Overview: Trips down the gorges are special. It is enchanting to float, almost without effort, down long still pools on a warm summer day; exciting to shoot along in white water with the companions in shared adventure. Freedom of action with the minimum of equipment – often just a car inner tube for support in those remote and beautiful places.
These notes cover trips down some of the major Tararua gorges: they involve floating down an otherwise difficult river. Straightforward tramping portions of the rivers are covered in the descriptions of the valleys. The Tararuas have several river gorges that offer exciting travel and these are popular in summer. They are untracked and while some are suited to beginners, others definitely require more experience, special care and attention. Midsummer to autumn is the only season suited to extended gorge travel.
These notes do not address the skills of gorge travel, which are best learned by observing experts in action: go on a trip with those who have been before. Swimming ability is not essential, but confidence in the water is a must! Special dangers include log-jams and rising rivers. Be especially aware of indicators of a rising river such as discoloured water, or light floating driftwood.
Special gear: Extra gear you will need is: flotation equipment; extra warm clothing (forget cotton clothing!); and quality waterproof protection for the gear in your swag. Good boots are essential for the inevitable boulder-hopping.
«» Flotation equipment is usually a car inner tube with the valve removed and a length of soft rubber hose fitted over the valve stem. A small clamp or a length of string will tie off the folded hose of your inflated tube. If you leave the valve in, don’t forget to take your pump! A small air-bed can be used but is not as convenient during the inevitable between-pool carries, and may be less safe in rough water. A small tube repair kit could come in handy. Rafts and larger truck and tractor tubes must have adequate grab ropes attached, for their larger surfaces are otherwise difficult to grasp. When travelling with rafts or with large tubes, a flotation jacket is essential, for you may get separated from your raft/tube. These larger tubes are necessarily slower in restricted passages.
In emergencies a few plastic bags inflated inside the shirt provide aid or, for a short swim, the packfloat method from the Bushcraft Manual may suffice. But practise it beforehand!
«» Additional warm clothing is essential to help conserve body heat. Forget cotton clothing! For the longer gorges – above 2 hours – a wetsuit is strongly recommended.
«» A lightweight safety helmet is recommended, and even knee and elbow pads may be useful in rough water. Try to travel rapids feet first.
«» Waterproofing of gear is a major challenge. The ‘dry bags’ used by canoeists are excellent. Otherwise, multiple layers of secured plastic bags seem the next best but can prove imperfect. Seldom is one’s whole pack submerged, so the camera may be carried at the top, with a towel handy for drying of hands prior to using the camera. In separate plastic bags of course. Provide bilge space at the bottom of both your pack and your pack-liner with items that can stand getting wet, such as billies (inverted) and sandshoes – not your sleeping bag or your dry clothes.
«» Your body will be colder than usual. Part of this is due to the relative inactivity of swimming or floating, and part is due to losing body heat to the colder water. Two defences guard you: your supplies of calories and of clothing. These must be greater than for an ordinary trip. The food stops should be frequent and filling. The clothing should be heat-retaining, such as wool or polypropylene. Keep some spare clothing dry for the camp.
Women are on average better insulated than men; and both fit young men and older people are less well insulated than average. Everyone needs special watching for the effects of hypothermia. See the Bushcraft Manual.
«» Party discipline for a gorge trip must be of high quality. The foremost element for safety is the ‘buddy method’. Each person must have a buddy: no person is to be left alone. This applies to the whole party, not just the end-members. A person with a foot caught between rocks or under a log may be unable to free themselves and it may be beyond the strength of a solo friend to free them against the force of the water. A buddy group of three seems a minimum. Each buddy group must travel together for the entire trip to help each other out if the need arises.
The whole party should regroup at much more frequent intervals than on an ordinary trip. If one group is overtaken by another in a gorge trip, make really sure that people remain attached to their own group.
