Big drops, huge rocks and local cops are just a few of the challenges faced by the kayakers taking part in Red Bull Flow Hunters. Red Bulletin magazine reports from the river's edge...
The four kayaks on top of the campervan outside the Tongariro Crossing Lodge tell me I’m in the right place. And as I step out of the car I’m greeted by Ben Brown, one of the most experienced adventure kayakers in the world. “You should have been here earlier,” he says, words no writer wants to hear. “We found this sick waterfall today.”
It’s a Monday evening in mid-March and it’s the fifth and final week of Red Bull Flow Hunters. Paddling and filming the best whitewater and waterfalls in his native New Zealand has been on Brown’s to-do list for years. The 33-year-old, who travels the world in his kayak, is in his own backyard this time. Along for the ride are fellow Kiwi Jared Meehan, 29, Rush Sturges, 27, from California, and Rafa Ortiz, 24, from Mexico.
Theirs is a small world: they are four of the 15 to 20 kayakers who can claim to make a living from the sport. All four are keen chroniclers of their adventures. For a professional kayaker, a camera and a computer are almost as important as a boat and a paddle. The kayakers run the rapids during the day and review the footage in the evening. When Brown introduces me to the team, they’re on their laptops in one of the bedrooms at the lodge, watching video clips and stills from various cameras and GoPros used to capture the day’s action.
“New Zealand as a kayaking location has never been well documented,” says Brown. “I wanted to do our rivers justice on this trip.”
“The crazy thing about New Zealand rivers is they change all the time,” explains Sturges. “The rivers are so young and the boulders shift so much you’ve got to treat every run as a first descent. Other rivers around the world have bigger waterfalls and are more spectacular. Here you might have a drop of 3m, but if you miss the move you’re probably going to die.”
Local knowledge is essential, particularly on the notoriously dangerous rivers of the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The Flow Hunters headed for Hokitika, the tourist and kayak capital of the West Coast, on the first week of the trip. It was one of the driest summers on record on the South Island: great for tourists but not so good for kayakers. The day after Brown and Co arrived in Hokitika, three low weather systems came in one after the other and the heavens opened.
“It’s been like that on this trip, the stars keep aligning,” says Brown, “but we’ve also had a couple of sketchy incidents.” The first happened on the Mungo River, a two-day paddle recommended by locals as the hardest run on the coast. Their guide was Justin Venable, or JV, a doctor from New Orleans who now lives on the coast. On their second day on the Mungo they dropped into a gorge with a waterfall.
“We quickly decided we didn’t like it,” says Brown as he searches for the video clip. “It wasn’t a big waterfall, maybe 5m, so height wasn’t an issue. But there was water flushing into this cave behind the waterfall. JV decided he wanted to run it. He’d run this section of river before and thought he knew the drop.”
The video filmed from the top shows Venable going over the edge. He plugs deep but instead of popping out downstream his boat is upside down and is pounded by the waterfall. A few seconds pass on the video before Brown shouts urgently: “We need a bag!”
He explains: “I shut off the video at that point to get a throw-bag (with a packed rope) down to him. He did exactly what we were worried about and got sucked back under the waterfall,” says Brown. “It was a classic death trap.”
Another camera at ground level captures the rising panic. Brown, Meehan and Sturges were all throwing ropes into the waterfall in a hopeless fishing exercise. “We thought he was underwater all this time, but he was actually behind the waterfall,” says Brown. “He managed to get out of his boat, find an air pocket and wedge his fingers in a crack in the rock.”
Somehow Venable managed to grab hold of Brown’s rope. The footage shows him hauling himself hand over hand up the rope, out of the mist, through the waterfall and clambering to safety over the rocks. “I’ve got goose bumps watching it again,” says Brown.
The second "‘sketchy incident" happened on the Kokatahi River where another local guide, Jordy Searle, almost drowned when his boat got wedged under a rock and he got sucked into a sieve (where the water disappears beneath a rock). “It was gnarly,” says Brown. “We didn’t think we’d see Jordy again. Bits of his kayaking equipment started to flush out from under the rock.”
