Today we woke up in Nelson on the north end of the south island and drove to Westport on the west coast. Along the way we stopped off in Murchison for our adventure of the day. Most of the drive it was spitting a bit. That's rain in kiwi speak. This rain was but a sprinkle compared to downpour that occurred during the night. A violent and long lasting rain woke all of us except Niko. Sleeping in a camper, one really gets a feel for how hard it is raining and all of us save Niko were very impressed by the tenacity of the downpour. Speaking of weather, the other thing we noticed was that it was starting to get colder the further south we went. It still seems strange that south means cold, but so it goes in the southern hemisphere.
The drive from Nelson to Westport was the same twisty curvy mountain hugging experience that has typified all of New Zealand. The main difference on the south island versus the north island is that the terrain is more severe. As the mountains get higher and the weather gets colder I can already anticipate seeing the misty mountains that Gandalf attempted to cross before succumbing to the bowels of morea. That scene was filmed in the Alps, which are a bit south of us yet. The highways of New Zealand are predominantly one lane in each direction and divided only by a white stripe. The good thing is that I've gotten used to driving on the left side without hugging the left shoulder. The roads on the first leg of today's driving weren't too bad and in about three hours we reached Murchison.
Murchison is a small town on the Buller River, in kiwi that's pronounced Bulla Riva. As we got within a half and hour of Murchison we noticed several surging streams that were dumping into the Bulla. The rain was obviously increasing the flow of the surrounding waterways. That seemed fortuitous for us because we were going to do some white water rafting on the Bulla. The outfitter we were going to head out with was called Ultimate Descents. We didn't know where they were located but as we turned on to the main street, there they were. The town is so small that there really isn't anywhere else they could be.
Since it was a touch cold on top of spittin a bit, we weren't quite sure we were up for a rafting trip. Ultimate Descents told us they outfit their patrons in polypropylene under layers, followed by fleece, followed by a wetsuit, followed by a splash jacket. It seemed like pretty good protection from the elements so off we went. So far, the part where we get dressed in a load of gear has been an exciting time typified by ear-to-ear smiles. We are all chuckles and filled with anticipation for what lies ahead. We never know just what it will be but we have a pretty good idea that it'll be a blast. That's how it was this time too. Demi got a kick out of her wetsuit and once she had it on she showed it to all of us. These wetsuits were much thicker than any we had worn before. We also wore thick neoprene booties, helmets and of course, life jackets. All geared up we were quite a spectacle.
Adam was our guide for the day. He's a local and comes from a family where both of his other two brothers are also river guides. Adam is very fit and looked Scottish to me with long red hair. On our way out of town Adam showed us his house that he had just bought last week for $86,000. It was a one-story ranch that was very typical of the areas housing stock. Adam guided for about half the year and the other half he pruned pines in the forest. They prune the lower branches so that after another 20 years of growth they have knot free wood that is used for plywood veneers. When he's pruning it's up at 4:30 and cutting by 6:00. He works with a ladder and clears branches up about 20 feet or so. The going wage is $36/tree and he does about 100 trees a day. During the tree pruning season its four days on and three days off.
After driving about half an hour back up riva, we unloaded the raft and got our safety instructions. We were told that if you fall out of the raft you are to float feet first down the river keeping your toes out of the water. Just hearing about the possibility of being separated from the raft got Demi a little worried. Molly assured her that it was unlikely anyone would fall into the river and these instructions were just in case. Then Adam went over the three commands, paddle, hold on and hold on-get down. Hold on is grabbing one of the ropes that encircle the raft while pointing the T end of the oar down and into the raft. This takes the paddle blade up, out of the water and removes the possibility of it unexpectedly catching a wave in rough water. The hold on-get down command is the same thing except you are to get your but on the bottom of the raft ASAP. It was sounding like we had better be paying attention.
A few moments later we all grabbed a rope and carried our craft into an eddy of the Bulla Riva. The Bulla is the third largest river in New Zealand and is the largest river that is not dammed. Adam gave a push off shore and quite suddenly the current grabbed us and off we went. I don't know the vertical drop of the Bulla but it is certainly a swift piece of water.
We hit some rollers pretty quick and it immediately became crystal clear why Ultimate outfits their patrons so warmly. The Bulla is as cold as it is swift. We had several waves that broke over our heads so everyone got pretty well doused. The rapids were class two with every once in a while, a hole that was class three. Overall it wasn't that hairy so Adam steered us into the biggest of the waves for excitement and more dousing. Twice he purposefully rammed us into a cliff wall so that we would pirouette on the rebound. The Bulla flows through some steep rock faces. On several stages it carved it's way though a gorge.
Once Adam warned us about an upcoming merging river. He said the water there gets a bit confused. He would position us to hug the seam of the two rivers floating down in a backwards position. Once we hit the confused water we would spin around nose first and be clear of it. That is exactly what we did. The degree of control that Adam had with just one oar was very impressive. We also learned that if you put your paddle in the water and rest the T end of handle in your helmets ear hole you can very clearly hear the rocks tumbling along the river bottom. The acoustics are surprisingly clean and crisp, not at all the muffled ruddy sound I had expected.
Of course the boys got to asked Adam about the biggest water he ever rafted on. He said that they regularly take groups on weeklong overnight trips on class V rapids. He accompanies those groups on a kayak as a safety guide; scouting out upcoming sections of the river, using ropes where necessary to guide the rafts and generally being ready to handle whatever emergency situations may arise. Torger asked him how tall the biggest waterfall he ever went over. Adam said it was about 20 feet and he went over it in a kayak.
Molly has a fingertip that gets cold and white when she gets chilled. It's kind of a bio thermometer that tells her how cold she is. Despite the fact that the rain had picked up and we were getting sprayed on regular occasion, Molly's finger remained a very satisfactory pink. Demi however, was getting shivery. Her wet suit wasn't nearly as thick as ours. We pulled over into an eddy and I grabbed a hold of an overhanging branch. Adam opened a dry box and got out some more clothes. Demi and Niko got neoprene gloves and Demi got a few more layers of fleece pulled over her, life preserver and all. She also got a neoprene cap to wear under her helmet. In the end she looked like she had a hunchback but she got warmer.
We were on the water for about two hours in total. Once we got back to Ultimate Descents building, we excitedly headed to the shower, there was only one. Torger got there first and the rest of us waited in a line right behind him. The shower was hot and felt luxurious. Then we all got into warm clothes and sat down in a kind of garage with carpeting and sofas. We were given tea, soda and baguette sandwiches. This is the second adventure we've had with wetsuits and a meal afterward. It was very nice.
Then it was back to the camper for the second leg of out driving. Adam cautioned us about the first 30 minutes of out drive. We would be going through the Bulla gorge and the road is twisty and slippery. Here was yet again another experience outside of Molly's comfort zone. New Zealand has been full of these moments for her.
The road was indeed twisty as we followed the surging Bulla out to the ocean. Along the way we encountered several single lane bridges as well as sections of roadway that similarly narrowed to a single lane. That's one lane in total for both directions of traffic. This generally occurs when the hillside or cliffside is too severe to accommodate anything wider. Most distressingly, this happens at sharp bends in the road resulting in single lane with an extended blind corner. Molly and I were in disbelief. This was way worse that the old Killer 82 (the nickname for the old highway between Glenwood Springs and Aspen, CO). We made it without incident but not without swallowing hard a few times.
Another 90 minutes or so and we were in Westport.