by Hank Leukart
March 30, 2016
An authentic Kiwi adventure
Hiking over New Zealand’s Waiau Pass and packrafting the Waiau River’s narrow whitewater gorges.
The Waiau River features some of New Zealand’s best whitewater, including a smattering of Class III and IV boulder gardens and gorges.
AIAU RIVER, New Zealand — “What do you need this for?” Jana says, removing my backpack’s cover in the Alpine Lodge backpacker’s hostel in St. Arnaud.
“It has pockets for holding stuff!” I respond. “And it keeps rain out of my pack!”
“Okay, but could you live without it?”
“I guess.” I pout.
Over the past hour, Jana — a 32-year-old post-doc, Te Araroa hiker from Göttingen, Germany, who I met while slogging through New Zealand’s Richmond Range — has been doing an unforgiving review of every item in my backpack. I get the distinct feeling that she’s partly fulfilling a secret fantasy to act out a well-known backpack-weight-reducing scene in the (appallingly bad) bestselling book, Wild, but the exercise has also proven to be unexpectedly helpful. Though I’m an experienced backpacker and my packing was already restrained — I’ve backpacked over 5,000 kilometers in the last ten years — I discover that having another person forcing you to make hard decisions about what’s in your pack is an surprisingly effective way to reduce weight. When the somewhat-stressful process is finally over, Jana has conviced me to lighten my load by about 2.2 kilograms (almost five pounds). I’ve gotten rid of an extra jacket, some never-used first aid items, and an assortment of helpful-but-unnecessary doodads and backup batteries. Thru-hikers nearly consider taking advantage of multi-function gear to be a religion, so Jana also makes me toss my sleeping bag’s useless stuff sack so I can stuff it into my dry bag instead. Happy with the results of her cajoling, she heads out hiking a day before me, to catch up with our hiking friends from the Richmond Range. I decide to wait an extra rest day for rainy weather to pass, because I may or may not be a wimp.
Of course, the weight-savings is a big relief for me, because, when I walk to the edge of Lake Rotoiti the day after, I’m carry my camping gear, six days worth of food, and my heavy packrafting gear, which includes a raft, paddle, life vest, and white-water paddling helmet.
“You’re going to carry a boat over Waiau Pass?” asks Karli, a 22-year-old, German, Te Araroa hiker, when she sees the paddles attaches to my pack as I pass her on the way to Lake Rotoiti. “That’s crazy.”
“It probably is,” I say. “But it’s a real adventure.” I know why she’s skeptical. The route includes a two-day 1,125-meter ascent over Travers Saddle followed by a 1,613-meter ascent via Blue Lake over Waiau Pass, nearly the same amount of climbing required for Slaty to Mt. Rintoul Hut in the Richmond Range, the section that almost made my brain explode just a few days before. But the part that I’m most nervous about is packrafting the Waiau River: the water levels are unpredictable, paddling with too little or too much water can be perilous, and a dangerous, narrow gorge of Class IV whitewater called the Narrows awaits me near the bottom of the run. Of course, I also know that, if I manage to pull it off, it will be one of the most exciting stages of my trip.
On the beach in front of Lake Rotoiti, I inflate my packraft, surrounded by jetboaters, fishermen, and tourists, all curious and skeptical about my raft.
“I’ve never seen anyone inflate a boat like that in my life,” a middle-aged New Zealander with a thick accent says to me as he watches me inflate the boat by squeezing a bag of air into the raft’s air chambers. Looking at the faces of the audience around me, it’s obvious that everyone assumes I’ll sink to the bottom of the lake the minute I jump in. Of course, when I strap my backpack to the boat and push off toward the mountains, I don’t sink. I hear actual applause behind me as a tailwind quickly fires me toward the massive mountains ahead: Mount Robert, Angelus Peak, Mount Cedric, Mount McRae, and Peatner Peak. There’s no point in pretending to be jaded: the neon blue water, reflecting the cinnamon peaks blanketed by verdant beech forest is one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, and it’s enhanced by the knowledge that I’m making my way across New Zealand, by myself, in a boat that I’ve been carrying on my back.
Lucky for me, the strong tailwind rockets me exactly where I want to go — toward the end of the lake — so I don’t need to paddle much. After about five kilometers of sailing, a family in a jetboat appears beside me.
“Hey, you need any help getting back?” the captain — who appears to be the family’s father — yells. “I know the wind isn’t helping.”
“Nope! I’m not going back,” I yell back to him. He and his family look confused. I can see him trying to work out some sense in what he’s seeing: a seemingly-clueless guy in a tiny raft weighed down with a huge backpack being blown away from shore has just told him he never plans to return to the beach.
