Rafting New Zealand’s Shotover River is not for the faint-hearted — it’s a ride which has claimed several lives, but left most with stories of an adrenalin ride of a lifetime. Robin McKelvie samples one of the country’s most talked about attractions.
Descending deep into the bowels of New Zealand’s South Island, we were looking for adventure and we found it. Many would-be rafters ride the winding road deep up into Queenstown’s Shotover River, but as we are in search of the 100 per cent adrenaline experience, we opt for a helicopter. Bad move for me as I’m terrified of heights and not too keen on flying either.
“Watch your head or you’ll lose it,” we’re warned as we crouch along the ground to the helicopter. Just the start I didn’t want.
In an instant the ground falls away — along with our stomachs — as we arch up into the sky. Sliding up the mountainside I feel rather proud that I haven’t clenched my eyes shut yet, but that is before we reach the summit. At the top of the ridge we seem to hang motionless for a second before spiralling in gut-wrenching loops toward the canyon floor.
All thoughts of scenic photographs are abandoned as survival becomes the only concern. Just as it appears we’re about to provide a spectacular fireball crash for the waiting rafters below, we level out and swoop down onto the valley floor.
Safety is a major issue when rafting the treacherous Shotover River as a number of rafters have perished in the last couple of years. Horrific tales are told of people being sucked under the water by the “toaster” rapids and popped back-up a couple of days later. Recently stories have appeared in the New Zealand press questioning the wisdom of running tatting trips for beginners down the lethal Shotover.
Our guides are thorough and won’t let anyone to raft unless they are sure they’re comfortable with the idea. Our guide, Mark warns, “Some people aren’t suited to white-water rafting. They think it’s just a boat trip, but they soon get a big surprise..”
A few anxious looks tremble around the assembled crowd of international travellers as our heads fill with images of a watery grave, but no one avoids taking on the Shotover. We’re soon kitted out in wet suits and life jackets.
The calm first couple of kilometres allow us to practice the crucial “get down” position we have to adopt in rapids if we want to have any hope of staying in the raft. We run through all the safety drills, including throwing out flimsy ropes to anyone who falls into the churning rapids — a move which seems designed more to reassure nervous first-time rafters than to offer any real hope of being plucked back on board in the middle of the foaming water.
Hitting white-water our heartbeats soar as we lose the horizon in a wave of screams.
“Get down,” bellows our guide as the freezing, frothy, fresh water engulfs us. We panic our way through the first few minutes of wobbly chaos, before our seven-strong crew starts to work like a team and somehow we manage to rumble our way through the “Mother”, “Jaws” and “Cascade” rapids without losing anyone.
Before each of the major rapids my stomach swells with a sickly ache, strangely reminiscent of the feeling I used to get before entering exams at university. As soon as we hit the rough water though, all conscious thoughts are abandoned as we concentrate on battling our way through. At the same time we try to ensure our legs are tucked in hard enough to keep us on board.
Just when we think we’ve made it to the end unscathed, we peel off to the right and into the dark void of the notorious Oxenbridge Tunnel — a tight rock tunnel. We whirl through only inches away from the solid rock edges. It’s difficult to see, but we can just about make out the sheer rock walls hugging tightly against the side of our inflatable as we spin through.
Pouring out into the light at the finish — our veins pumping with adrenaline — we bash our paddles together in celebration as the photographer snaps our excitement. Each of us is filled with a genuine sense of achievement at having taken on one of New Zealand’s roughest rivers and a river rated highly worldwide.
Back in the café we’re all treated to a warming drink and a hearty beef burger. With smiles as broad as our burgers, we enthuse with our fellow intrepid backpackers with our day — a day torn wildly between wide-eyed fear and an exhilarating sense of achievement.