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Gorge of big rapids


WITH just a few short kilometres to our destination in Pipiriki, we had the most notorious and exciting stretch of river ahead of us. This was going to be the grand finale.

We watched Cameron head down Ngaporo Rapid, no doubt knowing exactly where to go having been down here several times. His boat bounced a lot, with the little box containing my main camera on top somehow staying in place. He made it down, then we watched as we could only just see him cross to the bottom of the shingle bank.

Waiting at Ngaporo

Waiting at Ngaporo

Finally he waved his paddle, so the next boat was off with Mum and Roger heading downstream following Cameron’s path as best they could. It was very hard to see where they were going from here. They seemed to be going very well when they suddenly tipped over on a particularly large bounce.

Well there I was upstream watching my mother disappear in the water not being able to do anything about it. It was too far to see them below the rapid now, but it was several minutes before Cameron finally waved his paddle again. Now it was time for the two ladies to give the rapid a go.

They went down smoothly bouncing on the big waves, but managing to stay on board. Once they had reached the end it was our turn. We had agreed that I would just paddle hard, but Bruce would do the steering.

We set off towards the vee into the rapid, and just before starting to get bouncy Bruce turned the boat to point to the right in the direction of the rapid. We bounced along, the waves were bigger than any we had encountered so far, and all seemed to be going good until we hit the biggest wave when Bruce believed we hit a large submerged boulder creating the wave and we flipped over into the cool clear water.

I grabbed onto the upended boat floating on the surface to prevent getting snagged up on any more submerged rocks. I was in front of the boat and it started turning, swinging me out from the main current to an eddy along the shingle bank. Bruce continued downstream with the boat as I got caught in the rapid.

My cap had come down against my glasses, so I pulled it back up and headed to the nearby shore. The land wasn’t dry, just shallow water running over rather slippery moss covered stones which were just poking above the surface. Bruce and the boat made it to shore about twenty metres downstream.

We were all down the rapid, with four of us in the drink. We emptied the boats of water and checked nothing had gotten lost. Everything was accounted for, even my drink bottle. Everyone else's drink bottle had an eye in the cap through which we could tie a small rope through. My bottle didn’t have an eye so I had wedged it between one of the drums and the side of the canoe. Even with the boat flipping over the bottle had stayed in place.

Fortunately my clothes were drying out easily and the sun was warm. One good thing about tipping over was the water cleaned out all the mud that had accumulated in the bottom of the boats was washed clean, and my muddy shoes and trousers were clean as well. The little camera had remained intact in my trouser pocket but the front was fogging up quite badly. Otherwise it was perfectly functional as would be expected for a tough camera.

I think our mistake was that we rode right over the current, where the large boulder tipped us over. We should have gone down a little to the left of the main current to avoid the boulder.

Many fall out in this rapid, and even the old steam boats of early last century were not immune to this notorious rapid. Even the skilled navigator Andy Anderson from Pipiriki who was reputed to know every rock and snag on the river, able to navigate even in the darkness of night with only the outline of the hills against the skyline to go by. Despite his experience he had several accidents along the river, the most notable was here at Ngaporo.

At the bottom of Ngaporo Rapid

At the bottom of Ngaporo Rapid

He was taking the steamer Ohura downstream from Ramanui to Pipiriki loaded with 214 head of cattle and sheep. Heading down the rapid the boat suddenly listed to the right (as we had done – perhaps he hit the same rock). He ordered his crew to quickly move the stock towards the other side of the boat to even the load but they continued heading to the right following the line of gravity. Heading out of the rapid the boat completely capsized. Andy and his nephew were strong swimmers and made it to shore at about this location with most of the animals, but the boat's engineer and its two deck hands drowned, their bodies washed downstream through the succession of rapids towards Pipiriki.

It had taken 114.5 kilometres to tip over, and just under a hundred since falling out. Thankfully this was supposed to be the biggest of the rapids, but there were some more large ones to come over the remaining 9.5 kilometres down to Pipiriki.

