Down the Waiohine gorge in a day

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    Tony Gazley
    Keymaster

    by Emily Shrosbree.

    Wellington Anniversary weekend was fast approaching and the weather forecast was good. I needed to make some adventure plans! I put out the call to Marie and Tony who I suspected were in town, saying I was keen for an easy-ish day trip as I was still recovering from fastpacking around Ruapehu the previous weekend. A river trip maybe? Perhaps the Tauherenikau from Smith Creek Shelter?

    ‘How about going down the Waiohine Gorge?’ Tony replied. ‘Leave Holdsworth carpark at 5 am, so we can be at Mid-Waiohine hut by the time the sun gets into the gorge, 4 hours down the river to Totara Flats and back up the track to the Holdsworth carpark. About 15 hours total.’ ‘Ok’, I said, very much realising this wasn’t the easy-ish day trip I had in mind but it also wasn’t an opportunity to be missed.

    We were away by 5 am up the Gentle Annie with light packs, arriving at Powell Hut to trampers breakfasting about 7:30 am. As we passed the junction to High Ridge, we looked on quizzically as a group of four appeared to be organising a lot of gear, having camped on the ridge. An odd spot to camp with no water, we thought. Had they come up High Ridge, or were they about to head down it?

    We paused at the Holdsworth trig to name every peak in sight—it was a beautifully clear day and I always like to piece together the ridgelines. Then the down and up over Isabelle before the steep descent to mid-Waiohine Hut. When we stopped for a snack around 10 am, we were overtaken by the only other person we’d see that day. We learned from him that the group on the ridge were attempting to descend Isabelle Creek, the gear we’d noticed was canyoning paraphernalia to help them negotiate the waterfall(s) on the way down. We stopped briefly to write in the hut book, then continued to the bridge. Crossing the bridge, we bashed down to the river bank and spent the next half an hour prepping for the river section of the day. We dry-bagged (some of us more meticulously than others!), lunched, and layered-up with various combinations of what we each thought would best keep us warm in the water. It was 11:40 am when we set off along the river. Great timing for having the sun into the gorge and still plenty of daylight.

    Starting down the gorge below Mid Waiohine Hut

    Easy so far

    The river was low and for much of the way we could rock-hop on one side or the other, but there were also many sections, some of them long and sun-less, where the only option was to swim through the multiple pools. There were also a fair few sections where the river dropped sharply and negotiating the combinations of water funnels and boulders was tricky work.

    The first of many swims

    Another swim needed

    Doggy paddle

    It’s difficult to remember what order things came in but over the next 8 and a half hours (yes, 8½ hrs!) we experienced the following wonders and challenges:

    • 15-20 long compulsory swims through steep-sided pools, often with little or no flow so active swimming was necessary. These were both invigorating (cool water) and energy-sapping (cool water) at the same time. I felt so tiny in the middle of those pools—but bobbing along with my pack providing some buoyancy it was great to see the river, and its sides, from a different perspective.
    • In some places the gorge sides were so narrow, high and steep that they almost appeared to join above us—they certainly weren’t letting much sunlight in.
    • There were many waterfalls tumbling down the many side streams that joined the river and helped mark our progress down the gorge.
    • We spied two goats, two deer (one live, one dead), one small fish, and lots of kereru.
    • Hugging boulders which have been in the sun was a cheering way to warm up whenever the opportunity presented itself.
    • At various points, we each had to tell each other to eat more snacks, as we took turns to borderline shiver. Keeping hypothermia at bay was very important when you are in and out of full submersion for many hours and keeping up the calorie intake was necessary.
    • We linked up several times to negotiate tricky crossings between boulders with strong flow—or at least those in the party with shorter legs did!
    • There were several points where we needed to swim across the flow and make the other side to exit before the river descended into rapids. These were all fairly straightforward, as long as you identified them before you dived in.
    • Walking poles were really helpful on the rock-hopping sections and the crossings, but awkward during the swims. We were constantly putting them away and getting them out again.
    • We witnessed the distressing loss of one trusty walking pole to the depths of a pool, quickly replaced with a big stick—not so easy to stash away for the swimming sections!
    • 100% concentration from all three of us to assess the river as we moved was tiring—not to mention the 5 am start and long day.

    Many awkward rapids to cross

    Many more awkward rapids to cross

    And lots of deep wades

    The first of the 15 or so long (about 100 m) swims in the gorge above Hector Forks.

    We kept an eye on the time and our progress and realised fairly early on that it was going to take us more than the advertised 4 hours, so we were conscious not to waste any time. We were also cool-enough that keeping moving was preferable. We were relieved to finally pass the Hector Forks around 5:30pm which signalled the end of the long chain of pools which had deprived us of sunshine for a good while.   

    There was one last unavoidable swim before we spied the bridge at Totara Flats. It was 8:10 pm when we climbed up to meet that bridge, so it had taken us 8½ hrs to descend the gorge, and we weren’t dilly-dallying by any means. I was very glad we’d made the effort to be away by 5 am and had January daylight hours, and of course low river flow.

    The shuffle back to Holdsworth road end via the Totara Creek and Gentle Annie tracks was uneventful (mostly because I was pretty much sleep-walking by then!). After a bit of a snooze at the benches at the track junction while we re-grouped it was after 1 am when we arrived back at the car.

    A wondrous trip in the right conditions for sure, with lots of fun problem-solving to work our way along, into and through the river and its ornamental rock gardens—but probably one I’m only going to do once.

    Notes:

    The river was running at about 4m3/sec from what I can work out from here http://graphs.gw.govt.nz/?siteName=Waiohine%20River%20at%20Gorge&dataSource=Daily%20Compliance%20Flow

    Tony had done this trip three previous times, with gorge times varying from 2½ hrs(?!?) to 7½ hrs. Given we weren’t travelling particularly slowly, it’s likely the river has changed to be more difficult over the period these trips had taken place.

    Emily Shrosbree, Marie Henderson, Tony Gazley, 22 January 2022.

    #48813 Reply
    Jamie
    Guest

    You must’ve just missed seeing our MF trip. We left Powell at around 7:15 on the Saturday! 🙂

    #48816 Reply
    Tony G
    Guest

    You could have at least waited a few more minutes with a cup of tea for us :))

    Where were you going?

    #49557 Reply
    marie henderson
    Guest

    Thanks for letting me tag along. I think next time I will wear an extra top in the wet section of the trip for the extra comfort 😛 Would have enjoyed the beautiful but long gorge swim more if a tad warmer in the water. The gorge was the stand out section for me, although all the river (before it flattened out before the totara flats bridge) was very beautiful. The back-pack float Matt Conway taught me on a different trip is very useful as a resting option for travel through a long pool.

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