Happy 2008!

Happy New Year one and all. We saw in the New Year in Murchison with a splash at the riverside campsite along with almost every other paddler in New Zealand.
We've been paddling with German Phil and a friend of his, Andre, for the last few days, notching up more runs on the Buller sections, Matakitaki and Glenroy. Phil and I paddled Maruia falls – a 30ft waterfall created by an earthquake in 1929. Good fun.

The plan at the moment is to leave Murchison today and head to the west coast where we can hopefully organise a helicopter to take us in to the Karamea for a multi-day trip.

We've been able to take more river photos now we've got a waterproof camera again, and some video too.

Sharon goes back to school

After some great pointers from a short session with Mick Hopkinson, I signed up for a four day kayaking course, starting the following week. Having had an awesome experience with the Dusky dolphins at Kaikoura, we drove to Murchison and settled into the beautiful lodge at the Kayak School. It was wonderful to be able to relax in a place with a huge kitchen and comfy lounge area, surrounded by other kayakers.

Saturday morning, and the course started at 8am as it would every day – no lie-ins for a few days! There were several people from all over the world – 9 Australians made up the majority of the group, but there was a Californian, a German, a Kiwi and 2 English folk including myself amongst the medley. Three of these were on the beginner course having not done any paddling before, and the rest of us were on the Intermediate. After an introduction to students and staff, and a discussion of what we each wanted from the course, we headed down to the pool. The session began with each of us having our rolls videoed to see just how bad these were, and then we got onto the business of learning new more effective rolls. The verdict for me was that I had a very British roll! Apparently this isn't a particularly good thing… What it meant though was that I had an extra challenge as I needed to unlearn my bad habits and learn what was a much more simpler and effective roll. My main problem was that it took a few days to understand how something so easy could work so well, I'm still learning to trust it!

After the pool session, we went to the pond at the lodge and had some of our strokes videoed. These were all critiqued in a session, and then we headed to the 'Big Eddy' where we practised sweep strokes and learnt how to control the speed of turns effectively. Our last session of the day was a short section of the Buller river, after all the intense learning of the day, I was quite glad it was only a short section! We used the control turning strokes to glide across the river effectively and got to practise our rolls in the current.

Needless to say I was shattered after this first hectic day and ached in more places than I could've imagined. Muscles I've obviously not used paddling much, certainly were having a turn at being used and were definitely feeling it. I was very pleased that David was around to help cook!

The second day started with a pool session again, and it was with some shock that I found out that it was only 10am when we got back to the lodge. Another feedback session from the video taken was followed by a slalom session on the river. I'd been put in a different boat (a RPM) to help learn the turning strokes but it felt very different to what I was used to. I was struggling a little to understand some of the purposes of the strokes I was doing and so the slalom was a little frustrating for me, having to put aside what I'd learnt before and learn new techniques was pretty challenging. However Jess, my coach, was sympathetic to my cause thankfully! Comments about how British paddlers may not have the best technical skills (we don't have the rivers to really put them to use often) but are often the most determined and enthusiastic about boating despite some of the conditions they have to regularly deal with (cold, lack of water – this is usually the norm honest!) seemed to ring quite true. The time in the afternoon was spent on the Doctors Creek section of the Buller, using strokes to work across currents, rather than heading straight downstream – this effectively gives you more options when running rivers.

The third day, I got to return to using my Mamba again, I was surprised how weird it was to get back in my own boat! The pool session had an additional element today – the boats were attached to two ropes which were then dragged along by two volunteers, creating a current into which we could practise our rolling. This is something I've managed to avoid when our club plays this game at home, and I was a little – the difference though was that I had finally got a roll on both sides, even if they were still a little sketchy at the moment. Watching these performances on video in the feedback session was very enlightening and very entertaining. Some of the guys had been particularly mean to each other, but there were some pretty good rolling efforts. We headed straight out to the Earthquake section of the Buller after this, we had been usually going out after lunch and David had anticipated meeting me for food. So he'd headed out, unfortunately with my nice, dry, warm kit with him. Luckily Shannon (one of the boat slaves) helped kit me out with some spare thermals, and so it was to the river. We even passed David, but it was too late to beep at him, so I had to watch Kim go by with my kit. It may have been a blessing in disguise since I would've normally worn shorts but had borrowed some thermal trousers. The advantage of these was that they covered more of my legs leaving only my ankles to the mercy of the millions of sandflies in the area, which means I have a ring of extremely itchy red bits now.

