After a much needed week with family and starting to sort things out in order to leave NZ and head back to Canada, I was once again on the road, this time heading north up the center of the North Island. I did the trip a bit backwards here (due to not quite knowing how much time I would have to finish things off) and Zig Zagged first North to Rotorua, then south to Taihape and then back north again to Auckland, but the outcome was another great seat of experiences and interviews with great NZ Paddling characters.
I sent a text through to an old acquaintance from back in Highschool, Josh Neilson. “Josh I am finally on my way to Okere Falls, will you, Louise and Mike be around?” I had been trying to tie down these three to a date for a while. Now I had them. Josh wrote back “yeah bro, all three of us are around for the next week, come on round when you get here”.
Josh and I used to play Canoe polo, on different teams, back in the day at highschool and he has now become a part of the world’s top Whitewater paddlers, he is also an amazing photographer and Film maker. Also in those ranks, and Josh’s neighbours, where Louise Urwin and Mike Dawson (not to mention Sam Sutton, Jamie Sutton, Kenny Mutton and a whole swag of other amazing boaters that call Okere Falls home… however time and energy levels did not allow me to interview them all).
I, as always, had great Hollywood visions for filming theses characters; reality was not quite that fancy. I had already completely run out of budget and my credit card was almost maxed, so I was just trying to scrape the last few interviews together. Luckily this lot lived close together so I managed to slam all three interviews into 4 days, and got in a little boating at the same time (easy to do with a class 4 run down the road that you could run by yourself if you so desired. The run (formerly known as the Kaituna run) is on the Okere river, and it flows through a small gorge that starts directly below Lake Rotawiti just out of the town of Rotorua. This classic NZ river run is a short run 10- 45 minutes and boasts one of the highest commercially rafted waterfalls in the southern hemisphere. Tutea falls is a safe, clean 7- 8 meter falls that you drop halfway through the run, you exit a tight tall gorge over the lip of the falls and into a big bowl of a pool, that has jungle dripping off the walls and spray from the falls rising into the suddenly bright sky.
During the week, along with hundreds of other boaters, I made multiple runs of this river and loved every moment of the technically easy warm river. No wonder there where so many amazing boaters in this area… you can literally paddle this run before and after work every day, what a training ground.
I began my interviews with Josh, it was a great way to catch up and learn about what his life was now about. Josh works the summers as a wedding photographer and Videographer, and then in the fall packs his stuff up and heads overseas to paddle and film. One of his biggest “stokes” in life is that fact that he has been in charge of the whitewater kayak filming at the Extremesports week in Norway, for the last couple of years. Looking through some of his short films you can see he has a great eye for this, and during the week I learned a lot from him.
My next interview was with Mike Dawson an extreme kayak racer and NZ Olympic Slalom paddler, mike is truly the professionally athlete, though when I went to visit him, he was just recovering from wrist surgery for tendinitis and carpel tunnel syndrome. Mike was going stir crazy not being able to get on the water when I caught up with him, though he was excited to help me out with an interview and shoot the shit about life and paddling.
From there I was soon interviewing with the charismatic (yet camera shy) river beauty “Louise Urwin”, an amazing female paddler from NZ, who started boating in her early 20’s and has become one of New Zealand’s and the world’s top female paddlers. She is an extreme kayak racer and international expedition kayaker. Louise’s un-assuming, carefree and bubbly personality could mislead you from realising the “steel that lies beneath the smile”. “The steel” of a talented extreme whitewater kayaker who paddles stuff most of us could only dream of.
During the last couple of days of filming, I was trying to get aerial footage, with my quad copter, of the crew paddling the Okere river run. During a test flight with Josh at Tutea falls, I got some good footage of him coming off the falls with the Quad copter in front of the falls. As Josh landed the drop, I pulled the Quad copter high up into the sky to show the little pool amongst the forest, I then dropped it back down to film above Josh’s head. Suddenly a light breeze of wind blew through the gorge and the Quad copter started to drift, it was quite close to the bank already and the breeze caused it clipped a tree fern and it was then gone from my site. Cursing and swearing I clambered over the bank and climbed down the cliff towards the water to find Josh out of his boat on the bank below me.
“It sunk!” he yelled up “I almost got my hands on it before it went straight down, but it didn’t even float for one moment”.
FUCK! I exclaimed as I clambered back up through the trees and ferns… over the walkie talkie josh and I were using for com’s I heard Josh say “ I think I can see it… meet me at the bottom and we will go get my snorkel gear and dive for it”, And so began the 30 minute process of me running to the car as josh paddled to the bottom of the river, picking him up, driving back to his house to get the snorkel gear and then heading back to paddle down to the crash site. Josh clambered back into his kayak with the gear and I got my boat of the roof racks of the van and set up. By the time I talked briefly to Mike Dawson (who showed up at the put in) about the incident and then paddled down the river and off the falls to the crash site, Josh had recovered the , still blinking and whirring, Quad copter from the dark depths of the pool. We pulled the battery out ASAP, shoved it in my kayak and we headed out. It was a major downer to have more than likely destroyed a $2000 + piece of kit, though we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation as well, after all what do you expect flying such a thing into a narrow gorge above water?.
I was bummed to have lost the potential to get more aerial footage, though there was still hope, the quad copter had been pulled apart and dried in the sun for two days, and Josh and I started to uncover stories of these copters surviving freshwater crashes. So we will see. From here I was planning on leaving Okere Falls with hopes to Catch Tara Mulvaney who was paddling solo around the North Island, though she informed me she was still on Great Barrier Island (a quite remote offshore island) this meant I was not sure I would catch up with her, and “this reality” had brought my attention back to Bliss-stick Kayaks and Richard “Charles” Sage, realizing he and his boats are quite a big part of the NZ and international whitewater story and I would be making a big error to skip him. With this realization of Bliss I packed the van, wet Quad copter and all, said good bye to Josh, Louise and Mike and headed south again. This new journey had me traveling the surreal Desert road of the Central Plateau and the stunning windy country roads of the Rangitikei province until I pulled up a dirt drive to an old Wool shed that now sported a worn company logo, a fence of past kayak molds and an odd manikin kayaker hanging from the wall. This was the backyard factory of Bliss-Stick Kayaks in River Valley.
I had a great weekend with Richard, his family, and his friends; I was treated to tremendous hospitality, meals and fun. My main day there was a very memorable one, after interviewing Charles while he was shaping his latest boat design in his garage; I went inflatable kayaking on the Rangitikei River with his two sons and the crew at River valley lodge. The River was super low, so kayaking it was not an option and instead we used two person inflatable kayaks and bumped and ground our way down the stunning river over 4 hours. On our return to the house it was “band Practice” time for Charles’s band “Heavy Folk’n Metal”, a BBQ was on and the band was blaring heavy tunes into the normally serene deep farmland setting, well into the morn.
As always I was reluctant to leave yet another amazing place and group of amazing people, though the next day with a bit of a hangover I was up before the sun, to drive north 6 hours to Auckland and to pack my bags before heading back to Canada. What a trip, what people, and what a country.