Waitaha Source to Sea, South Island, NZ, January 2021
Words and photography: Shannon Mast
The West Coast of the South Island of Aotearoa, New Zealand, has long been noted for its stunning scenery, outrageous gorges, and difficult whitewater. Just after Christmas, Sam Walton, Phil Palzer, Rata Lovell-Smith, Greg Lee, and Shannon Mast set their sights on a source to sea journey on the Waitaha River, widely regarded as the experiential pinnacle of West Coast rivers. The usual two-day trips were disregarded as the team packed supplies for up to eight days so they could catch the right river levels for each distinct section. Starting at the iconic Ivory Lake (1375 m), the birthplace of modern global glaciology research, the river is relentless on its plunging 36-km journey to the Tasman Sea.
The Waitaha begins as Stag Creek and consists of low volume bedrock creeking through open alpine golden tussock and groves of the world’s largest buttercups. Various magnificent tributaries merge to become the Waitaha, and the paddling evolves to typical NZ schist steep boulder garden country before hitting the main crux of the journey, Windhover Gorge.
This inescapable yet spectacular gorge is relatively short in horizontal distance but packs some vertical heat, with six large, stacked waterfalls up to 20 m in height. The team brought a 40 m rope and some canyoning gear and accomplished the safest, most efficient descent of the gorge to date. Windhover is now rigged for future teams to move through more safely.
After a planned bivvy under a riverside boulder at the gorge’s exit, the team made their way down through the standard Class V section of the Waitaha to the final crux, Morgan Gorge. High water levels and diminishing food and energy stocks (it was day 8) meant the team set up a rope to escape the gorge before entering. They then paddled the first half of the gorge before ascending the rope and portaging around to the final rapid of the gorge, beginning at a natural rock hot pool. Elation stayed with the team on the 16 km float out to the ocean, which they hit right at sunset: The perfect finish to the first source to sea and most complete descent of the Waitaha River.
Note: Morgan Gorge is again coming under threat from hydroelectricity development. Whitewater NZ, amongst other recreational and conservation groups, will be mounting another campaign, so watch this space.