James and I just returned from our second date getaway since arriving in New Zealand back in late June (our first one was to Hokitika back in September)!
It was my turn to put together our itinerary, so I took my cues from a list of James’ interests. The centerpiece: whitewater rafting.
Neither of us have really been whitewater rafting before. My experience on the water in general is rather lacking, but James sailed as a junior ROTC officer, and we both can swim rather well. Our one attempt at tandem kayaking ended abruptly due to two captains on the vessel–that was before we even got married. So this activity felt a bit risky but also like it could be hugely fun. I booked us on a 2 1/2 hour, Class 5, whitewater rafting trip with Rangitata Rafts.
Adventuring. It’s got to happen.
We got the kids off to school on Monday morning and drove south on Route 1 from Christchurch.
Delaware readers may picture our own Route 1, with its multi-lanes, overpasses, and tolls. New Zealand’s SH1 in Canterbury is similarly rural for long stretches, but other than that, the two couldn’t be more different. Route 1 here is one lane going each direction with no divider. Every once in a while there is a secondary passing lane (passing vehicles pass on the right, or inner, lane). The speed limit most of the time is 100 km/hour except when marked otherwise. And there aren’t any redlights, but there are roundabouts, which I love.
The only town of real size we passed through on our two hour drive to Rangitata Raft lodge was Ashburton, where we stopped for a minute. We wanted to make sure we got to the rafting site in plenty of time for instructions, meeting the other rafters, and to get changed into wetsuits and gear for the cold trip down the Rangitata River. The water is glacial, so even though the air temperature was a comfortable 19C, it’s always important to have lots of warm layers.
Just north of the Peel Forest, where we camped as a family a few weeks back, we reached the meeting point. The two guides who would be leading the trip immediately made us feel comfortable. We were the only individuals who had booked a trip; the other 8 people going that day were part of a larger tour group. Most were youngish, single people from Canada and Germany. Everyone seemed a little bit nervous, particularly as one of the guides explained what we were going to face on the river.
He described the levels of whitewater:
Class 1: Very small rough areas, might require slight maneuvering. (Skill level: very basic)
Class 2: Some rough water, maybe some rocks, might require some maneuvering. (Skill level: basic paddling skill)
Class 3: Whitewater, small waves, maybe a small drop, but no considerable danger. May require significant maneuvering.
Class 4: Whitewater, medium waves, maybe rocks, maybe a considerable drop, sharp maneuvers may be needed.
Class 5: Whitewater, large waves, large volume, possibility of large rocks and hazards, possibility of a large drop, requires precise maneuvering.
Class 6: Class 6 rapids are considered to be so dangerous that they are effectively unnavigable on a reliably safe basis. Rafters can expect to encounter substantial whitewater, huge waves, huge rocks and hazards, and/or substantial drops that will impart severe impacts beyond the structural capacities and impact ratings of almost all rafting equipment. Traversing a Class 6 rapid has a dramatically increased likelihood of ending in serious injury or death compared to lesser classes. (from Wikipedia)
The river we’d be on started out as class 1, included several class 2 rapids, then advanced to class 3 before dropping us into a series of class 5 rapids. One run of class 5 was about 50 meters long, the next 450 meters.
There wasn’t really any discussion of safety or paddling or any specifics (though we did sign a waiver first thing!) before we were loaded onto a bus, all in wetsuits and helmets and boots, and driven up into the mountains.
At the landing area, with magnificent mountains all around us*, we were divided into two rafting teams. James and I took the front seats on our raft and the guide talked about how the front paddlers had to be in synch with each other to keep the whole team flowing well together.
The first few minutes on the raft, our guide talked us through the basic commands: paddle forward, back paddle, moves for turning, hold on, get down, etc. He also went over how to help someone who has gone overboard get back in the boat. And last, he taught us the most important rule if we fall out: not to stand up. He explained that there are often underwater hazards and that attempting to stand is a hugely dangerous choice even though it’s instinctual to try to stand. Instead, we were to float down stream or to the shore feet first, nose and feet out of the water.