“In my 16 years of kayaking it was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Sturges. “It makes you question if it’s really worth it. How many more drops, how many more rivers, how many more crazy rapids can you run before you lose a friend?”
“You know the consequences,” says Ortiz, “and sometimes I think to myself, ‘Why am I not at home watching TV? Why do I keep putting myself in these situations?’ But then you do it and you come out of it. You have to go through these negative things to get the positive.”
Over breakfast the next day the decision is made to run the "sick waterfall" again. I follow the RV for a few kilometres out of National Park, the gateway to the Tongariro Crossing. I’m confused as we pull off the main road beside a farmer’s paddock. There’s no sign of a river, never mind a waterfall. Just a couple of hundred metres across the field however is a row of trees. Behind the trees is a steep cliff, a spectacular gorge and a perfect 15m waterfall.
“To find a waterfall like this in New Zealand is very rare,” says Brown, “particularly one that’s so easy to paddle and easy to access. At least it was easy to get to; it was hard to get out. We had to bush crash up this steep slope carrying our kayaks, but I guess it’s the fee you pay for paddling a waterfall like that.”Not for the first time on the trip Sturges is amazed at the lack of regulations and restrictions on New Zealand rivers. “In California it’s a felony to kayak some rivers,” he says. “If you get caught you’re in trouble and there are a lot of park rangers around. Kiwis are about as relaxed as you can get.”
The point is illustrated that afternoon at Tawhai Falls, a well-known tourist spot. The team set up a DIY camera shuttle using two lengths of parachute cord stretched between two trees. It’s hard yakka. It takes four hours to capture what will probably be a few seconds of footage in the Flow Hunters documentary. But at least as they film run after run over the picturesque falls there’s no park ranger around to ask them what they’re doing. Nobody shouts stop.
The next stop is Taupo and the Aratiatia Rapids. The plan is to spend the last few days of the trip running one of the toughest and most unique stretches of whitewater in the country. Water is released through the dam at the top of the rapids three to four times a day. The release is controlled by Mighty River Power, the company that runs the hydro-electricity power station on the river. Signs advise tourists: WATER WILL RISE RAPIDLY. KEEP OUT OF RIVERBED. NO SWIMMING. NO FISHING.
What’s the power company’s attitude to kayakers?
“It’s pretty chilled,” says Brown. “It doesn’t see a lot of descents anymore.”
Soon after the kayakers run the first release at 10am, the first of four planned for the day, the gates to the power station open and a man in a suit approaches. “What’s happening,” says the power station employee who doesn’t introduce himself.
“Not much,” replies Brown. “Just enjoying the sun.”
“We just had a paddle.”
“You guys aren’t going to jump off the bridge?”
“We’ve seen it done before.”
“No. We’re just out for a paddle.”
“All good. Don’t do anything silly. And I didn’t see you.”
“That pisses me off,” says Brown after he’s gone. “You work in a power station. Concentrate on making power. Don’t come out here telling kayakers what to do. After all we’ve achieved in the last few weeks, I’d hate for this to be the focus of the story.”
Brown and Meehan wander off to prepare for the next release leaving Sturges and Ortiz on the bridge. Fifteen minutes before the second release at 12 noon, a police car pulls up. After some polite chit-chat the local constable informs Sturges and Ortiz that Mighty River Power called the police and will not release the water while the kayakers are here. Brown and Meehan arrive back to the bridge to be told the news. “Why are we not allowed to paddle here?” Brown asks the policeman. He’s told that under Waikato River bylaws, any activity in the water within 200m of Mighty River Power structures is illegal.
“It’s embarrassing,” says Brown. “This is the last place in the world I expected this to happen. It’s a sad day for kayaking in New Zealand.”
Forced off the river, Brown and the three kayakers do some pieces to camera in front of the gates of the power station. “Kayaking is a dangerous sport,” says Brown with the polish and poise of a news anchor. “There’s an element of risk and we’ve been exposed to that first-hand on this trip… but to stand here and have some guy in an office tell us we can’t paddle the rapids… Where will it end? We’ll take away a huge amount of awesome memories from this trip, but for now I guess we’ll just have to load up and find somewhere else to float our boat.”