“Uh, okay,” he yells. It’s clear that he’s decided that I’m insane. “Good luck?” He motors away, but very slowly, as though he’s confident that in just a second I’ll recover my senses and yell that I need help getting back to shore. But, I continue paddling toward the mountains, and he continues toward St. Arnaud.
I reach John Tait Hut in the evening, and, because I’m feeling a bit ill — was it the decadent amount of pizza I ate in St. Arnaud? — it takes me an extra day to climb Travers Saddle and reach Blue Lake, a blue-violet gem nestled below Mount Mahanga and Lake Constance. Sitting on the edge of Blue Lake, which has been proven to be the clearest natural body of fresh water known to man, I get a rare sighting of some swimming blue ducks, an endangered species endemic to New Zealand but threatened by mammals introduced to the country in the 19th century. In the nearby hut, I’m happy to rediscover Jana, who has also hiked slowly due to some knee pain. She tells me that she’ll be ready in the morning to tackle Waiau Pass and introduces me to Henk, a 60-year-old New Zealander who does botanical research work for the Department of Conservation, New Zealand’s governmental environment steward. Because the Te Araroa is only a handful of years old, he’s thru-hiking it for the first time, but he’s a New Zealand hiking expert and knows the terrain well.
“Having two people in our group with almost the same name is going to be very confusing,” I say to Henk. “But, you seem like the right guy to help us get over the Pass.”
“It’ll be a climb,” Henk says. When he sees the paddles attached to my bag, I tell him that I’m carrying a packraft. He stares at me for a surprisingly long time, and I brace myself, expecting him to tell me that I’m crazy. “I like the way you think. I doubt anyone has ever tried to carry a boat over the Waiau.”
“I have no idea what will happen or if it will work,” I say. “But isn’t that what authentic adventure is?”
In the morning, Jana, Henk, a French hiker named Edmond, and I begin the 15-kilometer, 900-meter-ascent climb over Waiau Pass together. Soon, we reach Lake Constance — a turquoise masterpiece tucked between two mountains — and, surprisingly quickly, we climb over Waiau Pass and then down the steep, jagged walls of rock on the other side. I notice that, now, even hard climbs seem easy as compared to my time in the Richmond Range. Henk suggests that we stop for lunch after and just below the Pass, and he successfully encourages us to push forward to Caroline Creek Bivy when the valley begins to flatten out.
After dinner, as I lie in my tent in the evening, I have trouble falling asleep. A few days before, I read a trip report on the Internet about a group of paddlers who kayaked the Waiau River (via a road-accessible put-in farther downstream), fell out of their boats and into the water while paddling rapids in the notorious Narrows canyon, and proceeded to lose their boats, gear, food, and paddles when they floated away down river. I stay up late, nervous and unsure, having no idea what lies ahead of me. It wouldn’t be an adventure if I did, I think, as I stare sleeplessly at hundreds of sandflies buzzing under my tent’s rain fly.
Just after sunrise, Jana, Henk, and I have breakfast and then start hiking together. After about 20 minutes of walking, the river’s water level looks high enough for me to take a shot at rafting it. Jana and Henk watch with fascination as I inflate the boat. When I’m ready to push off, the three of us take a photo together with the rushing Waiau in the background. We don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again, because, downstream near the Ada River confluence, our routes will diverge. We say long goodbyes, and I feel sad as I paddle away, because they’re both warm, caring people — and two of the best friends I’ve made in New Zealand.
My progress on the Waiau begins slowly, because there’s not always enough water to paddle over the river’s many shallow shingles. I have to get out of the boat to tow or carry it a handful of times, but, soon, I’m happily making fast progress down the river’s wide braids, encountering little whitewater. After a couple hours of paddling, I catch sight of Jana and Henk eating lunch on shore, which makes our extensive goodbye ceremony seem ridiculous now. After a quick stop to enjoy lunch together, we say goodbye yet again, this time knowing for sure that our paths will separate.
Near the confluence of the Waiau and Ada Rivers, the Waiau’s the water level rises, and I find myself navigating through a smattering of small boulder gardens. I feel like I’m riding a bronco in a rodeo as the front of the raft bucks up and down violently, and I’m repeatedly soaked by whitewater waves for the next five kilometers. Maybe my next gear purchase should be a dry suit, I think.
