We were right in the middle of a roaring set of rapids when the raft flipped. We had pulled ashore half an hour earlier to scout the series of rapids that the New Zealanders had quaintly named Mother.
From a cliff 40 feet above the Shotover River we had seen that the origin of the name was not affectionate. Mother is a series of Class 4 and 5 rapids. The guidebook describes Class 5 as follows:
"Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids following each other, almost without interruption. River bed extremely obstructed, big drops, violent current, steep gradient."
Class 6 is "Unrunnable." Looking down from above I thought that Mother fit the description of Class 5 perfectly. I also thought that we were all too young to die but that there was no way out but downriver.
Down From the Alps
The Shotover River flows for 40 miles from the high peaks of New Zealand's Southern Alps, near the South Island city of Queenstown. The rafting season on the Shotover extends from the spring snowmelt in mid-October through the end of summer in March. The best rafting is between November and January when the water is high.
We arrived in Queenstown in late February at the height of the New Zealand summer. The city, one of the world's most beautiful resort towns, is at the base of the Alps alongside the crystal-clear water of 50-mile-long Lake Wakatipu.
Queenstown is a good base for exploring the southern mountains and the west coast fiords such as Milford Sound. Accommodations are plentiful except during mid-summer from late November through February. During this period it would be wise to make reservations.
Six companies run trips on nearby rivers and offer a wide selection in terms of trip length and difficulty. The Lower Shotover trip is popular because it packs a lot of excitement into a beautiful five-hour float. The cost varies from N.Z.$50 to N.Z.$60 (U.S.$30-$36).
A van from Skippers Canyon River Expeditions picked up nine of us in the center of Queenstown, towing a trailer with the rafts in it. The 20-mile drive to the put-in was a thrill as we climbed high into the mountains to a narrow gravel road that descended sharply into Skippers Canyon. The thousand-foot drop-off at one side provided spectacular sightseeing for those of us with our eyes open.
A Chance to Talk
On the drive in we had a chance to talk to our head boatman, Bob Huffman of Knoxville, Tenn., and his assistant, Ben Griffiths of Queenstown. Bob was a warm, down-home kind of a guy working his fourth rafting season in New Zealand. Ben was a skilled local rafting guide with a healthy respect for this river.
The road descended steeply to the river and our put-in at Deep Creek. They provided us with sleeveless wet suits, life jackets and rafting helmets. Bob gave us a safety talk; the Shotover is a fast, powerful river even in late summer and water safety is taken very seriously.
We climbed into our two rafts and pushed off into the current. My friend Susan and I shared a raft with a friendly young couple from Australia. Ben sat in the stern as our rudder man. He called out commands as we practiced turns and paddled in unison.
After a few small rapids we pulled together as a team and had a chance to relax and look around. The river had etched its way through layers of gray shale at the bottom of the steep canyon. The valley's golden grasses and green trees made it look much like that of California's Mother Lode country. Gold was discovered here in the late 1800s. Downriver we passed a large, active gold dredge processing gravel alongside the river.
The water was emerald green with very little silt and, like most snow-fed rivers, quite cool. The mountain sky was a rich royal blue, and the intense sunlight combined with paddling kept us warm.
The first big rapid was called Rock Garden, an obstacle course of boulders followed by a four-foot waterfall. We navigated past the rocks and slipped over the fall, only to get caught in a "retentive." That's when the water at the base of the fall surges up to the surface and then back upstream.
The fall poured directly into the raft, filling it quickly. We did a high-side drill, leaping to the side of the raft opposite the waterfall to try to free it. The raft responded by reversing ends but refused to release.
Just as we wondered if we would spend the next two weeks caught in the fall, Bob's raft came along at full steam and knocked us out of the hole and slipped through without being caught. Using large plastic buckets, we bailed out the cold water and thanked Ben for making us wear our wet suits.
