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A Month in New Zealand

In early December, I left the frigid East Coast and flew to New Zealand into Auckland to meet Boise North Fork boater Ryan Mack for the beginning of what would soon to be one of the most epic paddling adventures of my life. Ryan and I had never met, but we had mutual connections with two friends, Adam Johnson and Brian Kish. I’ve kayaked with Adam and Brian on several trips internationally and both are exceptional paddlers. They arrived in New Zealand two months prior to us and were currently paddling on the South Island.

Ryan getting his boof on at Tutea Falls. Photo by Brenton Petrillo.

Ryan had a friend in Auckland who had picked us up from the airport. She let us stay at her home for a few days so we could take some time to purchase a car and recover from the jet lag. Thank you to Amanda and her family for putting up with us for a few days!

We spent three days in Auckland looking for a car and being typical tourists but we eventually made our way to Rotorua. This is where we paddled the beautiful Kaituna and spent the next few days of our trip.   After a day of running laps on the upper section, we hooked up a group to paddle down the Awesome and Smokey gorges.  Thank you to the local paddlers, Mike Roy and Rhys Elliot, for leading us all down this magical section of river! We waited another two days in Rotorua for our third compadre, Michael Charles, who was flying into Auckland to join our adventure. Michael caught a ride from Auckland to Rotorua and we took the opportunity to show him down our new favorite run. Michael was renting a boat out of Christchurch on the South Island (over 500 miles from where we were currently located) so we found him a boat to use for the day on the upper Kaituna.

The first leg of my New Zealand journey.

The next day we left Rotorua to catch the Sunday release of the Wairoa River in Tauranga. We met up with Rhys again, who graciously showed us down another one of his favorite runs. This river is short but action-packed with some quality rapids. We needed to catch our ferry ride to the South Island so we asked Rhys if there was anything worth running on our way to down to Picton. He recommended Huka Falls in Taupo which was very close to the Wairoa. We arrived at the falls around eight in the evening and took some time to scout our line.  All three of us were able to fire up the falls right before dark, which was the perfect way to end our time on the North Island.

It’s a little hard to see but here I am coming off of Huka Falls. Photo by Michael Charles.

Michael throwing a mean switch wheel.  Photo by Matt Winter.

Over-rotating just a tad too much. Photo by Matt Winter.

We made our ferry ride the following afternoon and secured a boat for Michael to use on the South Island in Murchison. This was all thanks to Ryan’s friend, Allison Dwyer, who flew into Christchurch to paddle with us on the South Island. She strapped the boat to the top of her rental (a Toyota Yaris) and drove it all the way to us in Murchison. Along with Allison, we met up with our friends Brian Kish, Adam Johnson, James Douglas, and Hannah Kessinich to do some boating on the Lower Mātakitaki.  James and Hannah were other boaters from the States and were in New Zealand on work visas. Afterwards, our established South Island friends showed us to Mauria Falls, which is a perfect thirty-foot waterfall that is great for stomping or throwing downriver freestyle moves.

We began to make a move to our next paddling destination, Hokitika, and our radiator unexpectedly cracked. We ended up in Murchison for an extra day but we were super lucky the small town’s only mechanic could get us in right before the holiday. So we didn’t lose a day of paddling, we went to the Earthquake section of the Buller right outside of town while the car was getting worked on.

Coming through the first drop on the Upper Kakpatahi. Photo by Brian Kish.

We continued our trip to Hokitika, which is where the real fun began. We got our fill of class five boating immediately when Adam volunteered to show us down the Upper Kakapatahi. This is a short run with a super steep hike out but totally worth it for the quality of rapids.

The next morning we met up with Burgess, a friend of Ryan’s from Boise, who lives in New Zealand for part of the year. Burgess volunteered to show us down the Styx River which is one of the best runs you could access by foot in Hokitika. This run has a four hour hike in and I was stoked to have a portage pack (a backpack used to carry your kayak long distances) for the first part of the hike.  The rapids on this run were complex and allowed little room for error, but it felt especially good when you would style your line through them.

After getting a taste of the West Coast white water, we decided to try to do some of the wilderness runs we had heard so much about before arriving on the South Island. The team thought the Arahura River was a great one to start with.  We used a helicopter to fly our boats in and hiked up the trail for a good five hours that went along the river.  It was a good move considering the trail was difficult enough without having a boat on your shoulder.The Arahura has a very unique set of rapids which demands you to catch break outs fast and the ability to make your move on the fly. Some of the hydraulics were pretty sticky and would hold you if you weren’t careful.  It reminded me of some of my favorite rivers back on the East Coast in the States.


Dent Falls marks the half way point on the Arahura river. Photo by Tegan Owens.

The Arahura has a very unique set of rapids which demands you to catch break outs fast and the ability to make your move on the fly. Some of the hydraulics were pretty sticky and would hold you if you weren’t careful.  It reminded me of some of my favorite rivers back on the East Coast in the States.


