FAIRLIE, NEW ZEALAND — Today, we went on our last scheduled activity in New Zealand, a rafting trip down the Rangitata River.
We started our day by chatting to our host Greg for a good long time over breakfast. He was quite skilled with his espresso maker and whipped up a nice cappuccino, which Beth appreciated. To allow him to start cleaning the room for his next guest, some guy named Torsten from Berlin — what are the odds? — we moved our stuff out and went to the living room.
Greg would have none of it: He plopped down right next to us and the conversation continued. Someone really has to start telling these Kiwis to be a little less friendly.
On our way to the rafting base, we stopped by the famous (by now, even to us) Fairlie Bakehouse, which was already busy, with lots of guests on the patio. We picked up what we thought would be our lunch: a tomato-bacon-avocado sandwich and a steak pie with mushrooms plus an apricot tart and cheesecake brownie.
With the hyper-punctual German on this team urging us to leave, we drove straight to the rafting base and got there early for our noon meeting time. By the time the shuttle bus from Christchurch arrived, we were all lathered up in sunscreen, changed and ready to go. But first: The outfitter provided lunch, which of course totally messed with our plans. We made ourselves sandwiches anyway, and then it was ready to get dressed.
By now, after our rafting trip on the Shotover River and the overnight kayak on Doubtful Sound, we were pretty familiar with the routine of getting suited up for cold-water paddling, so it went quickly.
Torsten had hoped to attach his GoPro to the life vest, but was told that they already had lost 30 cameras this season because they weren’t secured well enough — which they deemed Torsten’s would not be. So he left it, hoping to get some videos from another guy who had the proper mount on his helmet.
The beginning of the raft was a paddle down a flat section with views of the surrounding gentle hills, covered in parched grass, and a view back at the Southern Alps, where the Rangitata originates.
The river was really mellow, so we received our safety briefing in the raft from our guide Steve, who looked exactly like a chubby Heath Ledger. We shared the raft with the photographer and a newlywed local couple who now live on Australia’s Gold Coast.
In the beginning, we paddled a lot on the slow-moving river, but soon we hit Class 2 and 3 rapids with standing waves, into which our raft dove nose first. We realized this was going to be a very different experience from our Shotover raft a few weeks ago, as the river had a lot more water and the rapids appeared bigger.
In one Class 3 rapid, Steve intentionally headed for a large boulder in the middle of the rapids, yelling for us to “get down!” — probably checking that we were ready for the bigger waters ahead. By now, the scenery had changed from the wide open plains to a narrow, beautiful gorge.
We landed our rafts just before running the first Class 5 rapids and climbed onto a cliff to see what awaited us and for our guides to come up with a game plan. The rapids were 50 meters long and looked intimidating, with not a stretch of calm water anywhere. Nobody took the option to walk around them, so back to the rafts it was!
As we went through, we thought that the rapids weren’t as bad as we thought, but just a barrel of fun. Just after the first big one, there was a stretch of 350 meters with rapid after rapid, with names like Mouse Trap, Hells Gate, The Slot, The Pinch, Rooster Tail, Tsunami and Pencil Sharpener. The gorge was comparatively short and ended in a narrow stretch.
We landed our rafts again and went for a swim, stepping off a short cliff into the glacial water, which seemed not that cold — we must be acclimating. There still was a significant current and whirlpools that spun us around, and our guide told us to not get trapped in a spot they called Garage Sale Eddy, where “stuff gets in and gets swirled around, but never makes it out.”
It was a little challenging to swim and avoid the cliff edges, but also a lot of fun. To get out, we had to swim to a cliff on the opposite shore, with the current having other ideas. We both missed the rock, but Torsten was closer to it and was able to swim back on the backside, and Beth got what looked like a fun ride by being pulled in with a rope. The current here definitely was deceptive.
Once back in the raft, we were allowed to switch positions, something our guide told us we couldn’t do when we tried just before the Class 5 rapids. The remaining rapids were again somewhat tame, but the memory of “the big ones” still lingered. I think everybody wanted to do that run again.
On our way back after taking out the raft, which involved carrying the raft on four guys’ heads, much like you see women in Africa balancing water jugs, we drove through a sheep pasture, which also turned out to be fun.
As we were speeding by, the sheep started to run away from the van (who knew these cute little wool balls would be so fast?), but, as we pulled abreast, realized they couldn’t outrun it. So one after another, they turned on a dime and ran the other way. We felt a little bad seeing the terror in their eyes as we went by, but we were impressed by their agility.
This was our second rafting trip, and it could not have been more different from our Shotover trip. The rapids on Shotover were not as exciting, but there seemed to be a longer run of them. The water on the Shotover was definitely colder than the Rangitata, and the scenery was more dramatic, but the rapids on the Rangitata were harder and a bit more fun. We’re glad we did them both, and we would do either of them again.
After the raft, there was a barbecue waiting for us, so once again we didn’t have to eat our lunches. We did eat the apricot torte for dessert, and it was delicious. After that, there wasn’t much else to do besides drive to Christchurch, our last stop in New Zealand.
We opted for the Scenic Inland Route instead of the faster Highway 1 and were rewarded with a beautiful view of the Rakaia Gorge, another one of these turquoise-colored rivers flowing through a beautiful gorge. We even considered coming back to hike a 5km path, and maybe we’ll do that if there’s not much else to do in Christchurch.
We arrived at our Airbnb around 7pm to meet our hosts Rob and Karen, who showed us around their beautiful home. They were about to go out to dinner, but they offered Beth a glass of delicious Mud House sauvignon blanc and Torsten some Earl Grey, and we had a nice 30-minute conversation.
After they left, we had our sandwich and brownie from the Fairlie Bakehouse (both delicious) and tucked ourselves into luxurious linens for a good night’s sleep.