When I reach Delta Stream, I see that the river narrows ahead and takes a sharp turn to the left. As I paddle into the turn, I realize that I’m unexpectedly entering a gorge, which takes another quick turn to the right. Suddenly, I see three huge boulders in front of me preceding a 1.5-meter drop, but I’m already moving too fast toward them to reroute myself. I paddle to the left of the largest boulder, but I realize too late that my choice is taking me flying over another boulder hidden just under the surface. The front of my raft crashes down below the rock, and I immediately make a classic packrafting mistake: I don’t lean far back to balance the raft. The raft immediately flips over and I fall out into the nearly freezing glacially-fed river.
My flotation vest keeps me afloat, but the coldness of the water is so shocking that I feel disoriented. I’m also terrified that my worst nightmare — losing my paddle, gear, and food — will come true, so I immediately grab my raft with my right hand and hold my paddle in my left. Just as I grab the raft, however, I reach more large boulders and realize that my minor disaster hasn’t ended yet. As the river drags me down a couple more drops, I feel my thigh crash into a large, sharp rock under the water. I’ve made another classic paddling mistake: I’m not floating downstream on my back with my legs on the water’s surface. I feel my right knee scrape against more underwater boulders as I fall down a third drop, and, to my horror, I see my backpack become detatched from my raft and torpedo downstream. The gorge has ended with a calmer, more shallow section of water, but I’ve been left floating with my paddle in one hand, my raft in the other, and the food and gear in my backpack floating 20 feet ahead. To make matters worse, my left leg feels like someone has bashed it with a baseball bat, and I see that my right knee is bleeding.
Determine to avoid a complete disaster (too late?), I run as fast as I can (which, in waist-deep water, looks like slow-motion) toward my backpack. Thankfully, I catch up to the pack, grab it, and use my last remaining strength to drag all of my belongings to a small bluff on the side of the river.
Feeling frozen and totally trashed when I finally get out of the water, I strip off my wet clothes, pull my sleeping bag out of its dry bag and immediately get into it. It’s completely dry (thanks Jana!), and, though I have to lie in it for about an hour, I eventually warm up enough to gather my thoughts and decide what I’m going to do next. I hang all of my clothes and gear on nearby trees to dry and decide to make dinner, which proves to be impossible at first because my lighter was completely submerged when my backpack fell in the water. (Unfortunately, I purged my waterproof backup matches from my pack during the Great St. Arnaud Weight Reduction.) Though it takes me an hour of finessing, I eventually manage to generate a spark from the lighter’s spark wheel and light my stove. This sure is an authentic adventure now, I think. Freeze-dried lasagna never tasted so good.
At daybreak, though my left quadricep feels like someone dropped a piano on it, I feel psychologically recovered and jump back into my raft. I paddle two kilometers to Saddle Spur Bridge, where the river takes a sharp turn into another gorge. Though it’s likely I could paddle safely through using the lessons I learned from my last fall, I decide to play it safe and carry my boat ahead to McArthur Bridge, where I know the river widens until reaching the notorious Narrows. I follow the beautiful McArthur Track (part of the St. James Cycle Trail) on the east-side of the river in an attempt to save some time, but I discover that the shorter east-side trail crosses the river through a deep, fast-moving, boulder garden that, at current water levels, is only safe to cross with a raft. So, battling intense wind — I’m admittedly bitter that no one warned me in advance about the only two bad things about New Zealand: sandflies and strong wind — I inflate the packraft again, drop into a very fast-moving current, and explode across the river to continue hiking on the other side.
At McArthur Bridge, I slide back into the water and start paddling again, enjoying fantastic Class II and III whitewater. Due to my unpleasant fall through the Delta Stream gorge, I’m feeling extra cautions about avoiding the Narrows, so I exit the river about 1.5 kilometers before the Narrows and walk on a bypass trail shown on my Garmin GPS — but not, mysteriously, on my (more up-to-date) Maptoaster New Zealand topo maps. The reason for the discrepancy becomes clear quickly. The “trail” quickly turns into a nearly impossible bushwhacking exercise, putting me well behind my planned schedule and leaving me stranded on a bluff above the river with no way to continue forward and a very unpleasant, skin-shredding return route. Fed up, I drop my backpack off the bluff to the river bank below and then carefully climb down the steep cliff to reach the river again. Fortunately, my path soon connects to a 4WD track, which bypasses the Narrows and leads me to Tin Jug Hut, where, due to the many delays during the day, I decide, reluctantly, to spend the night to recharge and finish this section, nearly foodless, tomorrow.