Behind us was the Ngaporo Camping ground with 32 camp sites, a shelter and toilets. It was probably a good camping ground as people staying here could beach their canoes just above the rapid, and drag them down to start just below it. Camping here just meant a very short paddle to Pipiriki the next day. The short distance meant not many people camped here, just some of the guided groups when Tieke Kainga and Ramanui were full. The bird life here is supposed to be better than on most parts of the river with plentiful tui and fantail. The elusive kiwi are usually heard at night.

Cameron briefed us on the last few rapids of the river. From here the river took a wide turn to the left heading down another big rapid that he called “The Rock” due to a large boulder in the middle of it. We then spent the next ten minutes discussing the actor Dwayne Johnston who was a Samoan living in the USA who briefly lived with his mother in Auckland whilst growing up.

Heading downstream

Heading downstream

We set off into the eddy and entered the Opihaka Rapid almost immediately as the river swept towards the cliffs to the right. The water was shallow but it was only a brief rapid with little turbulence going into a deep channel with no turbulence.

Almost immediately though we entered the mildly turbulent Oakura Rapid funnelling between two shingle banks with a rock bank to our right. The rapid led straight into the cliff so we stayed a couple of metres off it. The name means place of the entrance of an eel pot, perhaps indicating this was a good fishing location in pre-European times. Once past the rapid we saw an old crowbar sticking out of the cliff. It had been used by the river steamers to help work their way upstream.

Resting point between rapids

Resting point between rapids

Again there was little time to rest as the Mangaio Rapid was quickly approaching. This is the one Cameron had called “The Rock”. This was a rather tricky one so he told us to follow him closely. Approaching the rapid we passed a spectacular ravine cut into the cliff where the Mangaio Stream came out. The other side of the river was quite flat with a large shingle bank crossing the river diagonally with a shallow reef coming very close to us, so we had to stay near the bank. The reef suddenly ended in an enormous eddy pool. We had to avoid that, but also avoid the large flat topped rock suddenly approaching us so upon passing the reef we quickly turned our boats to the left and paddled hard to miss the rock.

We all successfully made it through Mangaio Rapid. The river had by now swept around about eighty degrees to the start of a peninsula under Motai Hill. The river had entered a straight heading towards relatively flat land, but almost immediately going into the Ruahinetoro Rapid passing a huge shingle bank to the right stretching out over most of the width of the river. This was followed by a reef in the middle of the river which we needed to avoid by going down the left channel behind Cameron. At the end of the reef there were huge rocks on either bank of the river.

Bailing out the canoes

Bailing out the canoes

The water became deep from bank to bank again, but ahead was another shingle bank stretching to about half way across the river. The cliffs had ended but landslides appeared to the right. We passed another hook cove where yet another outcrop pointed upstream.

Half way along the straight a jet boat boomed past heading downstream. We heard it coming so veered off to the right and let the yellow boat zoom past on its way back to Pipiriki.

At the end of the short straight the river turned 110 degrees to the left, then starting 80 degrees to the right into the Aratira Rapid, meaning passageway for a travelling party. It was rocky to the left and we needed to avoid a large boulder in the middle of the river. Fortunately the channel on either side was deep with minimal turbulence.

The valley opening out

The valley opening out

Looking back past the rapid we could see the famous drop scene. This was world famous in that the river seemed to disappear into the earth. Recent erosion has spoiled the scene somewhat.

About half way around the bend we passed the Puraroto Stream which enters the Whanganui through a spectacular cave system. There was a ravine which under some conditions can be entered and explored by canoe. It is a cave system that winds deep into the cliff with blind caves and very muddy banks. One of the caves has a beautiful waterfall dropping from a vaulted inner chamber. The name Puraroto means “wetland where one is blind”. It must be a very dark place to explore.

Once past the ravine, the forest suddenly ended to be replaced with pastures on either side.

