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Gorge of great cliffs

Gorge of great cliffs
 
 
 
 
 

LOW cloud lingered over the triangular papa hills of Tieke Kainga as the first light of morning gradually swept away the darkness of night. Cameron was already in the kitchen shelter starting to prepare breakfast as I left the bunk room. None of the others were up yet.

Sun rising behind the hills

Sun rising behind the hills

The sky above the other side of the river was beginning to lighten, marking the dawn of our final day on the river. The now sizeable river flowed by swift but silent through the gorge. There was no sign of life on either side of the river.

I walked down the road to just above the steep drop to where our canoes were tied up to the washed down trees, along the edge of the Ramanui Rapid. Only the briefest of reprieves led into the start of the Omaika Rapid where the river turned around the small peninsula of Tieke Kainga.

Early morning over Tieke Kainga

Early morning over Tieke Kainga

As the sky lightened I could see patches of blue sky above the river, perhaps it was going to clear today, but rain was forecast for tomorrow. Low patches of mist passed in front of the triangular forested hills of delicate papa rock held together by the ancient trees.

Return to camp

Return to camp

I returned to the camp where the black cat was waiting, perhaps for a meal. As we prepared breakfast thick grey clouds covered the hills for a few moments looking as if the weather was going to close in for rain. The wooden seat on the old stump just sat there with its eternal view over the river.

Cloud over the hills

Cloud over the hills

As we ate breakfast the cloud did start clearing and the morning sun broke through onto the hills around the gorge on the other side of Tieke Kainga. The clouds turned an apricot yellow hue welcoming the dawn.

The others were all up, so we packed up and brought our awkward plastic drums down to the middle of the hill to be picked up and taken down to our canoes. We ate breakfast at the picnic table.

Morning clouds

Morning clouds

Derek arrived in his quad bike and trailer and packed the drums as we were finishing breakfast. Then we quickly packed the food drums as he picked them up. We walked down to the canoes for our final 21.5 kilometres paddle to Pipiriki where we will be picked up.

It was a difficult downhill along the very steep track, but I was thankful that all our gear had been taken down to the landing in amongst the maze of washed down trees where the bank had been quite severely eroded by past floods, often rising above twenty metres high along this part of the river.

Setting off towards the cliffs

Setting off towards the cliffs

We stayed with the same people in the boats as we had done over the past few days – no more swaps had been necessary and Bruce and I seemed to work well and the boats seemed to stay in the group very well. We didn’t have much water in the white container in our boat today so hopefully my end of the canoe will be well in the water to give it more control down the rapids.

Today’s trip will initially go through the longest calm part of the river, but this will be followed by the biggest rapids of the river. With over a hundred kilometres behind us since Ohinepane, the volume of water was substantially greater with the potential for much bigger rapids. This was making me a bit nervous.

High gorge with a waterfall

High gorge with a waterfall

There was some activity ahead with a group coming down the track from Tieke Kainga overnight. We cast off paddling quickly to the middle of the river to prevent any snags. The other group left at the same time. Then I recognised them as the group we had passed coming out of the Bridge to Nowhere and who had arrived at the Mangapapa lunch spot just as we were leaving yesterday. The young lady leading the group in her kayak stayed behind the rest of the group and paddled with Cameron talking in their rather booming voices as we headed down the small Omaika Rapid around the 90 degree corner around Tieke Kainga.

Spectacular cliffs

Spectacular cliffs

We passed the large landslide to our right which we had seen coming down the straight into Ramanui yesterday. It had partially blocked the river but even this created little turbulence in the rapid. We continued around the bend passing a small cove sheltered by a piece of hard, resistant rock jutting out dramatically upstream as if trying to split the river. At the back of the cove is the start of the Matemateonga Track heading up to the top of the range and following it westward towards Whangamomona.

Shortly after the cove we passed Okuranui Stream flowing in to the right we passed through the Puahue Rapid, with a mostly submerged shingle bank to the right and very little turbulence. At this point the valley suddenly narrowed with high cliffs on either side towering a good thirty to forty metres high on either side of the narrow river. To the right the cliff was mostly covered in ferns with the occasional slip exposing the pale grey rock. The trees grew above the top of the cliffs. On the left hand side the trees were about ten metres above the water at the top of the much lower cliffs as we rounded the point.

Looking up

Looking up

Once around the bend the river sharply turned 80 degrees this time to the right. The low cliff to the left suddenly towered to around fifty metres high ahead of us. This cliff rose vertically over an exposed rock face with two distinctive horizontal fissures of soft rock. Ferns and mosses grew above and below the face, mostly below where debris had fallen off from the forest high above.

Part way along the cliff face I could see a three metre high waterfall plunging out of a deep and very narrow ravine to the left. A small landslide blocked off part of the river to the other side but the water was already calm.

Approaching a bend

Approaching a bend

By now there were spectacular cliffs towering on either side of us. A steep fern covered bank occupied the lowest few metres above the water, cutting the vegetation off from the forest above by the vertical cliffs. The forest was framed from the cliff top with a row of sword grass hanging over the edge far overhead.

The other group paddled on ahead of us at a faster pace, so the lady talking to Cameron with their voices echoing off the cliffs decided to press on ahead to stay with her group. We stopped paddling and relaxed as the current of the impenetrable gorge gently took us downstream.