Times given are for a party of medium tramping fitness, using inner tubes, and with normal summer water levels – extended times will be needed for both lower and higher water. Graphs showing flow versus time for multiple points along most Tararua waterways may be accessed at http://www.gw.govt.nz/rivers-and-streams-2/. Kayaks may well cut the time by half. Rafts or larger tubes will take up to twice as long.
Only two gorge trips (21.4 Waiohine, from Totara Flats to Walls Road-end and 21.6 Tauherenikau, Lower Gorge) are graded FG. It is important that Family Groups, or groups with young adults, should all be confident swimmers, wetsuit-equipped and with a ratio of one adult per child. Remember to take plenty of quick energy food for the youngsters. Their food reserves are less; and their greater surface-to-weight ratio means that they lose heat more readily.
The spur from below Twins was the traditional approach to this trip, and the campsites near the scrub/forest interface in the Ruamahanga W headwaters are about 8 hours from Blackwater Junction.
Nowadays, the route from Roaring Stag is shorter and offers the possibility of a round trip to be done as a (rather long) day trip from that hut. From Cattle Ridge, 300m beyond Pukekino, drop to the forks in the S headwater of the Ruamahanga, the lower the better, and follow down to the main headwater forks – perhaps 5½ hours from Roaring Stag. A good spot for lunch. As always, beware of overlapping contour lines. From here the first part of the upper gorge proper starts, though a couple of easily-passed pools are the only note. Seventy-five minutes from the main headwater forks, the track crossing from Cattle Ridge to Dundas Hut is met and the real gorge starts soon after, requiring a dozen swims.
A good hour below this crossing, Chamberlain Creek is passed, and a further 2 swims follow. Ninety minutes from Chamberlain Creek should see the last of the gorge: around 4 hours from the main headwater forks. A little over an hour will bring Roaring Stag. Ten hours or more for the round trip, perhaps 12 hours including sunbaking and long spells.
A shorter day, still making the most of the gorge, would use the Cattle Ridge - Dundas Track to gain the start of the main gorge. [revised November 2017]
Chamberlain Creek deserves mention. Along with some Main Range headwaters near Tararua Peaks and the Mangahao headwaters, Chamberlain is among the roughest of the Tararua streams. It usually requires ropes for the falls though the daring have been known to throw their packs over and jump after them. This is not recommended but may suggest the mind-set of those to whom this particular stream appeals. A 40 metre rope should suffice with some multiple abseil.
This is not a difficult gorge, 4–5 hours from Cleft Creek, and may be done as a day round trip. About 7–8 hours in all. There is a good mix of beach and pool travel. The gorge scenery is rather grand along most of the length, so a camera is a must. Wet suits are desirable and swimming ability is useful. An early entry is possible at the large un-named stream near S25 245 474. Usual exit is just beyond the road bridge. An earlier exit option is part way down the farm country; is where a farm track drops from the TR terraces to the river for a few hundred metres, then regains the terraces below the hill. This avoids climbing the farm road over the small hill.
Emergency exit is to the TR, but the track is a bit high in some places.
Park River to Park Forks: The spur running S from Pukematawai offers the easiest access to the glacier-carved upper Park Valley, though the saddle between Pukematawai and Arete is also used. Beware however the hanging valley draining Arete's SE face.
The stream is rough even above bushline, though there are no serious gorges in this section. Huge slabs under Puketoro offer one of the few landmarks. Seven hours should suffice from Pukematawai to Park Forks. A good campsite is on the TR, 75 metres above Park Forks. An emergency exit would be onto the Main Range, though an exit over .1031 and down Kelleher Creek could be considered. [revised January 2020]
Waiohine River Headwater to Park Forks: This headwater has a number of good campsites. It is shorter than the Park, and has good access from the basin between Lancaster and the Pinnacles, and from Tarn Ridge, especially down spur (Topo50 BN34 045 823). From the foot of this spur, 3 to 4 hours will bring Park Forks. Bouldery, but no problematic pools. [revised January 2019]
Park Forks to Mid-Waiohine Hut: This section is rather pleasant travel with few real gorge stretches: mainly a series of pools and beaches. There are many pleasant camp flats in this section. Quite long sections of the river can be floated or deep waded as desired: 4 hours or so.
