KAYAKING THE WAIMAKARIRI

“Paddle, paddle, paddle!!!” comes the cry from Hollie in front of me as our yellow tandem kayak enters into what looks like the inside of a washing machine. Moments later, we’re engulfed by swirling glacial, water – water I could have sworn was blue just a moment ago… but now all I see is foaming white.

THE ‘BOULDER BEACHING’

Five minutes before entering this mid-river washing machine, we had managed to get ourselves wedged on what are are dubbing a ‘surprise’ boulder, which ambushed our boat somewhere upstream (we swear it came out of nowhere). Naturally it took us some time to get ourselves free as we shifted micro-millimetres backwards and forwards, awkwardly wedged, with our rudder on the boulder and the front of our boat on the bank.

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At one point, I gave in to the idea that we were going to head backwards down the rapids, such was the struggle to free ourselves from the boulder beaching, but lo! There we were, facing forwards, hurtling downstream, trying desperately to catch up the main group who were… oh look… over there… to our left… why were they to our left? If they were over there, and we were over here then… oh no! My head snapped forwards and I tried desperately not to focus on the fact that we appeared to be headlong into a steep, rocky bluff.

Hollie’s shout to ‘paddle!!’ broke the doom-train of thought, and I dug in to follow the command, moving my arms like a demented windmill. It worked – we popped out the other side of the rapid and into clear water.

Wahooooo!!! We scooted a little further downstream and ‘Eddy out’ into the bank. ‘Eddying out’ was a new term I had added to my vocabulary in the past four hours, along with ‘wave train’, ‘boyle’, ‘ferrying’, and ‘sweet as’ (although I suspect that the latter is a kiwi term and not kayak specific). My teeth were chattering, my hands were shaking, I was pumped full to the brim with adrenaline.

 

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I started to think about how this all seems a little extreme for what is only my third kayaking session in New Zealand. Here’s how the progression has gone:

  • Session one: A gentle 40 minutes on the Avon River in which I gripped the paddle so hard that I wound up with tendonitis in my right wrist, and had to ice it 3 times a day for the following week.
  • Session two: An hour long morning session with 30 other experience kayakers, where we were repeatedly overtaken by those in single kayaks.
  • Session three? Surely that would be a six hour jaunt down the grade II rapids of the Waimakariri river then. Of course it would!

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SAFETY FIRST KIDS

In all seriousness, and having started my kayaking portion of prep for Coast to Coast a little later than hoped, a journey down the gorge that day was the best thing I could have asked for. We were lucky. We sneaked in to the guided trip with TopSportNZ with under 24 hours notice. Everyone else in our group was more experienced, and most had had previous trips down the gorge cancelled due to bad weather or dangerous river levels. What lucky ducks we were to get a shot at it first time.

Aside from the learning experience, there was a practical side to my trip down the Waimakariri that day too. Although as a tandem kayak team member I don’t need a full Grade II kayaking certificate to compete in coast, I do need a river safety certificate. And to make sure I proved my river safety worth I had to do a ‘wet exit’. A wet what? I know. Contrary to what you might expect, this doesn’t involve wetting yourself before quietly leaving a room, in fact a wet exit means getting myself out of the boat in moving water and showing that I can make it to shore safely.

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THE WET EXIT

Hollie and I were feeling rather smug that, unlike many of those around us, we had not fallen in during the course of the day on the Waimakariri. This likely has something to do with the fact that tandem kayaks are like stable battleships, but let’s forget that for a moment. Unfortunately…  our smugness and ability to stay upright didn’t help my wet exit predicament. There was no two ways about it. We had to tip ourselves in.

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There was a lot of chat from our guide about what one should do ‘when you are upside down under the water’ and I began to wonder how on earth one can remain calm and carefully think through steps when one is ‘upside down and under water’ but as it happened, when the time came for us to tip in – instinct took over. We tipped, I held on to the paddle with one hand and grabbed the loop on my spray deck with my other hand. I was out of the boat in a flash. That was the hard part done, right? Wrong!

It was at that moment, while bobbing around above some rapids that Hollie and I realised we had never really discussed who should take charge when we are in the water.

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Hollie of course is used to falling in herself and only having herself and a small kayak to think about. I am not used to falling at all and so was learning the ropes on the spot. That combination was a bit of a disaster as it took us a while to get in sync. Trying to right the kayak as we were swept swiftly downstream by the river was no easy task either. It took us a few goes, and two misses of shallow banks before we got the hang of it and looked ahead for the next bank to aim for. A few big swim kicks later and my legs met the bottom. Wet exit… tick.

THE ONLY WAY IS UP

After the fun on the Waimakariri, my kayaking continues on a steep learning curve. My irritated wrist has calmed down and is back to normal after three weeks and every time we go out we are better, faster, smoother, more comfortable.

I have even started going out on the river alone to on days when Hollie isn’t around. And do you know what? I ruddy love it! I mean, really love it. I think about kayaking when I go to sleep and I want to do it pretty much every day at the moment. It was the thing I was the most nervous about for Coast to Coast and it is turning out to be the thing I now take the most joy in doing… imagine that?

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Find out more about Kathmandu Coast to Coast here. 

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