Image of the January 2015 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
January 2015 Issue
Home / Articles / Wild Comment

Rocking the boat

Rowing to Sandy Bay Hut could soon be a thing of the past

The decision to end 64 years of rowboat hire on Lake Waikareiti has Federated Mountain Club’s Jamie Stewart thinking there should be more, not less, of these family-friendly opportunities to provide memorable and unique recreational experiences

For most of us, rowboats are generally overturned and lying above the high tide mark. They nestle in a nick of the dunes, or rest roughly amongst seaside scrub. We shelter beside them for a brew and sometimes admire their worn appearance and clever workmanship. In the right light, they rest in the foreground of a carefully composed photo.

Trampers, so sure of our footing on land, often hesitate to submit ourselves to the wobbly world of watercraft. And if we do, we prefer to kayak. We press forward by ourselves. The timing, style and patience of rowing is a bridge too far for many.

Rowboats in the backcountry are another thing again: they are closer to myth than madness. Long-suffering conservationist Richard Henry got by in a rowboat full of kakapo, roa and dogs. Adventurer David Lewis apparently rowed up the Whanganui, down the Waikato and round to his house in Auckland on his way home from school. We remember grainy photos of rowboats in strange places piloted by bearded men in shorts; Lake Minchin, Lake Daniell and Lake Hankinson spring to mind. Apparently five rowboats were wrecked filming a single scene of TV’s Intrepid Journeys where Jamie and Kevin tried to emulate the epic journey of Nathaniel Chalmers down the Clutha.

This background of fear, nostalgia and gung-ho gives limited context to the sad decision by DOC to end 64 years of rowboat hire on Lake Waikareiti that had served generations without a recorded fatality or serious incident. Lake Waikareiti is a great adventure. The rowboats enable a fabulous crossing of the pristine lake to Sandy Bay Hut, via quirky islands festooned with mistletoe.

Gillian Ward of the Gisborne Canoe and Tramping Club recalls the rowboats fondly: “For local people from Napier, Gisborne and Wairoa it is something we have grown up with; that journey has been really important to our families and our experiences of the outdoors together.”

Ward speaks of romances that began on the lake and of the accessibility the rowboats gave to the backcountry for the very young and very old, unable to walk under their own steam to Sandy Bay Hut.

Last year a party got into trouble on the lake. Facing a poor weather forecast, half the party chose to return by the walking track. One adult and two children chose to row and became exhausted, benighted on an island requiring a search and rescue response. As stated by Te Urewera conservation services manager Hemi Barsdell is a DOC press release, “they were wet and cold, but the outcome could have been much worse”. The release went on to say the rescue operation “highlighted the inherent risk of the boat hire and prompted the review and subsequent decision”.

My gut feeling is the history of safe operation speaks louder than an undisclosed safety report. The history of safe use of these rowboats indicates that the real risk has been managed successfully. The perceived risk is crucial in enhancing outdoor experiences. Perceived risk dealt with through teamwork in a beautiful setting will bring groups together and create fantastic shared memories. People often pay good money for such experiences, partly because they are so rare.

DOC, and in this case the Te Urewera Board, should resist the temptation to introduce premium pricing for this experience which would end the long tradition of locals and families enjoying the lake. The rowboats should be restored on the pre-existing terms and DOC could perhaps even investigate other opportunities around the country using the know-how and safety systems to establish similar services for future generations to enjoy.

Five oarsome experiences

Here are five fantastic places where hired rowboats could provide accessible, safe and fun recreational experiences.

Lake Ototoa, Auckland

The hidden gem of the Kaipara Peninsula. Just 90min north of Auckland, Lake Ototoa, nestled in its own scenic reserve, is a great spot for a summer swim. But shoreline appreciation of this lake is limited and rowboat hire would open up a safe and family-friendly adventure near our largest city.

Waitotara River, Taranaki

The Waitotara River is a smaller version of the magnificent Whanganui River. It winds its way for kilometres through farmland into a magnificent forest. The best way to appreciate it all is from the river.

Lake Otuhie, Tasman

This secret spot lies in the back of beyond. Past Whanganui Inlet and south through mysterious karst country you will find a short walk to Lake Otuhie. The walk takes you nowhere, but a paddle up the river to the lake is a great way to become immersed in this spectacular environment.

Lake Tennyson, Canterbury

A gorgeous lake in a dry basin with an established campsite, Lake Tennyson sits between the St James Conservation Area and Molesworth Recreation Area in a region where the recreational potential is only just beginning to be tapped. Accessible by car, rowboat hire here would make a boating experience accessible for many people.

Supper Cove, Fiordland

The rowboat at Supper Cove was a favourite of trampers finishing the Dusky Track, but it was removed in haste in the 1990s. Reintroducing it would allow trampers the chance to catch blue cod and hapuka for a meal to celebrate a successful traverse of Fiordland.