Mid-Waiohine Hut to Hector Forks: Known as the Mid-Waiohine Gorge, this is probably the top gorge in the Tararuas. A strong party is necessary, as there are no easy exits. Full gorge gear is recommended. The water is cool and there are many long still pools to be swum, notably the last one above Hector Forks.
The traditional route, and still used by the purists, entered via the northern spur off Isabelle at Francis Creek and continued down the creek for the last 200 metres or so to avoid a bluff-girt spur-end. An entry from Mid-Waiohine Hut now offers a shorter alternative.
The gorge starts immediately by the bridge and is fairly continuous with several long swims. The giant slip that had dammed the river below Isabelle Creek is notable. Before that creek, spurs to Isabelle are straightforward exits. After Isabelle Creek, the Holdsworth High Ridge offers the best exit, though the spurs are steep. Four hours travel to Hector Forks. Camping exists in the Hector opposite the low saddle, and about 45 minutes below Hector Forks are some ribbon flats.
Hector Forks to Totara Flats: Travel down this section of the Waiohine River is not difficult in normal water, with only one small 'essential' float at the stream draining Flaxy Knob, marked by massive red rocks. Otherwise the pools may be floated or sidled at choice. Less than 2 hours. The emergency exit from Hector Forks is over the end of Cone Ridge to Totara Flats.
A simple series of pools and beaches, with only one 'essential' swim below Clem Creek, though even that can be sidled if you must. A nice introductory gorge trip on a fine day and an excellent area for learning tubing technique. Indeed this gorge may be done as a day round trip of about 6 hours from Walls Whare. For this variant you'll want to consider entering the river about Makaka Creek. (see also 9.4 or 9.5). Quality gorge travel ceases before Devil Creek, so the best exits are either to the road-end, 150 metres down from the Walls Whare (Waiohine Gorge road-end) Bridge; or 300 metres below the abseiling site 1500 metres further on. Easy exit from the gorge to the TR at many earlier points. About 3 hours.
The usual starting point is from Hells Gate. The spur running NNE from 1187 has also been used; there is a pool in the main branch above the forks. The first half of this trip has a couple of short swims, small falls, and a good variety of gorge and bouldery pools overall. This gorge has some rather different experiences to the other gorges. To Cone Hut: 6-8 hours from Hells Gate. Wetsuits are not essential but are worthwhile. With easy Friday night access to Cone Hut, this trip may be done as a Saturday round trip, leaving the exit to Walls Whare for the morrow. [revised March 2017]
The lower Tauherenikau is another of the easier of the Tararua gorges, and tends to be warmer than most because of the extensive flats in the upper valley. But wetsuits are still a good idea, as even when river flow is low it takes at least 4 hours' travel down the gorge from the Smith Creek confluence to the horseshoe bend, or about 6 hours between road-ends. An FG grading for a competent and equipped party.
From a little below a major stream junction (Topo50 BP33 951 510), an old trail can bypass the second (but grander) half of the gorge, though the cliffs of volcanic rock there well repay the visit. This bypass trail can be reached from the stream junction on a high terrace, once farmland but now scrubby, but is best accessed 1 km downstream from the stream junction. Near the end of a straightish section, the river swings R just past a small stream on the TL (Topo50 BP33 965 514). Ten metres below this bend, the track leaves the river to climb wooden steps to the TR high terrace. From here the track to Bucks Rd carpark is well graded.
This trail can also be used as access from the Wairarapa side, for an easier trip down only the lower, but grander, section of the gorge – a shorter day round trip of a good 4 hours. From the road-end, this benched track starts 15 metres L of the track to the Horseshoe Bend. See Chapter 10, Wairarapa Plains Access. [revised February 2018]
The Hutt Gorge, from the Waterworks to Te Marua, is straightforward. About 5 hours from Kaitoke to Te Marua by car tube, 3 hours or so by kayak (grade 3+ in high water), and up to 7 hours by raft or tractor tube. However you choose to travel, aim to start by 10am.
