From the mountains to the sea

James Mark Anthony | VOLUME 22, ISSUE 6

Fast jet boats, shallow rivers and breathtaking scenery provide the ingredients for a uniquely Kiwi adventure.

Rub-a-dub-dub three men in a tub – the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker… Except, for this trip, it would be a company director, an architect and a television producer. And it was certainly no tub; rather a state-of-the-art New Zealand jet boat with a Hamilton Jet single-stage jet propulsion unit driven by a Lexus 300hp V8 engine.

The call had come some months earlier from my best mate, Peter Baddeley, in NZ. Peter had an offer I couldn’t refuse – joining him on a Deliverance-type, wilderness jet boating escape with a group of similarly-minded adventurers into one of the most remote areas of the world; the southern part of the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Specifically, we’d be jet boating our way down the Hollyford Valley, in the World Heritage-listed Fiordland National Park, named for the 14 fiords that carve into the western coastline of the South Island. This area boasts some of the most dramatic scenery in the world, including Jurassic Park-like rainforests, spectacular mountains and crystal clear, glacial-fed rivers.

So it was a couple of months later that I found myself driving with Pete through Central Otago, to the picturesque Lake Te Anau Village, a pretty tourism centre regarded by many as the sightseeing and walking capital of the world.

An excellent dinner that night at the Café La Dolce Vita (if you visit, don’t go past the NZ lamb rump with gourmet potatoes, olives and tomato/garlic ragout, washed down with the Rockbur 2003 pinot gris). Twelve blokes, mostly baby boomers, and from a range of trades and professions, including doctors, exporters, architects, boat builders and company directors, had assembled for what would truly be a life-changing experience.

Just to whet our appetites, we watched Ata Whenua – Shadowland, a film which spectacularly displays the dramatic scenery and extreme climate changes of the Fiordland National Park. I left the theatre thinking that if we were to experience only one-tenth of what I had just seen, this was going to be some trip.

The next morning dawned fine, though there was a chilly wind off the mountains and lake. The hotel car park was jammed full with our six jet boats on trailers. Last-minute checks were completed – and lots of Aussie jokes directed at me (even though I had been born and raised a mere 160 km up the coast) – and everyone enthusiastically fuelled up their boats, stocked up on food and, more importantly, ensured liquid refreshments would not be in short supply.

Later that morning, the convoy of 12 intrepid adventurers, led by Peter Steele from PDS Marine and Engineering, departed Lake Te Anau heading for the isolated Hollyford Gunns Camp (one shop, a toilet and a grass air strip literally at the end of the road). Peter is also a member of the Otago Jet Boat Club, a group of enthusiasts whose members make up the majority of the participants on Peter’s adventures. Peter and his mates put together a couple of these trips each year and, if you’re lucky and have a taste for adventure – plus you happen to have your ear attuned to the grape vine – you can join them. As I and my fellow adventurers would come to appreciate, we were extremely lucky to be a part of this great experience.

The Hollyford camp would be our stepping-off point into the mighty Hollyford Valley. After traversing a steep and narrow muddy track, we found ourselves on the edge of the swiftly-flowing Hollyford River.

It was not long before our boats were in the water, engines roaring into life, shattering the pristine silence of the area and sending the local wildlife scurrying into the surrounding bush. Peter’s organisation and resourcefulness were something to see and, throughout the trip, I would come to admire his leadership qualities and “never say die” Kiwi grit.

Jet boating is a way of life in New Zealand; the small sleek craft ideally suited to local river boating conditions due to their shallow draft and high power-to-weight ratios. Kiwi rivers are often shallow, treacherous, and usually me and eracross giant gravel flood plains that spill off razor sharp mountains. Navigation requires great skill, instinctive decision-making and a fearless “he who dares wins” attitude.

The Hollyford is no different, flowing through a variety of topography, including a mixture of flat land sand boulder-strewn canyons, carpeted by a variety of vegetation, including tussock, flax, toe toe (a native grass) and cabbage trees. Elsewhere, seemingly prehistoric plant life reaches right out to the river’s edge, encompassing thousand-year-old native totara, rimu, matai trees and ancient podocarp forests wrapped in massive rata vines and giant ferns.

Native wood pigeons, chaffinches, bellbirds, tuis, keas and fantails inhabit the rain forest. The world’s only flightless parrot, the kakapo, also lives in the region, and the takahe, a large, flightless bird once thought to be extinct, was recently rediscovered around the Hollyford Valley.

ADRENALINE RUSH

Trying to describe the adrenaline rush produced by hurtling headlong down a river at up to 90 km/h, whilst drawing only 10cm in a 5m jet boat powered by a thundering V8, is impossible.

Suffice to say it’s not for the faint-hearted. Lifejackets are mandatory, as are nerves of steel, as the boats weave past sunken trees, rotting stumps, giant boulders and through rock-strewn rapids. The chill mountain air slaps your face, icy spray brings tears to your eyes as you strain to identify obstacles ahead and sharp turns generate G-forces that squeeze you into your seat.