After a good night’s sleep, I continue paddling through a network of beautiful, winding gorges, populated with Class II and III boulder gardens, making the paddling quite exciting. Some of the winding, narrow sections of the river have some tricky eddys to navigate, and, at the bottom of most of the gorge rapids, I encounter boils and seam lines, where strong current flowing down the rapid and water sliding over a rock shelf from a different direction converge, forming seams in the river. These seams are very unstable and can flip kayaks and packrafts unexpectedly or, at least, send boats in unexpected and undesired directions. I learn quickly to read the river’s surface as best I can and use my paddle to compensate in these tricky canyons. Out of necessity, my whitewater paddling skills improve fast and significantly.
When I finally reach the Hope River after about 21 kilometers of paddling and catch a glimpse of the highway, sitting on some high bluffs above the river, I’m ecstatic, partly because I’m excited to have made it down the Waiau without drowning, and party because I’ve been in the wilderness for seven days and have only a single protein bar left in my backpack. When I paddle to intersecting Gorge Stream, I consider trying to climb up the stream bank to the highway, but it looks a bit too steep to do easily, especially knowing that an Internet report I found during my original trip planning suggested walking to the highway via an access road near Calf Creek, just one kilometer east.
When I reach Calf Creek, I cheer loudly, park my packraft on the river bank, and search for the access road to the highway. My spirits dampen quickly though, when, after 45 minutes of meticulous searching of the bluff line, I can’t find the road. There’s no easy or safe way to get out of the river without an access road from here due to steep cliffs below the highway and dense bush making it impossible to walk anywhere away from the river. After searching for over an hour, I feel desperate. On a whim, I turn on my mobile phone, and, to my surprise, I have phone service for the first time in seven days, though it’s not stable enough to do Internet searches or make phone calls. But, I manage to message one of my oldest friends, Brad, hoping that, just maybe, he’s sitting at his computer, bored, waiting for an old friend trapped next to a New Zealand river to ask for help to avoid starving to death.
“Hey, are you there at your computer?” I write. “I am trapped in a river… I can’t find my way out to the highway.”
“What is trapping you?” he responds immediately. “What should I do?”
After explaining the situation, I ask him if he has time to scour Google satellite images of the area surrounding me to see if he can identify any access roads through the bush and over the bluffs to the highway.
Within 15 minutes, he has identified a brown line on the map that looks like an access road — but might be a creek — and has sent me specific GPS coordinates. The coordinates are two kilometers east of me, but I know that trying to to paddle back upriver to the unsure Gorge Stream climb will be too difficult, especially due to a strong headwind which has steadily increased over the past hour. So, I paddle down river to as close as possible to the coordinates as I can get, but when I step back onto shore, I see only thick underbrush and no obvious route way out.
I don’t have many easy ideas left. I smash myself as hard as I can through a thick wall of trees and shrubs to try to reach the exact coordinates that Brad sent me. I’ve been bushwhacking for about 10 minutes, enduring lots of scratches and scrapes, when, suddenly, the underbrush opens up to a clear 4WD access road leading up the bluff toward the highway.
Hiking up the road, I feel intensely proud that I’ve managed, on my own, to carry a boat from St. Arnaud, over Travers Saddle and Waiau Pass, and paddle the Waiau River valley, having little idea exactly what would happen. It was an authentic adventure. And, yet, I also feel acutely humbled, knowing that I might never have completed the journey had it not been for the compassion of my new German friend Jana, the wisdom of Kiwi hiking veteran Henk, and the loyalty of one of my oldest friends, Brad.
A rafter at Lake Rotoiti in St. Arnaud inflates a packraft by trapping air in a fabric bag and then squeezing the air into the raft.
A hiker sits in Nelson Lakes National Park on the edge of Blue Lake, proven to be the clearest natural body of fresh water known to man.
Hiking up Travers Saddle is just a warmup for the challenging climb up Waiau Pass farther down the trail.
The view of Lake Constance from the top of Waiau Pass is one of the most beautiful sights in all of New Zealand.
The narrow gorges of the Waiau River below the Ada River confluence make for some exciting whitewater paddling.
In a small gorge near Delta Stream, my packraft flipped over and the current dragged me over three drops downstream.
How to Hike Over Waiau Pass and Packraft the Waiau River
- OVERVIEW: New Zealand’s Travers-Sabine Circuit and the route over Waiau Pass is one of the most spectacular highlights of the Te Araroa. The route includes tranquil beech forests, fields of waving tussocks, 2000-meter high mountains and crystal rushing streams. Blue Lake is the clearest natural body of fresh water known to man, and Lake Constance is stunningly beautiful, set in a dramatic alpine landscape. The track over Waiau Pass is steep and rocky and drops steeply as it descends to the pastoral Waiau River valley and St. James Conservation Area. The Waiau River makes for a fantastic packrafting trip with beautiful mountain scenery, thrilling whitewater runs, and excellent camping on flat grass sheltered by matagouri trees, surrounded by plentiful manuka firewood supplies.
