Friday, January 25, 2013

Travel Experience Worth Remembering - 9. Kaituna River Rafting

9. Kaituna River Rafting – Rotorua, New Zealand

The summer of 2012 was filled with a lot of adventurous activities and river rafting was one more on that long list. I love white water rafting and would do it every day if I could, but living in Texas that isn’t really an option. There are lots of man-made lakes, but very few rivers and the ones there are don’t constitute white water rafting. Maybe calm water floating.

I have done rafting a few different times, but nothing would prepare me for rafting on the Kaituna River just north of Rotorua in New Zealand. While we were staying in Lake Taupo we wanted to do something fun and exciting. Lake Taupo is the number one place in the world for sky diving and that was something I considered, but already having done paragliding I wanted to do something a little different. Luckily there were a number of other great options.
The weather wasn’t very good while we were in Lake Taupo, it was cold and rainy most of the time. We initially planned to stay for three days, but that was stretched into five. That was mostly due to convenience, but also because we had to plan around the weather. We figured we would be better served to use Taupo as a base and branch out from there to do other things we planned – Waitomo Cave Tour, Rotorua Thermal Pools, Tongariro Alpine Crossing, and various other things we discovered along the way.

It ended up being a good choice. On the rainy days we could do things that didn’t require nice weather and when it cleared up we could do activities that required clear weather. One rainy morning we decided to go to the local visitor center and see what things there were to do. We already knew about the things I listed above, but we figured there must be much more.

After spending over an hour looking at brochures and contemplating our schedule, weather conditions and prices we had made a few choices. One of the things that caught our eye was Kaituna River Rafting. During the months of research I had done about New Zealand when planning this trip I had never come across this option. I guess I figured it would be winter time so rafting probably wouldn’t be the best idea, however, after 6 weeks of cold temperatures my body was pretty accustomed to it. I was now barely fazed by 20 degrees sleeping in a tent in the rain and highs in the day of only 30.

There were two different options for Kaituna River Rafting, but both seemed to do the same thing. It was going to come down to price, availability, and the day that fit in our schedule. We decided on a trip that was $89 and would go on a Thursday afternoon. The benefit to this is that we were already heading to Rotorua that day to see the thermal pools and geysers and when we were done we could drive on to the river excursion. Afterwards we would just continue driving north to Matamata, our next destination and location for the filming of Hobbiton in Lord of the Rings.

By the time Thursday came around the weather had been both great and terrible, depending on the day. In the end it didn’t really affect our plans too much and allowed us to do things we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of doing. For example, one rainy afternoon we visited a honey shop. I learned everything I wanted to know about honey, plus more. It was interesting and not what I was expecting. We also watched the local dam discharge its water into the gorge below. Not really a typical thing I would do on vacation, but it was still neat. We got these off the wall ideas from a brochure in the visitor center that mentioned things to do on a rainy day. Just our luck, it was a rainy day.

Once Thursday came it was still pretty cloudy. It was probably in the 40s at night and 50s during the day. Some of the warmest weather we had had since we left Texas in early June. We woke up early and took down our tent and drove an hour north to Rotorua. We took a self-guided tour of Wai-O-Tapu. We had a few different options for seeing geysers and thermal pools in the area, and this is the one we chose. We hiked around for about 3 hours seeing as much as we could.

The weather wasn’t great. It was foggy and rainy most of the morning. I was hoping by afternoon it would clear up so we could do the rafting. This was our last day in the area and thus our last chance to get to do rafting. I’ve been rafting a lot, but this was going to be different.

White water rafting that I’m used to involved lots of large boulders, fast flowing water, big rapids, and other dangerous obstacles. Rafting in the Kaituna River is nothing like that. In fact, it’s not even white water rafting at all. Before we went all I knew is that there were Class 5 rapids – meaning waterfalls. By waterfalls I mean a 12 foot waterfall and a 21 foot waterfall, plus smaller drops along the way.

Much like some of the other crazy things we had done during this trip and others I was scared to death. Part of the thrill was going to be able to say I did this and overcame my fear. I was scared to paraglide; get in the water with great white sharks, a few hikes, canyoning, plus much more, but each time I did what I set out to accomplish.

All week I had been looking forward to this rafting trip. I was praying the weather would clear up, but in reality I was scared to death. Part of me wanted to do it, but the other part was thinking I was nuts. As we started driving towards our destination the weather began to clear almost immediately. The clouds parted and blue skies were out. Now the only issue would be water levels. Considering it’s a waterfall I was thinking too much rain could make it too dangerous. I didn’t know what the waterfall would be like so I didn’t know what to expect.

