New Zealand


Flights, Fun & Flies – A Winter Escape.

Words by Chad Strongman.

“Variety is the spice of life” is a phrase which best sums up our experiences in New Zealand. From its many breweries to its immensely diverse ecology, NZ is a country that will appeal to all. One minute you are paddling through a rainforest, the next you are on a river that would not look out of place in Scotland.

It may be on the other side of the world, but NZ is not an adventure that will take you to the fringes of civilization. However, this is what makes it deeply appealing. Chris and I had no plans except a return ticket to Heathrow and within a day we were at our first river with a fully functioning 26 year old Toyota Hi-Ace with enough food for a United Nations humanitarian mission.

Starting on the North Island we began our adventure on the Kaituna, possibly the best warm up river in the world: two big drops interspersed with rapids in a tropical gorge and dam released every day for a guaranteed run. The next plan was to head down to the south and eventually make our way back up, this would have been fool proof if you did not have to live in constant fear of your van disintegrating! The custom super wagon badge was almost peeling off, along with the side view mirror and there was more to come.

One of my favourite aspects of NZ, and one which made the long journeys a pleasure rather than a chore was the freedom to park and sleep in some amazing locations. If you are not sleeping under an extinct Volcano you are probably watching a phenomenal sunset over the Tasman sea. Before you get too excited and curse our good fortune bumming around such a beautiful country there were obstacles to our enjoyment, notably flies. After a combined tally of 121 bites in one night, the gloves were off and any mosquito that was unlucky enough to be caught was shown little mercy.

Back to rivers and the reason that we diced with deep vein thrombosis. After the perfect warm up in the North and a little playing through Murchinson, we arrived at the white water mecca that is the West Coast of the South Island. It was the pictures of epic heli based adventures that had drawn our attention on New Zealand and they did not disappoint.

I am not going to lie, you do feel like a hero when exiting a helicopter having witnessed the altimeter jump on your ascent along the crystal clear river and feeling the down draft pummel your cag. The rivers themselves are remote, challenging and incredibly beautiful. Despite an alarming number of siphons on rivers like the Arahura and the Whitcombe, the pure quality of white water with boof upon boof is unforgettable.

Just when you think that you have seen the biggest variation of climate and vegetation, NZ will always throw you another surprise. After a scary two man descent of the Fox “on the rocks” (straight from the glacier, with boat sized ice cubes), we crossed the Hast Pass and were transported into the Southern hemispheres equivalent of Scotland.

Queenstown and its surrounding area is a mix of rugged mountains with some huge sections of river. Citroen rapids at 450 cumecs was a long way from a dry weekend in Wales as was my long swim down half of it! This was then followed by the popularly rafted Shotover gorge, the highlight of which was the ability of our van to laugh in the face of many signs which deemed such a feat beyond the laws of nature. There were fewer laughs when Chris managed to get stuck and “gently rested the van against a cliff wall”. A section of body work had now joined the side view mirror in a bid to escape.

Our next destination was the incredible beauty of Milford Sound. We managed to find an ideal parking space with some Alaskans in a U shaped valley surrounded by hanging glaciers, firstly because it was stunning and secondly because flies are not massive fans of ice.

This area was truly spectacular and the Hollyford River matched the quality of the surrounding scenery. This river was simply fantastic with challenging grade five gorges within earshot of a road, a rarity in NZ. It almost came in handy when I ran a “sporting” section of river blind after missing an rather important eddy. I was very happy to be in a Burn after a number of desperate boof strokes that managed to get me down safe.

After reaching one of the closest points to the Antarctic there was really only one way to go and that was North, on our way back NZ had one more epic adventure to throw at us. When American paddlers imply that wilderness trips should be accompanied by wine, do not not form a mental image of fine cheese boards accompanied by vintage Bordeaux. These boys meant business. After deciding on a two day leisure cruise down the Whataroa, Chris was instructed to drop off the “goods” in the form of eight litres of wine on a suitable beach half way down.

After attempting to keep the British end up I soon felt like Cherie Blair in a turkey shoot with Sarah Palin, vastly out gunned but fighting to the end, I awoke to a a swarm of flies, a laughing Andy McMurray and a hangover that immediately entered my top ten hit chart of all time hangovers. It’s safe to say that I was not prepared for the challenging stretch of white water that followed. The gorges on the Whataroa are magnificent and were only eclipsed by the stabbing taking place in my brain, a lesson learned.

The following week involved a lot of driving and constant maintenance of the van. After a quick send off on the Kaituna we crawled into Auckland with no ignition and a tendency to stall in idle, traffic lights became an issue!

Luckily the hospitality that had already overwhelmed us in New Zealand continued to surpass our expectations. A lovely couple took us in, fed us and helped our wild attempts to cure our van of Alzheimer’s. We arrived at the airport beaten, bitten but full of lifetime memories and a will to return. Highly recommended.

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