Ngaruroro River Trip
“We’re going to die out here!”
Scary words from a scared girl. And understandably so. We recently found ourselves stranded in a remote river gorge, forced to camp overnight without a tent or sleeping bag. Whitewater thundered behind us as we stood soaking on the riverbank at dusk wondering: How the hell had we gotten into this mess?
Let’s start at the beginning. In 2011, Andy Morrison hired me to guide whitewater in Alaska. For Jess and me, it was our Girdwood Summer. Bare feet. Endless pine trees. Guiding smiling tourists down a tame, scenic river. We eventually moved back to suburban America and Andy and I lost touch – that is, until he emailed out of the blue to say he was in New Zealand and that we should catch up for a beer.
As these things go, one beer turned into three, and soon we were poring over maps on my living room floor. We hatched a plan to kayak the Ngaruroro River in Hawke’s Bay. A wild and remote part of a wild and remote country. He’d brought a couple boats with him from Alaska. Jess and I would take the inflatable kayak. He and Patty would take the two-person raft he picked up for $50 at a garage sale. Little info exists on the river beyond “wilderness and worth it.” That’s all we needed to hear.
We arrived at the put-in at 11am Sunday. We’d read the 39K section of the river takes 4-10 hours. Although a two-day trip is advised, we opted not to weigh down the boats with camping gear and run it in a day. Figured we’d smash it out and be in the pub by dark. This is where you scream “dumbasses!” at your computer.
The first two hours were pleasantly challenging. Fun class II boulder gardens. The scenery was remote mountain wilderness. We found our rhythm: run a few rapids, eddy out and talk shit. I felt cautiously confident. I had kayaked class II a few times, but it was Jess’ first whitewater kayaking trip. Knowing the hard bits were still ahead, my heart thumped as we ventured deeper into the gorge.
Suddenly our luck changed. We turned a corner to find Andy standing over his half-deflated boat. A sharp rock had ripped a 10-inch tear in the front tube. Now let me pause here to paint a picture of isolation. We had travelled 40 kilometres west of the tiniest of towns to reach the take out. From there, it was another hour deeper into the bush to where we shoved off. At this point we were five miles down a winding river gorge. No cell service. No trails out. No turning back.
Andy attempted a repair with a sewing awl, epoxy, patch kit and duct tape, exhausting most of his repair supplies. After 45 minutes, we nervously inflated the raft, testing the patch. We gulped when the patch blew. From this point, they’d be forced to keep the raft buoyant with an air-stuffed dry bag, leaving them in a slow, unstable, non-bailing raft for the crux of the river.
We soldiered on. Their raft had gone from so-so to sluggish. Hours ticked by as slowly paddled into progressively harder rapids. Jess and I had taken a few swims. Boulders were the enemy. Hit one dead on and your boat would be turned sideways and flipped before you could tell the river gods to suck it.
In one particularly memorable moment, Jess – having recently been ejected from the kayak – maneuvered herself not to look downstream toward danger but rather upstream toward me just to flip me off and yell something unrepeatable on this blog.
The day was slipping away. Soon, it was 5pm, then 6. At 7:15, with darkness closing in, we made the hard decision to camp for the night. To carry on in the dark could be deadly. We would build a shelter, share what food we had left, and stay up all night stoking the fire if we had to. Andy’s family would be left wondering what happened to us. We had no other choice.
So we got to work. I collected firewood while Andy built a shelter. We had beer but nobody felt like drinking. After a hobo-certified dinner, we cozied up on the rocks with our space blanket and life jackets and attempted to sleep. When the fire was hot, life was bearable. When the flames died down, one of us was up stoking it. This carried on until sunrise when the great fire in the sky showed up to handle the work for us. Having endured the night, a sense of satisfaction came over me. Jess will go on record saying the whole thing was a disaster. Me, I think a cold night in the bush is a test – and we passed.
At 9am we reluctantly donned our dry suits and shoved off.
Based on our estimated location, we had another 2-4 hours on the river. Then it was straight to wine country to wash away the trauma in a river of chardonnay. That was the plan, at least.
As we ventured deeper into the canyon, the rapids grew harder. Class II morphed into class III, a major leap in difficulty for a newish paddler like me. This resulted in frequent stops to scout the river, and in most cases, portage the rapid by either carrying our boats over the increasingly steep and slippery riverbank or shepherding them down the river by rope.
Having spent 20 years on the river, this was just another day in the office for Andy. Jess and I, on the other hand, were intimidated. Whatever chemical your body produces to cope with anxiety was depleted long ago, making us zombies – hungry, sleepless and frankly, scared of the river ahead. Around every corner was a new challenge, hit your mark or it’s back in the drink, gasping and pinballing through cold, boulder-strewn, potentially-lethal whitewater.
Like the previous day, the hours ticked by. Four hours. Then five. We were still in the gorge when POW – a thunderbolt cracked overhead. Lightning lit up the sky. Then came rain – then hail. We scurried into the forest for shelter. We’d wait five minutes from the last lightning bolt. A few cold minutes would pass and the counter would reset. Rain streamed into our drysuits as we huddled together wiggling our fingers and toes.
At this point, Jess had run out of curse words. Venomless, she was reduced to a near catatonic state. Each new twist of fate was met with an exasperated sigh and a moan which I roughly translated to, “that’s one more massage you owe me, ranger rick, I mean dick…”
In hindsight, I can’t help but think … of course that’s what happened. We attempted a two-day river in one, with a late start, too little information, too little experience (for Jess and me), too slow a boat and too little gear. As we sat on the riverbank shivering, I contemplated our many mistakes. I was grateful we’d escaped serious injury to this point but mad at myself for putting us in that position. It won’t happen again.
The lightning passed and we paddled on. The hard bits were behind us now. Eventually, the gorge gave way to farmland and the class III rapids were but a distant memory. Those beers we left chilling were now cracked. The sun popped out as we floated the last two hours in peace. I can’t be certain but I may have caught Jess in a moment of weakness smiling.
We reached the car on night two at dusk. What we thought would take 8 hours on the river took 17. Another storm was blowing in as we chucked our wet gear in the campervan and headed back to the start. I marveled at how two hard-fought days on the river could be erased in just one hour-long car ride. At last, we reached Andy’s car. Hugs were exchanged as we parted ways – them east to their waiting family in Napier, us west to Wellington, a five-hour drive in the dark, over a narrow mountain pass, exhausted, into the wee hours of the morning.
Finally, something easy.