Get off the beaten track, close to nature, away from life's toils and troubles, where thinking like a fish can lead to elemental discoveries, even about yourself.
I am off to New Zealand to fish for trout. It is a simple and appealing proposition: we will stay at the scenic and upmarket Tongariro Lodge at Turangi and spend three days working the lakes and streams of the Tongariro National Park, which adjoins Lake Taupo in the south-central region of the North Island. Nobody tells me I will find myself in a tiny raft, tossed about by thrashing white water, bashed against rocks, hurtling down the mighty Tongariro River rapids in an experience that is to be terrifying, stimulating and, ultimately, satisfying.
Tongariro Lodge is one of New Zealand’s best-known fishing destinations. It has attracted the likes of former US president Jimmy Carter because of its facilities, picture-postcard views and proximity to trout weighing up to 5kg. The lodge books local fishing guides and we spend our first day wading in the river near Turangi. Refreshing casting skills and experimenting with various flies means a slow start and we don’t trouble the scorers all day. The next day we spend in a tinny on Lake Otamangakau, a man-made body of water, part of the region’s extensive hydro-electricity network. Again, fish are sparse but we manage to net a lovely 3kg rainbow, thus satisfying our elemental hunter-gatherer instincts. It is the only fish we take. All others are returned to the water.
We then get our instructions for the third day: “We will fish a series of ponds and pools up the river which can be accessed only by raft.” That sounds OK. I mention it to a friend, who urges me to take care because “rafting is for young people”. Even after that I have no concept of what is to follow. It unfolds step by step. Our guide, Graham Dean, picks us up at the lodge, takes us to the depot of Tongariro River Rafting, fits us out with waders and other safety equipment, introduces us to our raft pilot, Jason Ruznic, a 25-year-old from Wisconsin, then drives us to a drop-off point on the river about 15km from Turangi. In our minibus are a half-dozen others, chatting excitedly about their white-water rafting adventure. White water? Yes, rapids. Rapids? Nobody told me we would be belting down grade 3 rapids on a tiny bubble of PVC and rubber.
And so it is with much trepidation I kit up with a life vest and crash helmut and listen to the safety instructions. But there is no backing out, and off we go, with Jason perched on a demountable seat amidships, armed with a pair of oars, Graham sitting on the stern and my fishing partner and I in the bow, peering over the inflatable raft’s nose at the water below. Soon we are in our first rapids with rocks everywhere — on the banks of the river, on the bed, clearly visible through the translucent water, and jutting out midstream. We scrape over them as Jason deftly manoeuvres the raft to follow the fastest flowing water as we bounce and swerve our way through, sometimes pointing in the direction of our flow, other times beam on.
As we approach the swirling rapids, the water white and throwing up spray, we begin to believe that the end is nigh. We stare at the abyss below and are convinced that nothing can possibly survive the turbulence. Disaster must surely come, but we find ourselves slipping over the maelstrom as easily as a beer over a summer tongue. We look back at the waterfalls, give thanks, and ready ourselves for the next. Soon terror turns to anticipation as adrenalin wipes away fear and we relax, go with the flow, marvel at the landscape with its 60m-deep gorges studded with ferns and other foliage, observe the stratification of rock walls and even study the colours of white water.
As we approach rock ledges and areas where the water runs fastest we look over the bow at whirlpools of swirling white, edged by flashes of the softest glacial turquoise. Light and the shadows of rocks turn the water into a kaleidoscope of greens, from eggshell through teal, eucalyptus green-grey, aquamarine to jade, mixing with blue hues ranging from the softest tones of dawn through to deep, impenetrable inky navy. We face a string of rapids, each with a name: Pete’s Pool, McGyver’s Mistake, the Roller Coaster, the Leg Breaker, the Big Slip and one particularly tricky number called The Bitch. I like Old Grandad’s Underpants, so named because a patch of white pumice on the rock wall above looks like an upturned Y-front.
From time to time Jason warns us, “We’ll hit the wall ahead, so keep your arms in.” Hitting the wall means the raft slams into a rock bank so hard it must surely burst, bounces back into the stream and does a 360-degree pirouette as Jason lines it up for the next challenge.
In all, we raft 12km down the river, which falls 235m across that distance. That’s almost five times the height of Niagara Falls, yet along the way there are many placid pools and ponds where we are able to beach the raft and cast our flies. For eight hours we alternately fish and face the rapids, enjoying the buzz of adrenalin followed by pristine calm. We catch a good number of 1.5-2kg rainbows, reminding ourselves that we have it easy. The fish, driven by primeval forces, swim up these rapids to spawn.
Garth Oakden has been running Tongariro River Rafting for 25 years and estimates he has sent 300,000 people down the river in a 2½-hour trip that does not include fishing. “Everyone gets wet, but very few fall out,” he says.
Photography: Tongariro River Rafting
This article originally appeared on www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license.