The river is a good mix of calm and white water. We warmed ourselves in the sun as we drifted past beautifully polished rock formations. The roar of white water ahead broke the reverie and got the adrenaline pumping again.
We careened over boulders and threaded the Needle, a narrow gap between two large rocks. Drifting quietly again, we watched birds soaring in the thermals high above the canyon walls.
The gorge began to narrow and deepen as we confronted what appeared to be a mountain directly ahead. We could hear the deep thunder of Mother's four sets of rapids as the boatmen steered us toward the left bank.
Sharp Left Turn
Pulling the rafts ashore, we climbed a steep rocky trail to a high ledge overlooking the rapids. An earthquake fault running down the valley created an obstacle course for the river to drop through.
At the first set of rapids, named for the sharp slab of vertical rock, Shark's Fin, the cliff-blocked river made a sharp left turn. It poured down through a narrow opening into what is called the Toilet. The Toilet is a caldron of frothing white leading into a jumble of rocks and surging water perfectly named Pinball. The ball in this game is a neoprene raft full of people and the flippers are the rocks.
The final set of rapids below Pinball is called the Twins. The two sharp rocks in midstream used to be notorious for tearing the bottoms out of rafts at high water. Three years ago, after several companies had damaged new boats, some unknown party dynamited the Twins into rubble during the low-water period. A huge haystack of water marks the spot.
Up on the cliff, we surveyed the course and munched on the picnic the boatmen had brought. After plotting our route through the rapids, we hiked back to the rafts and pushed off into the current.
Ben yelled out turn commands as we surged past the Shark's Fin but the torrent of white water had flooded the raft. A water-filled raft handles like an aquatic cement truck--difficult to paddle and impossible to steer. We bailed urgently as we drifted downstream. It was imperative that we regain our buoyancy and steering before we hit the Toilet.
We finished bailing just in time to grab our paddles as we shot into the chute of white foam. At the bottom, a boil of water thrusting from below tilted the raft against a rock on the side. Ben shouted to leap for the high side, but the raft flipped in an instant, dumping us right in the middle of the river's biggest set of rapids.
Bobbing Like Corks
Paddle still in hand, I grabbed the rope that circles the raft and saw the two other men hanging on, too. The women were bobbing in the water downstream of us like corks. We all went for the roller-coaster ride through Pinball and over the Twins that was quite a thrill. The wet suit and life jacket provided buoyancy and, flashing back to the pre-trip safety talk, we floated with our feet downstream to push off from any rocks we encountered.
Below the Twins we dropped into a pool of calm, shallow water where we could stand up and flip over the raft. The Australian woman had drifted farther downstream and we raced down to pick her up.
The Shotover's challenges weren't over yet. Between us and the takeout lay the Oxenbridge Tunnel and Cascade. The 450-foot long, 15-foot diameter tunnel was built parallel to the river to divert its flow so that the old stream bed could be mined. A Class 4 cascade lurked at the tunnel exit.
We pushed off again, passed through the poetically-named Bonecruncher rapid and were soon approaching the tunnel. Ben asked me to hang over the bow and keep it aimed straight down the tunnel as we shot into it. It was an unusual experience to zoom down the dark gun barrel of noisy water, crouching low to avoid the rock passing three feet overhead. We aimed for the circle of light at the far end and soon shot out into the sun.
The Tunnel Cascade was a big drop down a chute surrounded by boulders. We slid sideways up a rock again, but the river pulled us loose before the raft could flip. We floated into calm water laughing and gasping, but happy that we had survived the Shotover.
Our van was waiting for us at the takeout and we stood on the beach talking to our new friends about what a great trip it had been.
The Lower Shotover is one of the world's most exciting short raft trips. If this trip seems to have too much excitement for you, many other rafting and jet boat trips are available in Queenstown that will take you into the dramatic Southern Alps.
For brochures about raft trips on the Shotover and other New Zealand rivers contact the New Zealand Government Tourist Office, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1530, Los Angeles 90024, phone (213) 477-8241.