Historically, a classic Wellington region kayak run, it doesn’t get done very often due to the tricky flows needed and tough access. At the right flow, it’s a much more accessible packrafting trip, through a very scenic and wild gorge in the heart of the Tararuas. The trip is normally done over two days, by walking into Waitewaewae Hut for the night (4.5-6 hrs) and then taking a day (6-8 hrs) packrafting 20km on the river to Otaki Forks via the gorge.
The paddling has a degree of commitment to it; you can’t always portage (at river level) and walking out from the depths of the gorge would be a bit of an epic. There’s more than a few log jams in this river; keep your eyes peeled!
This trip page was compiled with information kindly provided by Martin Robertson, Carol Exton and Emilie Fetscher. All photos by Emilie.
Otaki Forks to Waitewaewae Hut
The Otaki Gorge road through to the carpark has a history of slips and road damage in heavy rain events; check out the Kapiti District council website and the DOC website page for Otaki Forks for closures or alerts in this area.
The track to Waitewaewae Hut (16 bunks) crosses a number of large active slips, so going is a bit slow in places. Track times from 4.5 to 6hrs are common, DOC suggests 5-7hrs. Learn more from the DOC website page for Waitewaewae Hut and track.
Otaki River (II+/III+)Waitewaewae Hut to Lemming Falls
After a few warm up rapids, you head into the gorge and the difficulty ramps up from class II+ to class III+. There are plenty of horizon lines in this section and a few bigger drops requiring a fair bit of scouting. The gorge walls mean that not all the drops can be easily portaged, so you need to be a confident class III+ paddler at the recommended flows.
Otaki River (IV) Lemming Falls
Not far below the Kahiwiroa Stream confluence is Lemming falls. This drop is described in various accounts as anywhere between 2.5 and 3.5m. At any rate, it’s a significant drop which is class IV at a decent flow. It can be portaged on either side; river right is easier.
Otaki River (II+/III+) Lemming Falls to Penn Creek
There there’s plenty more challenging water in this section. There are possible campsites about 1.5km downstream of the Kahiwiroa Stream confluence on the true left. More extensive river flats above Penn Creek also offer camping options. From the Hut to Penn Creek, allow about 4-5hrs at recommended flows.
Otaki River (II/III-) Penn Creek to Otaki swingbridge
Below Penn Creek, the river mellows out a fair bit, making for much less scouting and faster travel. About 3 hrs should see you at the Waiotauru confluence, where you can walk back upstream to the swingbridge by the carpark at Otaki Forks.
Alternatively, you can continue down the Otaki (Grade I to II) past Blue Slip to the 4wd track (see the Otaki River lower gorge description for details).
Alternative access via Plateau Stream
With an early start and day packs, the super fit may do a shortened version, from Plateau Stream to Otaki Forks in a long day. From the Plateau follow Plateau Stream to the Otaki. There are a few minor waterfalls and some nasty log jams in Plateau stream, which slow progress.
Otaki at Pukehinau
It’s a relatively narrow river, so the difficulty of the trip will vary massively depending on the flows. There are plenty of reports of people taking 12 hours to float, scrape and walk this whole river section using tyre tubes during low summer flows. At the other end of the scale, the kayakers trip page on rivers.org.nz says the trip is consistent class IV at flows over 2200mm.
Optimum flows for packrafts are at about 1700-1800mm (approx. 15 cumecs) for a confident class III+ paddler. These flows correspond to the difficulty described on this trip page. Its probable that at flows below 1700mm there will be a significantly higher proportion of carrying your boat over/around river that is too shallow to paddle.
It rains a fair bit in the Tararua’s, optimum flows are usually close behind a front. Its worth studying the gauge during a few storm cycles so you get a feel for how it rises and drops before heading in.