Wide angle cliff view

Wide angle cliff view

The cliffs towered higher, to over a hundred metres towards the end of the reach which gradually turned to the left ahead of us. The area appeared to be uninhabited but there had once been many pa on top of the hills, and the Maori made ladders from the vines of the forest to lower down the cliffs for them to reach. If they saw enemies approaching they would raise the ladders to make access impossible.

From here on this area was known as Te Wahi Pari – the place of cliffs.

Passing the sunscreen

Passing the sunscreen

Small villages once lined the tops of the cliffs. The Maori people used to construct rung ladders and put them over the edges of the cliffs to climb down the thirty to sixty metres to the water to fish and to travel. The ladders were constructed from the tough supplejack vines growing in the bush. From the cliff tops they could see a long way up and down the river. If they saw people from other tribes approaching, they would pull up the ladders to create an impenetrable barrier between themselves and the river to ward off hostile attacks.

The upper gorge around Mangapapa had been spectacular with its towering cliffs, but even there would have been dwarfed by the spectacular gorge through here. Over the years the river had cut deep through these hills. The water was surprisingly calm for such a deep chasm.

Passing a large landslide

Passing a large landslide

To the left the cliffs gradually decreased at the start of the long bend with the occasional small ravine under the dense forest. Several wedged rock formations jutted out pointing upstream as if to attempt to cut the river. The high cliffs to the right were quite smooth. The massive floods that have come down here in the past would have raged around the very wide bend smoothing out the cliffs.

I could hear a fairly deep motorised sound echoing through the gorge. Initially we thought it was a helicopter, but then realised it was a jet boat heading up the river delivering the first of many of today's tourists to the Bridge to Nowhere. We paddled across to the right hand side of the river to let it past, turning towards the middle of the river. The boat zoomed past breaking the laminar smooth surface of the water. Large waves rolled towards us. They passed under us causing quite a bumpy ride before bouncing off the cliffs on either side confusing the water for several minutes before settling back down to its mirror smoothness.

Around the bend

Around the bend

Towards the end of the reach a southerly wind began to pick up ruffling the previously calm water. The water suddenly shallowed but there was no rapid here. Once around the first part of the corner, the river mostly straightened out. We relaxed in the calm section of water rafting up and having drinks and chocolate.

The valley began to widen as we passed a large grassy landslide to our right. Ahead of us was a small S bend. To our left was a small point of tangled dead trees. As we rounded the tangle into the S bend we could see a small pine plantation and part of the hill ahead of us cleared. On top of the cliff was the Kahura Station, about five buildings that would have had a spectacular view along the river. If anyone was there at the moment, they would have seen us as four tiny dots coming towards them.

Kahura Station

Kahura Station

The buildings seemed to be on a hanging valley, almost as if this valley was carved out by glaciers. The reality though was this is a very young river carving out rocks laid only within the past million years from lahar deposits from Ruapehu and Tongariro to the east and Taranaki to the west. The hanging valley at the station had cleared pasture.

We passed another large landslide to the right which had stripped off all the vegetation, but the water was too deep to leave a sloping bank apart from a huge house-sized boulder wedged into the bottom of the cliff.

Large slip

Large slip

At the end of the S bend the cliff to the left decreased substantially. Here we could see a large rock marking the Kahura Landing, serving the station above on the cliffs. This marked the start of the return of civilisation that would gradually increase from here down to Wanganui. The Kahura landing was one of the locations of the filming of the 2005 movie “River Queen”, a film covering the Maori wars along the river in 1868.

Two more jet boats powering their way upstream passed us, once more confusing the water as the bow waves bounced across the river between the cliffs.

Large slip

Large slip

Above the landing were several large windswept exotic pine trees growing in amongst the scrubby bush. This area had been cleared at some stage in the past as the ancient trees we had seen above the river for the past few days were noticeably absent. The cliffs to the right hand side had diminished as well to around ten metres. The cliffs on both sides were covered in ferns.

The sun was now starting to shine on the triangular hills now the cloud was beginning to break up. We had seen patches of blue sky along the gorge, but we had not seen any sun since shortly before leaving Tieke Kainga.

Low cliffs and pine trees

Low cliffs and pine trees

A huge rectangular block rose out of the water on the right bank, perhaps having slid down during a large earthquake. The water was broken up ahead, but it was the gentle southerly wind blowing, rather than any rapid, which we had been free of so far today, but I knew the flat water wasn’t going to last much longer.

A small stream came out to our left onto a silt bank where the banks were now fairly low. The river turned a little to the right towards a large forest covered triangular hill, forcing the river around a gradual left hand bend.

Terrain flattening out

Terrain flattening out

As we started rounding the bend in front of the hill, large white patches of cliff marked the parts of the cliff too steep to support vegetation. Where the river was eating its way into the hill. The wind started blowing, ruffling the water around us. The cliff gradually lowered as the valley began starting to open out. The sun was brightly shining on the right hand side whilst the left hand side remained quite dark. The corner would have been several kilometres.

The river here was quite wide, so the steep banks were stripped of all but grasses and ferns to only about seven metres above the water. Thick scrub continued to about twenty metres before the dense forest took over, marking the level of past floods roaring down the valley.

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26 February 2016

 

Whanganui Nat Park

New Zealand

 

39°22'S
175°01'E

37 - 84m ASL

 

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