Backyard NZ – The Upper Otaki

BACKYARD RUN // Upper Otaki, New Zealand

Here’s one for the Lower North Island paddlers that are passionate and always keen to ‘get out there’ and go kayaking. Two mates and I were fortunate enough to do so on the Upper Otaki River, located in the Tararua ranges, which makes this run a perfect backyard run for us all. We had all started our kayaking careers on the lower reaches of this river, which is a fantastic grade II trip for beginners (put in at the Otaki Forks carpark/picnic area).

We had always wanted to make our way up to the Waitewaewae hut and paddle down the grade II-IV river. After improving from the begining of our careers a few years back, now was the time! We woke up at 4am so that we could have breakfast, pack gear, pick each other up and then begin our tramp in to the usual Waitewaewae Hut put in. We started from the Otaki forks picnic area/carpark at 6am. We passed a tramping sign that said ‘Waitewaewae hut 5-6 hours’: an acceptable time I suppose, but little did we know that we had a seven and a half hour walk in front of us and that was at a strong and steady pace.

If you like your kayak scratch free then be warned because the three of us only carried our kayaks for the first one or two hours; the rest of the trip we dragged and bashed them behind us with tow lines because of the over head bush. Once we had arrived at the river we were over joyed, tired and yet still amped for the journey that awaited us downstream. After a quick lunch we kitted up and were on the river at 2pm. The river was at a flow gauge of 1.8 which we wished was a little higher such as 1.9 or 2 (recommended is 1.5-2). The water was relatively warm, we had blue skies and the sunlight shining down on us, pure bliss! The river picks up pace with a few warm up rapids that gradually get harder and you begin to notice the huge boulders pass by which marks the beginning of the boulder gardens that wind and steepen. Lots of eddy hopping and searching for the lines with the most water was the game we played as we floated down taking turns as the leader/probe down the 100+ rapids of the trip.

One of us whom shall not be named with an Eskimo Salto was quick to have the first epic by pinning himself against a wall and rock. Being head above the water he was fine and able to help himself. The rapids never ended and were never boring, being a minimum of grade II at any time. Roughly three quarters of the boulder gardens were III-III+. About a third of the way down the big rapids come at you roaring, the first being Lemmings Falls. This has a smooth run in with a shallow rocky landing at this flow which is why only one of us ran it and came out with a bleeding nose, smiling face and a scratched Eskimo Salto!

There is a tame looking rapid which leads into a small rock cave which funnels down into a seive which is definitly a place you do not want to go. A few metres down from this are two left and right two metre waterfalls that are dodgy rock bangers at lower flows and are sure to be fun at higher flows.

After the five or so big grade IV rapids you are still left with plenty of wicked III+ paddling including what I called ‘little lemmings’ a miniature version of the real deal. Fun chutes, nice drops, technical lines, massive tree trunks, boulder gardens and beautiful scenery (including baby goats) are the ways in which to describe this run. Best of all, the rapids all seem to be different in style whichconfirmed that the tramp in was worth the effort!

We were off the river at 7pm with an hour of daylight to spare, we were all exhausted from our 13 hour mission, we had saved ourselves a few hundred dollars off helicopter flights, we were completely satisfied with our achievements and we hadn’t far to travel to get home.

Be sure to maintain wisdom prior to leaving by checking the weather because it is a very lengthy trip and if you had to escape then you will be fighting your way out for a long time through thick bush! Take warm clothing dependant on weather, lots of food, good shoes for the walk in, lots of water and your game face!

In Brief:
Class: III-IV
Level: Above 20 cumecs or 1.6 gauge on either the flow phone or internet.
Length: 18km
Time: 4+ hours
Put in: Waitewaewae hut
Take out: Otaki forks river confluence or swingbridge
Editors note: For those not keen on the epic tramp, this can be a heli-run. Check out the NZ Whitewater guide book for details.