Keen you must be to enjoy 2hr 40min of uphill with endless steps in the dark, drizzle and wind. I decided against checking out Rocky Lookout, figuring that rather than the promised ‘good views across the Wairarapa’ I’d be lucky to see 2m in front of my face. Arriving at the hut it turned out that most people who had booked in for the night had thought better of it with the weather and it was just me and 2 dads with their young boys. I was happy they were still up and I wouldn’t disturb them cooking up a quick feed and then heading straight to bed.
An earlyish start and I was back in the cloud heading up to Mt. Holdsworth. Luckily the track is easy to follow even when visibility is relatively poor and main junctions are clearly signposted. The forecast had promised wind on the tops and it wasn’t wrong…I kept a stronger grip on my paddle up there than I ever needed to on the river! After Holdsworth there’s a quick punt over Isabelle before you begin the descent to the Waiohine. Classically this is when the weather started to break and the clouds cleared enough for me to glimpse the river before descending back into the bush. Although the downhill was hard going for me having been working through some knee troubles the forest is quite magical up there and there were cool mushrooms to spot.
Arriving at Mid Waiohine Hut my first thought was to check the river level and see if it would be worth heading any further upstream. Things looked fairly low at the put in though so I decided to gear up and put on there before it could drop any further. Looking back at the gauge I had flows dropping from about 22 cumecs to 20 cumecs on my trip down to Totara Flat, I wouldn’t want to go any lower but the river could happily take a lot more water and would be less scrapey and pad out some of the tighter drops. I was keen for a cup of tea before I geared up and so pulled out my kettle and stove in the hut for a quick brew…this is when I discovered that I’d carried my stove unnecessarily for 6hrs as I’d neglected to pack any gas! A small fire in the hut fireplace got me my hot beverage though and it was time to hit the water.
The Waiohine doesn’t mess about and the action starts immediately with tight and technical rapids from the offset to get you in your paddling groove. The style is technical boulder gardens in pool-drop style; enough of a gap between rapids to appreciate the stunning gorge setting and countless waterfalls but no long gaps meaning continuous action. An obvious tree blocking half the river gave me my first out-of-boat scout and although there is a line on river right it is a boof onto a rock…probably better with more water. Carrying on downstream the rapids gradually increase in complexity and steepness. At these flows some rapids were quite boney with a few tight drops landing on rock. Most is easily boat-scoutable though once or twice you may find yourself checking a couple of possible channels before finding one with a clear landing! Perhaps getting too overconfident enjoying rapid after rapid I bowled into one longer one that looked good from the top but ended in a small boof that I didn’t quite land right and before I knew it I was upside down trying not to open my mouth which was acting as my GoPro mount as I’d forgotten to put one on my new helmet. After a failed roll attempt (still haven’t nailed it with the pack in the boat) I was scrambling back into the boat and laughing at myself whilst deciding that at some point I should practice this self-rescue business to become a bit more adept.
Moving downstream small sidecreeks trickle in as stunning cascades descending the gorge walls and steadily increasing the volume. By the time you reach the confluence of the Hector River the style has changed from steep tight creeking to pushier medium volume rapids with some holes packing a bit of a punch. Some excellent longer rapids and stellar boofs lead you down to Totara Flats where there is a popular hut waiting and the river mellows out some.
Arriving relatively early to the hut I claimed a bunk and then headed down the track to see if I could find Becca hiking in and give her a hand or just provide some company for the last stretch of the walk. She was smashing it with an excellent carry system for her wee playboat and really didn’t need my help but appreciated the gesture and kindly put up with my enthusiastic account of the river descent so far. Not anticipating my inadequacies Becca had not brought any gas either so we made a small cookfire outside the hut and sat in the sun catching up. Totara Flat is quite a popular hut with trampers so it was nice to have a bit of space to ourselves outside.
The next morning we suited and booted and set off for the lower section of the Waiohine. Although the river had dropped quite a bit overnight and the whitewater had eased off in difficulty it was still an excellent paddle with fun rapids and good scenery. An excellent option for less experienced packrafters and doable at lower flows than the upper. Unfortunately, the GoPro was well and truly dead by then so nothing to show visually for this part. Thanks to Becca having dropped me off there was no need to shuttle after the trip and so off we headed to Masterton to soak in the jacuzzi at the swimming baths and enjoy a coffee and lunch at the fantastic Don Luciano café (highly recommended).
The Waiohine offers fantastic wilderness packrafting close to NZs capital, with multiple sections of varying difficulty and ease-of-access. The only trouble is timing the rain right to catch good flows - just be very careful dropping in on the rise!!