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Packrafting the Landsborough River, New Zealand, 2016

In January 2016 after the Murchison Packraft Meetup organised by Dulkara Martig, I was very lucky to team up with five other packrafters for a fabulous trip to the Landsborough River in New Zealand.

Brad Meiklejohn and I had been communicating for some time about doing a post-meetup trip together; and we had narrowed our choice down to the Landsborough and Karamea Rivers, both of which are considered to be amongst the most delightful (but serious and challenging) packrafting short journeys on offer in New Zealand, and both of which came highly recommended by mutual friends Roman Dial and Forrest McCarthy. As there had been some very heavy rain in the Karamea region in the north of the South Island, we judged that the Landsborough was more likely to be in good condition for our available time window.

We were delighted to be joined by four more experienced paddlers for our little trip; Sarah and Thor Tingey from Alpacka Rafts, and Jen MacGibbon (Oates) and Mark Oates of Tasmania. Sarah and Thor have taken on the challenge of continuing the development of packrafting technology and participation through the Alpacka brand; the finest packrafts in the world.  Jen and Mark are amongst the most experienced packrafters in the Southern Hemisphere, being very active in new-routing and creeking in Australia, and having paddled big water overseas, and with a shared passion for technical innovation, and development of packrafting training and safety standards. The group consisted therefore of three Americans; Sarah, Thor and Brad, and three Tasmanians; Jen, Mark and Me, to provide an even balance of social culture and talking points to our collective wilderness conversations. With so much combined experience and packrafting passion amongst my companions, this looked like it was going to be a fabulous trip!

Unfortunately both Sarah and Jen were recovering from leg injuries, and a decision was therefore made that Sarah, Jen and Mark would charter a helicopter to place them at the commercial flight ceiling in the Landsborough Valley near Toetoe Flat, to join Brad, Thor and Me after our walking traverse of Brodrick Pass from the roadhead in the Hopkins Valley. The basic route can be followed on the map linked below:

The car shuffle was a major undertaking. Brad, Thor and I finally left the little rented silver wheelbarrow at the Hopkins Valley roadhead at dusk for the walk to the Monument Hut, our planned destination for the day. 

Fully loaded for the evening stroll along an old farming track.

We left the Monument Hut very early; the NZ Met Service forecast indicated a rain event for the following day and we wanted to maximise our prospects of beating the predicted rain over the pass. An alternative forecast (Windyty) indicated that there would be no rain for  several days, and Windyty turned out to be be more accurate than the Met Service.

At the midpoint of this bridge across the Huxley River, a surprise gust took my Ironman cap, irretrievably. Gutted, because since 2012 I’ve promised Sally that if I ever lost that cap I’d commit to earning another one. The pain begins. Two year plan: Olympic distance next summer, Half Iron winter 2017, Iron Summer 2017-18. It’s on the record now.


Brad makes his way up the beautiful alpine meadows of the Huxley Valley.

Thor is a man with a vast curiosity and an appetite for stimulating conversation; very happy to interweave an in-depth analysis of American law and politics with a detailed analysis of the paddling potential of this unexpectedly delightful tributary.

Yes, we love you, New Zealand.

Our research indicated that previous packrafting groups had generally called it quits for the day near here, at the Brodrick Hut. We’d had an early start, moved briskly, and chose to scurry onwards, with the aim of defeating the allegedly imminent cold front which failed to eventuate. Regardless, we got over the pass in one day instead of the conventional two.

We temporarily misplaced the route near here; compensation for which was the off-route ascent of this scrubby but lovely gully with a snow-melt stream.

Yes, as we approached the pass, the conditions and route were as idyllic as they seem. Magic country. Unfortunately nature called my bluff near here. Too many beers and pastries, not enough training. I managed to stare down the challenge of the pass with a little help from my wonderful friends, but the day was drawing long, with plenty more to come.

The descent begins! Wow, it’s a long way down from the pass to the Landsborough. About a 1400 metre descent.


A pensive Thor. We found a short sharp unavoidable nasty ascent of about 100 metres during the interminable descent. The wasted altitude visibly hurt Thor’s feelings.

The descent ridge just keeps on keeping on. Hard work; I could see now why people divide this job over two days.

I’m not enough of a botanist to talk wisely about this, but as a Tasmanian it excited me. Surely it’s a Gondwanan genus closely related to our Richea Pandanifolia? Is it a Dracophyllum or Richea species? I don’t know, but it’s fabulous. And the over-storey is Nothofagus sp. so I certainly felt at home amongst it.

It’s actually a real chunk of work to get across from the Hopkins Valley to this place over the Brodrick Pass; it’s the Fraser Hut at Creswicke Flat. A sordid little three-berth hut slated for replacement in 2016. Was I happy to be here? Yes; that’s a hard day out with a boat.

The Presidential swing! That man can drive! Creswicke Flat. Brad Meiklejohn.

After a hard day’s walk to get to Creswicke Flat, we walked upstream the following day to enjoy a paddle back to camp. We hoped to meet our three heli-shuffled companions this day, but they had underestimated our traverse speed over Brodrick Pass, and had pushed further upstream again. Good on ’em. 

Ducks. It turns out that Brad is fiercely enthusiastic about rare wild birds. And rightly so.

If I hadn’t posted this, you wouldn’t have believed it. Go to New Zealand. Now.

Even I managed a smile for the camera!

At this stage Brad was feeling tormented by the exquisite beauty of it all. Time to turn our backs to the ridiculous scenery and concentrate on the few metres of river in front of us.

Thor’s boat reminded me of a bumble bee with its alternating bands. Turns out that the fabric of Thor’s custom-made Alpacka could one day encapsulate an intergalactic mission.

Not all of the river is as bad as this. Thor in his element.

I don’t always photograph ducks, but when I do, it’s because Brad is just so enthusiastic about them!

Thor is talking about the river but Brad is still observing the rare wild ducks.

Eventually it rained! And we met up with our fabulous companions. Good times were ahead.

Here we have the launch of Mark Oates and Jen MacGibbon Oates on the morning after the rainy night before. I’ll link the short film Mark made of our trip together at the end of this page.

Picking lines.

Sarah in the stealth Alpacka. They’ve made rockets out of that stuff.

Thor in commitment mode.

Mark always chooses tasty lines.

Thor and Sarah, riding an almost endless line of standing waves; like riding a four month out-of-office work trip for one of the coolest companies on the planet. Wait…

Brad, riding the Presidential wave.

Fabulous rain as we approach the Haast River junction. In this picture; Sarah, Jen, Thor and Mark.

A fabulous short journey with wonderful new friends comes to an end… except for the interminable car shuffle back to the little silver wheelbarrow.

And there was the wheelbarrow! Just where we left it; with a herd of cattle, grateful for the scratching post we had unwittingly left them.

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Here’s Mark Oates’s film from the perspective of the trio who heli-commuted in to join us in the Landsborough. Thanks Mark!

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