Tackling the Tangarakau
25, 26 April, 2008
The moment of truth had arrived! The big Canadian (canoe), with Bronnie paddling hard at the back, and our dinner in the front, was heading straight for the top of the waterfall!! Would they survive the 3 meter (well, make that about 1.5 m?) drop into the very chilly waters of the Tangarakau River? Would we be eating mince soup for tea instead of mince stew??
To find out we must go back about 11 hours to a fine but cool Anzac Day morning (2008) in New Plymouth. After a somewhat delayed start (due to our illustrious leader, Bronnie, sleeping in!) our great Tangarakau Expedition (9 adults and 5 kids) headed south to Stratfort and up the Forgotten Highway to Wangamomana. Our aim was to paddle a section of the Tangarakau River, south of Ohura in the King Country, that none of us had been on before in sea kayaks plus a Canadian and a double sit-on .
After quite a long drive through Taranaki backcountry roads we pull into a town straight out of the 19th
century – complete with a horse walking down the street and an old couple leaning over the fence watching all the action! What a great place – probably just as well the pub was closed (Anzac Day morning) otherwise the temptation may have too great! Next stop was at Kohuratahi Road where we split up, two vehicles heading over the gravel road to the get-out point on the Tangarakau River while Bronnie took the kayak trailer (and those not coping with the windy roads so well…) directly on to Tangarakau. This road is quite narrow and windy, and looked as if it would be rather
slippery when wet. We duly arrived at a old but solid-looking wooden bridge – and wondered whether we should venture forth in a fully loaded van! One look over the side and we then wondered who on earth picked this as the get-out point – the river was a good 7 - 8 meters down a shear cliff! Crossing to the other side it looked a little better – just as high but not quite so shear. But then the locals came to our rescue, showing us a track on their farm a little further upstream we could drive down to. So we left the car by the river and headed back up Whitianga Road until we were back on the highway. Over the Tahora Saddle – must plan a stop at the Kaieto cafe at the top of the saddle next time, the views are magnificent – and on to Tahora where we turned off to Tangarakau. This road (about 5km) actually runs next to the railway for some kilometers, stopping at what must be one of the most “back-country” motorcamps in the North Island! A lovely camp and well worth a stay if you have some time to spare. Unfortunately we didn’t have any– it was already well after lunch time and we had to pack our kayaks and get on our way. One look at the river confirmed our suspicions that the water level was rather low, but we would just have to take our chances on that. Access was quite difficult with fully-laden sea-kayaks (including one double), but it was a beautiful spot and the sun was shining nicely for us so no one was complaining!
By 1.30p.m., all fed-up and packed up, we were on our way- none of us having much of an idea what lay in store. Stretches of still, brown water were followed by rapids which tended to be, along this part of the river, short and sharp as the river cut down through a layer of harder rock. These rapids, we quickly discovered, were very “bumpy” – it was simply not possible to pick a clear run down most of them, but rather matter of trying to get to the bottom without getting stuck! Much pushing with hands and gnashing of teeth was the order of the day! We even tackled a couple of “shoots” where the water had eroded a narrow track through a hard sandstone. The first was quite fun, but the second was a steeper drop and looked too much like white-water territory to most of us sea-kayakers! But down we all went (in the end!), including Bronnie in the big Canadian. I still don’t know how it fitted down such a narrow, rocky little shoot – must have been shear skill! [now that must be worth a beer on the next trip..
.]. Another rapid was so rocky that we had to carry the boats down (very awkward!) and yet another we had to walk/ pull them down shallow water for 50m or so. This all made for a very slow trip, especially when we took some time to do some fossil hunting at a couple of locations. None of these proved very successful (we found some small shellfish and plenty of trace fossils), and young Daniel was the only one to spot our main target, the Miocene crab which we had heard was in good abundance on this stretch of the river. It was a medium sized specimen, on top of a large boulder, in the middle of a rapid! Our budding paleontologist, Francis, was most upset at having to leave it there, but unfortunately we had little choice.
