Karamea Dream

Danger, beauty, snow, hot coffee, ice-cold water.
This extreme rafting expedition has it all.

Helicopter landing at the Karamea River

THE HELICOPTER HOVERED just long enough to disengage the final sling-load of gear, dipped forward and disappeared effortlessly over the treetops – swallowed by the bush-clad silence of the Leslie Valley. The beat of the helicopter blades was replaced by evening birdsong and the gentle murmurings of the Leslie Stream – only spilt by an irritating internal voice calling me a fool for making New Zealand’s roughest multi-day Karamea river trip my first ever white-water experience.

Laughter burst from the Karama hut as the door was flung open, releasing about 20 excited adventurers eager to go rafting. Like ants, they converged on the equipment; erecting tents, preparing food for the evening meal, inflating the bright red rafts and replenishing the hut’s woodshed with the abundant driftwood. Everyone was buzzing with anticipation, knowing that three day of New Zealand’s premium white water lay ahead in the Tasman wilderness – with the added romance of starting high in the Kahurangi National Park mountains, down to the salt smell of the West Coast’s Tasman Sea. ‘Back to School’, ‘Garibaldi’, ‘Roaring Lion’, Ferris Creek’ and ‘Holy Shit’ were just a few of the grade-5 rapids that lay between.

Karamea CampAs darkness fell, it was comforting to hear the briefing from Don Allardice, reminding us of how he wants to maintain Ultimate Descents’ (his company’s) perfect safety record and high standards. He welcomed us on this, a pre-season friends-and-photographers’ trip to upgrade his next brochure.  Safety was the foremost concern for him, closely followed by quality food and equipment, good fun and appreciation of the area. Good to hear.

The optional two-day hike in was too good to miss, and 16 of our 22-strong group had the best introduction to this pristine area. At 1,200m we pried ourselves from the sky-high panorama of forest of Kahurangi National Park. With two-thirds of the hike downhill, we could savour the unique topography, flora and fauna, and were soon following the colourful moss-sided Flora Stream as its clear water babbled down from Flora Saddle to Lower Junction.  We paused at the enchanting Grid Iron Gulch, home to 470 gold seekers in 1870.  There are still two remaining dry-rock shelters, used by backpackers, equipped with bunks, swinging seats, fireplaces and ladders – all perched on the steep bush-covered slopes of the valley.

Some fantastic scenery on The Karamea River

On the second day we emerged from the dense canopy of beech forest onto a huge sub-alpine plateau named the Mount Arthur Tablelands; covered in clumps of wildflowers mixed with tall, soft, brown tussock grass that danced lazily in the breeze. For a minimal charge at Salisbury Lodge, a DOC hut, you get a modern-style 30-bunk hut with running water, gas heating and cooking facilities, as well as a million-dollar view of the entire Mount Arthur range – still covered in a heavy layer of spring snow.

The following day was a mere cruise down the beautiful length of the Leslie Valley to the Karamea River, where the helicopter took our hiking gear out at 4:00pm, replacing it with our rafting gear.  Green tinged streams gushed from the mountainside and surprisingly tame robins hopped around our feet searching for a stray crumb at lunch.  We also had Keas entertain us with their own destructive ways of playing: pulling at boots laces, packs or anything unattended, and having wrestling matches on the ground, just like kids.

Action on the Karamea River

The evening meal was something else: three massive quiches – still warm, thanks to the helicopter – plus an abundance of side dishes prepared by raft guides on the open fire.  Later that night the mountain radio (in its hollow, scratchy way) gave us bad news about incoming weather – a huge southerly cold front.  It began in the early hours with thunder, bolts of lightening and heavy rain.  Another omen was a large earthquake that shook both hut and tent sleepers awake with a deep rumble at 4:00am.  Morning was cold and rainy; the Leslie Stream had grown into a large, brown torrent – carrying logs and debris to the nearby Karamea.  But thanks to Don’s new 5mm wetsuits and paddle jackets, we were still in high spirits for our first rafting lesson.

The guides’ voices echoed from the valley wall with commands: “right forward, left back, over right, over left, left draw, right draw, get down, on the job, hold on!!!” Todd, the guide, was extremely patient with our dyslexic responses and emphasised the back paddle as the most important stroke, requiring full power.  He explained that this gave him far more control, enabling safer negotiation of the Karamea’s grade-5 rapids; typically a maze of narrow, boiling chutes – sometimes between house-sized boulders.  Before long, Todd had us boiling the river with vicious enthusiasm, spinning the raft in 360°s then reversing against the current with full paddle power.  This kept us warm under an evil, black sky that now spat large chunks of hail, stinging our faces in wind gusts that white-capped the water.

Regan guiding one of the Karamea Rapids

Before the first run, Rob, the most experienced guide, explained to his crew (which included my novice wife, Valerie, and our friend Helen): “I don’t usually swear, but if you ever hear me say the word ‘shit’, we’re in BIG trouble so get down and hold on!”  You can Imagine what went through the girls’ minds when three-quarters of the way through the first run a frantic “OH F—K” came from the guide’s seat as the raft slued sideways towards a massive river-splitting boulder that promptly wrapped the raft.

