The upper reaches of the Kaituna River are pretty and placid enough.
In between bursts of frenetic paddling and brief flurries of white water, you’ll probably have time to admire the country through which the river meanders, putting the ‘gorge’ in ‘gorgeous’ all the way. The bush overhangs the water, and the banks are pocked with caves. The entire area is significant to the Arawa, the local iwi, and every bend in the river and hole in the rock has its place in myth and legend. The guides relate some of the stories to you, and indicate points of interest as you pass.
While they seemed pleasant enough on dry land and on the drive out to the drop-in point, you swiftly discover that rafting guides are actually the direct descendants of the types the Romans used to employ to keep their galley-slaves earning their gruel. Fortunately, in these enlightened days, Occupational Safety and Health considerations prevent them using a cat-o’nine-tails to keep the tempo up, but there’s little short of the lash that they won’t resort to in their quest for paddle speed when the water whitens up.
Here and there, the guides refresh your memory on some of the finer points of the safety briefing they delivered at the beginning of the trip. You’ve been through a few rapids by now, you’ve felt the muscles of the river through the canvas floor of the boat, nothing you couldn’t handle. So what’s all the fuss about?
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed, scattered through their patter, the odd mention of something they refer to only as ‘the Big One’. Some monster of the Kaituna, you’re led to believe, something waiting downstream from here. Something to be reckoned with.
And once you’re gasping, shaken and stirred, at the foot of the first waterfall, and the guides have explained it’s a tiddler compared to ‘the Big One’, then you start to get a sense of what you might be in for. And soon enough, it’s upon you.
There’s a bit of frantic paddling to do to get the boat all lined up, then at your guide’s invitation, you ship your paddle, get down in the bottom of the boat and hold tight to the safety rope. And over you go, over ‘the Big One’, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the southern hemisphere and the reason the Kaituna is grade five water (grade one is flat; grade five is not). Wet, wild – and wonderful.