’s the end of a big day, and I amhappy to be fed yet another amazing meal followed by an exceptional banoffee pie (made with a good helping of theatrics and laughter). I feel tired and content, enjoying chatting around the fire and watching the stars. The sound of the river has become a constant companion.

The last day we have time to enjoy a cooked breakfast before we move on to what is now a familiar mode of travel. After a stunning stop at a big sweeping sandy beach, and a wee exploration up one of the tributaries, there is the final lower gorge. The river has now reached its full volume, and as it carves through that last gorge, there is some serious whitewater inspiring me to perform and execute all the moves called for. I feel alive, present, connected and totally grateful to our legendary raft guide.

Wow, what a journey; whitewater, wilderness, laughter, campfires and now off for a well deserved beer.

It feels reassuring to know that places like this still exist. There are many adventures to be had in this world, but I feel totally grateful to have had the opportunity to have been on this one. Stories I have read rate the Karamea as one of the best river rafting journeys in the world, and now I am proud to have my own story to share. The team at Ultimate Descents is the real deal, genuine Kiwi adventurers who love what they do, showing true capability and passion. Now I just need to make sure that my turn will come again on another West Coast Heli Rafting adventure!

Exploring a tributary
Exploring a tributary