We practiced responding to his paddling commands on smooth open water. And then just like that it was time for our first class 2 rapids!
It wasn’t a long drop or huge waves, but we definitely got big splash into our faces and the up and down motion of the boat over the swells was swoony.
Our guide told us that we had done really well–and he was not at all the type to flatter or bluff. He said something like, “It’s more imporant to be honest about how you’re all doing than to say nice things. I have to keep us all safe and I can’t do that and make you feel good if you’re not doing what I tell you to do.”
We also found out around that point in the trip that the river was currently running at the upper-end of its water levels, meaning several of the parts of the class 5 runs were going to be, and I quote, “massive.”
Before we knew it we were onto class 3s, much bigger and rougher and requiring some tight menouvering. I felt myself paddling hard and in time with James. The other rafters behind us were clearly doing their job, too, and the rafting guide, who has been a pro-rafter in Canada and NZ for more than 13 years, gave fast directions to navigate us safely through the rocks.
Finally but all too soon it was time for the first class 5 rapids. We had done well so far, but would any or all of us take an icy dip in the Rangitata River?
The waves got huge and choppy and our guide put us straight into them. We paddled as hard as we could to keep the raft moving at the proper speed and trajectory.
The drops were massive and at least twice we were pounded with water so hard that I honestly thought I would end up outside of the raft. Two of the waves that pounded down on us were so close together that when I inhaled between them thinking I’d have time, I inhaled/swallowed a bunch of the frigid water. At another point when we were told to “hang on” (hold the paddle handle down between our legs and hold on to the rope around the outside of the raft), the water pushed me off the edge of the raft and in toward James (to my left).
Back out on flatter water, we pulled the raft over to the side for the guides to climb up above us to check out the upcoming conditions for the long class 5 run we were about to attempt. What little I could see from our raft looked tumultous, choppy, and full of massive granite rocks. With scary names I cannot even remember, each feature of the 1/4 mile run required our guide to choose a line and then get us all somehow to do the right things to make it safely through.
After the guides consulted with each other, the other raft set out first, then we followed. This part of the trip felt more like we were on an amusement park rafting ride… an intense one, but a ride. Until I heard the urgency in our guide’s voice at a couple points, and remembered that this was no manmade chute, neatly designed with safety in mind. Instead, it was a raging river with tons of water swirling past, under, and over us every meter of the 10 kilometer course.
After one final short rapid, we reached a flatter section. We celebrated our triumph (no one overboard and no flips!) as we floated between the towering gray rockwalls, lofty blue sky above and distant-snow-covered mountains all around. A kingfisher flew over our heads and a wild goat peeked out from a rocky outcropping above us.
The guides gave us the chance to climb out of the raft and float along with the current; James and I both took the chance, and wow the water was cold! Bracing, I’d say.
Our ride back to the lodge and hot showers was shorter than the one up to the drop off point. We ended our day with a (rather disappointing) BBQ, sitting out on the lodge porch with the other rafters.
I would absolutely recommend this rafting outfitter to anyone (14 years and older) who wants to try whitewater rafting on the South Island. The guides were fun but professional, the views from the raft were amazing, and the experience as a whole was a memory I’ll never forget. Do, however, pack your own food to supplement the mediocre “lunch” (a make your own sandwich with mystery meat) and indifferent dinner (beef sausage, coleslaw, buttered white bread [?], roasted potatoes).
Otherwise, a stellar experience. (In another post I’ll write about the rest of our trip.)
*I didn’t bring my camera as it was not permitted on the raft–plus there wouldn’t have been time for taking pictures anyway. The photos above are all gleaned from around the web but accurately represent the Rangitata River exactly where we rafted and what it looked like the day we were there. We had the option of buying a package of photos taken while we were on the river but decided not to.