‘The Waiatoto – it’s inland from Jackson Bay – some nice views of Aspiring apparently,’ my paddling friend Nick said as we left Wānaka. Anyone familiar with Jackson Bay at the bottom of South Westland knows it’s a remote place, so I figured the Waiatoto would be isolated, even for a bunch of white-water kayakers. This would be the perfect way to top-off two great weeks spent on some of the lower South Island’s wild rivers.
As we drove over Haast Pass in heavy rain, other local rivers looked full and enticing. Nerves caught me in the throat as I peered out the car window at the water pounding over the Gates of Haast. The next morning we crammed dry clothes, food, sleeping bags and tarps into dry bags and 12 of us set off from Haast beach to meet helicopter pilot James Scott. With no road access anywhere near the river, James would chopper us with our kayaks to Bonar Flats where we would start our two-day journey down the Waiatoto to where the river meets the sea south-west of Haast.
The Waiatoto drains the Volta glacier system on the western side of Mt Aspiring. Several smaller rivers flow into it, fed by glaciers. The river travels north along a valley flanked to the west by the Haast Range before turning north-west to reach the Tasman Sea. Much of the river’s length is within the bounds of the staggeringly beautiful Mt Aspiring National Park.
Soon after getting on the river, we paddled down some tricky boulder sections, many of the rocks submerged by a high flow from the recent rainfall. Stretches of flat paddling between white-water allowed us to ogle the scenery: waterfalls spilling over schist rock formations, moss-covered valleys, beech forest and groves of tree-ferns. On our first day a kea flew over the river, swooping low, screeching and laughing at us as we paddled on. We set-up our tarp bivvies on a grassy spot on the first night and fell asleep – covered in insect repellent to ward-off the notorious West Coast sandflies – to the sound of the river flowing past.
John Breen, in his book River of Blood, has introduced readers to some of the stories of the Waiatoto, a place he calls New Zealand’s version of the Wild West. A few families of West Coasters tried to live in the river valley, hacking out livelihoods despite the isolation. The fierce battles before Europeans arrived gave the river its Māori name, Waiototo, which means ‘Blood River’. Explorer Charlie Douglas travelled the length of the river in 1891, adding to the folklore, and William O’Leary, otherwise known as Arawata Bill, spent time on the Waiatoto as a ferryman.
After an adrenalin-filled day of white-water rapids and a dinner of dehydrated spag bol, I sat on the river’s banks in the evening light. The ghosts of the warriors, the pounamu-gatherers, the hunters, the explorers and the drovers who had lived up this river seemed close to the surface. I felt lucky to be here.