A mid Winter Dunking in the Ureweras
There should be some reassurance in uncontrollable shivering. It's the body's way of trying to warm up and as Ian, reason for one of my young companions, reminds me it's preferable to the listless warmth of advanced hypothermia. But then Ian, who has come to my rescue yet again, is not soaked in freezing Whakatane River water for the umpteenth time and shaking so badly that holding a kayak paddle is utterly impossible. I have to get warm but every bit of spare clothing is soaked too. Ian drags his dry spares out for me and the shivering subsides as I abandon my kayak and walk about l km to the Hanamahihi Hut on feet with no feeling until the bruises come out a few days later.
If I entertained any thoughts that it would have been saner to take this easy riverside trail all the way from Ruatahuna, it is gone by the time I get to the hut where the other mad dogs, and two Englishmen, have the billy boiling. Warmth does wonders to morale and the last people at the hut have considerately left a pile of split firewood that in a few hours it will dry out my sleeping bag and clothing.
This historic route through the Urewera National Park Ruatoki is a popular 4 day tramp. Kayaking the 76 km should take about half the time and it is not all madness to be going in the middle of winter because in summer there is rarely enough water for kayaks.
According to the late Graham Eggar the Whakatane with rapids that are no more than grade three, Is often regarded as an ideal overnight trip for paddlers who are relatively inexperienced at multiday trips. The rocks tend to be well rounded and the rapids not steep." That sounds like us so I prevail on a generous nephew to shuttle our party from Opotiki to Ruatahuna capital of the Tuhoe, a place where time has gone backwards and horses out number people.
The Urewera is different from most National Parks in that it contains many pockets of private land, and for of its length the Whakatane follows a corridor of them. At Mataaua we get permission from a farmer to portage our kayaks across his paddocks and down a steep fern covered bank to the river. And here is the way of history. Probably 100km from the coast is the Mataatua Marae where the Mataatua canoe is said to have reached to beget the Tuhoe before journeying to the far north as the founding waka of the Ngapuhi.
Joe and lan have opted to use their solid Puffin sea kayaks. If the Mataatua can traverse the river, they should be able to as well. Egarr's description of the stage as “easy, shallow grade one rapids down to Ngahiramai Hut “, is mostly accurate, although his idea of a “steady pace" for river flow, is much stronger than I imagined. Anyone trying to cross this river would probably be swept off his feet.
As darkness approaches we camp on a river flat where one of the Ruatahuna trekking companies has a huge, canvas covered kitchen and mess hall that we can cook in if it rains. Next morning I cast a flyline into the water ‑ more to have briefly done it that actually catch a fish because it already seems certain that with this party of mostly novices time is going to be precious.
The sun is trying to burn away the Urewera mist and there is no sign of rain. But we move on from the grass and manuka flats to where the dense forest of rimu, matai and totara crowds in on the river and blocks the sun, and the air is instantly colder than a liquor store chiller.
I call out that I will go ahead and stop behind a larger rapid to take photographs of the rest of the party and pay the price for my cockiness. At Tawhiwhi Hut, the river narrows and turns abruptly at a cliff face. I slide into the cliff, lean the wrong way and take a swim. And so begins what might best be called a chilling day. I wrap around boulders that better skills would easily have avoided, including on the first of the named rapids, Tarakena, which Egarr notes "contains a large boulder that may be difficult to avoid." He was right. But I do successfully run Nihootekiore, where the water goes through a narrow gap to create the hardest and most spectacular rapid. It is brutally cold in a long, gorge like section of the river and after one spill my kayak disappears several hundred metres downstream before I can retrieve it. At least the two 13yearold boys in our party are having a much better day of it. The major problem is not falling out but the bittercold that comes with it. As the day wears on it becomes increasingly debilitating, so when I see the small boulder racing towards me I know what to do but just can't seem to make it work. Hanamahihi Hut's warmth restores morale.
This is New Zealand wilderness at its best and the major pity of my trials is not the cold so much as that in my efforts to avoid it I have tended to ignore the magnificently rugged country we are travelling through. Outside Hanamahihi Hut next morning is several degrees of frost. Our spray skirts and dive booties are frozen into distorted sculptures and we have to thaw them in the river before we can get them on. By late morning the river has widened and we catch some warmth. When we reach the road end at Ruatoki I feel slightly cheated. I haven't had the time to fish for the Whakatane's famed fighting rainbow trout or soak up the wilderness atmosphere. I will have to come back and do this trip again after I have done a moving water kayak course.
By Colin Moore
Reproduced from the NZ Herald in July 1997
Colin is now editor of Wilderness magazine