I’m glad there are no mirrors in the change-rooms at Queenstown Rafting HQ, where I’m being fitted with my wetsuit. ‘Fitted’ isn’t quite the right word; only people in James Bond films actually fit into wetsuits. I’m exhausted just from pulling it on, and once my body is shoehorned into the rubber, it bulges in all the wrong places.
Luckily not many people will see me, not where I’m going. The Landsborough River is remote and wild, cutting across New Zealand’s South Island on its way to the west coast. Few people have seen the Landsborough; just occasional hikers, deer hunters and rafters.
I prise my wetsuit off, and board a minibus for a 2½-hour drive north from Queenstown. On the way, I meet those who’ll be my companions for the next three days: Jim and Maurine from San Diego, Queenstown locals Rebecca and Matt, and Danish students Dorthe and Michael. Harold and Dave, teachers from Auckland, have just spent two weeks riding mountain bikes and hiking the demanding Rees-Dart Track. I’m impressed. Most Landsborough rafters are over 35, I’m told, though many are younger. No rafting experience is required, but it’s advisable to be active and confident in water.
Our guides Gabi, ‘KC’ and Roger give us a cheerful commentary on the landscape as we move into the lush forest of the west. It’s a lovely drive, along pristine lakes with mountains beckoning in the background.
At Clarke Bluff there’s a helicopter waiting to shuttle us to Top Camp, up the river. Hey, how cool does that sound? ‘They choppered us in and it took two days to raft out!’ The river snakes below us. It looks flat from above though, as we land, rain starts to fall steadily and the river looks grey and threatening. And beautiful.
Top Camp is already set up in a grassy clearing surrounded by beech forest. There are comfortable large tents with stretcher beds and air mats. While we make ourselves at home, our guides prepare an amazing dinner – spring rolls and perfect venison medallions, then butter chicken and vegetables on rice, all cooked on the campfire and gas stove. Beer and excellent New Zealand wine are all part of the service. To finish off there’s a superb chocolate pudding with lashings of whipped cream. ‘Wicked stuff, eh?’
Overnight the rain sets in and next morning the river is even higher. Out here, the river is the Boss, and the Boss says no rafting today. Water gushes past our camp at 150 tonnes a second. I’ll take KC’s word for that – no way am I getting in to test it.
The plan was to raft a few hours down to Bottom Camp, then paddle out the rest of the way tomorrow. But we’re stuck here for the night and if, as forecast, the rain stops and the river drops, we’ll raft the lot in one long day.
So for now we have time to kill, chatting, reading, enjoying nature, and explaining cricket to the Americans, as you do when you have them as a captive audience.
After lunch, the rain eases enough to hike through the drizzle for a few hours. We tramp through brilliant silver beech forest, tangled, mossy and dripping. We see hares, fantails and paradise ducks.
Now and then we come to streams tumbling out of the mountains, feeding the Landsborough. We rock-hop across the first couple, trying to keep our feet dry then, finding that impossible, we just slosh through regardless. As we turn for home the clouds lift, revealing the snow-capped mountains and rugged cliffs around us, promising magic for the morrow.
So it proves to be. Sunday dawns spectacularly. The clouds that rained on us have dumped fresh snow on the peaks above the dark forest, turning them a brilliant white against the clear blue sky.
After a massive breakfast we lever ourselves back into those wetsuits. ‘How’s it feel, Richard?’ asks Roger. ‘Fine,’ I squeak. I can see venison medallions and a bottle of Pinot Noir poking out of my navel, just below the mushrooms and scrambled eggs. Then yellow helmet and lifejacket are added, and I become a giant Playmobil man, my torso totally rigid. Good. Nobody will expect me to do any paddling work, and if I fall in I’ll just roll down the river bouncing off rocks.
Into the rubber rafts we tumble. KC gives us a quick safety lecture and our paddling instructions, ‘Forward! Back! Left! Right!’ Nothing too tricky. I quickly become expert at the ‘Hold on! Get down!’ manoeuvre we’re to use when hitting a rock. Nobody grips a safety rope tighter or crouches lower in a raft than me.
We push off and immediately snag on a submerged boulder. ‘Jump like kangaroos!’ yells KC. This is a new one. We bounce up and down as the raft spins in the current. ‘All left!’ We throw ourselves left and the raft lists. Swirling water tosses us off the rock and whips us downstream. We’re underway. ‘Whoo! Way to go, team!’
Gabi rides ahead in a little kayak. She was an Australian white water champion, so we trust her judgement. She signals the best way through the rapids and waits to scoop up any of us who topple overboard. ‘Gabi’s driving the Ferrari, we’re in the bus,’ says KC.
Most Landsborough River rapids are graded 3 or 4. ‘Grades go up to 6,’ KC tells us, ‘Niagara Falls is a 6.’ We rookies can manage a 4 without flipping, though we have some exhilarating close calls and we’re soon soaked through from the spray.
The nice thing about rafting is that the river does most of the work. We seldom need more than a few strokes to position ourselves to ride the current, and when the river slows down between the rapids we have plenty of time to admire the gorgeous passing scenery. Even a Playmobil man can do it.
Late in the afternoon we reach a little beach where the Landsborough meets the Haast River. It’s the end of our journey. We unload the gear, strip off our wetsuits and pull on dry clothes. We congratulate each other and thank our guides. They have been exceptionally good company, knowledgeable and considerate, not to mention talented five star chefs.
On the minibus back to Queenstown, Jim and Maurine arrange another quick rafting trip next morning before they fly out. ‘That’s sweet,’ says KC, ‘Bring your luggage and we’ll drive you straight from the river to the airport.’ If I could join them I would.
The writer was a guest of Queenstown Rafting.
When to go: Trips to the Landsborough run Friday-Sunday in summer only (November-March)
Further information: Queenstown Rafting’s guided 3-day Landsborough Wilderness package costs $1495, including all equipment, transport, tent accommodation, meals and beverages. http://www.queenstownrafting.co.nz
First published – Sun-Herald, Sydney