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White Water Rafting, Ducks & the Tongariro River
I don’t like the cold and I’m not a fan of water. I’m British, what can I say? So when I met my (now) husband and asked him what he did for a living, you can imagine my face when he enthusiastically replied that he was a white water raft guide.
I whispered weakly, fake smile plastered on. Would I like to go rafting? Of course I would… *cough splutter*
Fast forward several years and I’ve now accompanied him rafting over many a waterfall and white water rapid, some exhilarating, some terrifying and some, well, downright mellow. Not a week goes by where he doesn’t suggest another rafting trip, down another river and now? Well, I love it!
So what changed my mind? Well, there are lots of reasons; fresh cold water is great for a hangover… (and I had plenty of those whilst backpacking around NZ), I was trying to impress my man…. I look great in a wetsuit…. No. But really and truthfully? It has to be the single best way to see some of the most remote places in this beautiful country, with, frankly, not a lot of effort.
To keep things simple, those helpful rafting types have graded rivers for us learner folk from grade one to five. Grade one is your cruisy family float trip, a bouncy slide over some rippley river water, Grade five is adrenalin pumping, white knuckle, inspiring fun and the other grades vary as you might expect in between with a little of both. This will help you choose the right white water rafting adventure for you, whether you are occupying the kids over the school holidays or as part of a group and in for some white water action.
Here in Taupo we are blessed with some beautiful rivers, the local one being the Tongariro River, just south of Lake Taupo. Graded at a convenient grade three the Tongariro is touted to be one of the best half day trips in the country- and it doesn’t get much better than that. The beauty of white water rafting the Tongariro, is that it is suitable for everyone from white water rafting enthusiasts to complete first time rafters. There’s over fifty rapids, along the grade three stretch of water bordered with high volcanic canyon walls and unspoilt wilderness or you can choose a mellow float trip suitable from age three, upwards in the lower reaches.
Classed as one the of the world’s finest trout fishing rivers, the Tongariro River is a drawcard for all water enthusiasts and your guide will point out the tiny streams and tributaries which spawn the famous rainbow and brown trout the river is known for. If you’re lucky you might even spy the infamous Whio Whio (Blue Duck), the world’s only ornithological white water rafter, nick-named the ‘torrent duck’ they just love floating down white water rapids and SO WILL YOU.
To begin, you can catch a rafting trip via pickup at Taupo or self-drive down to the rafting bases at Turangi, just south of Lake Taupo. Here you’ll be kitted out in all the gear you need: wetsuit (don’t worry, EVERYONE has to shoe-horn themselves into these) all important life jacket (just in case…) helmet (protect the noggin at all costs), and booties for walking to the jump rocks and for keeping your toes warm. Once you are attractively sandwiched in head to toe neoprene (its never a good look) you’ll be ready for a quick stint in the van to the put in where they, suprisingly, put the rafts in the water!
The short drive allows you time to learn about the story of the local land, the mountains of Pihanga and Ruapehu for example, the names of some of the native birds you will definitely see and some all important commands to help your guide steer you through the white water.
There’ll be: “Over Right” and “Over left” instructing you to fling yourself with haste in the direction indicated, to stop the boat from tipping over or to help jimmy your raft off a troublesome rock. “Back Paddle” this you generally only ever hear yelled at volume whilst you are headed for some solid looking cliff or rock formation. My personal favourite has to be “Hold On, Get Down.”
You’re kidding? I say to my man, ‘Hold on, get down’ that’s the command? Yup, he says, grinning.
N.B. Let me tell you, this is with out doubt the only rafting instruction I have ever truly mastered, no matter what is happening, if my comrades are flying past me in waves of white water and I’m facing a giant grey wall of the wet stuff, I’ve never had any problem with holding on, getting down and generally kissing my butt goodbye. Even after the danger has passed I can still often be found, clinging onto some rubber tube/ rope combo, much to the embarassment of my beloved.
All this seems a tad ridiculous as you practise your commands, whilst floating casually along some flat water, watching trout idly catch flies and commenting on the beauty of the native bush and the canyons sides that surround you.
All this changes pretty quickly when you hear the roar of the white water you cannot yet see, your guide gets suspiciously quiet and starts making surreptitious strokes with his far more obliging guide stick.You become quite matey with your fellow boaters, knowing that the front paddlers set the pace and the rest follow, you work together to keep your strokes in time, there is an unspoken rule that ‘we’ will, as a team, succeed. You glance at each other nervously, all hoping the old fella in the corner doesn't let the side down...
You’re glad the guide knows what he is doing when you hit those rapids. Water starts flying, the boat goes speedily where it seems you don’t want to go and there doesn’t seem to be any time to do anything (except hold on and get down of course!), chaos ensues, over right’s go left, only one side back paddles causing the boat to turn alarmingly, the guide fights to keep us on course and then the next rapid comes, everyone is grinning from ear to ear and adrenalin keeps you from feeling the burn in your spaghetti arms as you whoop with joy and get a mouthful of H2O.
There really is nothing like it, a solid face-full of crisp, clean water, the mostly friendly, yet occasionally threatening bumps and wobbles as you cruise the river then the quiet lulls, the opportunity to hear the land as it should be, bubbling waters, birds calling. It’s heavenly, even therapeutic.
Not only to you get to ride the white water rapids but you’re welcome to take a dip in one of the many calmer pools the Tongariro River is known for, some of which are named after historical fishermen such as Major Jones. You can climb up the cliff sides and take the plunge from a jump rock, and even enjoy a warm drink and a much-needed snack as you float the flat stuff.
Whether you’ve rafted before or this is your first time, the beauty of this great sport is that no river is ever the same, every white water rafting adventure is different, depending on the boat you take, the guide you have, the river you choose or the weather on the day you embark.
And if it turns out you love it as much as I did in the end, New Zealand is positively peppered with some of the finest white water in the Southern Hemisphere, so why not make it a hobby whilst you travel around and see how many of our rivers you can knock off your list whilst you are here?