We got to the starting rafting companies location and started getting our gear. We put on wetsuits, helmets, a life jacket, and booties. There were two other people going along as well, they were two college students from Auckland studying something to do with tourism. The two made it sound like they had to do the trip to learn more about New Zealand adventure tourism. I wasn’t really paying attention, I was thinking about the waterfalls and my impending death from drowning.

After we had all of our gear ready our two guides quickly showed us what to do along the ride. Unlike other white water rafting trips I had been on this one involved some quick maneuvering along the way. What that meant was changing the way we were sitting in order to not fly out of the raft as we were plunging over waterfalls. In order to show us we sat inside the raft, me and my brother in the front row, the two others in the middle row, and the two guys in the back row.

We pretended to be paddling and then one of the guides yelled get down. This meant sliding down onto our butts in a ball with our knees to our chest on the floor of the raft. We held our paddles on the outer part of the boat as we hung onto a rope on the side and one on the front. Seemed secure enough, assuming we didn’t flip over.

Now that we had the formalities down we were ready to load the boat and head to our launch site. We all loaded into the van and drove across a field for about 100 yards. We parked and got out. We unloaded the raft and put it into the water and jumped in.

So far everything was going great. We were in the water and we were still alive. The water was a very dark blue-green and very eerily calm. This wasn’t white water rafting at all. This was going to be a 45-minute joy ride down a nice flowing river with an occasional steep drop off. It almost seemed like it was a manmade river. It was pretty narrow, only about 20 yards wide with fern trees and cliffs on either side. It was actually very pretty and calming, but in the back of my mind I was still thinking about the death trap up ahead. I was trying not to think about it and just have positive thoughts. It was working, a little.

We had one last refresher course on how to deal with the waterfalls and we were off. We didn’t really paddle except for a few strokes at a time. We just floated effortlessly along as our guides talked to us a little bit about the area. There were no rapids at all, but there was a pretty strong current. Every so often we would be told to paddle again, then stop and rest.

After about five minutes we could hear rushing water ahead of us. It was the first of the smaller waterfalls. We paddled hard into and then held on. It was only a drop of a few feet, but it was still a nice little rush. We continued down the river taking small drops along the way. To make things more interesting on a few occasions we would stop and turn the boat around to look at the small waterfalls we had just conquered.

One instance in particular our guides decided we should get a closer look. He asked me and Andy to pass our paddles back and sit down on the floor of the raft as if we were going over a waterfall. It didn’t really click in my head what was going on. The water was really cold and I wasn’t thinking straight. Maybe I hadn’t eaten enough. Regardless as we were paddling directly towards the waterfall I should have known what was about to happen. We were going in for a closer look all right, close enough to drink the water and get flipped over.

The other four on the boat were paddling as hard as they could against the current, directing us closer and closer to the rushing water before us. We were about to paddle directly into a waterfall. This was insane. I was sitting in the front of the boat with no protection. That was insane. We got right up to the falls. Imagine a large rock with water rushing over it. That’s what this was. We were able to slightly go up the boulder for a few seconds, water gushing over the top of the boat on all sides.

Every few seconds the force of the water pushed us up and back. They quickly paddled us back in. This went on for at least two or three minutes. I was getting water in my ears, my nose, and my eyes. At one point I thought my contacts were going to fall out. It was freezing. This wasn’t my idea of fun. Finally it was over. We were able to get back up. We switched places with the other two and let them have a go at it in the front seat. We paddled as hard as we could. A few times it felt like the water was going to flip the boat over. We got turned sideways a few times on the rocks. I really don’t know how we never flipped over.

Fun time was over and it was back to floating down the river. We made our way to the first of the big waterfalls. This one was about 12-15 feet tall or so. Along for the ride was a kayaker. He was there to help in case someone fell out of the boat and to scout ahead to make sure it was clear. We watched him go over the falls and then quickly followed.

We did two quick strokes and then held on. This wasn’t the big one so we didn’t need to duck down. We went around a slight corner and then dropped. It lasted about half a second. It was amazing. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. I didn’t know what to expect. Butterflies were in my stomach, but once it was over I was relieved. I just wanted to yell as loud as I could. We all wanted to, and we all did. I was ready to do that again.

I was envisioning a straight drop off waterfall, but it was more of a large boulder undulating from the riverbed with water gushing over it. We just road down it like a slide. At the base of the falls was a large pool of calm water that filtered into the rest of the river ahead. It was so cool. It’s indescribable really. It’s something that just has to be experienced.

Another ten to fifteen minutes of floating, a few stops to look at rapids we had traversed, and a few raft surfing opportunities. We stood up on the raft as we went over smaller waterfalls. It was pretty fun and very hard to stay balanced.

We finally made it to the big waterfall. This one was 21 feet tall. It is the tallest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. People go down steeper falls, but they are professionals and they aren’t licensed to be rafted for the general public.

