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August 2014 Issue
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A tramper explores the Little Wanganui River Gorge. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Three gorges worth getting wet to explore

New Zealand’s backcountry rivers are full of gorges; some benign to the tramper, others difficult, and a number wholly impassable. Many tracks exist precisely to avoid these tight sections of the valley, where rock walls constrict the river, waterfalls plunge and rapids become maelstroms.

But given the right river levels, terrain and experience, gorge travel can be the main objective of a tramp. Gorge tramping offers a day of floating over deep green pools, punctuated by exhilarating rapids, with perhaps the occasional waterfall to negotiate. Wellington’s Tararua Range has probably the best array of negotiable gorges in the country. Virtually all its major rivers – the Hutt, Otaki, Waingawa, Tauherenikau, Ruamahanga, Mangahao and Waiohine – offer this sort of travel. I don’t know of any other mountain region in New Zealand that offers such a collection of rivers so suited to tubing.

One of the interesting things about gorge trips is the need to reverse your usual tramping instinct; on most tramps you try to avoid crossing water deeper than mid-thigh. Even on a river crossing, while letting the current aid your passage, you never wholly surrender to it. In contrast, on a gorge trip you dive in, deliberately seeking the deepest spots.

River travel can be idyllic: you’re always moving downstream, never uphill. There’s the bliss of plunging into a deep pool, enjoying lunch at a sun-warmed gravelly beach, or observing the swirl and patterns of water, infinite in its beauty and variety.

Geology gives gorges their distinctive character. Limestone gorges, like many of those in the Paparoa Range, often have exquisite water-river formations, while schist gorges reveal striations almost like veins. The Waihaha River in Pureora Forest Park has an impressive ignimbrite gorge, as does the Tauranga and Taupo in Kaimanawa Forest Park. But some of these are best admired from the track, and are not at all suitable for tramping down.

The gorges featured here are not the most spectacular, nor the most adventurous to descend. But they are negotiable by trampers with some river experience, and offer an alternative to the beaten track. Some rivers are best tackled using a wetsuit, and inflated tyre tube (for example the Otaki) while others may by tackled in just your normal tramping gear (the Little Wanganui and Oroua).

Choose summer, take plenty of snack food, and pick a good forecast. Use a good dry-bag inside your pack, and if tubing take a puncture repair kit and pump.

Oroua River, Ruahine Forest Park

The Kawhatau River has excellent long gorges both up– and downstream of Crow Hut, although access difficulties restrict access at present. The Oroua River, although less impressive, has some nice pools and scrambling. Tramp into Iron Gates Hut along the track, then use the river as a pleasant return route downstream.

Otaki River, Tararua Forest Park

Tramp into Waitewaewae Hut, then spend the next day floating down the Otaki River rapids to Otaki Forks. Mostly the Otaki is an enclosed world of river, rock and overhanging greenery, although at one point trampers can get a memorable glimpse of the Tararua Peaks – two green pyramids high above on the main Tararua Range. It’s a serious river, not to be underestimated, but a Tararua classic.

Alternatively, you can tackle just the lower section after tramping over the tops to Penn Creek Hut.

Little Wanganui River, Wangapeka Track, Kahurangi National Park

On a recent trip over the Wangapeka Track, we decided on the spur of the moment to head off track in the Little Wanganui Valley, and follow the short gorge that lies upstream of Belltown Hut. This is a delight, mainly boulder-hopping and scrambling, but with one small waterfall that can be safely avoided by a convenient ledge on the true left. There are nice pools for swimming in this bit of the gorge.