Murchison and West Coast, pt. 1,

Murchison probably has more river runs in close proximity to each other than anywhere else in New Zealand, so it didn't take much brainpower to workout where to go after we finished chilling in Christchurch. We were planning on camping at the paddler's campsite by the river in town, but before we got there we found the source of the Buller, flowing out of Lake Rotoiti; the lake is set amongst mountains near St Arnaud and make an idyllic camping spot. The Upper Buller was low, due to lack of rain, but was still a good, short warm up run. Talking to the staff at the NZ Kayak School in Murchison after finishing the run it seemed everything in the area was low, but most of it was still runnable. Mick Hopkinson, kayak legend and school director, offered Sharon a free 1/2hour of coaching and based on that she booked on to a 4 day training course. In the few days we had until the course started we headed down and met up with Simon and Cheryl and some of their friends on the west coast.

Some of the worlds best creeks are located here, but the area is so sparsely populated and the mountain valleys so tightly packed that there are no roads to the top of them. Unlike the UK where almost every river has a road running along side it, to get to the top of these you need a helicopter. As usual Simon had a plan for hitting some harder runs and luckily I was able to get a warm up with them on the Whitcombe before flying into the Upper Hokitika – I'd need it.

There's something surreal about jumping out of the helicopter, keeping your head low as you untie your boat from the skids and drag it out of the way before covering your eyes as Bruce flies his helicopter away, leaving you with only one way out – downstream. The Hokitika is a full on run, with numerous vertical walled canyons, house sized boulders littered everywhere and a lot of gradient. Simon brought had notes from the guide book, but after the first couple of rapids it was obvious they were useless – the river is always changing, with land slides and erosion constantly creating new and challenging rapids. The last few groups we'd heard about had attempted it a few weeks previously after heavy rain an had both been trapped on the river by nightfall after making slow progress when they needed to portage one of the blind gorges, we made sure we had much lower levels. The group was strong – one of Simon's friends from Vermont, Ed, was in town and we'd met up with a French Canadian raft guide, Mike, who joined us – but we were still feeling apprehensive as Bruce flew away.

The river starts with a pushy gr4 – 4+ 'warm up' before the lines narrow and the consequences increase. We made an early start and by lunch had made good progress through the first gorge and into the second, with minimal portaging and few hiccups. Just after lunch we had the first swim of the day and my first swim this trip. Within a few yards of the launching was a drop, the line was to boof off the middle and head right. That's not quite what I did – I started left to give myself momentum heading right, but failed to get far enough right and dropped off the rock just left of centre. I cleared the stopper at the bottom of the drop, but landed in a pot hole that feed back around into the stopper. I was alternately surfing the hole and then the cushion wave in the pot hole, taking a roll every few recirculations. Ed was doing his best to get close enough to pass me the bow of his boat, but couldn't. As I felt my self tire, I pulled my spraydeck's release cord and abandoned ship, while I still had the energy. Timing my exit for the outer most point of the recirc., I pushed off the bottom with my feet and came clear of the hole, straight into the eddy, a little shaken and out of breath but otherwise unhurt. Ed attached himself to the end of a throw line and jumped in to grab my boat once the others had successfully run the drop. The rest of the river was filled with more tight lines and sticky holes and interesting portages. The entrance to the third gorge was messy, there were two boulders each the size of a large car in the middle of the river with unrunnable drops on the left and right. With the sheer cliffs either side, the only portage option was to catch a micro eddy in the middle above the drops and seal launch off the second rock. The rock would have been under water with more rain, so this was where the previous groups had had to walk around.

It was a tiring day – the committing gorges pushed us mentally and physically more than any other river I've paddled and we were all glad to see the impressive gates of Argonath and the last rapid, Fat Lady, almost had us singing. From Fat Lady we were on the lower Hokitika and pleasant warm down for a few km and then after the confluence with the Whitcombe we were on a flat paddle out for an hour or so – glad to be exiting in the Sun light.

The following day called for a lie-in before we headed to Christchurch to return our broken waterproof camera – it turned out not to be so waterproof and then we headed up the coast. Sharon will write up the seal and dolphin swimming, along with Nelson and the winery, but we're now back in Murchison and she's on her course while I catch up with some work.

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