- LOGISTICS: The Te Araroa is New Zealand’s 3,000 km hiking route stretching from Cape Reinga on New Zealand’s North Island to Bluff on New Zealand’s South Island. It was officially opened on December 3, 2011, and is widely considered the most physically challenging long-distance thru-hike in the world. If you’re hiking the Te Araroa, you’ll hike from St. Arnaud to Boyle River Education Center via Waiau Pass. But, if you’re not, you can drive, hitchhike, or take a shuttle bus to the St. Arnaud to begin this trip. Once over the Pass, hikers can continue on the Te Araroa to Boyle River Education Center or hitchhike at State Highway 7. Packrafters can paddle the Waiau River and use the St. James Cycle Trail as necessary to navigate down the Waiau River valley. Kayakers can paddle most of the Waiau River but still avoid Waiau Pass by taking a helicopter to the Henry River confluence or hiking or driving the 4WD track from Lake Tennyson over Maling Pass, which reaches a couple campsites at the river’s edge near Maling Stream. Be sure to read the Te Araroa notes about the Waiau Pass Track and New Zealand’s brochure about the St. James Conservation Area. Waiau Pass is also accessible via Lewis Pass, a route described in New Zealand’s Lewis-Pass-Waiau Pass brochure. It’s also possible to visit Blue Lake via Travers Saddle without going over Waiau Pass for a somewhat easier (but still beautiful) trip, a route described in New Zealand’s Travers-Sabine Circuit brochure.
- HIKING DANGERS: The hike over Waiau Pass is one of the most difficult and steep mountain pass traverses on the Te Araroa. There are substantial avalanche risk zones on Travers Saddle, the Blue Lake trail, and Waiau Pass, so make sure to inquire at a DOC office about recent snow fall and trail conditions.
- PADDLING DANGERS: October is ostensibly the ideal time to paddle the Waiau River due to spring glacier melt, but I completed this trip in late February and had few problems with water level (though I had to get out of my boat and reposition a handful of times before reaching Maling Pass). Three short gorges, graded III to IV, depending on river flow, sit between Maling Pass and the Edwards River, at which point the notorious 2-kilometer gorge known as the Narrows begins. My boat flipped over and I went swimming at the Delta Stream gorge, which includes three 1-2 meter drops, and another tricky gorge with a boulder drop appears 1.5 kilometers further south at Saddle Stream. Inexperienced paddlers can walk around this section on the east-side McArthur Track, get back in the water on the east-side track near Camping Stream (includes more Class III+ rapids) or on the west-side track at McArthur Bridge (easier). Seven kilometers downstream, the risk with the Narrows is that if a paddler falls in the water in the rapids at the beginning of the gorge, there is no way to get out of the water or recover gear for the entire length of the 2-kilometer canyon. I walked around this section using the 4WD bypass road that leads to Tin Jug Hut.
- ROUTE: Here is the route and schedule that I followed:
- DAY 1: Packraft from St. Arnaud to Join Tait Hut (7.8 km packraft and 16.3 km/306 m gain hike, 8 hours)
- DAY 2: Hike to West Sabine Hut via Travers Saddle (17.5 km, 1,125 m gain, 11 hours)
- DAY 3: Hike to Blue Lake Hut (12.3 km, 719 m gain, 5 hours)
- DAY 4: Hike to Caroline Creek Bivy via Waiau Pass (15.1 km, 894 m gain, 1,160 m descent, 10 hours)
- DAY 5: Packraft to Ada River Confluence (25.9 km, 257 m descent, 8 hours)
- DAY 6: Packraft to Waiau Narrows Bypass Road and Hike to Tin Jug Hut (7.3 km packraft and 14.2 km/398 m ascent hike, 9 hours) Note that Tin Jug Hut is a private hut, though permission to use it can be obtained from Glenhope Station.
- DAY 7: Packraft to State Highway 7 (21.1 km/351 m descent packraft and 3.8 km of hiking, 5 hours, for river put-in and SH7 access road) — It is presumably possible to packraft the river all the way to resort town Hanmer Springs, if that’s your desired endpoint. However, for those continuing west toward Arthur’s Pass (as Te Araroa hikers are), paddling far east to Hanmer Springs is counterproductive.
View my route and download the Without Baggage Waiau Pass and River Packraft GPS track in GPX or KML format.