David Whitley dons his not-entirely-flattering wetsuit, and takes on the white water in New Zealand’s action capital.


It never pays to laugh too hard at another’s misfortune. As we sit in our sheltered cove, the stragglers come bouncing over the rapid. Entering a sideways spin, the raft begins shedding excess weight. The hapless passengers are flung out horizontally, almost as if it’s a synchronised swimming manoeuvre. It looks like the leaves of a flower peeling away to reveal a new bud. This is, of course, absolutely hilarious to us. Watching the two remaining survivors frantically trying to haul in the casualties is comedy gold. And it remains that way until the next rapid, which we try to surf.


This, in white water rafting terms, is paddling back into the churning, spitting cascade shortly after you’ve ridden over it. We plough into it as hard as possible, and the front of the raft starts taking on water. It’s slowly sinking, and although it should just be a case of just sitting on the raft as it drifts backwards, Jan the lumbering Dutchman has somehow managed to spreadeagle himself across the river. Three of us grab him by the lifejacket and lug him back aboard, but it’s too late – we’re now the ones being laughed at. Rafting down the Shotover River near Queenstown is something of an extreme dance. The slows of the slow-slow-quick-quick-slow are beautifully relaxing. The chance to take in the high canyon walls, remarkable rock layers and miner’s huts dating back to the 19th century gold rush is blissful.


But it’s also the calm before the storm. While the two hour journey starts off with gentle practice rapids, the intensity increases as you blunder downstream. The Mother section soon approaches. The origin of the name – is it because it gives birth to the rest of the river? What you call for as you’re going over? A polite abbreviation of a crude-but-accurate description? - is left unexplained. But given that two of the six Grade 3 and 4 rapids that we take on in quick succession are called "Toilet" and "Oh Shi"’, the latter two options are probably closest to the truth.


It’s a ride and a half battling through. There’s a vague pretence at steering through most of the hairy bits, but it’s really a case of hanging on and hoping for the best as the river attacks the raft like a rogue pitbull in a playground. We make it through unscathed, but the big beast is yet to come. The grand finale of the adventure is something unique to the Shotover. An old miner’s tunnel has flooded, and can be floated through. 


Doing so is like waiting for the phone to ring with bad news. It’s eerily quiet and peaceful, and the details of the rock tell a million stories. But at the other end, a waterfall awaits. And not a dainty one that specialises in keeping things neat and tidy whilst dutifully reflecting a rainbow either. It’s a brute, somewhere between Grade 4 and 5 depending on water levels. 


We lurch all over the place as we go down, bouncing off rocks and tipping precariously. Jan’s wife grazes her fingers on the rock, everyone else clatters into each other, and the paddles are wielded with all the authority of a Page 3 girl at a G8 summit. But we make it. And it’s a rush. We clang paddles in the air and drift back to base with huge grins on our faces. And six of us, if not Jan, can say we did it without falling in.





By David Whitley