SHOTOVER RIVER, NEW ZEALAND – 30 January 2020
1. Make sure the guys in your raft don’t have hangovers
2. Two strong paddlers in the front is essential – and make sure they don’t have a hangover
3. Guys with hangovers are effectively deaf and can’t follow directions
4. Hold on tight and keep your eyes closed when you’re caught in a whirlpool that wont spit you out
Day #3 of my New Zealand Epic Trip: Ordinarily, a commercial 1/2 day tourist rafting trip wouldn’t be blog-worthy, but as I was furiously paddling through some rapids, it again occurred to me that it wasn’t a smart idea whitewater rafting before the Milford trek. Though not as risky as the canyoning, I could still be thrown out of the raft and be seriously injured (I’d spent a lot of money on the Milford trek, I didn’t want to miss it).
Louise wisely decided she wouldn’t join David, Marcia and me on our whitewater adventure (having had two near death whitewater experiences in the past). Not to be deterred, we fronted up at the Go Orange office early on the Thursday morning, filled out the indemnity forms and then hopped on the bus which would take us to the river.
You’re not allowed to have cameras on you when you go rafting (I can just imagine how annoying [and dangerous] it would be for the skipper of the raft when people are taking photos rather than paddling!). So, all the photos are either stock photos from Go Orange (the first ones), or shots at the last rapid/cascade before we went ashore. Don’t worry though the commentary should be enough.
We were then suited up with wetsuits, booties, helmets and life vests, then we went downstairs to the change rooms to get dressed in our gear. Then it was back on the bus (sweating in our wetsuits) for the drive upriver to the start of the rapids, about an hour’s drive.
The Oxenbridge Tunnel is at Arthurs Point and is a 170-metre (560 ft) tunnel that was part of a failed mining scheme by the Oxenbridge brothers, attempting to divert water from the river to recover gold from the riverbed. It was registered as a Category II Historic Place in 1985, and is now used by rafters and kayakers. There was a lot of mining infrastructure along the river, big metal machinery or pipes that had been broken up and swept downstream in floods over the years.
Some of the rapids are amongst the most challenging and difficult with level 5 rapids that can sometimes be encountered … I don’t think the water was high enough for a level 5 on the day we were there, the Level 2s, 3s and 4 were big enough for me.
Eventually the bus arrived at the start of the rapids section and drove down onto the pebble beach.
So, we set off down river with Jesus steering at the back and giving instructions. We learned how to paddle forwards, backwards, lean over on the right or left to shift our weight in the boat and how to sit down in the bottom of the boat (I guess so you don’t fall out).
All was going sort of ok, poor Jesus had to reiterate some of the instructions a few times and then we came to our first major rapid which involved following directions and paddling really really hard to get out of this whirlpool at the bottom of the drop. Things didn’t go quite to plan, and we got stuck in the eddy and Jesus couldn’t get us out, apparently when we were supposed to be paddling really really hard, not everyone was doing so.
It was rather scary, I was basically sitting in the bottom of the boat holding on tight and trying to hold onto my paddle and not brain anyone with it, all this with my eyes closed and hyperventilating, water sloshing all over me (and everyone else) and just hoping I wouldn’t die or be thrown out of the boat.
David tells me that at times when we went under the water, the raft bent in half like a taco. Marcia said she watched the whole thing (obviously not as concerned about falling out as I was). Jesus tried a number of times to get us out of the eddy that kept on spinning us around – we seemed to be in that rotation for an eternity – eventually one of the other guides jumped out of his raft and came over, threw a rope to Jesus and dragged us out of whatever was holding us in place. At least that’s what I think happened, I still had my eyes closed.
Everyone took a big breath, Jesus paddled us over to the side of the river and we watched some of the other rafts go through that section. Some of the rafts got caught too but not for as long as we were caught, and I think even before the rapid someone had fallen out of one of the other rafts.
So, we proceeded downstream. Jesus assured us that that was the hardest rapid we’d get for the trip, but reinforced the need to paddle hard when he told us to do so.
The trip was marred somewhat by the alcoholic breathing of the guy in front of me, and the fact that the guys (other than David) were having a high old time laughing etc, so loudly that whenever Jesus told them to paddle one way or another, they missed the instructions, so our paddling was rather haphazard, and definitely not synchronized. From time to time, when Jesus yelled “paddle” one way or the other, I had to yell the instruction to the guy in front of me as he seemed to be deaf and sitting in a daze.
After 30 minutes or so, I settled down with the confidence that I wasn’t going to be thrown out of the raft (my feet were wedged so firmly under the section of raft in front of me that I’d probably stay attached to the boat even if it capsized – but not to worry, Jesus had told us how to survive capsizing – but hadn’t really given instructions on how to un-wedge your feet).
We were a convoy of about 6 rafts plus a kayak that paddled around “just in case”. At each rapid the lead raft (often our raft, I think Jesus was the head leader) would go through the rapid and then wait at the side, overseeing the other rafts safely through. At all times there was a guide standing on a boulder at the ready for an emergency – it was very impressive.
Eventually we came to the final section of the river, and the Oxenbridge Tunnel. We waited to see each raft through safely and then headed in. It was amazing to be in the tunnel and to imagine the miners working away tunneling through the hard rock. At the end of the tunnel is a cascade and there was a photographer there to snap our photos.
Definitely the cascade was the best. It was a pity that the trip had ended, just when I was enjoying the rapids. One thing’s for sure though, definitely don’t think I’m ready for the Franklin.
Would I do it again? Definitely. Go Orange was great to deal with, from making the bookings, to the logistics of getting us to the start and back to Queenstown, they were very efficient. I was also impressed with how quickly they organised our gear and then organised the cleaning of the wetsuits and booties when we returned.
The guides were excellent, very professional, and had infinite patience. Whilst I was scared shitless to start, I eventually relaxed, mainly due to the fact that I had such confidence in Jesus.
It was a great morning out, thanks David and Marcia for going with me.