NZ, West Coast, Karamea River

After a couple of easy but traditional-style packrafting trips on the east side of the Southern Alps, I thought I’d head to the fabled West Coast and try my paddle on a multiday trip listed in the Guidebook, “New Zealand Whitewater” by Graham Charles.

The Landsborough had been my plan. But the roads are such slow going, that i didn’t fancy the two days it’d take to get from Arthur’s Pass down there. Also, Peggy and Jazz wanted to hike in somewhere, and the Landsborough doesn’t have a good track into its headwaters. The Landsborough will have to wait for my next trip to NZ.

Instead I took the suggestions of two excellent boaters: Alaska’s own Timmy Johnson and a CO boater named Dana Kopf, whom I met in the GC last January. Each had separately directed me and my packraft north to the Kahurangi National Park on the warm and sunny-ish end of the West Coast.

Armed with three maps (Departemnt of Conservation’s Kahungari National Park, and 1:50,000 scale Land Information Topo Maps, Karamea [L27] and Mount Arthur [M27]), notes from “New Zealand Whitewater” which listed the Karamea as III+ (IV) and 50 km long (also see, my red boat, a head net and four days food, I felt ready to go. Even without a partner for the river, alas.

To get to the put-in Peggy, Jazz and I drove to the Little Wanganui trailhead of the Wangapeka Track, about 30 mins of dusty road south of the end-of-the-world town of Karamea. From there we walked two days and maybe 20 miles to the Helicopter Flats Hut.

The walking was a bit slow, climbing steeply over a pass on mossy rocks through tree fern and podocarp forest, descending equally steeply through mossy southern beech forest. The huts are a godsend from the sand flies, which, while maybe a fifth or tenth the size of Alaskan mosquitoes get equally numerous and have a nastier bite, itchy and swelling.

Peggy and Jazz continued east on the Wangapeka Track. I headed down the Lost Valley Track and the Leslie Track. I’d hoped to put in high but the river looked too low until Venus Creek Hut.

From there I ran the so-called III+ rapids to Karamea Bend in 3 hours. It’s about 15 km. I scouted nothing, ran everything, and swam once. There’s a big hut there to get out of the flies.

The river’s a bit different than anything I’d ever run before. It’s not so much pool-drop as it is steep boulder gardens linked by lakes. The steep boulder gardens are mostly the result of big landslides from an Earthquake in the 1940s, I think, that dam the river into these lakes. The lakes are long and slender and get pretty deep sometimes but others you can see the bottom all the way. I saw trout as long as my arm and an eel as big as my boat, head down and undulating like some weird electricity.

Most of the lakes have stumps and even standing dead trees. All of the rapids have boulders. There are no real bedrock ledge drops. There are always sieves and undercut boulders – you really do not want to swim these rapids.

These steep boulder gardens are freaky. Their difficulty depends on the size of the boulders that make them up: Big boulders = big scary rapids. Little boulders = little fun rapids. Some of the boulders are simply enormous, house-sized literally, especially at the 1 km long Roaring Lion Rapid, which took an hour to portage and a couple crossings en route.

The river’s flow was weird too. Sometimes over sand and gravel it seemed like a creek – then when the boulder dams poked their scary heads up, the river would seem to pump up in volume and curl and eddy in 3-D ways around the big round granite boulders.

There were no normal eddy lines but instead a maze of eddy “curls” linking holes and boils and fountains of water pumping up from behind boulders.

Needless to say I spent a lot of time apprehensive about these drops. At times they came like every five or ten minutes. Meanwhile I had to paddle, often against a headwind, down the lakes in between.

I swam twice. Once the first day and once the second day. The first day I realized that the drops were never clean lines down smooth tongues, but rather, snaking slalom courses through bumpy, surprising water.

The second day I learned that swimming was not really an option.

I had to drive 4 hours after finishing the river to pick up Peggy and Jazz in Nelson, so to speed up my descent, on the second day, if I couldn’t boat scout it, then I’d just portage it. I portaged Roaring Lion, Ferris Creek rapid, and the four enormous (for me) rapids in Karamea Gorge, all called Class IV but each looked like a half-dozen American Class IV’s linked together, with something mean and nasty at the end for good measure.

The Gorge is supposed to be a good run for “Intermediates” who come in by helicopter. I guess that makes me a beginner. I was humbled.

All of the rapids start sort of slow and flat then get steeper until they chunder in a big drop at the bottom. This means that if you can’t see the bottom from the top, you’re in for it unless you scout.

I ran some pretty hard rapids and a lot of super fun ones. The stretch from below Ferris Creek to the top of the Gorge and its first rapid just upstream of Kakapo Creek (“Growler”) was my favorite. Uncountable challenging and technical drops with lakes in between.