We pulled over to the side of the river next to a cliff wall. One of the guides had found a hand hold in the rocks to keep us in place while he refreshed our memories on what to do. He warned us that if the boat flipped over to hang on the best we could and to not let go. If we were underneath the raft we could pop our heads up above the waterline to breath. The lifejackets would hold us up until one of the guides was able to get on top and flip the raft back over. He would bang on it with a paddle to let us know that he was flipping it over.

If we were to lose a hold of the boat when it flipped over we should curl up in a ball and we would naturally float back to the top. This was my biggest fear. I am a pretty good swimmer, but being bombarded by rushing water coming over a waterfall would be difficult. Once we popped up we were instructed to swim to the bank until we could be rescued.

Once again we watched the kayaker go over ahead of us. We watched and wondered. After about 15 seconds of silence our guide finally said he made it down by now. Giving the impression that the falls was that big. We couldn’t see it, but I knew it wouldn’t take that long. We heard a whistle, which meant he made it safely and it was clear for us to go down.

I was so nervous. Just before we went I asked one more time how to sit. We then raised our paddles in the middle of the raft and cheered. Now was the time to shine. We pushed off and gave two quick paddles. The guide shouted “Get Down!” just before we went over the falls. Without thinking I slid down as quick as I could and held on. It was like blur. We hit the river below. Water was rushing all around us. Pounding us down. All I remember thinking was that we didn’t flip. We were alive.

Again we raised our paddles and shouted for joy! It was so amazing. I can’t think of a better feeling. We stopped to admire the falls one last time from below before we headed off. The guide said he does the trip about 30 times a month and usually flips about 10 of those times. I was feeling lucky and relieved.

We weren’t yet to the end, but the excitement was over. Just before we finished we had the chance to paddle into one more small waterfall head on. I decided I didn’t want to be a part of that. The first time was enough. It was cold and I didn’t appreciate joking on water. I felt like the boat was going to eventually flip over and being in the front didn’t seem like the ideal place to be if that happened.

Andy and the two other people took turns at it while I just paddled us in. We came very close to flipping over a number of times. I was thinking the guides were trying to make us capsize. At one point it seemed as though we were at a 90 degree angle sideways. It was really fun, but at the same time frightening. I was sitting on the left side of the boat, which was raised up. I was seeing myself falling out onto the people below and getting hurt or stuck under the boat.

We eventually paddled on. We were given the opportunity to jump out of the boat and swim if we wanted to. The water was very calm and clear, but it didn’t sound appealing to me. We had a few hours’ drive to our next destination and being wet in the car wasn’t my idea of fun. Of course the other two with us did jump in. They seemed to enjoy it.

We had one last pit stop before we were done. We had to paddle back into another small waterfall to get our photos taken. This meant sitting down on the floor again with water crashing into our faces. I couldn’t wait. I had finally dried out and now I was going to get soaked again. During the whole process I could barely look up at the camera. Water was getting in my eyes and mouth. We were rocking out of control and I kept falling over onto Andy since I was on the side getting hit by the majority of the water and we were rising up. We got our photos taken and were ready to move on.

Just as we were approaching the docking point we could see another waterfall ahead. It was around a corner, but had large rocks at the base of it and would be too dangerous. At first we were told we would have to jump out and swim to the shore so we didn’t go over and they would navigate the boat to safety. I was thinking that would be weird, but at the time I was confused and figured it made sense. They were joking.

We paddled to the shore and made it to safety. We had to carry the raft down a dirt trail back to the van. The first time we carried the raft it was literally a few yards. This time it was about 200 or more. I think most of the weight was on my side. It was hurting my arms so I just rested it on my head. That didn’t feel good on my neck, but it was too much weight. I don’t think anyone else was even helping.

We finally got back to the van and we loaded the raft. A short drive followed and we were back to the shop. We changed out of our wetsuits and took a few minutes to see the photos that were taken of us along the way. A trail follows the river and one of the guys took photos throughout the trip. His camera and lens were really nice so the photos came out well. That is really rare. Usually on trips like this the photographs aren’t that great.

We bought the photos and then hiked up the road to see the trail that the photographer had used. It was going to be dark soon and we had a 3 hour drive so we didn’t have long to hike, but we at least wanted to see the big waterfall we had gone over just to see it from a different angle and get our own pictures.

We didn’t have to walk very far, but we spent about 45 minutes to an hour getting pictures. It was getting dark so we made our way back to the car. Our river rafting trip was over and we were headed on to our next destination. It was a complete success. It was definitely one of the best things I have ever done. I think I would do it again, but I would be just as terrified as the first time. At least now I would know what to expect though. 

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