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June 2014 Issue
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Safe river descent

Rivers and streams provide an enticing alternative route, but avoid surprises by planning before you go. Photo: Toine Houtenbos

How to tell if a river is a safe way down

At the end of a long day in the hills, you may plan to descend via a stream or river. This could seem an efficient way down which is also great fun – and in many cases it is – but if you’re not familiar with the river, then it can lead you into strife.

What starts as an enjoyable rock hop with the odd scramble down small cascades can lead to more daring descents to avoid the horror of having to turn back and add several hours to your trip.

You can soon find yourself in a situation where you’ve jumped down a waterfall you can’t climb up again, only to find a larger waterfall follows with no escape route to the sides.

With rope, wetsuit, helmet and harness, a canyon can be one of the most exciting places to be. But for the unprepared tramper, it can mean check mate for the trip and an ego-sapping call to Search and Rescue.

Toine Houtenbos, who runs Abel Tasman Canyons, says there are several ways to avoid getting into that situation. The first is back at home before you start, when considering a route and potential river descents.

“First check the gradient of the river on your topo map,” says Houtenbos. “And look for waterfalls, because if one’s marked, there’s a good chance there will be more unmarked waterfalls in the area.

“Then check the satellite images on Google Maps. On bigger rivers you can see waterfalls and you can also see shingle quite clearly. If the river appears to disappear under the canopy then it could mean that section’s in a canyon and will be much harder to navigate. In my job, it’s exactly what I’m looking for, but for a tramper it’s something to avoid.”

When on the trip, Houtenbos says it’s important trampers are always prepared to take the long way round if necessary.

“You need to be sure that every feature you climb down, you can climb back up again,” he says. “Never go further without locating an exit point first, or you could end up stuck.

“For those into their off-track tramping it may be useful to carry a piece of light-weight rope, a sling to use as a harness and a couple of carabiners, so you can abseil. Even a length of 15m rope will give you a lot of options – if you need more than 15m then you’ve really stuffed up and you probably should have bailed a lot earlier!”