FROM MY DISTANT vantage point I saw Helen swim to safety, while Rob had a 30-second dual with death – using a combination of brute strength and 10 years’ experience to haul himself, minus a wetsuit bootie, out of a powerful downward sieve and back into the raft.  Valerie and the rest of the crew were still nervously seated high and dry in the front half of the raft (they got the prize for abandoning ship faster than the captain of the Titanic).  Later, Rob nonchalantly said, “we just weren’t on to it”, admitting it was a reasonably technical move for his crew of first-time rapid paddlers, but the experience gained was tenfold.

Loving the Karamea

The next big rapid was the grade-5 ‘Garibaldi’, which was the scene for more drama; this time the kayakers stole the show.  The rafts were roped past the man-eating holes, only to have me and two others flung out near the bottom (brrrr).  The two most daring and skilled kayakers, Fritz and Steve, both kayak Sagittarians (half kayak/half man) took on the now massive volume of water.  Fritz was forced to do a kind of limbo dance under a log that bridged two large rocks forming a waterfall right below my vantage point; while Steve cruised down in style, only to disappear into an invisible hole that added a whole new dimension to the term “recycled”.  Ever seen a kayaker in a washing machine?  After 20 seconds in the spin cycle, both Steve and kayak were ejected into the air, allowing him to paddle to shore.

Lunch on the Karamea

LUNCH WAS WAY overdue, but the food more than compensated for it: brewed coffee, salads, Brie, crackers, salami and cookies – all around a roaring fire.  After lunch a string of fun, low-stress rapids led us into the long, narrow, flat water of Roaring Lion Lake.  A carpet of dense beech forest rose vertically from water level to the low cloud canopy that obscured the normally imposing granite cliffs of the Garibaldi Range.  Frozen hail floated about in the floor of the raft, reminding us of how cold it really was.  We rounded a tight bend into a fiord-like finger that led us to the Roaring Lion Hut.  The high level of the water allowed us to paddle 200m closer to the hut than normal, passing trees and grass engulfed by the flood.  Though primitive and small, the lonely hut was a pleasure to see and was soon made cosy with a fire, hot food and a round of jokes that went long into the night.

As I stirred in the early hours I heard someone mentioning snow… What?  SNOW! Sure enough, three inches of the stuff blanketed the beautiful valley outside the hut’s north-facing window.  A layover day was declared – perfect medicine for my persistent cold.  While I slept, fierce snow-fights made it dangerous to go outside; and when the sun shone, kayakers gave us a show on a nice play-wave.  Later, others explored nearby limestone caves, towering high above the river.

Tim guiding one of the Karamea Rapids

NEXT MORNING, everyone crammed into line for hot cereal when we saw the second dusting of snow outside.  My privates almost touched my tonsils when I slipped into my partly frozen, snow-covered wetsuit that I had so foolishly left outside overnight.  The snow did melt quickly though (but not as fast as the ice in the crotch of my wetsuit) and our rafts were soon slicing through the dark-green, mirrored surface of the lake en route for the big one: ‘Roaring Lion Rapid’.  When we moored, we could hear the Lion’s roar as the guides hiked down to scout the waters.  This rapid is the most feared, formed like many rapids in northwest Nelson by a massive earthquake decades before.  The earthquake sent a huge chunk of the Garibaldi Range tumbling 1,000m down to form a 30m by 800m-long rapid, as well as the 3,000m-long lake above.

The next major rapid was the grade-5 ‘Ferris Creek’.  And thanks to Rob and his crew, with their spectacular mistake on the thundering final pour-over (2.5m!), I got an exciting set of photos.  What I didn’t know was how close I came to being rammed into the river when the raft slued up the rock I was photographing from, stopping a mere half-metre from my lens.  It then slid backwards into the current, getting flung sideways for a five-second, one-tubed balancing act down the river – ending the right side up.  “Yee-Haa!”

Lisa guiding one of the Karamea Rapids

IT WAS HARD to imagine that two more days of rafting were still to come, so we were glad to rest up at our evening take-out point at the confluence of the inappropriately-named ‘Ugly River’.  A few energetic fools unsuccessfully tried to catch some of the massive brown trout that cruise these waters, but most congregated around the glowing campfire comparing stories related to the day’s antics; as another delicious, fire-cooked meal was served with wine and my own golden rye-bread – straight from the camp oven.  As I went t sleep, I couldn’t help feeling like one of those brave explorers of 150 years ago.  Apart from the state-of-the-art Hyperion self-bailing rafts, polypropylene, Gore-Tex and neoprene clothing, we were doing something equally unpredictable in an area as unspoiled and wild as it was for them.  My tired, aching muscles were proof of the hard work.

Story by Grant Stirling
Photos by Ultimate Descents