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Getting started in packrafting

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July 2021 Issue

Rachel Davies enlists some experienced paddlers to teach her the packrafting ABCs

I came spitting out of a little chute between two boulders and landed with a huge splash, grinning ear to ear and gripping my paddle tight. I cruised to the side of the river and watched the others come down behind me, each friend beaming more and more as we made our way down successive rapids. Until a few days ago, I had never been in a packraft and knew little about them, but I was immediately hooked and wanted more.

My friends are adventurous, so it wasn’t surprising when two of them, Andrew and Ryan, decided to introduce the rest of us to packrafting. 

Andrew, already a packrafter but tiring of going alone, had previously enticed Ryan to join him. Now 10 more of us were on board for a week of paddling near Wānaka and Haast. 

We had a lot of gear – boats, inflation bags, throw bags, lifejackets, helmets and two-piece paddles. Our rental boats were a basic open-top design, but the already converted packrafters in the crew had their own white water boats outfitted with full spray skirts and decks, thigh straps, and foot braces. 

Andrew and Ryan planned the perfect progression for us newbies. We would start with roadside runs, then venture out on day hikes and finally do an overnighter. Andrew, the most experienced, gave us a safety run-down on white water paddling and swimming before we got in too deeply. There were several other experienced paddlers in the group and I was white water rescue trained, so we felt solid as a team.

We spent our first day on the Hāwea River, a cruisy class one to two river that allowed us to get used to the boats’ stability and handling. At certain dam-controlled water levels on the Hāwea River there are standing waves which we played around in, practising surfing and control through the stronger eddy lines.

Andrew coached the newbies from the eddies on the Makarora. Photo: Coburn Brown

Then, it was off to Haast Pass. We camped at Pleasant Flat and ran a lively little section of the Haast River from Thunder Creek Falls back to the camp. It’s a fun class two to three stretch of water with lots of drops and boulder gardens to practise handling skills while laughing at each other’s expressions during spicy sections.

I was now starting to get a good idea of how packrafts handled small white water and wondered how they would feel packed on my back.

I soon found out, and it was not ‘too’ bad.

Packed up, we started with a day hike up the Landsborough River. The trail winds through grassy fields and river flats with little shade, so I was ecstatic when we finally hit the glacier-cold water of the Landsborough. It’s a winding, braided river that meanders on flats back to its convergence with the Haast. There was less white water but no less fun as we played around trying to roll our rafts – a massive challenge due to the high balance point from the side tubes – and enjoyed the incredible glacier-capped mountain scenery around us.

Then we went to Cameron Flat and camped amongst an array of colourful drying paddling gear. The next morning, we awoke to a misty sunrise, beckoning us back to the water. We put in at the Bridle Track parking lot on the Makarora River and rode the river down bouncy rapids, around steeply banked turns, past gawking day-trippers at Blue Pools and all the way to the Makarora coffee shop. The perfect take out.

Our final challenge was an overnight trip. While the rafts and all our paddling gear had been fine on our day hike, it was going to be another story carrying all our camping gear and food.

We set off across the Makarora River and up the Wilkin Valley to eventually camp on the banks of the Wilkin. The trail initially passed through open fields and pasture land, albeit with deep mud. Once in the trees, I breathed a sigh of relief for shade and solid ground, but quickly found out why four-piece paddles are infinitely better than two-piece: the paddle shafts stood above the sides of my pack like goal posts, catching every stray branch over the trail.

I’ve done a lot of paddling and backcountry tramping, but I had never pictured being able to bring these two passions together on the same trip. Our group sat on the beach, eating piles of pasta and talking about all the possible routes we could take with our newfound adventure toys. I think I saw Andrew and Ryan sit back with satisfied smiles; they’d recruited a few more friends for future trips.

We set off down the Wilkin on our last morning – another serene, braided river that provided a perfect way to end the week. Through the crystal-clear water,  I watched the stones rush by beneath and couldn’t think of a place I would rather be.