Kings of Karangarua River, New Zealand

By Jordy Searle August 31, 2016
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You don’t have to travel to far-flung places to paddle something new. As the winners of the 2015 The North Face Adventure Grant found, sometimes you can find virgin waterways in your own backyard.

THE SEARCH FOR First Descents often drives people to the most remote and disconcerting corners of the world. Names like Papua New Guinea, Kyrgyzstan and Myanmar resonate through the kayaking world as the current hot spots for expeditions. But there is another facet of expedition paddling that is equally if not more exciting, which is filling in the gaps in your own backyard.

In this respect, having the West Coast of New Zealand as your backyard is a double-edged sword. There is still a lot of white-water potential but at the same time there has always been a motivated crew seeking out first descents. The pioneer paddlers on the Coast have done a thorough job and have only left a few drainages, or part drainages, for when the technology and mentality of the sport progressed.

In recent years there has been a continual push by our crew to find quality first descents, with relative success. The Karangarua River, however, has remained a mystery, as only the lower had been paddled, but there was 12km of virgin whitewater upstream. The conundrum with a river like this is that when you’re on a limited-time budget, it is hard to commit to scouting the river, which is more than 20km deep within a wilderness zone, and then paddling it, especially when you can quite easily head out to the Kokatahi or Whataroa valleys and fly straight into some of the best whitewater in the world.

Jordy Searle looking confused at what team photographer, David Bain, was doing. David kayaked into a small cavern to take this photo. (Photo credit: David Bain)

But summer 2015/16 was going to be different as I, Jordy Searle, was returning with a completely free schedule and was fortunate enough to have been awarded the 2015 The North Face Adventure Grant that would contribute to the costs of uch an trip. The Karangarua was going to be priority number one for Ari Walker, Barny Young, David Bain and I.

RELATED VIDEO: Watch the team’s first descent down the river

The Karangarua is almost entirely within the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, meaning you cannot land a helicopter to access the river. Fortunately, during the inclusion of this area into the national park, they allocated a designated landing zone at Christmas Hut, which is conveniently located at the headwaters of the Karangarua. This is where we would fly in to begin our two-day scouting mission.

The team had the benefit of one of NZ’s top helicopter pilots who offered the team easy access to the expedition’s start point. (Photo credit: David Bain)

We decided to fly in after a sizeable rain event to get an indication of what flows would be optimal for a descent, and were immediately shocked as we came in to land at the hut. What was a genuinely swollen flow downstream was cut down to about 15 cumecs after the Copland and Douglas Rivers were taken out of the equation, and by the time several other tributaries were removed we were left with just enough water to navigate the top section from Christmas Flat to the Troyte confluence. We were there at a perfect paddling flow, and were wondering if we had missed the perfect flow window, but this distraction didn’t last long and we hit the trail and began to move downstream to check out the river.

RELATED GALLERY: See more of The North Face Adventure Grant 2015 Expedition

From the outset it was a pretty open riverbed with steep boulder gardens, very typical for the Coast. After an hour of making our way downstream, the trail moved up and away from the riverbed, which correlated with our GPS marking of the first gorge. Climbing down into the canyon and accessing this sheer-walled gorge was going to be a heinous undertaking, but we had a trick up our sleeve. Ari was carrying his DJI drone and within a couple of minutes we had an HD video stream peering into the gorge. Some of the upper rapids would be good, then there would be a serious portage which would involve ropes and finally a drop that exits the canyon, that we could get around on the right if we needed to. It was absolutely incredible! We had all the information we needed to carry on down to Lame Duck Flat.

In the midst of the portaging, Class V runs and scouting, the team was occasionally treated to a tranquil section of this wild river. (Photo credit: David Bain)

We utilised that afternoon to scout the short gorge directly downstream of the hut, finding a solid game trail for good access down to an incredible serpentine gorge. After a quick scout and retrieving the drone that we crashed, just a quick two-and-a-half hour stroll around a massive hillside, we retired to the hut happy with what we had seen, and were confident that day one of the Karangarua would be navigable.

The next morning we decided we would scout the section between Lame Duck Flat and Cassel Flat, then cruise out from there to the road-end without scouting, as the lower section as we knew it had been paddled and was class IV-V. We had a headstart as we’d scouted the first gorge the previous afternoon and after that was a couple of kilometres of class III-IV. Below this we were confronted with a similar situation to the upper gorge on the first day; the trail was heading away from the river and there was an isolated gorge downstream. After a few attempts to access the gorge, and being bluffed out each time, we scrambled up to a clearing and launched the drone. With in minutes, again, we had a live feed and we liked what we saw. In spite of how ridiculously steep it was, there was ample room in the riverbed to move around and it looked like we would be able to operate at river level the whole time. The same was true for the lower gorge, and once we got to Cassel Flat we had a discussion about the river as a whole. We were unanimously confident that we could paddle the Karangarua from top to bottom, and any section that wasn’t navigable we could deal with right at river level – perfect for a first descent.