The river was pretty high volume compared to some of the other stuff I'd paddled over here, and had some nice play waves – admittedly I didn't make too much use of these but did have a go at one wave. There was one rapid with some particularly large waves – the sort you only really appreciate when you're at the bottom of one looking up at the next. It was a lovely river with some interesting swirlies characteristic of a gorged run. My distinctly non dry top didn't mean I got out of rolling practise, but I was very glad of the many thermals Shannon had lent me!

This was the third night of the course, and so a barbecue was organised. David and Abi (the girlfriend of Sam who was on the beginner course) had made use of the lovely kitchen and spent the afternoon baking so we were treated to yummy banoffi pie, fudge brownies and rocky road for dessert. It was a great evening, with Ben Jackson (one of the coaches) showing a presentation on his recent trip to India. This was followed by some video of paddling in first California, then Washington. This was a great reminder of the places we'd been ourselves earlier this year. We recognised one of the guys on Ben's video as a guy we'd met in BC and paddled with on the Ashlu called David – to us he was Cal David. It was another reminder of how small the paddling community can be sometimes, even internationally it would seem.

Tuesday was the last day of the course, and again it started with a pool session. At one point when I was resting at the side, Mick came over and told me to practise bending back my wrists. He then jumped into the pool to help coach my roll and it finally struck me where I was losing the last little bit of elegance in the roll. Its not an especially easy thing to explain in a blog but its effects have been striking to me! Later he explained the others were going off to 'dice with death' but that he felt for the long term future of my paddling, it would be best if he and I headed to another easier section to practise what I'd been learning. I'm not one to turn down some one to one coaching, so I quite happily agreed. As it was, Lisa decided she would get more out of practising with us than joining the others, and so it was the three of us on the Middle Matakitaki. Its a beautiful river, with a gorge section and is snow melt fed so is freezing cold. However we worked the river hard making all the hard to catch eddies and such like, so we soon warmed up. Then it would be time to practise the rolls to cool down again! Instead of video feedback, Mick would demonstrate what I had done and why this meant the roll wasn't working effectively – its great to be able to see that since I'm someone who can get confused as to what went wrong why. This warming up and cooling down was repeated several times and by the time we'd got to the flat section, I felt we had really made the most of the river and was looking forward to heading back there with David.

All in all it was a fantastic course – I don't think any of us wanted to leave the lodge so we ended up staying there again after heading to the pub! It was very refreshing to be told that some of my strokes could be improved and shown how, particularly with my roll. I'm so pleased I can finally roll both sides! Its great to have learnt so much and feel now that I can head out to the rivers to put this to practise. Another great thing is that I can go along to pool sessions to ensure my roll isn't reverting to my old habits. Its such a great place to learn to kayak or improve, since there are so many intermediate rivers in the area, and I was so impressed with the coaching. Definitely a place to recommend to anyone heading out here! I think we're already planning more courses when we return…

David would like to say: We're slowly starting to organise the logistics for the rest of our trip. We've just booked on this trip from Kathmandu to Delhi , and we've set our flight home for the last possible date we could use on our tickets – on the 2nd May at about 1300 hours we'll be arriving into Heathrow. But we don't need to think about that yet. Still need to book our Aussie trips, plan our Nepalese itinerary and see if we can get a spaceship to take us from Sydney to Cairns. We'll update our calendar when we've got these things booked.

Marine Mammal Encounters

After a recommendation from Gina and Conrad, we went swimming with the seals in Kaikoura. The experince was so good, we decided to head out and try our luck again with the dolphins. I think these have been two of the highlights of our trip so far.

Swimming with the seals was one of those trips that doesn't generate the same publicity as swimming with dolphins, but it was a fantastic experience. We were lucky enough to have timed our trip with a spring tide, which meant we got a whole hour swimming with young male seals. This was because seals are very territorial, and the high tides mean a lot of that territory is under water. The older, more aggressive seals 'own' the other higher, drier rock area and so the young'uns have to swim around until their ground is uncovered again, rather than risk a fight.