A much better perspective of Dent Falls. Tegan Owens coming out of the last sequence with Brian Kish following behind getting vertical. Photo by Brenton Petrillo

Hokitika was hammered with rain over the next few days so we were apprehensive to do any runs that required a helicopter to access in fear that the rivers would rise on us while on the water.  Michael and I used our two days off the water to develop a plan for when the rain would subside and scheduled our group a flight to the Perth River for the end of the week.  While researching all potential rivers in Hokitika, we came across a section river that was recently descended by locals a few years ago called Toaroha Canyon. We gathered some beta concerning levels for the canyon from Josh at Eco Rafting, a local rafting company who had ties with the local paddlers in the area. We decided to make an attempt to go in the next morning.

Looking at the landslide we would soon be hiking down. Photo by Michael Charles.

We had severely underestimated how intense the hiking would on the trail into the canyon. The majority of the hike was uphill and after four hours we were feeling completely exhausted. After the grueling hike up, we needed to descend down a sketchy landslide off the trail in order to access the river from the top of the canyon. We eventually came to a dead end where the landslide falls off of a hundred foot cliff with heavy jungle blocking both of the sides.

Feeling defeated and ready to hike back to our car, we suddenly heard a ‘yip’ from the top of the landslide and to our surprise it was a group of boaters! Jordy Searle, Ari Walker, and Taylor Westin were all locals trying to bag their first run of the season. Not only did they lead us to the put-in but they also let us tag along on their run. If you are reading this and considering epic section of white water for your next kayaking trip, I would highly recommend you go in with someone who is knowledgeable of the access and the run itself. Although the run is short, it is also tight, steep, and very hard to scout in certain spots. Huge thanks to those boys for leading us down!

This drop begins with a technical lead in and ends with a fifteen-foot boof to the left. Photo by Taylor Westin.

Getting the boats ready for the flight.  Photo by Brian Kish.

Michael and I were up again early to meet the rest of our team in Whataroa where they were staying for our flight into the Perth. Along with our core group members, we were joined by Tegan, Burgess, and paddling superstar Nouria Newman.The flight to the top was short and sweet. From above it was hard to tell how steep the rapids were actually going to be because everything looks so tiny from the sky.

Burgess nailing one of the best boofs on this run. Photo by Brian Kish.

The flight to the top was short and sweet. From above it was hard to tell how steep the rapids were actually going to be because everything looks so tiny from the sky. The Perth was one of my favorite rivers from the trip. There are so many quality rapids on this run and it ends with one of the most spectacular gorges I’ve ever seen.


Adam coming through a unique rapid on the Perth. Photo by Brenton Petrillo

Brian, Adam, and I were completely exhausted after a long day on the water so we spent the majority of the next day recuperating. The rest of the group drove back to Hokitika to catch up on sleep and take a break from all the rain. After two long days of kayaking, my intentions were to spend the day sleeping in the car. To my surprise, I ran into Ari from our Toaroha Canyon mission. He recommended that we should try to get on Tatare Creek. Tatare Creek is Franz Josef’s local high water run and it only comes in after heavy amounts of rain. After an afternoon downpour, Brian shuttled Adam and I to the top. It proved to be a really sweet run with a continuous set of rapids! What started as a day that was meant for recovery had turned into one of the most memorable times from the trip.

The rest of the week was spent making our way down to Queenstown for the Nevis Bluff Rapid on the Kareawu River. On our way there, the group bagged descents down the Moeraki and the Turnbull rivers, which are both very close to Haast (Over 100 miles North of Queenstown). The Nevis Bluff Rapid doesn’t seem like much when you are scouting it from a hundred feet up from the pull-off, but once you are on the river the rapids are massive. The Retrospect Rapid tested what little big water reading skills I had. Joined again by Nouria, our core group of paddlers had a successful descent down the Citroen Rapid.

Coming through the end of Citroen on the Nevis Bluff Rapid. Photo by Brian Kish

We spent the last leg of our trip in Hokitika and Franz Josef doing three more runs down the Whitcombe, Waitaha, and Whataroa rivers. All three runs require you to fly in with a helicopter and have their own unique rapids, spectacular scenery, and beautiful wildlife. My favorite of the three was the Waitaha. Currently, the Waitaha is under threat from a white water dam proposal. It would be a shame if other kayakers were not able to experience this incredible river. Please take a moment to sign this petition to stop the dam that is being put in place on the Waitaha.


Brian watching the pilot attach our netted boats to the helicopter for our ride up to the Whitcombe River. Photo by Brenton Petrillo.

One of the drops on the lower section of the Whitcombe. Photo by Brian Kish.

One of the more complex rapids on the Waitaha at the beginning of the run. Photo by Brian Kish.

Adam nailing the line on one of the final rapids on the Waitaha.  Photo by Brian Kish

Michael following me through a long and intimidating rapid on the Waitaha. Photo by Brian Kish.

The last leg of my journey in New Zealand.

Our group was challenged with some of the most difficult white water and portages we had faced yet but in the end, we had all persevered with some incredible stories to remember. Michael, Brian, and I all flew out of Christchurch leaving Adam and Ryan with vehicles to sell. Although I was bummed to see the trip come to an end I was also stoked to get home and see my friends and family.

I have been home for over a week now and am just now beginning to feel settled in again. The weather outside is a little bit colder but not too much different than when we were on the South Island. Hopefully, the rain will bring in some classic runs in Northeast Pennsylvania or West Virginia so that I can prepare for the next adventure.