When someone says ‘winter sledging’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Thick snow, warm boots and funny hats on the slopes followed by après drinks around the fire, right? Nope, that’s not how we roll here in the North Island where the water-based action never stops.
Instead, our idea this winter was to put on our wetsuits (summer ones we might add) and a pair of fins and throw ourselves into the Kaituna river, just north of Lake Rotorua. To be honest, prior to this weekend’s excursion, we’d never heard of river sledging, or hydrospeeding as it’s also called. In fact, we actually thought we’d booked a Kaituna river rafting experience on a GrabOne voucher. It was only when we confirmed our booking that we realised we were in for a different ride altogether. As it turned out, it was the best mistake we could ever have made.
We left Auckland early on Saturday morning and drove through various forms of constant rain all the way down to Rotorua. Oh well we reckoned, it’s not like we’re going to get any wetter on the river. It wasn’t looking any better by the time we arrived at Kaitiaki Adventures’ base on the eastern shore of Lake Rotorua where the friendly staff eyed us up and down as if to say who are these unusually cheerful people on a day like this? ‘Are you sure you want to go sledging today?’ they said. ‘Hell yeah’ we said. Over the next half an hour, other equally keen adventurers arrived but it soon became apparent that they were all there for rafting. This was a real bonus for us because by the time we all had to climb aboard Kaitiaki’s bus and head over to Okere Falls, we were the only two sledging with our two guides, Drax and Hemi.
Okere Falls Track
After a safety briefing and a rundown on what we could expect, it was off to our entry point on the river, the large pool below Tutea Falls (more on that later). To get to the falls, we walked for about 10 minutes along the Okere Falls Track, a well-formed bushwalk that follows the Okere River. If you’re not interested in getting wet, this short, easy walk is a great way to see the Kaituna, Tutea and Okere Falls. You can find more info on this track at DOC NZ.
From the Okere Falls Track we walked down Hinemoa’s Steps, a steep and narrow stone pathway cut into the rockface leading to Tutea’s Cave. This entire area is significant in Māori history and the story goes that in times of war, the woman and children of the local hapū (clan) would descend using ropes and hide in this cave to avoid the bloodshed. This was quite a sobering thought as we stood at the entrance of the cave and Drax made a karakia (incantation/prayer) for our protection in the river. This was in fact the first time we’d ever experienced a Māori karakia and it really brought home just how much respect the Māori have for their culture and the land.
Into the Okere River
Now those of you with a keen eye may have noticed that we previously mentioned throwing ourselves into the Kaituna River. Technically it is the Kaituna River but this first section is more commonly called the Okere River which means “the place of drifting”. Clearly, whoever came up with this name chose to ignore the “falling over the falls” section of the river that comes after the drifting part. But once we hit the water, we were way too excited to think about that as we grabbed our boards and got a feel for manoeuvring them against the flow and practiced righting ourselves after a roll. Being used to bodyboarding in the sea, it didn’t take long for us to get the hang of things and we were soon off through the steep canyon walls towards our first rapid. Before each rapid, our guides would give us a quick brief on the best line to take and then it was “heads down and hold on”. We had so much fun that on a couple of the runs we actually headed back upstream to do a little rapid ‘surfing’.
Our ride through the five rapids (or was it six – we were having so much fun it was all a blur) was amazing and Drax and Hemi were simply awesome. I’m sure they’re like this with every group, and maybe it was the fact that it was just the two of us, but we really felt like we were getting special treatment which made the day all that more special. The four of us didn’t stop laughing the whole way but at the same time, we felt safe knowing that our guides were keeping a watchful eye over us.
Speaking of safety, the full Okere River run is rated as a Grade 5, starting above Tutea falls and consisting of 14 rapids and 3 falls. Sledging on the other hand is only over the last third of the run but it’s still great fun and fine for anyone reasonably confident on the water. Rafting on the Okere is however a different story thanks to the fact that at 7m, Tutea is currently the highest commercially rafted falls in the world. As it turned out on the day, those who thought we were mad to go sledging and that they had made the smarter choice to go rafting were in for a surprise as you can see below. It’s all pretty safe though and we’ll definitely be going back to do the falls ourselves some time.
It’s hard to say goodbye Rotorua
We stayed over in Rotorua on Saturday night at a great B&B near Whakarewarewa (thanks for the cake Vivien) and on Sunday morning, before heading back to Auckland, we decided to drive via Okere Falls to have another look at the river and see if the Kaitiaki crew were back on the water. Sure enough they were there and up to their usual tricks, giving a new bunch of adventure-junkies an experience to remember… along with a good rinse.
We were really impressed with the team at Kaitiaki Adventures who were friendly and professional throughout. If you’re heading to Rotorua and looking for some white water rafting and sledging action, they’ll look after you.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Rotorua region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Rotorua.