Kitted out in super thick wetsuits, we headed out on a boat to the area where the seal colony is found. Nearby was a young giant petrel bird whose beak we all tried to avoid. Apparently he had been there a day or two, and some people noticed he was missing an eye, which suggested he wasn't finding it easy to leave. He was rather magnificent, photos will be put up at some point, so the size of the bird can be appreciated.

The seals themselves were very inquisitive and liked to swim to the side of you, watch you and then swim off. They would often put their heads up out of the water and take a 360 degree look around. Sometimes I would turn around to find a seal who'd be watching me from behind and we would both surprise each other. The most memorable things I'm thinking of at the moment, was the size of their eyes, which were like deep brown saucers, and their teeth which I didn't want to investigate too much!

Unfortunately during this time, the waterproof camera David had bought, turned out to be not so waterproof and died. We've spoken to Pentax about this, and trying to work out if this is a warranty issue or an insurance claim.

We had so much fun with the seals and the fish, that I was convinced we should try again with the dusky dolphins that we hadn't got to swim with when we were in Kaikoura with my mum. The chance arose after we headed to Murchison to start our paddling stint strangely. While here I toyed with the idea of getting some instruction from the New Zealand Kayak School, and after some pointers from Mick Hopkinson I quickly signed up for a course a week later. We left with the advice that I shouldn't paddle till the course(!) so that I wasn't practising my paddling bad habits. So after a fwe days on the West Coast which I'm sure David will write about soon, we headed back to Kaikoura, via Christchuch to drop off the damaged camera, and Nelson which means we have been to every page on our road atlas!

I was trying not to get my hopes up after the disappointment of last time, but David was convinced the extra chocolate in our advent calendar was a good omen! We had to be at the centre at half 8 (we didn't fancy the half 5 trip they run!) and again kitted out in extra thick wetsuits. Again we headed out on the boat, and were lucky enough to see more massive sea birds. This time there were giant petrels and albatrosses with their 3.5m wingspan. They were being fed as part of an “Albatross Encounter” and so we stopped closeby to get some photos of these impressive birds.

Pretty soon, we were being told to kit up and sit on the back of the boat ready to jump in. As we nervously sat on the back, we started to see dusky dolphins jumping in the boat's wake. The pointing and exclamations quickly built up, before the propellor was stopped and we could jump in the water. We'd been recommended to 'entertain' the dolphins which involved us making noises mainly – it was pretty funny to hear everyone sing, hum or squeak in their efforts. However we were rewarded very quickly when dolphins swam by very closely. It is difficult to work out who's more intrigued by who, since the dolphins will be clearly watching you as they swim, and that eye to eye contact is an incredible experience. The dophins are renowned for a game they like to play, they swim in circles around you with the idea being you swim round too. Then they get faster and faster to see if you can keep up, until they swim off and you feel rather dizzy! Sometimes they'll change direction too, I played this game lots of time, making the swimming with dolphins seem exhausting. The whole time in the water, I was humming my own tune of “Beautiful dolphin, please come and play with me” – I feel it was worthwile, I'm convinced the song worked! We would be called back on to the boat every so often, so that we could keep with the main pod which on that day was 200-300 dolphins in size. No wonder we got to see so many underwater! What really thrilled me was when a dolphin swam by, accompanied by a tiny baby one. There were several mums and calves so this happened on a few occassions much to my delight. One time I was swimming back to the boat, there were so many dolphins, with several circling me – words don't really do this credit, it was an incredible experience. After several sessions of swimming with these amazing creatures, we got changed and took the opportunity to take photos. What a difference from our previous experience! Apparently that time, the dolphins were likely to have been pre-occupied as that was their mating season. No wonder they didn't want to play with us. This time though as we stood there watching the dolphins jump and perform various acrobats, I had the hugest smile. David preferred swimming with the seals, but to me swimming with dolphins was an experience it'd take a lot to beat. However I think we were very lucky to have the opportunity to interact with both of these awesome animals, I'd definitely recommend both!

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.