The thing I’ve learned about adventure is there are a lot of things to remember. White water rafting on the Kaituna River near Rotorua, New Zealand was no exception. Kaituna boasts many rapids and waterfalls, among which is Tutea Falls, a 7-meter (23-foot) waterfall that is the longest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. And we went over it in a raft. But more on that soon.
Our day started when the Bloke with a Bus from Kaitiaki Adventures picked us up at our hotel. We went to their headquarters and got our gear: water booties, a life jacket, a helmet, and an optional windbreaker to prevent sunburn (which I opted for – I’m the only one in my boat wearing one in all the pics). Then we loaded up in another bus to go out to the river.
On the ride out to the river, one of the guides ran us through some safety information. The number 1 rule was to always keep your feet up if you’re in the water. In other words, you want to lead with your feet and not your head. The guides assured us that if you fall out of the boat, it’s your own fault. If you follow their instructions, you’ll be fine. Though they did point out that the big waterfall has a mind of its own. When we arrived at river, we unloaded the boats and paddles and carried them down to the launch.
We divided into teams of 6 per boat and got some additional instructions from our individual guides.
It was at about this point that I started to realise that adventure requires you to remember lots of stuff. Keep your hand on the t-grip if you’re in the raft unless it’s a “Hold on” or “Get down.” For a “Hold on,” paddle to the outside, and hang on. For a “Get down,” widen your stance, paddle to the outside, squat down in the middle of the raft, head down, hold on to the handle in the floor of the raft. And those are just the things we absolutely had to do, not even all the instructions for what to do if you fall out of the boat on the waterfall (bottom line: curl in a ball and wait to surface).
Before we moved into the water, we stopped and paid respect to the Maori spirits there. It turns out that the Tutea Falls on the Kaituna River is the burial ground for Chief Tutea, a great Maori chief from this area. Kaitiaki Adventures is the only company who asked permission to raft the Kaituna of the Ngāti Pikiao, the Maori tribe who safeguards this river. The Ngāti Pikiao granted this request. The traditional Maori name for the river is Okere River or Waterfall River, whereas Kaituna refers to the food source the river provides. The river is said to be full of eels.
And then we were off. We had the chance to practice remembering all the things on a couple small waterfalls before we got to the big one. We had plenty of time to do a proper “Get Down,” and going over wasn’t nearly as tense as I expected. Eventually we came out the other side.
Descending Tutea Falls. Photo credit: Kaitiaki Adventures
Unfortunately all of the rafts in our group were not so lucky. One of the guides was injured when someone’s paddle got caught on some rocks on the way down and slammed into the guy’s ribs. I think a couple were probably cracked or broken, and he had to be taken off the river. I can only imagine this was extremely painful for the poor guy. But a new guide came down, and the raft went on.
After Tutea Falls, we got to have some fun in the rapids. On one of the smaller ones, the guide let me (made me?) sit on the front of the boat, hood-ornament-style. That was actually really fun until I had to navigate back through the moving raft. The two women in front got to go into a rapid face-first while the rest of us paddled, and they seemed to enjoy that, though there wasn’t much talking for all the water.
We got out of the river and carried our boat and paddles up a hill to the waiting trucks, loaded up in the little buses and went back to headquarters. After dropping off our gear, we loaded up the other bus and went back to the hotel.
I thoroughly enjoyed the entire adventure, which was my first time white water rafting. I may have to try again sometime soon.
Title quote: Laura Gilpin