The valley widened quickly and the dark water was deep and calm for a few minutes before we reached the rather turbulent Autapu Rapid with pressure waves reaching up to a metre high over a diagonal shingle bank. We passed over it okay though passing a long eddy to the right.

Passing farmland

Passing farmland

Although uneventful for us, a lot of people fall out here, perhaps even more so than at Ngaporo. The waves here have a slight angle to the flow giving canoes the tendency to roll over to the right. This rapid was never an issue with the old steamboats which would travel along the deep slow moving eddy then back into the main channel once past the turbulent water.

The land on both sides of the river here is owned by the Maori. A road track starts to the left making its way through the farmland to Pipiriki, before continuing along the main road towards Wanganui.

Upon leaving the bank the river swung around it passing another shingle bank on the other side of the river. Upon passing the Ongangana Stream to our left we entered the Te Autemutu Rapid. Cameron led us to the left of the main flow to avoid a snag at the bottom of the swift and turbulent rapid passing over submerged boulders. Its name means rapid to wipe out which wasn't very encouraging, but we all made it through easily without incident.

Approaching the last bend

Approaching the last bend

Once past the rapid the river quickly deepened again and a large rock and shingle bank covered about half of the river to the left. Cameron signalled us to head across to the bank and stop there for a while so he could explain the next set of rapids. Two more jet boats passed us heading upstream just as we landed. There were some more big rapids ahead of us and Cameron decided Mum should go with him whilst Roger goes alone in his canoe. A private dirt road started across the river unseen, marking the first access to the outside world since Whakahoro.

Bruce one more bailed the back of our boat. As the boat had been sitting lower at his end than at my end, any water coming in on the rapids has quickly gone into his end of the boat. There hadn’t been much water go into our boat until now, but the larger rapids we had been going down had sent quite a bit of water into our boat.

Knowing what was coming up ahead, Cameron moved some of the gear into Roger’s canoe and moved Mum to in front of his canoe. There were some more rapids coming up and he didn't want any more spills.

We cast off again and once clear of the shingle banks the river widened and deepened in between the bright green rolling pastures. The river turned 80 degrees to the right to a short straight. Ahead of us was a forested hill where the river turned 90 degrees back to the left.

The final rapid near Pipiriki

The final rapid near Pipiriki

Cameron stood up in his boat. This was the Upper Paparoa Rapid. Once around this corner we will be in sight of our destination at Pipiriki and in full view of whoever was picking us up. I recall him mentioning earlier that he had taken another group down here a few weeks ago and led them down the wrong way hitting submerged boulders and tipping out, with everyone else following tipping out as well all in full view of the pick-up at the end.

He wasn’t going to repeat that today, so he directed us to go over the shallower left channel. The main channel ran hard up against the cliff face with bounces not quite as big as those at Ngaporo, but lasting a lot longer as the river made its 90 degree turn. The main channel passed an eel weir. There was a shingle bank in the middle of the river, so we headed to the left of it.

The water quickly became shallow with small river rounded boulders passing us quickly at the bottom of what would have been less than knee deep water. The shallow water continued for quite some time as we passed the rapid on the other side of the shingle bank. We had to steer carefully to prevent getting beached. At the speed we were going any beaching would be quite dramatic.

I could see the boat ramp at Pipiriki coming into view. The shallow water suddenly deepened as we re-entered the main channel. The water was moderately calm for just a few moments before we reached the Lower Paparoa Rapid at the end of the bend where the river started a 45 degree turn to the right. The main channel was now to the left of the river passing a shingle bank to our left and a rock bank to the right. The turbulence increased before suddenly ending as we passed a submerged rock to our left.

We were now past all hazards of the rapid with just a few tens of metres to go before landing at our destination at the boat ramp, where our ride back to Ohakune was waiting for us.



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26 February 2016


Whanganui Nat Park

New Zealand



28 - 37m ASL


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