As time got on, we were debating whether or not we had come to “the waterfall” which we had been advised about. Needless to say, we did find it! No way were us namby-pamby sea-kayakers going over that! White-water Steve quickly proved there was nothing to it in the double sit-on, followed by Bronnie in the Canadian (less
Arianna and Daniel). And yes our dinner did survive unscathed, although the canoe did ship a fair bit of water when the nose dived in! Next was the most intrepid of the rest of us – Alex in her trusty Puffin. First attempt was not too successful – got stuck at the top, hanging over the edge! Pull her back and try again - this time over she goes, only to go for a swim in the bottom pool! That’s it – portage over the falls for the rest of us. If only it was that easy! Very tricky (and time consuming) getting 10 or so full-laden sea kayaks over the side of the fall, and even finding a track to scramble down to took quite a while. By the time we were all clear at the bottom it was starting to get dark, so we had to delve into our bags for headlights. [maybe paddling the waterfall may not have been such a bad option after all….]. Now this
was a new experience – paddling an unknown river, full of rocks and rapids, in the middle of nowhere, at nighttime, looking for a bit of flat land to camp on! We had been pushed out of our comfort zone a few times already today, but this was starting to look quite serious……little did I know that our leaders had been told there was a camping site just on from the waterfall. And there it was – a nice little beach (quite rare in these parts) with a climbable bank and a “flatish” area, covered in pungas, just above it. We were up there in a shot, pushing down the long grass between the pungas, looking for a gap just big enough for a tent. Quickly erect the tents, retrieve all necessary gear from the kayaks, get changed into some warm, dry clothes, then head out into the bush looking for dry firewood. And don’t forget, it is nighttime (i.e. pitch black). But a marvelous fire was lit, Bronnie’s excellent mince stew was heated up, the wine was flowing, and all was well with the world once more! A beautiful night with no wind and the stars shining brightly.
Saturday was a bit of a lazy start with no Ken to wake everybody up! The fire was re-lit and the billy put on for a cuppa and hot porridge. After a very social breakfast sitting around the fire we packed up and headed off – well after 9am, from memory. Straight back into some tricky rapids and still not knowing for sure where we were on the map. Some of these rapids required the leading kayakers to get out (and invariably get rather cold and wet in the process!) and pull/ push/ guide the following boats over the rocks, or, in one case, around a dangerously low log which had a strong current flowing underneath. We stopped a couple of times to continue our search for some elusive fossils, but found little apart from a few shellfish and some lovely examples of the large trace fossil zoophytus
We eventually agreed on our location – which just highlighted our slow progress and just how far we had to go! So we pushed on, along bush-clad valleys and past huge scree slopes where the river has undercut the towering river bank, exposing the many layers of the sedimentary rock face. We eventually reached farmland and, some hours later, we sighted our lonely wooden bridge in the distance. We were there! Our get-out track had been kindly marked by the farmers we had met .Not much room (one at a time), but no one was complaining! There was a long slope to get up, so out comes the rope and each boat was dragged up in turn. In the meantime the three drivers headed back to Tangarakau to bring the vans back (round trip of about an hour).
By the time we were all packed up and ready to go it was getting late and darkness was approaching rapidly. But for some of us the adventure wasn't quite over yet! Christina headed back up the track in her car, followed by Bronnie with the trailer in her (4WD) van. That left the other (rear wheel drive) van with yours truly driving. Now there happened to be a sizeable ditch on the track down – when I drove over it I was a little worried about getting back up, and thankful the forecast rain had never arrived. Sure enough, we got stuck. Back-up down the track a bit and have another go – same again. Hopefully Bronnie is waiting at the bridge, just in case. No such luck! We’re on our own. Nothing for it but to take a long run and don’t slow down for the ditch, take my chances with the exhaust pipe. This time we just made it, with plenty of pushing from Steve and Pete – that big thump as I went over and loud rattle was just the spare tire cradle coming unhitched (breath a big sigh of relief!). Finally we were off, on the long trip back to New Plymouth.
Overall, a great weekend – one we will never forget, I’m sure! I can recommend the trip, but would respectfully suggest starting earlier on the first morning (stay at the motor camp overnight), carefully following your progress on the map, know exactly where the camp and fossil sites are - and make sure there is reasonably good water flow.