Travel time for this gorge is more consistently underestimated than for any other gorge in the Tararuas. This causes many unnecessary SAR callouts. You must be on your way well before noon - if you are not, please do not continue. Otherwise carry enough gear for an overnight stay! Your cell-phone will probably not work.
The usual entry point is from the carpark at Pakuratahi Forks, the confluence of the Pakuratahi and Hutt Rivers, though tubing proper does not start till below the Pipe Bridge. This gorge is colder, owing to the paucity of gravel flats in the upper reaches of the Hutt, so wetsuits and extra clothing should be considered essential. Exit is up the TL waterworks road at Benge Creek, 200 metres below the powerline crossing, to the parking knoll. If organising a car-shuttle from here beforehand, watch for the 'River Access' road sign. See Chapter 11.
The Walkway ridge track between road-ends makes for a practical round trip, at least for the fast ones of the group, but that would make for a long day. And remember that the gates at both ends of the Kaitoke Regional Park close at dusk: note the posted time. You must be on your way well before noon.
If you need to make an emergency exit, the walkway along the ridge above the TL may be accessed from many points. Downstream of the pipe bridge, two of these routes are marked. In an emergency, other exit routes are practical, but may be lengthy, rough and very steep. You must be on your way well before noon. [revised February 2020]
This gorge is ordinarily done as a two-day round trip from Ōtaki Forks, but the very fit and well-experienced, using day packs, may do it in one long day of over 12 hours. Your pack-liner may prove a useful emergency bivvy bag, so don't skimp on food supplies and dry clothes.
More usually the entry point is at the Arapito Stream confluence, and though gorge work does not start for some time, there are many pools that may be floated to gain confidence. After 90 minutes the gorge proper starts, with many swims and even a 2½-metre waterfall. This is a very big river and distant or recent heavy rainfall can cause trouble. A very scenic gorge in many parts but no very long pools other than the one well down, just above the Sawmill Flat bridge. Take your camera!
Campsites are rare. Towards the end of day one, a small high flat presenting on the TR is the first feasible camp for quite some time. However, only 30 minutes or so below this grotty terrace, the extensive flats above Penn Creek start. Because of this, an early start from Ōtaki Forks will be well repaid. Five hours from Arapito Creek to the flats above Penn Creek – i.e. up to 10 hours from Ōtaki Forks. The section from Penn Creek to Ōtaki Forks, covered in detail in 14.10, is simple and takes 2½–3 hours.
With an early start and day packs, the moderately fit may do a shortened version, from Plateau Stream to Ōtaki Forks, as a day trip of 8 hours or so: total time about 10 hours. From the Plateau follow Plateau Stream to the river, then the remainder of the gorge from there. In Plateau Stream, a fall followed by a sharp L bend below a slip herald the Ōtaki River junction. Wetsuits are not essential for this shortened version, but do keep an eye on the young and those deficient in body fat.
This is usually the haunt of canoeists (grade 2 in low water), but simple pools and water-chutes provide much fun in a tube. Plenty of exits to the Ōtaki Forks road – see Ōtaki River System for exit points.
The lower Mangahao Gorge presents a special hazard, as when the three-metre control gates tip at Reservoirs No. 1 or 2, a flash flood is produced downstream in the gorge. Signs adequately warn of this danger.
From the No. 2 Reservoir, the track to Burn Hut runs within a few metres of the river about 10 minutes down and gives a simple entry. Because of water extraction, the early part of the river has little water for its valley size and the rapids should cause no problem. The pools are still deep though. For the first 2 hours or so it is deeply incised, and the next 2 hours are more gorgy and with more water. An easier section below Ngapuketurua Stream follows. An hour of further travel with some minor gorges brings the farm country: 8 hours in all.
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