A heart-thumping ride, great scenery and colourful local characters make the Wairaurahiri Jet experience better than any theme park.
I'm gripping the grab-rail with both hands on a white-knuckle ride down the fastest-flowing navigable river in New Zealand - and I've forgotten what century I'm in.
Grade-three rapids and two Lexus V8 engines are carrying me through ancient beech forest on a wild, weaving, 27km ride down the Wairaurahiri River from Lake Hauroko to the sea through Fiordland National Park.
Giant overhanging trees thrust gnarled, moss-covered branches over the river, taunting me when I stand up to feel the fresh, cool breeze in my hair. The riverbed is strewn with tree trunks transformed by time and tannin stains into grotesque shapes. Great boulders rounded by ice-age glaciers rise up to threaten the speeding jetboat.
At regular intervals the dense forest opens up to reveal a catastrophic landslide of grey-blue mudstone and precarious undercut cliffs of ash-like papa rock, where the raging torrent has striven to escape the confines of its banks.
I can't help but feel that riding this bush-bound river is like travelling back in time to a prehistoric era, long before man sought to tame the wilderness of the Waitutu Forest. Fortunately this area escaped the early forest fires and logging gangs and remains under the control of a Maori trust.
It is now the largest tract of unmodified temperate lowland forest left in New Zealand.
"This place is a national treasure that must be preserved at all cost," skipper Johan Groters tells our small group of adventurers. "Today's journey down the river should be a straightforward trip, unless things turn to custard. We don't want to hit any big boulders as it's a three-day walk out of here."
Johan has the understated humour and matter-of-fact machismo of a Southern Man who has seen it all and knows what he's about after 20 years on the river. If we are going to have a dispute with a river boulder, I feel confident he'll see us right.
I'm now acutely aware of the profusion of boulders in this river, which drops a staggering 200m in its 27km length. We skim past Lonely Rock, which has drawn less-skilful drivers into its lovelorn clutches.
The manoeuvrability and responsiveness of the twin-engine jetboat is amazing, as the craft turns violently around the bends, slewing sideways and skidding over the surface, defying all hidden obstacles as it confidently rides on its 12mm aluminium bottom reinforced with grader-blade-quality steel.
We nose into a quiet backwater and step ashore to examine one of Johan's many stoat traps along the riverbanks. He demonstrates the spring mechanism and his ingenious flag alert system that tells him when a trap has been sprung. These traps can be sponsored by the public as part of Johan's award-winning stoat-control programme.
Deep inside this river section of the Waitutu Forest are the remains of 150 live deer capture pens. The pen gates were set under spring tension and released when deer walked into the trip wire. I'm incredulous when told that the men led the animals on a rope over rough tracks back to the waiting jetboats. The stoic, laconic Southern Man must have originated in those halcyon days of the 1960s.
Before we leave the forest glade, I can't resist a photo session. The beech trees are laden with soft, spongy mosses and I have a real sense that this is everyone's vision of an enchanted forest. The tree limbs assume weird shapes with their mossy cloaks and the whole scene is so arrestingly beautiful that I can't believe the forest is inhabited by deer, possums and stoats - not goblins, elves and fairies.
Back on the river, time stands still once more until we suddenly burst out on the dramatic panorama of Foveaux Strait. Bouncing over the river mouth, we float for a time on the open sea before crossing the bar, nosing into a quiet beach and stepping ashore.
What we find is an idyllic clearing in the bush, remarkable for its vivid green grass, which we learn is cropped and manicured each night by browsing deer. Fronting the clearing is the two-storey Waitutu Lodge and a separate caretaker's lodge occupied by Alastair Osbourne, alias Peanut, who has lived a solitary existence here for nine years with his constant companion, Max the collie dog.
This man of the bush traps possums, goes whitebaiting in season and hunts for his own pork and venison, sparing the red deer hinds that mow his lawn on a nightly roster.
An electrician by trade, he used to service lighthouses in remote areas. This colourful character is renowned for his firmly held opinions on most subjects and visitors appreciate his company. On cold nights on this hard edge of the southern landscape, Peanut is an important part of the Waitutu Lodge experience.
A tasty Kiwi lunch of venison, sausages and salad is laid out before us and we are joined by four mud-splattered, hearty Australian trampers who will accompany us on the trip back to civilisation. They have traversed the Hump Ridge and Port Craig tracks and are loud in their praise of this pristine wilderness.