The upper section between Christmas Hut and the Troyte was low volume and technical. (Photo credit: David Bain)

After the scouting mission it was a waiting game; we needed a solid rain event of 200mm or more to bring the top of the river up to a decent flow, and then three to five days of good weather to make sure the river would steadily drop to ensure low enough levels at the portage sections. Fortunately this December was unseasonably wet and it was less than a week later that we got the weather window we wanted; not perfect but we would make it happen. We made the call and it was settled: James Scott would pick us up on the afternoon of Friday 4 December, 2015.

We opted for an afternoon flight into Christmas Hut so we could enjoy the valley and get a good night’s rest before committing to the river. Once we touched-down at the hut it was apparent that the river was about the same flow as we saw during the scouting, so it would be a little lower for paddling the next day. Not optimal, but it would be fine. We ate a good meal and enjoyed some serenity before a solid 10 hours shut-eye.

The next morning we woke to pristine weather and our spirits were high. We had a quick bite to eat and were eager to don our kayaking gear and hit the river. We packed our boats which, thanks to Taylor Weston on sherpa/track support duty, were relatively light, and set off on the river. It was surreal to actually be putting on the water, and everyone was ecstatic. The whitewater, however, was manky and low in volume. That said, we managed to paddle almost everything down to the confluence of the Troyte and had discovered a section of whitewater that would be classic with a higher flow. With the welcomed addition of the water from the Tryote, we carried on down the river knowing that the “Upper” gorge would not be too far away. The riverbed gradually steepened into class IV+ rapids and eventually gorge walls closed in around us. We were locked in.

After completing the portage in the upper gorge, Ari and Jordy slowly move downstream towards the next horizon line, locked-in and committed. (Photo credit: David Bain)

In the canyon there were some locked in runnable drops and then we came to what we knew was going to be the crux of the gorge. The river narrowed so much that it became a slit that fell 10m into a locked in gorge. After weighing up our options we elected to portage along a slick ledge on the left and rappel back into the river. Other than the anchor – three small saplings growing off the gorge wall – it was a pretty textbook rap and soon we were back on the river to paddle through a spectacular gorge and then down some class IV to Lame Duck Flat Hut. That night we ate heartily and rested well, for it was the following day that we had to tackle the Serpentine Gorge where we would be dealing with the two massive cascades.

Our peaceful slumber was broken by several heavy downpours that none of us wanted to acknowledge from the safety of our sleeping bags, but when morning came we had no other option than to discuss it. When we went to check the flow, and much to our amazement the river had actually dropped substantially. This was a bittersweet scenario; now we would have more room in the riverbed to navigate during the cascade portages, but the whitewater would be lower, which can often render it unnavigable. This would be the case for the entrance falls to the “White Serpent” gorge, which would have been the hallmark drop of the descent. We put in below this and found several kilometres of class IV-V down to the lip of the first cascade. From here we thought it was going to be several hours of lugging our boats down huge boulders.

A tight amount of teamwork is necessarily for portage down the rocky sections of the river. (Photo credit: David Bain)

Much to our surprise the first portage was easy. Not easy by its literal definition but we completed it within an hour without lowering boats at all, and our initial impressions after scouting were that each cascade would take upward of two hours and involve lowering boats and potentially rappelling. At the bottom we were immediately rewarded for our hard graft with clean eight-foot falls, and then a short section of class III-IV before one big runnable class V drop. We elected to portage this, as the lip of the second cascade was frighteningly close downstream.

No part of the second cascade was navigable and it was bigger and steeper than the first. As we suspected, there was a window on the right to portage but it would be a little more technical than the first. It started with having to climb up and slide through a horizontal crack in a rock, and then lowering out of the other side. From there, however, it was similar in character to the first portage, but just bigger and steeper. When we finally regrouped at the bottom there was another ‘Reward Falls’ to paddle; a clean 10-footer with the spectacular backdrop that we somehow managed to walk down with kayaks on our shoulders. Below this we were filled with exultation in what we had just achieved. Our kayaks felt as light as ever on the class III paddle down to Cassel Flat Hut and the expression on Taylor’s face as we walked up to the hut echoed our own feeling – we had made it unscathed and the job was done.

Three-quarters of the way through the second cascade portage and with the end in site Ari, Barny and David sit back and briefly enjoy the surrounds. (Photo credit: Jordy Searle.)

That night we enjoyed a feast as we had left some Back Country meals at the hut during the scout, and we got to relive the experience several times over by telling Taylor and then some trampers about what we had just endured. After another well-earned sleep, we ate everything we had left and set out to paddle the already established lower section of the Karangarua. Several kilometres of cruisy class IV-V did not take us very long and we were reaching the takeout around midday with smiles ear to ear.

We had not discovered the new ‘Upper Hoki’ or ’T canyon’, both world-class whitewater rivers, but we had achieved what we had set out to do. We had been the first people to paddle the entire Karangarua River. It was an incredible and worthy mission with some quality whitewater, and set in what I truly believe is one of the most impressive river corridors in NZ. For me, personally, it is great to have the question of the Karangarua answered, and I can move on to other potential missions I have on the West Coast.

A fellow kayaker asked me whether I would go back in there and, during the first week or two afterwards I would have said no, but as time goes by I am slowly warming to the idea of another descent.