'Hold On!' An Epic New Zealand White Water Experience
‘Please tell me the front is the safest part of the boat?’
Everyone else in our group has hurriedly scrambled for the back and the middle. Do they know something I don’t?
‘Yeah, nah not really, you’re probably more likely to be flung out of the raft sitting there.’
The fact that our white-water guide is happily telling me I could be thrown into a raging torrent at any moment does not exactly fill me with confidence. We take our seats and paddles for some practice drills on dry land. My partner notices me looking for an escape route and reminds me that this was in fact my idea.
I’ll be honest, I’m not a massive fan of water – it’s usually cold with something living in it and holds the potential for drowning. I’m also not a strong swimmer – my preferred stroke is doggy paddle (don’t laugh!) But I also hate not being able to do things because of fear. I had seen photos of friends around the world giving it a go, and frankly didn’t want to miss out on all the fun. After all, they were screaming in happiness not fearing for their lives. Or so they said.
So, on a weekend trip to Rotorua, New Zealand, I booked us onto a 50 minute Grade 5 white water experience on the Kaituna River for three reasons: due to the geothermal nature of the area, the water is warm-ish; life jackets are provided which should make drowning difficult; it has possibly the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, the 7 m Tutea Falls. As much as I hate the phrase, this was definitely a case of ‘go hard or go home.’
Kitted out in all our safety gear and warm fleeces, we dragged the raft down to the river. At this point, I was still considering legging it, but when I turned to the girls behind me, I was comforted to see they looked similarly terrified but determined to give it a go. I couldn’t let the side down, so we pushed off, our guide at the back providing the rudder while we were the paddle power. First up, before we got to the real rapids, were a series of slalom poles hanging over the river for practice. Thank god we all had helmets on as our raft mostly ploughed straight through the middle but we eventually got the hang of working as a team to change direction. Then came the rapids.
White water foamed over hidden rocks as the river began to pick up speed. As did we. One bounce over a rock and I was almost thrown from the raft (thankfully my partner held me in) and we were only 5 minutes in. Quite shaken, we then had to run a few more rapids avoiding rocks and whirlpools and crashing into overhanging trees on the bank. The river eased a little as we parked up for a breather, quite chuffed with ourselves that we were doing OK. But our guide had other ideas.
He reminded us of our waterfall drill and pointed downstream to our first of 14 drops including 3 major waterfalls. Panic and adrenaline were fighting each other in my body while courage and bravery had buggered off to hide. As we paddled hard to the edge to get in position so we could ride the fall without flipping or crashing, I had a sudden moment of clarity. We all had to make a conscious decision to do this; if we didn’t paddle we wouldn’t go over. At the front, it felt like I was in control of this decision, I had set myself on this course and now had no choice but to follow through. I think I actually smiled at this point knowing, despite my fear, I had chosen to go over the edge. Quite literally. As we surged forward, dropping low into the raft clutching the ropes and wedging ourselves between the seats, took a collective breath (and possibly a few screams)… and tipped over the waterfall.
Imagine being stuck in your washing machine. That is the feeling as water rushes over you as the whole raft dives into the plunge pool. I hadn’t been expecting the whole raft to submerge as I fought for breath, not knowing which way was up for what seemed like minutes, but was actually mere second,s before we popped up and the current carried us away. Shocked, I think, was probably the best way to describe everyone’s facial expressions, shortly giving way to celebration – we were alive and actually having fun.
Spurred on by our new found confidence in the raft itself and what we could do on the river, drop after waterfall after rapids became a rush of adrenaline, cheering and whooping. This was where the fun started. Our guide had us swap places so we could take it in turns for the people in the front of the raft to be dunked under a waterfall or dragged into a rapid that sucks you down before popping you straight back out the other side. Other rafts on the river cheered one another on when each successfully completed a drop, while splashing competitions between boats was fierce – thankfully the water was warm!
Then came the biggie. This was what we had all been waiting for: the dreaded 7 m Tutea Falls. But we were river conquerors now, we could do this! We heard it before we saw it as we queued up so each raft had plenty of space to go down safely one after the other. The roar of the great behemoth drowned out the screams of the brave adventurers as it plunged them into the depths below. The screams seemed to go on for a while … you could hear this fall was way higher than previous drops. Thankfully the thunder did not drown out the cheers of success we could hear from the bottom – if they could make it, so could we! Digging in deep, we powered hard to the edge before our guide gave the call to drop and hold on. Even peeking over the bow of the raft, I could see we would be falling for quite some time. I just hoped I timed the final breath right.
Breaching the water, gasping for breath was one of the best feelings, even if I was choking slightly. Plunging vertically from that height feels like the raft stays underwater longer, but in reality you’re only submerged for seconds. All the other teams whooped and hollered for us as we clashed paddles and turned for a photo, elated at our victory – we had taken on the mighty Grade 5 Kaituna River, and won! Then, as we watched the remaining rafts follow, I realised just how lucky we had been. One raft over-tilted as it went over the waterfall, meaning it popped up upside-down! The guide swam out from under it while a few guides from other rafts dived in to help the lead kayaker (there to set a safe route for the larger rafts through the rapids) dragged it into calmer water.
It sounds awful, but in actual fact is quite common and part of the drills we learned at the start was what to do if you capsize. Apparently, the best thing is to stay with the raft as air pockets will form between the seats so you can breathe and stay together without any fear of being swept under by rapids or the waterfall itself. Seemed pretty counter-intuitive to me at the time, staying under rather than swimming out, but seeing it in action, once the raft was flipped, it revealed a happy bunch floating underneath it, none the worse for their experience. Everyone, while obviously glad it wasn’t them, was cheerful and laughing as the raft was drained, the team loaded back on and the lost paddles collected up. So it seems even my worse fear of capsizing was not as bad as I thought. Regrouping past the waterfall, all that was left now was a casual paddle downstream, a quick swim for those who wanted to enjoy the warm temperature, and a dunk for those the guides deemed ‘not wet enough’.
As we all squished around a screen back at the company base to see the photos, there was a huge sense of community and achievement. Yes, there were some seasoned white-water enthusiasts among us, but there were also a lot of first-timers like me, glad to be alive, glad to have overcome our fears, and ready to do it again!