Flooded river in the south island, big rapid with huge boilers. Just above a massive hole as i completely missed my line. I really think of my mother :”Please excuse me for doing that, mummy!”. Then it is the crash. My boat is stuck at the bottom of a 2 meters water wall, right in the middle of the hole and i try to keep my head above. I fall one time, roll over and struggle again, then my boat is thrown out of this monster and back in the full stream. I am now in the middle of the rapid and i just want to reach the shore which seams far, far away in this field of waves…
The start of the trip was also a big bullshit. Why ? For travelling with my girlfriend ? Certainly this was the big mistake. I remember the beginnings as we were rafting the kaituna, or when we reach these maori carvings exploring the lake Taupo. So many occasions to drown her ! But I had met some good guys. Kenny, the Suttons Brothers and Nick had rescued me on the kaituna (put in at 6.30 in the morning and you will race with the best kayakers of the world). Richard and Coke of the Bliss-Stick kayak factory had been awesome and their friend Saul, the surfer, skydiver and wildboar hunter had shared a meal of lobster and his best surfs spots in Taranaki. Nice.
Now i try to find job in Queenstown and wash myself in the big holes of the Kawarau river, between two :”No job this week, it is very low at the moment but come back next week!” We travel with Mr Boris Doye, the new Extreme Pétanque world champion ; and his friend who wants to commit suicide on the new year’s eve. Boris is a true adventurer : He found a 80’s kayak in Wanaka, we made a run in the Hawea and Clutha river and then he decided to run the Shotover rapids. Then he found gold in the region and went back to Wanaka where he performed and democratized the amazing Elephant Dance, a true popular funky movement!
A few times later I am now in Hokitika on the west coast. Here you can find plenty of kayakers from all around the world (no, no more germans please!!), fired up to run the unnumerous creeks of this place. After walking up and struggling two hours in the mud to reach the start of the Crooked river, i go down in a wonderful gorge and drink the crystal clear water. I am so happy that i release my kayak during the portage of the ”Bent and Twisted rapid”. And my boat goes much better without me as i see him disappearing in another rapid! It is the right moment to make a bit of rockclimbing to escape that gorge, and discover the rain forest of this rainy place. The fern trees are very nice, but very weak. No good for climbing! Finally a german fellow find my kayak a bit downstream and after licking his ass with choucroute and honey i can finish the descent. The next day i prefer going alone, and explore the 9 mile creek up north. I run the two long slides and arrive on a desert beach where some nice waves are breaking. I surf them.
The day after i find 3 frenchies and 1 kiwi. Antoine Dupuis and Kerry Hoglund are super hungry and want to paddle 35 rivers in 30 days. I will follow them for a few. We run the incredible Kakapotahi, the marvellous Styx, the interminable walk-in Toaroha and the greenstone reserve Arahura. It is great ! Kerry, as a maori, is super strong and carry two boats on his back when a friend becomes tired. Antoine has an impressive kayak culture and seems to know every river and every rapid of the world. Guillaume is a very good friend and Paolo is a funny guy who talks only about his poo.
On a rest day, while i am geeking in the Hokitika library i can feel a very long earth shake. During twenty seconds we can feel like being in a van in a wind storm. It moves, there is a lot of noise. Every one look at each other… One hour later the first news are coming : The main city Christchurch 200 km westward has been destroyed. We don’t know yet but more than 200 people died. The small village of hokitika is completely depressed. Our friend Kerry is calling for his friends and family who live there. He would have been there if he wasn’t doing kayak. “Kayaking really saved my life!” he says…
Then we prepare a two days trip on the Whitcombe. We cook huge amounts of rice and pasta, take reparing and safety stuff and our sleeping bag. Bruce, the legendary helicopter pilot will drop what we don’t need on the first day at the Prices Flat Hut where we are supposed to spend the night. Flying up with the two kiwis i try to understand their awful accent. I only catch : ”Wow, it’s big, I’m scared!!” (when a fearless kiwi kayaker say that you can expect very very big things) ; and Bruce repeting :”Heaps of water, heaps of water.” We are filming the river who goes into deep gorges and huge rapids and waterfalls… This video will help us very much, later when we will try to find where we are… I am really stressed about the remoteness, the high level of the water and the fact that Mike Dawson told me about the hardest run of the west coast. But i also feel very confident in the team.
We begin to progress quite quickly but the rapids go bigger and bigger and finally, in front of a massive unrunnable rapid we decide to leave the river and portage all the last gorge. After climbing 30 minutes we reach the track. We are happy because we have just 3 km to walk before arriving to the hut, and we decide to eat our fantastic rice salad. My boat will be lighter now…
But the track is totally fucked up. Sometimes we can see the river, far away downhill, looking sometimes good, sometimes horribly hard and committing. Every hundred meters we face a landslide, a creek or a steep slope that we have to pass. We keep going forward, searching for the orange triangles that mark the track, helping each other and carrying our 25 kgs boats.
4 hours later we find the hut, drink tea, eat seeds and one kilo of pasta each. On the book of the hut we read the words written 8 years ago by Arnd Shaeftlein, Bern Sommer, during the first descent .We are in the middle of the trip, there are still 4 hours of class V – VI (means extremely difficult), and we can hear the river raging all the night. Is the level of water raising? I make strange dreams.
The day after we watch the videos taken from the helicopter and see there is one last gorge which seems hard. We are all ok to progress on the river. The beginning of the gorge is runnable. Then we arrive to the crux. It is too big to enter in that deep gorge and we can not scout the last drop (a 8m waterfall). So we make another 45 minutes portage. We pass one rapid, another, portage another 20 minutes and then arrive to the classic start of the Whitcombe !! Now it is pure happiness during 4 hours, kayaking downstream very fast in the middle of holes, waves and big siphons.
We make a rice salad break (1 kilo less in my boat), pass the last gorge and arrive to the take out. After a 20 minutes hike we finally reach Kerry’s 4WD. Physically and mentally knackered, we savor this moment, full of satisfaction, of relief… Unique impression, which make me think of one only thing… Doing it again !!!
Who said : “But not soon”?
Banana, french kayaker, november 2010-march 2011.
Dedicated to the New Zealand people ! Damn the dams, let the water flow !
Watch the video on tribulationsproject.tv
More pics on the facebook page