Big drops, huge rocks and local cops are just some of the challenges faced by the kayakers on the Red Bull Flow Hunters project.
The four kayaks on top of the campervan outside the Tongariro Crossing Lodge tell me I’m in the right place. Sure enough 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 the Red Bull Flow Hunters project. Finding, 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 travels the world in his kayak. On this trip he’s exploring his own backyard. Along for the ride are fellow Kiwi Jared Meehan, 29, Rush Sturges, 27, from California, and Rafa Ortiz, 24, from Mexico, some of the best kayakers in the business. 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 are shifting 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 in the South Island: great for tourists; not so good for kayakers. The day after Brown & 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 have kept 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 of the waterfall shows Venable going over the edge. He plugs deep but instead of popping out downstream his boat is turned 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.”
Read the full story in May's issue of The Red Bulletin.