This wild and remote epic through East Cape Country is one of the top multi-day Packrafting trips in the North Island. It flows through spectacular dense forest and gorgy scenery. It is a popular rafting trip particularly with hunters who also utilise jet boats for access.
The Motu River is the Premier whitewater wilderness trip in the North Island. With lower summer flows the gorges are mostly Class III but with winter flows you can expect a Class IV trip. With high flows Class V water will be found.
The country around the Raukumara range, through which the river flows, is mountainous remote and difficult. It was the last area in the country to be mapped. Only the most experienced Packrafter‘s should consider this trip under anything but summer flows.
This write-up is based on Graham Egarr (Whitewater and North Island Rivers) and various first hand accounts (e,g, Coutts). There is very good google earth imagery in Google Earth Pro.
In the 1970s the Motu narrowly escaped becoming a couple of large hydro Lakes! It was evaluated for hydro potential by the Ministry of Works. Several dam sites were investigated and a road pushed in to Otipi. However, the significance of the rivers wilderness features and recreational value was recognized and in 1982 the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust applied for a water conservation order. The National Water Conservation (Motu River) Order 1984 protects the river in perpetuity.
An Epic “Corner Pocket” Wall Rapid (Egarr)
The shuttle is long and difficult and cars should not be left at the Road ends – arrange a shuttle with a local shuttle company
To get to the put in drive south from Opotiki on the State Highway through the Waioeka gorge to Matawai (north of Gisborne). Take the Motu Road, which turns off the main highway at Matawai, which becomes Motu Falls Road. Go as far down the road as possible along the right bank to Waitangirua station (get permission first). It is possible to put in below the falls but most trips put in as far down as they can to avoid a fairly uneventful stretch of river.
To get to the take out drive east from Opotiki on State Highway 35 (approximately 44 km) to the Motu Road bridge the usual take out is on River right under the bridge. Do not leave the vehicles at either road end – arrange a shuffle with Motu jet 073252735.
To make this a packrafting trip (rather than a road to road through-trip) it is possible to walk in on the Otipi Hydro Road. the drawback is you miss the Upper gorge. There are various wilderness routes into the river.
On the River
The Motu flows out of the hills to cross the main Opotiki Gisborne highway at Matawai. The river is small and uninteresting until it reaches a series of bedrock ledges at Waitangirua. Motu Falls is an eight meter waterfall comprising a number of rock ledges.
The usual “Motu trip” is to put onto the river below the Falls near midday after arranging the shuttle. The paddling can then be completed in three days but most parties allow five days as a contingency for wet weather. Some trips have taken 10 days due to floods.
- Usual trip plan
Day 1 run shuttles and paddle easy water to above the top gorge (up to 34km)
Day 2 run the challenging top gorge and easy reach down to camp below Mangakirikiri hut (29 or 35km).
Day 3 run the challenging steep bouldery rapids of the lower gorge to Te Kahika Stream (9km) and camp or paddle on to Whites Rapid and meet a jet boat ( 20km) or
Day 4 paddle easy water from Te Kahika Camp out to highway (31km)
Day 5 Camp / hunting / wet weather contingency day
From Motu Falls to Kirks Clearing the river is shallow and easy with some tight rocky Class II water. The first day is usually aiming for a campsite above the upper gorge.
Don’t go past Blue Slip as it marks the impending gorge! This gorge requires scouting for logs due to its narrow steep nature, It is long and has limited scope for camping (virtually no scope when in flood). For this reason camp the first night above the gorge to give a full day to complete the gorge.
The upper gorge rapids comprise tight short drops among sharp angled greywacke bedrock. These rapids have a tendency to collect wood hazards. Take your time and scout diligently!
The first notable rapid in the upper gorge is below Otipi stream. It is a tight rock dodge. A number of difficult rapids culminate in Bullivant’s Cascade (named after Kahu Bullivant who was on an early trip down and spent some time stranded on a rock and swam this rapid). It is a long narrow channel between rock walls ending with the river slamming into the wall at the bottom where the river swings left.
Immediately above the Mangaotane confluence lies the hardest rapid in the gorge – the Motu Slot. The slot is a long canyon with low walls which is little more than 2 m wide and drops through a series of waves. There are two channels but the current favours the narrower right channel. Scout the rapid meticulously for logs. The left-hand slot provides a route which is easier except where it rejoins the river below the slot via a steep drop which may have logs.
From the Mangaotane, the rapids ease as the worst (or in fact best!) of the gorge is over. This easier Mangaotane gorge is really just an extension of the upper gorge but has very steep walls. For 2 km there are no opportunities to stop and camp as the river is very confined. This may present difficulty at high flows.
There are a number of bouldery rapids before the Otipi hydro road named Nasty Rapid I and II. Nasty rapid II was known as the Graveyard because it featured a few broken kayaks when it was at peak nastiness. Nasty rapid III is after the road.
There are a few rapids down to the Takaputahi confluence. There are reported to be nice campsites in the vicinity of the confluence. But push on a little (unless you have a day up your sleeve).
Below the Takaputahi there are only minor rapids through a much wider river valley. Camp options will depend on your timeline. A shorter day (29km total) can be had by camping above Te Paku gorge (which starts below Tawharenga Stream). Te Paku Gorge is a short and narrow sawcut gorge with deep slow moving sections of water. The valley then opens out again down to the Mangakirikiri stream where there is a hut 15 minutes up the creek.
Mangakirikiri hut or above the lower gorge are the overnight options available. The river remains easy until the entrance to the lower gorge a few km below Waireae stream.
If you haven’t chosen a campsite stop at the Maihewai confluence or the next major stream (before the river closes in and swings right). This is the 35km day option.
Four km of easier water below the last camp provides a warm up for the lower gorge. This gorge is only five km in length but contains the hardest rapids in the river. The rapids have a different character, flowing through large rounded boulders. Again, do not enter this gorge unless you have plenty of time and daylight for scouting and portaging. The rapids in the gorge are often so steep that you cannot see the run out from the entrance and they will need to be shore scouted and routes planned. Having said that it can be difficult to stick to a path in the big bouldery rapids. If in doubt walk! Most rapids can be easily portaged.
The first of the big rapids is known as the Hump this is followed by Pig rapid and then Corner Pocket where the river rattles over a boulder bank and slams into the bluff as the river swings right.
There is a a quiet section and two small rapids before you strike the Double Staircase rapids. These are a little over halfway through the gorge. Upper Staircase is followed by the more difficult Lower Staircase (also known as Double Staircase) this is the hardest rapid in the gorge being a long steep boulder bank. It runs hard against the right bank and can be inspected from the left bank. The route will be obvious but with numerous drops it is not always possible to maintain a preplanned route.
The last rapid in the gorge is the Helicopter rapid, named after helicopter wreckage that was visible in the rapid in the 1970s or 80s.
There is an excellent campsite upstream at the Te Kahika confluence (only 9km below the last camp upstream of the gorge).
The alternative, for a shorter duration trip, is to push on (another 11km) to Whites Rapid for a Jet Boat pick up.
From the Te Kahika confluence it is easy Class II for 31km to the State Highway bridge take out.
This is an obligatory camp day to insert anywhere in the trip. Practice lighting fire with wet wood whilst watching a raging torrent and wondering when it will subside!
The gauge is here
Portaging of rapids is not a problem unless the river is in flood and the riverbanks are covered. Camping is problematic in flood events so take an In-Reach and stay on top of weather forecasts before entering either of the gorges.
Note – After a field check the kml file will be replaced.
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