Upstream was Ferris and Roaring Lion which I portaged. They made me sick just looking at them. With a week (instead of two days), a good team (like a kayak along to chase, save, and perform CPR), and the same low water and good weather I had, then MAYBE I’d have worked my way down Roaring Lion and Ferris. But alone…I feared for my life.

There were also a bunch of big river bars, but not gravel bars. The structure was a bit like teh Charley River, but instead of gravel the bars were boulders, steep and big. Still, you had to exit early into a channel that led toward the bank or get strained out. These were fun and challenging and felt safe.

Anyway, I guess i’d divide the river up into six sections:

(1) Venus to Karamea Bend – lower volume, twisty-turny boulder gardens. Fun in a packraft if you can paddle Class IV in America with one.

(2) Karamea Bend to Roaring Lion rapid – three rapids, four lakes. The first is fun, the second is hard, and the third looked easy-enough but I missed a boof (lots of boofing on this river) and got my ass-bone kicked, my knuckles scraped, my feet stuffed into wood in a seive, and my ankle nearly caught in a keyhole. This in a rapid I scouted.

(3) Roaring Lion and Ferris Creek sections – a mix of portages, ferry crossings, small drops, and a lake or two.

(4) Ferris Creek to Grey’s Hut – fun but scary. Sort of like big water creeking if such a thing exists. Lots of maneuvering and watching the river at your bow, ten feet ahead, thirty feet ahead, and down at the end as you snake through rocks everywhere – like my favored Ship Creek – but with the force of big water like Cataract Canyon or even the Grand!

(5) Karamea Gorge – Four NZ Class IV – like Packrafting VI or VII I’d say. There was one rapid called Holy Shit that looks like six Little Susitna Bridge drops (there’s a photo in my book of that) linked together and a Six Mile Staircase at the end for good measure: That’s an NZ IV!

(6) Below the Gorge you can catch your breath and just float a couple hours to the take-out.

I’d like to give it another go, but think I’ll spend a bit more time on West Coast rivers and their freaky boulder gardens first.

Maybe next year?

Great to read your trip report, Roman, and an exciting trip that would have been too.

Very close to home though - most of my packrafting experience to date has been rafting down the Roaring Lion R (note - “river”, not “rapids”), either with day packs at the end of a day’s fishing, or with the “whole lot” at the end of the week and a bit that we have spent in there fishing. The Lion is like a smaller version of the Karamea - if you’re in comparatively open water, most is fine, but there’s a small section of those huge boulders, and I just can’t see it being fun having a swim “under” one of them (in fact I’d call this nightmare material!).

I’ve rafted the Karamea from about half way between the RL hut and Karamea Bend Hut, down to the Earthquake Lakes, and apart from the last rapid into the Lakes, the rest was not very exciting, particularly as the upstream wind tended to blow us the wrong way. Below this, things seem to change a lot, and from my readings, it seems that most kayakers seem to portgage the “RL Rapid”.

Am off to the Lion this Thursday for 10 days (primary aim is for fly-fishing, but using rafts as above) - last year we took some video of rafting the Lion, but it was limited by the video battery running out mid trip, and so I’ve never posted it, although there was some reasonable footage. This year have additional battery for video, so will aim for a “youtube” video after we come back.

However, the worst aspect of any trip into this area is the sandflies - they are appalling, and most of the year I spend planning my next trip is spent trying to work out how to minimise their impact on myself!

AND, almost lastly, given that you were SO CLOSE to Oz, please remember that if you ever are actually HERE, and would like to take your tree climbing buddy , Tom Greenwood, packrafting, remember that I’ll always lend you a raft , although we don’t have much water!!

Finally, I am extremely grateful to you for pushing me to buy an Alpacka Raft when I was first enquiring about them - I have had, and expect to have, a lot of fun in mine.

Andrew Allan


A quick reply after being offline for the last week or so.

That’s really neat that you ran the Roaring Lion River. I saw it on the map and wondered about it – my the FISH in the Karamea are huge! Thanks for posting. I think there’s alot of potential there…also was in your neighborhood a couple weeks back – had dinner with Tom.

Let’s get together when I pass through again in February. We’ll likely stay at the Greenwoods.


I’d love to catch up with you and Tom when you’re here in Feb. Haven’t seen Tom for a while, but I still have a great memory of his enthusiasm for tree climbing at a school function a few years ago.

Got back from the RL yesterday, and the RL was low and the rafting rather less difficult or interesting this year than last year - it really needed a foot+ more of water. as it was down about 8" from last year, and we spent a lot of time avoiding boulders. I do wonder whether some of these rivers are actually harder to raft when low than when with reasonable flow…??! We caught plenty of fish, most of which were probably in the “huge” category (ie 4-7lbs).

I’ll try to put together some video in the next few weeks.

Andrew Allan