A 6 to 7-day loop from the ‘end of the road’ in South Westland, with a challenging off-track approach, a formidable gorge in the middle of the paddling, sustained whitewater, followed by a long coastal return with penguins. This is a magnificent route for folks with excellent levels of self-reliance, off-track navigation experience, solid whitewater skills and sound decision-making in all kinds of terrain.
The words, images, and lines on the map are deliberately vague for a reason: if you can’t make your own assessments of what lies next and how to deal with it, this trip is not for you… But if you’re still intrigued, enjoy the words and photos below from David Stephenson, who along with Megan Dimozantos and Kyle Milne made the first known descent in November 2022.
Gorgeous gorge on The Gorge
These days there aren’t many firsts still to be had. You’ve either got really hard, really remote, or really obscure. Packrafting has opened up some first descents to us mere mortals on rivers you just wouldn’t bother getting a kayak to!
The Gorge River lies just outside the Olivine Wilderness Area. It’s a two-day hike in with no tracks or huts and not a route many people take. Those that do, hike up and around the gorge halfway down the river, unable to see into it. So perhaps(?!) we were the first humans to lay eyes on it? Or perhaps we weren’t – who knows! Either way, it was a pretty special place to experience.
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The trip report
A few words from the first descent team about the way they broke the trip up into sections/days, which can help get you thinking about the way you might section the route. As we mentioned, this is a wild, remote area and conditions/flows make all the difference to the route!
We did a half day [up the Cascade valley] to woodhen creek. A half day because Haast pass was closed for 4 hours and we arrived 20 mins after the closure started plenty nice camp spots around there.
A 14 hour day to make up the time. Pretty tough bushbash around a gorge on the Cascade. River crossing on the cascade was decent. Then up saddle creek before dropping down into the gorge. Good camp spot about 30 mins down river.
Paddled to the last gravel bank just above the gorge. Not a big day. Pretty scrapey. One quite long section of Boulder garden. Then scouted the gorge on foot in our dry suits.
We paddled the gorge and out to the ocean.
The gorge was a stunning peice of river both visually and as a section of whitewater; with tight lines between huge boulders just on the cusp of uncomfortable. Gorge probably grade IV at optimal water level.
The river carried on for another 10km of fun, continuous, grade 3 read and run boulder garden all the way to the ocean. At this flow we could read and run comfortably, but at higher flow it’d be III+ and pretty gnarly. A little more water would have been nice, but a lot more would have been scary so we were happy to scrape over a few rocks.
At the end of the river, we met the ocean as well as a warm welcome from the Long family, who have carved out quite an incredible existence, off grid, at the end of the Gorge River. Hot tea and freshly baked cake went down a treat!
It wasn’t a super long day but we were switched on the whole time.
A long day along the coast to the Hope [River]. Starts off sandy and gets progressively more bouldery. Heaps of crested penguins on the way.
On the way out we added a half-day trip up the Hope River, which had more ‘fall asleep in your boat’ kind of vibes. Just high enough until there was still enough water to scrape down. And after 5 days with 28kg on the back, the packraft day pack never felt so good!
Then walked first 7km of the barn bay cascade track (all 4wd) to Dee Creek. Real nice spot to camp. Before and after all Pretty average.
– finish the hike out to the car at martyr saddle. No need to drive through the gate to martyr homestead as there was a good quad track down to the river from there. Quick travel in 4wd but a solid river crossing of the Cascade. Megan almost needed a snorkel
Ha…. No gauges out here mate!
The trip was conducted in spring, but after a bit of a dry period. The general feedback is that ‘normal’ flows are suitable for this trip, so avoid long-dry periods and anything but light rain.
Problem is, this is south westland, where it rains heaps and the paddling is on the 3rd day of a 6-7 day trip. This means you need the willingness to portage/carry/scrape and the skills to do so if the flows aren’t right: which makes this trip the essence of good adventure, not knowing quite what you’ll experience.