Central Otago River Journeys
First Descent, North Branch Motatapu, Central Otago, South Island, New Zealand
Our eyes had been looking to the hills waiting for conditions to align, and on late notice five of us, myself, Nick Pascoe, Ben Young, Max Rayner, Shannon Mast, and Will Martin found ourselves at the Aspiring Helipad at midday on a Monday. It had rained the day before, and we hoped that the North Branch of the Motatapu River would now be at an ideal water level. As the heli gained elevation it was odd to gain a new perspective of our local area, Glendhu bay, Treble Cone ski area, and Wanaka itself. Only a few minutes later we found ourselves very much alone, high in an alpine valley with no marked access. Our friend Ben Young had done his chopper pilot training in Wanaka, and regularly flew this route as he gathered his hours. This river was his project, and after taking a moment to appreciate the snow capped mountains, we set to our task of discovering what the river held downstream.
It was low volume and bouncy to begin with, much like a poorly shaped water slide. The alpine setting was spectacular though, and the moody afternoon light painted a stunning picture as we found a few bigger rapids and drops to really get our hair wet. It was not long until the river grew in size and became consistently steeper. The quality of the whitewater increased, however the opportunities to stop were slim and margins for error low. We took our time, settling into an efficient leap frog style where one person would get out and scope the line through the next rapid, and then if things looked positive wave us through. In this method we moved at a solid pace, with periodic interruptions to stretch our legs by walking around a rapid that was not going to leave a kayaker in a healthy state.
Distance wise we began to get close to the confluence of the North and South Branches of the Motatapu, however we were conscious that the valley still looked a long way below us. We weren’t wrong, a particularly long section of tight continuous whitewater awaited. This section would’ve required linking consequential move after move for almost 500 m, and while it seemed each move was possible we were conscious of the dwindling daylight and the fact we were still a long way from home. In the best interests of leaving our future selves something to aspire to (and more honestly our own self preservation in the moment) we opted for the tramping with kayaks option. Our portage put us back on the river at the top of another steep rapid, however we could see a pool at the bottom and too many great moves to ignore so we took turns at paddling the best rapid of the day. After emerging from this mini gorge thankfully the river did finally ease, and we popped out at the confluence with the South Branch.
The sun was low in the sky, and floating through the far mellower whitewater we had ample time to appreciate the revegetation work going on around the Motatapu river. This was highlighted with one more mini gorge and two harder rapids amongst the beech forest. We emerged to a stunning sunset over Glendhu, rather thankful to enjoy our beers and chips, and escape nightfall on the river.
On October 9th, 2021, there will be the first ever open paddling day for the lower (Class III/IV) section of the river, which had previously been closed by the land owners. The goal is to show as many people as possible the value of the North Branch Motatapu to the kayaking community. For more information on how to join, visit centralotagowhitewater.co.nz.
Words: Nick Pascoe / Photography: Max Rayner