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. Screenshots from Tony Gordon and other 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.
There was an old hunters camp up the Kahiwiroa stream which may still exist.
Otaki River (IV) Lemming Falls
From Kahiwiroa Stream confluence it is essential that you shore scout everything for the next 200m. There are two rapids of note with the second, Lemming Falls, around a slight left corner with no scope to boat scout. This drop is described in various accounts as anywhere between 2.5 and 3.5m (likely higher at low flows). At any rate, it’s a significant drop which is class IV at a decent flow. It can be portaged river right.
NOTE !! As of May 2023 there are a number of logs forming a river wide obstruction below the drop – meaning it should not be run.
Otaki River (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. Martin Wilson aptly named the big slip rapid the “Labyrinth”. 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. You can walk back upstream to Parawai Hut but there is no longer vehicle access to that location.
Continue down the Otaki (Grade I to II) past Blue Slip to the 4wd track (see the Otaki River lower gorge description for details). This will take you back to your car at the Shields Flat Carpark. (1 hr).
View Larger Topographic Map
All flows are based on this gauge but it is well downstream of Otaki forks so flow will vary depending on where rain has fallen (i.e. either of the Otaki or Waioutauru may be high).
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
At 20cumec it’s a 7 hr trip. At 30 cumec it is pushy III+ and IV. If the flow is high wait it out at the hut till it drops below ~20cumec.
Optimum flow for packrafts is probably 15 cumecs for a confident class III+ paddler. It is probable that at flows below 12 cumec 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 Tararuas, optimum flows are usually close behind a front. The catchment collects rain from the north west and these weather systems can be quite variable. This is because the rain bands can be quite narrow. Its worth studying the rain radar and gauge during a few storm cycles so you get a feel for how it rises and drops before heading in.
2 Trip reports Log your trip
Myself and Matt Clark had a great trip at 19 cumics. At the hut it felt like 10 cumics and increased to about 15 before the forks. Some tricky rapids scouted and run and some portages including the falls and the rapid just before it which had ugly rocks buried in turbulence. The upper third felt quite busy but once we had passed the long labyrinth Boulder garden (caused by the enormous slip) it mellowed and travel was slick with lots of grade 2 that can be done ‘on sight’. We portedged one messy Boulder garden in the lower half.
The walk in was more epic than expected especially as we had to start at the blue slip road closure.
It’s hard to get the Otaki in a good flow so we took a punt and walked in at a much lower flow than we had paddled earlier. Our first run of this river was probably ~37 m3/s or 1780 stage (as seen in photos). This past weekend we paddled it at 12.8 m3/s or 1370 stage. There were two or three butt boating rapids at the beginning but it was still a great packrafting flow and 6.5 h of paddling bliss. We portaged a few more rapids that weren’t clean runs (logs etc). And there were still two solid 3+ maybe class rapids. (Lemming Falls was more of a rapid than waterfall, we almost didn’t recognise it!) Overall the rapids were a wee bit easier but there were still a few class 3 rapids without an easy portage.