Packrafting in the Southern Alps
It’s a dynamic landscape. The subduction of the Australian continental plate under the Pacific oceanic plate created New Zealand’s Southern Alps. And they are still rising - often in spurts. Devastating earthquakes are not uncommon, nor are landslides. The dramatic topography created by tectonic forces is also a weather magnet. The South Island is the first landmass storms encounter after traveling for thousands of kilometers across the Southern Pacific. The result is torrential rainfall, massive avalanches, and floods.
Waiatoto River and Mount Taurus
Wilderness travel in New Zealand can be serious. Popular trails or “tracks” are well maintained and suitable for the novice backpacker. Off-track exploration, however, will test the grit of the most hardened wilderness explorer. Navigating cross-country or “bushwhacking” on the South Island is comparable to thrashing through the thick forests of Southeast Alaska or the coast of Patagonia. New Zealand’s one saving grace – nothing big or poisonous will bite or eat you. At the top of the food chain reigns the pesky sand fly.
South Island of New Zealand
Much of New Zealand remains roadless and primarily untrammeled. Currently 6,547,800 hectares (or 44%) of the South Island is in public ownership with some degree of protection. For much of the landscape little has changed since the first New Zealanders – the Maori – arrived in the 13th century followed by European settlers in the 19th century.
Hopkins River Trailhead
On returning to New Zealand after nearly four months in Antarctica I completed a series of cross-island traverses. Crossing the crest of the Southern Alps is never easy. Nor is descending the rivers that drain them. Blessed with an unusual stretch of “fine” weather I was able to complete three traverses in nine-days – each traverse requiring three days.
With its headwaters in Mount Cook National Park the Landsburough is a massive glacier fed drainage that is roadless and wild for its entire 50-kilometers. I had been eyeing this river for a packrafting traverse for years. In 2010 Roman Dial beat me to it – to be fair, I was invited.
Hopkins River to the Haast River
Like Roman, I accessed the Landsburough from Hopkins River via the Huxley River and Brodrick Pass.
Huxley River North Branch
For a North American trekking through forests of beach tree, moss, and fern is otherworldly. At any moment I expected an encounter with Bilbo Baggins.
New Zealand’s Department of Conservation maintains over 1,000 backcountry huts. Most of the huts were originally established for hunters in an effort to control deer numbers in New Zealand. Today the huts provide convenient and dry shelter for trampers, climbers, hunters, and the occasional packrafter.
Checking the weather from the Brodrick Hut
On Route to Brodrick Pass
Headwaters of the Huxley River
Landsburough River from Brodrick Pass
Packrafting the Landsburough River
Most of the Landsburough is Class II with the occasional class III Rapid. However, at high water character changes dramatically and has been the sight of several epics. Packrafting the Landsburough should only be attempted by experienced paddlers during good weather at low to medium flows.
Confluence of the Landsburough and Haast Rivers
From the confluence of the Landsburogh and Haast Rivers I hitched a ride over Haast Pass to Wanaka for a hot shower, good meal and resupply.
The emerald green color of the Waiatoto River results from its glacial origins on the flanks of Mount Aspiring. The Waiatoto flows freely for its entire 53-kilometers to the Tasman Sea. Only one lonely road, near its end, crosses its waters.
Matukituki to the Tasman Sea
East Matukituki and Mount Aspiring
From Wanaka I rode a shuttle to the East Matukituki Trailhead. While the track up the East Matukituki Valley is well maintained the final kilometer to Rabbit Pass required route finding skill and 4th Class Rock scrambling. There are no huts along the route – a true wilderness experience requiring self-sufficiency.
View from Rabbit Pass
After a moonlit bivouac on Rabbit Pass I crossed Pearson Saddle and carefully contoured the slopes of Pickelhaube Peak to avoid the deadly precipices of the Pearson River Gorge. A bloody struggle down several hundred meters of thick West Coast bush gave access to the pristine waters of the Waiatoto.
Mount Taurus and Person Saddle
Packrafting the Waiatoto River
For most of its length the Waiatoto is a safe and scenic paddle. However, there are several sections of serous whitewater. Below Drake Flats the river is especially hectic. Traveling solo through this remote and rugged wilderness, I took a conservative approach and portaged the most difficult sections.
Evening on the Waiatoto
Near the Tasman Sea I exited the river and hitched a ride north to the small coastal village of Whataroa.
