Texts at 11am; the river is climbing resolutely toward the illusive 4m mark. Excellent. Trip on, I think to myself in thought bubble, only for Louis to immediately burst it with misgivings about the intractability of getting an obliging shuttle bunny to brave the elements (and our enthusiasm), or a second car. Sadly, it seems Sue (The illustrious Pink Paddler) is busy using her beast for the day. I am stumped. Doesn’t anybody realize that the Hutt is flowing at 4m? My Kingdom for a car! But Sue relents, and all is well, though her car has yet to respond to my need, and I sit blocking the road with the engine sounding sickly; Ah, the choke, mon dieu!
On the Hutt motorway; slips trigger spontaneously; car quakes of primitive beats care of Sepulchura (Roots Bloody Roots). Thrumming, bank to swimming-trees-on-the-opposite bank; a veritable torrent of eye candy! Managing to be both slightly exhilarating and terrifying; mostly exuberant; terrifying is just the wrong side of overly dramatic. After all, who could possibly fail to be curious about The Gorge when the Te Marua gauge is lubricated to its mid section?
Several years have passed since last we were on the road to Rivendell, with the river hooning past, and probably making the same exhilarating mental notes; mayhap there was some slight anxiety then; for the unknown element was greater. Its crawling tentatively onto the far bank with its centre rolling in big folding contours; there is an abundance of driftwood poking from the murk like stoned seals with their beady eyes heavenward; watching the world race by, man.
Upper Hutt; from here, it can be seen snaking in all its swollen state from the glorious fern fluted green canopy of the distant rainforest. This ever volatile landscape generates a continuously changing riverscape; and this is true since first the wellington fault cracked apart the greywacke bedrock of the Tararua ranges, and graciously inserted sufficient room for the river to meander through.
The temptation to obtain something to record both river and trepidation levels proves too much for Louis; and with the garage not all that obliging in the waterproof domain, he sets off into Hutt central to locate a camera. It has the potential to steal some important flow time; I am incapable of remaining either stationary or moving further from the river: I head to the get out and stake a branch in at water level; a reference, just in case the it drops (or rises). A great swirl of boils sits at the usual get out point. I wait. Not patiently. Text. Wait. Transfixed.
At the get in; some rambling kaitoke ruminants quiz curiously “bla bla – not too high?” “Well, we may stay night out…” “bla bla bla”. Just-In-Case-Notes are drafted for the car; Just-Because-Texts are sent. Splits, throw bags, food, matches, spare clothes…: my boat weighs a Just-In-Case-Ton! All focus is now water centric. The Pakuratahi is heaving; it’s the largest volume I’ve seen for a while; on the get-in eddy-line, sprinting upstream simply leaves me stationary, and a ferry glide leaves me sitting somewhat bemused a 100m downstream; but at least I’m at the far bank. Yes, it’s high, but the recent watermark suggests the level has just started to turn from its peak.
The eddy lines are not small, and the first is sufficiently welcome, that I feel the necessity of a roll to loosen the joints; a broiling mess, folding in and out of itself, bursting from rock face to rock face. It explodes over boulders, which garner all of our attention, as there lurks retention-seeking holes; avoiding them proves to be an impossibility, and one has to spiral in as elegant a manner as possible, whilst not quite fully obliging the whims of the river.
The narrowing of the gorge yields further maelstroms. Horizon after horizon. One in particular has whiteness spewing into the air from below (not a good sign); a river left line has a wall of rolling white, grim and steep; I choose right, but it is too far right, and even as I momentarily snatch a relieved glance; the river reaches from amid the boils to yank my inattention upstream with a disconcerting jolt; stern submerging and bow jutting out at 45 degrees; there is an unpleasant moment of unreality, before enticing the boat from underwater, back into the rivers centre; it’s as if the sea, constrained in a glass jar by some deity, decided to swirl both jar and captive mischievously about.
We seek eddies of relative calm to catch our breath, assume some suave aspect, even as our lungs burn, and tinges of edginess play on our features. The imagined amount of water in my boat feels a huge burden, so, while Louis strains in some gurgling eddy (as any witness to the strains of Louis will attest, it is fortunate indeed that they are held captive by his kayak); I get out and relax for five minutes (physically, mentally and bladderly!); taking the first opportunity to calmly inspect features downstream; but within an hundred metres, all lines are hidden by sheer walls – it all looks sweet to there!
Some eddy lines are amusingly difficult. Louis takes one a boat length in front of me; the bow of the scud is swallowed; its stern rises and loops over its bow, coming alarmingly close to my face. Rest. These breathless stops allow us to gather our thoughts, which are few, and those few rest focused on the water. “It’s a step up” notes Louis in the only full and coherent sentences to be uttered. It’s definitely swinging at us from all sides, like a pugilist, on speed.
Another ramp. A juicy hole on river right catches me as I descend, flips me sideways into another hole a boat length away; keeping the bow up, the stroke rate rises, and focused on a point of relative surging calm, I accelerate slowly in that direction; that is all there is to be considered; if momentum is lost; then some unpleasant submerged time is guaranteed.
What a joy this volume is; the push and pull; part fine line; part mountainous feature; at the calm of each, I glance nervously upstream waiting for Louis to appear from amongst the writhing waters. There is no hope of keeping together. The pulsing flow pulls us apart too quickly or features snag us and hold us up; eddy lines are often gargantuan and no place to linger, and the boils are often too difficult to cross to entertain any consideration of getting aid to the other, if the need should arise.
Louis, casting his eyes about, around three quarter mark, notes that perhaps the levels are starting to lessen somewhat. A trip some weeks previous at 3.2m has shown there was plenty of interesting features left (a very remarkable wave train among them) and it remains well in excess of that. How fantastic are the views upstream, as the boat emerges into being from brown-white squalls. Thankfully, each time he re-appears; sometimes on differing lines to mine, sometimes coming out of a roll, but never looking too much the worse for wear.
The eddy line at the gauge is also a mass of boils, and the river is above 3.6m, with the pipe wet the whole way to slightly above the 4m mark. At the get out; my makeshift marker is a foot above my bow, on still damp earth; thus confirming the subtle shift that had progressively became more obvious. It took less than an hour to get down: and that with a stoppage or two en-route. Over 200 cumecs of barely constrained impressiveness. Hopefully the wait for a 4m+ run will not also to be measured in terms of years!