Whitewater kayaking was my go-to sport during university and for a few years afterwards. There is something inherently satisfying about taming rapids with nothing more than a plastic boat and a paddle! New Zealand’s South Island has a multitude of rivers, and I paddled as many of them as I could find time for.
However, things change, and I sold my kayak and moved to Australia - the “wide red land” with a distinct lack of whitewater. Seven years after moving to Australia I was bemoaning the lack of kayaking, and how I wanted to spend Christmas kayaking back in New Zealand, when the girlfriend politely suggested that I either do something about it or shut the hell up. With that motivation, and it only being two months to Christmas, the next day I negotiated with the boss to take some time off, had booked a kayaking refresher course, arranged accommodation and booked plane tickets leaving in six weeks. (The girlfriend was somewhat surprised - I think the girlfriend she expected me to shut up…).
After the four-day refresher course finished, a flooded river that was mostly silt, and a road trip with three new friends from as many countries, kayaking had regained a hold on me. I went back to Australia with a new paddle and bought a surf kayak, terrorising the local surfers in the process.
Kayaking taught me a number of things, with the primary one being self-reliance. In a kayak, you hold full responsibility for yourself, and actions have immediate consequences. It also taught me the value of having a great team around you, and on more than one occasion my friends saved me and my gear from unpleasant endings, and I returned the favour at different times.
I had three distinct “this is it” experiences where I thought kayaking would remove my last breath, but each time fear, urgent action and sheer luck helped me through. After the third one of these, I realised that my perception of risk was lower than the real risk involved in the more challenging rivers, and I re-assessed how long I really wanted to live.
One of these was on Citroen Rapid on the Kawarau River, where a bad line took me on the wrong side of a large rock, and sent me swimming down a very challenging piece of water. I was the first of four people on this trip, and three of us ended out of our boats. The fourth ran the correct line and made it look easy!
After sacrificing my kayak, my gear and my pride to the river gods on the Kawarau, I put my fear aside and swam back into the rapids to rescue a friend who had come out of his boat and broken his foot, while another friend saved my kayak before it was eaten further down the river. The mangled paddle was recovered the next day and served as a sobering reminder of how working as a team got everyone out alive.
• Helicoptering into remote West Coast New Zealand rivers, in a small helicopter with no doors
• Paddling a technical Grade IV rapid with people I had just met
• Near the end of a long river, trying to work out if the dark spot on a huge dark rock slab was the start of the tunnel we had to paddle through, or just a dark spot. Then watching the group disappear over a waterfall before the dark spot and disappearing from sight, and not knowing if they had drowned or gone through the tunnel.
• Starting a trip at the base of a glacier, and being unable to tell where the ice-covered rocks ended and the water started.
This grainy photo below shows me as the first paddler on the Citroen rapid - still upright!
Still upright on the Rangitata River, Class V