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Paddling in New Zealand on The Kaituna

Paddling in New Zealand on The Kaituna

In December I travelled to New Zealand to kayak. I had never been there before but I have always wanted to go. I travelled with two other Irish paddlers Ultan O’Kane and Susan Doyle. We spent a month travelling around both the north and the south Islands of New Zealand. It was one of the best paddling trips I have been on.

We left Ireland on the 5th of December. This was a lovely time to travel to the southern hemisphere, as we got to leave the damp, cold, dreary winter in Ireland, for the warm, sunny summer in New Zealand. We spent a week paddling on the north Island and the rest of the trip on the south Island.

Once we arrived we headed straight for the Kaituna. We had all dreamed about paddling this famous river for years and were delighted to be able spend a week paddling there. The Kaituna is located about 20 minutes north of Rotarua on the north island. It is famous for rafting and paddling. Many international slalom teams train on the slalom course on the river.

Before we got on the river for the first time we went and had a look at the big waterfall on the river, Tutea falls. This waterfall is a 5m drop and the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. On seeing it my heart started to race and I kept telling myself ‘well, if a raft can go down it then so can I,’ although it still looked pretty big and scary.

The Kaituna is one of the most popular rivers in New Zealand to paddle and so there was always loads of paddlers around for us to paddle with. As we were getting on the river the first time we got chatting to a local paddler Ben, or Bean as I thought he was called. I just wasn’t used to the Kiwi accent yet! Ben offered to show us the lines on the river. The people in New Zealand were so friendly and helpful. Everywhere we went people went out of their way to help us.

The Kaituna is great fun from start to finish. Even the get-on is fun as you slide down a ramp and launch into the river.

The river is a grade VI river with lots of pool drop type rapids which makes it very safe and fun to paddle. The water is warm and so we paddled in our thermals most days. When we got to the eddy above the main drop for the first time my heart was racing. The local paddlers were all giving us tips on how to land the waterfall. One by one they all peeled out and dropped out of sight. Then it was my turn. I peeled out of the eddy and did what they said, or so I thought. I got up some speed, pointed my boats to the right, hit the little curler and……. landed upside down not knowing fully what went wrong or what had happened. What I did realise was it wasn’t so bad. Over the next week I think I landed every possible way except upright at the bottom of the falls. 

The rest of the river had a few nice rapids and drops and finished with a fun playhole. It’s a short run of only about 2km, but this allowed us to do a few laps on the river each day.

Ben had an alternative motive for showing us the lines on the river. He was organising an enduro race, the 'Okere Falls Enduro Race'. After seeing us paddle he said we passed the test and told us about the race and encouraged us to enter a team. The race was no easy race. It consisted of teams of three. Each team had to have at least one male and one female. It was a relay style race where the first person paddled the river, then put their boat on a trailer at the end and they then ran 1.5km back up to the start and passed their bib to the next person who did the same.  

This didn’t seem too tough but then he mentioned the enduro part. It was a six-hour race. We had to try and get as many laps as possible in six hours. After a few more laps on the river over the next few days, we began to feel more confident on it and decided that we would give the race a go.  

If I had known at the time it was going to be so tough I’m not sure I would have signed up for it. We drew straws to see who would go first and start on the start line with 25 other teams and boater x down the river. Lucky for me I drew the shortest straw.  I was dreading going first and paddling the Kaituna river boater x style. It was actually great fun with 26 people all racing down together 

When I got to the lip of the falls I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be rolling at the bottom. I hadn’t managed to land it all week so I didn’t expect to in the race. However I shocked myself when I landed at the bottom of the falls upright. This gave me a new lease of energy and I paddled as fast as I could to the end and even passed one or two people out. I carried my boat to the trailer - this part got harder and harder as the day went on - and started to run back to the start. This was very tough as it was all uphill. When I finally made it back to the start I passed my bib to Ultan and lay on the ground. I was wrecked... and there was still 5 hours 40 minutes left in the race.

The race was very tough but great fun, and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. We came 20th out of 26 teams which we were very happy with, as our main aim was not to come last. We did 19 laps in total. During my seven laps I managed to land the waterfall four times - better than I had done all week.  

I had so many good experiences in New Zealand, but when people ask me about my highlight of the trip I think I have to say the 'Okere Falls Enduro Race. ' 

Laura Griffin

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