Rafting a Grade Five
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For the second morning in a row, I put on a wetsuit. This involved the familiar overalls and booties, but yesterday’s jacket and hood were replaced with a thermal top and fleece sweater, with a windbreaker over top of that and a life jacket on top of it all. Oh, and a helmet. I was thrilled that the lavender one fit my head perfectly.
The guys who run the company were hilarious - kind, funny and bawdy.
I asked one of them what the river conditions had been lately, and he answered, "Well, the river spanked one of our boats yesterday. I said, “Pardon?" thinking I’d heard him wrong. “He answered: “Spanked it! Spanked it hard! It took our boat and said, 'You naughty naughty boat, you.’”
These guys were the maximum I’ve encountered, but I feel like Kiwis in general are a pretty laid-back crowd. I’ve noticed that it’s socially acceptable to walk around without shoes on here, even in the bigger cities, like Christchurch. I’ll keep looking for more examples to report.
After we’d suited up, we drover 20 minutes to the river, during which time a guide named Jason told this nutty story about a guy who used to own the rafting center and the farm we were driving through. The story goes that this guy was making tons of money but only taking guests on rafting trips once a month or so. Finally, the police set up a sting and caught him in the act. As they watched, he stuck a metallic sign that said POLICE on the side of a borrowed helicopter, suited up in a homemade jacket bearing the same name, and carried a broom stick spray painted black. They figured out that he was flying over to the west coast in this getup and abseiling into illegal pot plantations. He’d bag up the crops and resell them back at his farm. Eventually, he got caught and went to jail; but, thanks to some loophole, he got out again pretty quickly.
At the river, the rapids began at grade one and increased as we went along, to two, three, and finally, two sets of grade fives. We learned and practiced paddling and holding on techniques in the calm water, then in smaller rapids. The commands included: Forward, back, relax, left back/right forward (and vice versa0 hold on, get down, over left/right (a glorified rugby tackle to keep the boat from flipping) and a few others. Some of these commands were basic. “Forward,’ for example, just meant to paddle. Others were much more complicated. “Hold on” meant leaning into the boat with the outside hand on the outside rope and the inside hand on the T-grip at the top of the paddle. “Over left” meant the people on the right had to jump into the laps of the people on the left; but again, you had to grab specific ropes and hold the paddles in certain ways or the move wouldn’t work.
Jason also talked to us at length about the proper procedure for falling out of the boat, swimming back to it or to shore, and hauling people back in. We discussed a couple of the worst rapids, all of which had creative names. Mousetrap sounded particularly horrible. Getting jammed in those rocks and currents would’ve meant the boat would fold in half, so that the back touched the front and everyone was flung out.
I started to feel nervous, realizing how dangerous the grade five could be. Dec asked if anyone had ever died rafting on that river, and the answer was yes, although it was a long time ago. One such way to go is this: If you fall out of the boat and try to stand up in the river, your feet can get wedged in the rocks and the force of the water could bend you forward, holding your face under the water. For this reason, they taught us that the first thing to do when you fall out, other than grabbing the boat if possible, is to float on your back. It’s also possible to smash your head against the cliffs or rocks just under the surface of the water. Exciting!
When the grade fives came, we all pulled through. Everyone paddled hard, which is essential to balancing the boat, and everyone responded quickly to Jason’s shouted directions. The wind was strong and the waves swamped us, but we didn’t capsize and no one fell out.
Jason’s skills were really impressive. By knowing the river and observing the currents, he’d direct us through the rapids by yelling out the commands we’d practiced. It was all I could do to follow what he said, all the while screaming at the drops and scrunching my eyes shut against the walls of water smashing into us. I can’t imagine having to pay attention to the river and make split-second decisions on top of all that.
After our second set of grade five rapids, the hard part of the trip was over. We pulled over so Jason could watch the boat behind us make it through, then headed into some grade twos to play. At Jason’s prodding, I went to the front of the boat and was drenched in giant waves that actually poured down the front of my wetsuit. Jerk! Hans somehow managed to fall out of the boat on a grade one rapid, but Dec hauled him out right away by the shoulders of his life vest, just as we’d been taught. Very impressive! We’re given so much information in a relatively short time, and then we have to remember all of that through the rush of adrenaline and giant waves.
At one point, we pulled over so that people could go cliff jumping. It was a ridiculously high drop and the water was freezing, so I passed. I hate the feeling of my stomach dropping.
To finish the trip, we stood up in the boat - Jason’s trademark - and sang, “Fresh Prince of Belair,” which the group sings every time I tell someone I’m from Philadelphia. I was sad when it ended. I would’ve happily done it all over again.
Around midday, we stopped in the adorable town of Geraldine. Our group invaded a small farm store called Curds and Whey, which sold cheese, fudge and ice-cream that was made right there. I savored a truly excellent “lemon meringue pie” ce-cream cone and wished for another stomach, so I could eat a bunch of fudge, too.
Also in Geraldine’s favor, the public toilets were lovely. Rive rock columns decorated the exterior, and inside, there was a paua shell tile border.
In the afternoon, we visited the breathtaking Lake Tekapo (hehe). The water is the color of a swimming pool (due to silica and mica) and framed by snowy mountains. The tiny stone Church of the Good Shepherd on it shores must have the best views of any church in the world.
Driving on, we came to a field that was used in a few scenes of Lord of the Rings. We stopped to take some pictures and a rainbow appeared.
Bad weather was rolling in, so we changed our plans from a bush camp to a regular campsite. As we rolled in, our driver said, “Welcome to hell.” A huge group of school kids was spending a few days there. They were quite a hyperactive bunch, but cute. We watched their talent show later that night and made their day.