Riding The Whitewater With Ali Smith
Photographer Dean Treml and journalist Alison Smith join New Zealand Extreme Kayaker Ben Brown and the country’s best junior paddler Toby Robertson for a rapid tour of the Central North Island’s whitewater…
On first glance, the journey that extreme kayaker Ben Brown had mapped out around Rotorua, Taupo and Whakapapa looked like a ‘been there/bought the postcard’ collection of stops. Among the sites listed; Huka Falls, the Aratiatia Rapids, an historic walk near Rotorua, and the raw alpine beauty of the Turangi National Park.
But when the Land Rover arrived crammed with wetsuits, heavy duty photographic gear and crowned with a metre high colourful array of kayaks, it was obvious this journey was going to put a different perspective on a well-trodden path.
In the past I’d driven to many of these spots and (like most visitors) been exhilarated by the view over a waterfall and feeling of light mist on skin as the water boomed below. However Ben and 17-year-old Toby would arrive, leap from the Landrover, and cast a trained eye over the tumultuous scenery with a view to joining it.
At age 23, Ben has already kayaked for 11 years. He hesitates to say he paddles for a living since he never has any money, but sponsorship allows him to call it a lifestyle. Ben spends his days starring in videos, acting as guinea pig for his boat sponsor’s untested designs, training, occasionally competing and guiding other kayakers in treacherous rivers such as the Zambesi in Zambia.
Toby, meanwhile, is considered the best junior paddler in the country. Like Ben, he has not only kayaked over the Huka Falls and lived to tell the tale – he has kayaked over the Huka Falls more than 70 times.
Ben was the leader on this trip, bringing with him his skill for reading rivers in terms of lines – paths in the torrents that can be followed with relative safety by an expert kayaker. He even adds tricks to the equation, not only paddling off waterfalls but doing a controlled 180deg spin in the process.
“The numerous worldwide expeditions I’ve spent with him are enough to know he’d be one of my first choices for when there is no turning back,” says Corran Addison, a guy who’s renowned as one of the world’s best in the sport.
And so, satisfied that I wouldn’t be in the awkward position of having to throw myself at the rapids in a Baywatch-style rescue attempt, I went to see what Ben could do.
First up on the agenda was Okere Falls, east of Rotorua. Evidence of the Okere Falls’ early days as a power station lend a mysterious feel to the beauty of the jade waters and native bush with its hidden folds of moss-covered caves, accessed by steep steps. The station was built in 1901 and made Rotorua only the fourth place in New Zealand to receive power. Suitably impressed locals described their town as “fairyland”, but the station soon struggled to meet the community’s needs and was finally closed in 1939. The now rusted iron skeleton of the station became a terrain park for Ben on his journey down the falls.
Freestyle kayaking is one aspect of what Ben does, and in its competitive sense it involves the use of a single feature over a rapid, like a re-circulating ‘hole’ or standing wave of water. Kayakers use this feature much the same as a skater would use a halfpipe to perform all sorts of tricks. There is a standing wave at the bottom of the waterfalls at Okere Falls that’s good to try, but an even better example is at Full James, 40 minutes drive north of Taupo – our next stop.
There in Taupo we stayed at Awahuri Lodge. As we pulled up at the end of the day, it seemed hard to understand why the owners of such a beautifully tranquil setting would freely open their doors to a couple of extreme kayakers and the disheveled media crew accompanying them.
The first to greet us was Bart, the black Labrador icebreaker, who bounded up to the muddy Land Rover and soon after stole our shoes (the dog has good taste – it was the most expensive pair first). At the elaborate dinner table it became obvious why our hosts William and Suzanne Hindmarsh had welcomed our entourage. Quite simply, they were of the same spirit. Suzanne is closely related to New Zealand’s king of adventure Henry van Asch and both she and William are adventure lovers who remain fascinated by the lifestyle even if they’ve decided they are past participating in it.
“We find our enjoyment of life comes with younger people,” William said from the banks of Full James, where he drove to watch the boys the next morning. “I enjoy risk and I’ve always been a bit adventurous in nature, and adventure comes with youth. I can’t participate in it now but I can involve myself.”
Ben’s style of kayaking is adventurous to the extreme; he seeks out heavy river flows, waterfalls and tight, technical lines flanked by underwater caves and holes that can imprison the unwary under tonnes of water. Ben found what he was looking for that afternoon at the Aratiatia Falls, a controlled body of water that can only be kayaked on the right flow and by an extremely competent paddler.
Water is released periodically from the power station next to the site, raising the water level by 5-6 metres in a matter of minutes, so there was a small window of opportunity at full flow before the water subsided and rocks became dangerously exposed. What was a gradual flow of swirling jade around the base of boulders became an explosion of seething white water that hid the massive rocks below and thundered over a tumultuous gate of stone at the bottom, providing a narrow neck to negotiate.
It’s impossible to overstate the enormity of difference between before and after. Far more impressive than any Jenny Craig advertisement, in technical terms it went from 0 to 200 cubic metres per second in a few seconds. This is some serious water!
It also turned out to be the big water challenge of the trip for Toby, who was held underwater for about eight seconds. It may not sound a long time, but it seemed an eternity from where I stood alongside a small audience of fellow kayakers who had gathered to witness the event. As Toby struggled to keep the kayak upright amid the chaotic water around him, the hooting onlookers went silent in solemn realisation of the danger he was in, and the relief was audible when Toby managed to paddle to the side of the river.
Ben stayed out of trouble on both runs but was equally in awe of the power of the rapid. “That was big,” he grinned. “For a moment it was almost like being back in Africa.”
From Taupo we drove to Mt Ruapehu, where Ben and Toby made their first ever descent down a 30ft alpine waterfall near the Chateau. It was just over an hour’s drive and a short scenic walk amid the heritage area that we found the Whakapapa Iti Stream, where the waterfall known as Tawhai Falls plummeted to a deep pool below.
Negotiating a kayak down a 30ft drop off a waterfall doesn’t need to be talked up. Even though Ben lives by the philosophy of never allowing himself to misjudge his limitations in the water, the perspective from the top occasionally surprises him. “It was way bigger when I paddled up and looked over!” he admitted afterward.
On the last day of the trip, we headed north to where Ben had his eye on the Pokaiwhenua River and more particularly, a challenging 25ft waterfall followed by a rock lined approach chute to a plunge which Ben had named ‘The Throat’. It was only the second time that this particular rapid had been kayaked, and a big flood had recently changed the riverbed completely, stripping the banks bare and sending fences, wire and branches into the water.
After much discussion and analysing, Ben and Toby took it on. Once each was certainly enough in this case!
Special thanks to William and Suzanne Hindmarsh at Awahuri Lodge in Taupo mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org or Ph+7 378 9847 and to David and Yvonne Medlicott at Kahilani in Rotorua on Ph+7 332 5662.
New Zealand is still considered one of the world’s best spots for kayaking and there’s no shortage of places to go. There are numerous kayaking schools particularly around Rotorua and Taupo that can give you a good base to begin with and supply gear for learning. Most of the schools are affiliated with the Recreational Canoeing Organisation, which is contactable at http://www.rivers.org.nz
If you’re really keen to check out the best kayak action in the country for yourself, head along to the Wairoa Extreme event on Feb 15 and 16 2003, on State Highway 1 near Tauranga. Like a boardercross for kayaking, it’s a head-to-head race with natural obstacles and is rated class 4 in difficulty. You’ll need to book ahead of time to get access to the event by raft (an adventure in itself!), so for organiser contact details go to http://www.classfive.co.nz