Our return journey up the river is surprisingly smooth, as the jetboat is able to maintain a slower, steadier speed against the current. Reaching Lake Hauroko, we find that its mood has darkened. Its restless spirit has been stirred, whipping up an endless succession of chilly, foam-tipped swells.
"This is New Zealand's deepest lake at 632m and the 17th-deepest of the world's 5 million lakes," says Johan, adding with a grin: 'It's so deep there should be grouper down there."
Arriving at the ramp, Johan drives the boat on to the trailer. We head back to Clifden, passing through the Lilburn Valley and the westernmost farm in the country, ending a thrilling journey into the heart of Fiordland. We have explored an untouched wilderness and listened to an informative commentary, making this a true eco-tourism journey. The scenery, the local characters and the heart-thumping ride make the Wairaurahiri Jet experience better than any theme park.
- Paul Rush travelled to Lake Hauroko courtesy of Venture Southland and Wairaurahiri Jet.
Is it because we are all statisticians or a collective penchant for superlatives that causes us respond to the biggest, highest, longest, hottest furtherest and so forth? Whatever; I'll wager this will give you something to think about and that memory will stay with you long into your futures should you choose to be so bold.
Draw a north / south line between Te Anau and Tuatapere then one west off that and there, tucked into the most eastern flanks of Fiordland's south west corner is Lake Hauroko. The country's deepest lake. At 463 metres it's bed is well below sea level. "Haruoko" means "sound of the wind" and blow it can just as it can reflect, in astounding glory, on a fine day in this corner of the Te Waipounamu World Heritage area.
Out of the southern tip slides the Wairaurahiri River. Through a narrow waist between dangling forest trees and banks of mosses, lichens and orchids the water changes from deep liquid liquorice to a fast, clear, glassy green chute. 27km of it rushing all the way to the Southern Ocean it soon becomes Grade 3 and holds that form to the end - there is no standing water. The two jet boat operators working the river know it intimately. In Maori the name means "many rushing waters". It's a frentic rush and tumble over a jumbled rock strewn bed and makes for the most exhilarating ride.
The Wairaurahiri runs down a wide valley shaped by many bends and turns. In places high walls bend the outer radius, others where the water scoots past low banks of overhanging ferns offering a glance deep into the midst. The drivers have their favourite stops where you may clamber ashore and tread in luxury over spongy mosses and litterings of leaves absorbing the bird song and fecund smells of an unaffected rainforest. Back on board and on towards the ocean. It's known as the longest waterfall or, if you prefer, the steepest river and you can see and feel the drop as you speed on down. In places the Cameron Mountains can be seen to the west and the Hump Ridge to the east strewn with giant limestone tors stark against the skyline.
Under the wire bridge and past the DOC hut, there is a lodge down there too - the Waitutu so named for it's position within the Waitutu Forests although not on the Waitutu River. That one is further west by a good 4 hour tramp along the South Coast Track. Here resides Peanut - custodian on the lodge and quite likely to offer you a fresh batch of scones and/or a cold beer. A ten minute walk due south and you're on the edge. That wondrous place where land becomes ocean. If the atmosphere is clear enough, the Solander Islands can be seen floating on the blue horizon; Rakiura too, further east.
There are options at this point. Lunch and a meander about the paua shell littered beach and back into the jet, or a two hour tramp along the South Coast track towards Port Craig to see the huge viaducts. Percy Burn being the largest at 127m long and 36m high it's the largest still standing wooden viaduct in the world. Or perhaps a night at the lodge and out the next day?
Then back into the boat for the uphill version. Running against the grain you can feel the big engines working. There is a prominent midstream rock you may not have noticed on the fast downhill run but river levels depending, it's possible to have your photos taken by the crew as you rush by rooster tails of white against the lush green forests. On and upstream past side creeks joining the rush and back through the chute onto the beautiful and noticeably level lake again. Past Teal Bay back to the ramp, standing more often than not to get as much of that fabulous sharp air as I could into my face and lungs.
The 74km ride is real value for money, it's the sort of adventure you wish you knew about years ago, and the one you'll not forget for a while. So remote yet very accessible and do-able throughout the year as both operators run all seasons. It can be a day trip, an over-nighter, incorporate tramping (South Coast Track and Hump Ridge Track) and even helicoptering (courtesy of South-West Helicopters in Te Anau) and fishing/hunting options.