Havelock and Rangitata Rivers
Packrafting the Havelock River
North of Mount Cook Dennistoun Pass provides the first opportunity to cross the crest of the Southern Alps without technical climbing equipment. From the west Dennistoun Pass is approached from the Whataroa and Perth Rivers.
Whataroa to Rawtor
While the track to Bettison Creek and the Scone Hut is seldom used it remains in good shape. The several sections that have been washed out require only minor detours.
Swing Bridge over the Whataroa Gorge
The Scone Hut was in the process of being renovated. The workers were also staying in the Hut. Luckily the weather was good and I slept outside with the Sand Flies.
Scone Hut Bivouac
Perth River Valley
Upper Bettison Creek
A well-marked track continues above the Scone Hut to the alpine zone where cross-country navigation is required to cross Dennistoun Pass and descend Eric Creek to the St. Winifred Hut on the banks of the Havelock River.
Head of Eric Creek
Snow still covered much of the east side of the Dennistoun Pass allowing for a rapid descent of Eric Creek to the Scott Winfield Hut.
A Himalayan Tahr likely killed in an avalanche
A century ago Red Deer, Tahr, Chamois were introduced to the Southern Alps. While hard on the indigenous flora hunting these exotic species is favorite outdoor sport for many hardy New Zealand outdoorsmen.
Havelock River Valley
St. Winifred Hut
A Hut with a View
All geared up
Reminiscent of an Alaskan glacier fed rivers the Havelock is braided yet fast. At the confluence with the Clyde River the two watercourses combine to become the Ringatata.
Packrafting the Havelock River
Below the confluence the river is fast and the kilometers speed by, at least until the channels spread out, the water slows, and a notorious afternoon upriver wind hinders any meaningful progress.
The Confluence of the Love Havelock and Clyde Rivers
On river right are several sheep stations. I had to let go of my grandiose vision of floating all the way to the sea. I found sheep farmers near Rawtor especially friendly and soon hitched a ride all the way to Highway 1 and Christchurch.
Packrafting the Dart River
The idea of completing the above three traverses, and combining them into one big loop, was born during earlier explorations. This was my fifth summer “Holiday” in New Zealand and my third that focused specifically on packrafting. In December 2006 I rented a car and traveled counter clockwise from Arthur’s Pas to Glenorchy paddling stretches of the Poulter, Hokatika, Wanganui , Whatora, Kawarau, Dart, Rees, Caples and Greenstone Rivers. In January of 2011 I completed packrafting loops on the Waiau and Karamea Rivers.
The Waiau River in North Canterbury rises in the Spenser Mountains and flows south and east for 105 miles to enter the Pacific Ocean. Its generally hilly drainage basin, 1,270 square miles in area, borders the Canterbury Plains to the south. Packrafters can easily access he Waiau's upper gorges from Lewis Pass via a pleasant tramp along the St James Walkway.
There is a Maori legend associated with this river and the Clarence. According to the story the Waiau-uha (Waiau) and the Waiau-toa (Clarence) were respectively male and female spirit lovers living in the Spenser Mountains. For some reason they were transformed into rivers, the sources of which were not far apart. When warm rains melted the snows and caused floods, it was said that the parted lovers were lamenting and that the rivers were swollen with their tears.
The Karamea River runs through one of the largest, relatively intact natural areas left in New Zealand — Kahurangi National Park. The Karamea is a true wilderness adventure that lacks any road access. The river is flanked by limestone cliffs, huge granite boulders and a lush mosaic of nakau palms, giant rata, and a variety of beech trees. The Karamea is home to giant eels, great spotted kiwis, blue ducks and legions of sand flies.
Some of New Zealand’s remote rivers were first descended using a primitive type of packraft constructed of inner tubes. John Mackay documents these bold explorations in his book Wild Rivers. I found the story of the first decent of the Karamea River exceptionally inspiring.
Blessed with vast roadless wilderness and abundant free flowing rivers (many have yet to be run) New Zealand is fated to become increasingly popular as an international packrafting destination. New Zealand culture, however, is becoming less tolerant of risk and some Kiwis view packrafting as foolish. Nor have packrafting mishaps requiring expensive search and rescue operations convinced them otherwise. Please be careful, humble, and prepared.
In partnership with Jackson Hole Packraft Rentals Anywhere, New Zealand Kayak School in Murchinson is now renting packrafts. New Zealand Whitewater by Grahem Charles is the best guidebook for rivers. For figuring out approaches check out Moirs South by Robin McNeil. Topographic Maps are available on line at NZTOPOMAPS.