As we were planning our trip surround New Zealand’s northern island we looked at all the things to do there and river rafting in Rotorua was one of our “must do” activities.
Kaituna Cascades is a very special section of the Okere River. It is a 2 km section that drops 36 meters. The largest of the falls is a whopping 7 meters. It’s the highest drop of any commercially rafted river. Kaituna Cascades Rafting http://kaitunacascades.co.nz is the company we chose for our adventure.
We arrived the morning of our trip to find a basic building with all the gear, rafts and a handful of staff that were exactly what you might envision if you tried to conjure up river rafters in New Zealand. Casual, happy go lucky, enthusiastic fellows.
We signed the waivers (yup, we know there’s a 50% chance of serious bodily injury) and were kitted out with gear and sent off to the changing room. The gear was a 3 mm full wetsuit, neoprene boots, a fleece sweater and a waterproof jacket. All topped off with life vests and a helmet. Essentially we were bubble wrapped.
We then got a briefing on the trip we were about to take, mostly consisting of what to expect, how to paddle and what to do if you fell out. Nervous laughter was shared by all. After that they put us in the rafts in the parking lot to learn and practice how to sit and how to brace for going over the falls. This was pretty tough for me because it involved slipping off the side of the raft which we were sitting on and balling up on the floor, braced as best as possible and then popping back up to paddle once through. With the gear on we were already ungainly and Dan and I are quite large to squish in a small space together. Add in arthritic hips, knees, feet and shoulders and it was a real challenge to get into position. We ran through it a couple times until we had it sorted. I knew we could do it, it was just going to hurt.
After that we loaded the rafts on a trailer, hopped in a bus and took the short ride to the starting point.
Once there we clambered down the riverbank and loaded into the rafts. Our guides informed us that we would be quickly into a couple “practice” falls before we hit the big one. The first fall was actually the second largest and Dan and I were in the front. We were hit with a wall of cold water way over our heads as we plunged into the bottom. The rest of the group thought this was hilarious. We were familiar with this from canoeing and fully expected it considering the gear we were in.
The river itself is gorgeous. Everything you would expect of a river in New Zealand. It was lush with towering tree ferns, rhododendrons and beautiful thick vegetation. We paused after each fall and were able to enjoy the scenery. We were accompanied by a safety person in a kayak who expertly rode the falls before we did and was watching us come down each one. He was impressive handling the whitewater.
Soon it was time to tackle the highest waterfall in commercial rafting. We paused at the top for our safety kayaker to head down first. He blew a whistle to let us know the coast was clear. With a few brief reminders we were paddling furiously to orient ourselves properly for descent. It was thrilling as we plunged vertically off the fall to wind up with the raft completely underwater before popping up, breathless and exhilarated.
Well, that’s how it went for the other four people in the raft. Dan and I were both bounced out into the incredibly turbulent water. We had been instructed to drop our paddles and curl up in a ball if this happened. Neither one of us let go of our paddles for some unknown reason. We curled up as instructed and I popped up shortly, believing it was safe to take a breath and look around. I was immediately reclaimed by the river and only managed to grab the smallest of breaths and the largest possible mouthful of water. A number of rough and tumbled moments later I could straighten out and found the raft a short distance away. Our guide stretched out his paddle for me to grab and in no time they had hauled me back into the raft. Unfortunately, I was flopping around in the bottom like a big ole tuna for a while trying to get back into my seat.
Meanwhile they had turned their attention to Dan who had somehow gotten stuck under the raft and had to work his way out in order to be rescued. He describes that as somewhat alarming! They hauled him in and our raft was able to celebrate surviving the fall.
When I first heard that many people fall out of the raft I was concerned, but arrogantly thought that I wouldn’t fall out so I didn’t let it bother me. Now that we’ve experienced being in the water at the base of a waterfall I’m glad we got to do it. It was impressive to feel the power of that much water in a place like that.
The rest of the falls were fun, although not as dramatic as the big one. At the bottom of one of the last ones our guide maneuvered the raft front first into the spot the water was falling. This resulted in the people in front being completely covered by the falling water. I’m not sure why, but everyone loved it and we switched seats so everyone got a chance.
One of the falls he told us we could slip overboard and hang on to the ropes on the side and ride the falls that way. No one did.
After a quick 45 minutes we were back on the riverbank and into the bus to make our way back to the office. The happy chatter was a testament to how much fun we all had and Dan was trying to figure out if we had enough time to do it again in the next day or two. We peeled off our soaked layers and changed. they were selling picture packages that their photographer had taken and we had to have those. That’s why we have the pictures of us on the raft.
Dan did go again, 2 days later. I was feeling very beat up from the experience (although I loved it) and chose to spare my body for our next adventures. I was able to video their trip over the largest waterfall and Dan was able to stay in the raft this time!