We arrive an hour or so later at our first rendezvous point, the rapids at Gunns Camp, with nomishaps despite some fairly intimidating stretches of water. Disembarking, I can’t believe the sheer isolation and ruggedness of the scenery. Giant, snow-capped mountains look down upon a river of indescribable crystal clear deep green, and the rain forest bordering it is so dense, you would easily get lost venturing more than a few metres into the bush.

We gather wood, light a fire and boil the kettle for a good old ‘Kiwi Cuppa’. But then Kev has a better idea and breaks out the vodka, which he uses to mix the meanest Bloody Mary I have ever tasted (the first of many, as it turns out). We stretch out on deck chairs, bathing ourselves in glorious sunshine as we await the arrival of the rest of the crew.

As we luxuriate, an ancient-looking jet boat pulls up with a very interesting character at the wheel. “Old Bill” wanders up and we offer him a cuppa. He tells us he’s been trapping possums around the Hollyford Valley for the past 40 years. He doesn’t make much money, but enjoys his own company and the bush. Whilst enjoying a chat, he is obviously anxious to make a move and, with possum traps over his shoulder, we watch as the bush swallows him up.

The nearby rapids are impassable to jet boats, so Peter has arranged for a helicopter to rendezvous with our group and lift each boat over the obstacle. Additionally, he has organised the delivery of 44-gallon drums of fuel by helicopter to our ultimate destination, the Pyke River Lodge.

It’s not long before the silence of river, bush and mountains is shattered by the whup, whup of helicopter rotors and pilot, Geoff Shanks lands his Squirrel right beside us in a whirl of sand and dust. Ropes and chains are quickly run out and in no time the first boat is hooked up and lifted over the rapids. It’s an amazing effort and I watch incredulous as boats are picked up like feathers and deposited down the river.

An hour later and we’re on our way again, twisting and turning through rock-infested waters, under flying foxes (used by walkers to cross the river in times of flood) and past magnificent waterfalls tumbling from atop the steep, glacially formed valleys. We pass hiker’s huts and dash under dark canopies of rain forest that filter out the bright sunshine.

DIGITAL DISRUPTION

Turning into the Pyke River from the Hollyford, we arrive at our base for the next four nights, the Pyke River Lodge late in the afternoon, and tie up along the riverbank.

The lodge, owned by the Nghu Tahu Investment Group (South Island Maoris who run numerous investments) is a comfortable affair with a huge lounge/dining room and kitchen heated by a large open fire. There are eight double rooms, with guests required to bring their own sleeping bags. Thankfully, there is hot water available in the communal shower and toilet block. A generator provides all the power and the only communication is via a VHF radio to the outside world. I note the faces of some of our high-powered executives, who display some anxiety at the thought of being totally out of digital contact with their hectic worlds, though it passes quickly, as the realisation dawns that there is little they can do about it. There are no roads here and supplies are either brought in by jet boat from Martins Bay or by helicopter.

Our hosts, Sid and Bridget, do all the cooking and cleaning, and that night, after settling in, we enjoy an absolutely fantastic meal of vegetable soup, venison in plum sauce and sticky date pudding, all washed down with Earths End, an absolutely superb pinot noir from Central Otago.

The next morning, before first light, we are woken by the generator bursting into life. It’s pitch black and even though it’s only early autumn, it’s very cold. I’m thankful that I packed my thermal long johns.

In front of a roaring fire, we devour a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs cooked by our hosts as plans are made for the day. Our leader, Peter Steele, and hunters Murray and Bill plan to head up the Pyke River to the flatlands surrounding Lake Wilmot to see if they can bag a stag. The rest of us decide to head down the Hollyford River across Lake McKerrow to Martins Bay Lodge and, if the seas are good, cross the Martins Bay bar and head down the coast to the Kaipo River.

Engines roar into life and just as first light touches the valley floor, we power down the Pyke River and turn into the Hollyford. On the way, we navigate an especially dangerous stretch of the river requiring a fast turn past sheer rock walls, negotiating fast-flowing, treacherous waters. There’s a 360-degree turn into a small pool, before the boat is gunned across rock-infested turbulence to safer waters. Pete does it to perfection and I reflect on what a great mate he is, and admire his natural skill and intestinal fortitude in such testing conditions. He points out where a couple of jet boat fatalities occurred in this stretch of water some years before. I make a mental note to ensure we are back well before last light, as darkness would be extremely hazardous.

Looking above us as Pete navigates past sunken logs and submerged rocks, I see Mt Madeline and Mt Tautoko cutting ragged edges 2.5km into the skyline. Their snow-topped peaks blaze in the morning sunlight as though they are coated in vanilla ice-cream. Amazingly, it is another spectacular sunny day, which is very unusual for Fiordland as the prevailing westerly winds blow moist air from the Tasman Sea onto the mountains. As the air rises, it cools, producing a prodigious amount of rainfall (200 inches per year), making it one of the highest rainfall regions in the world.

FLOOD WARNING

The previous night, Peter Steele had related how the river can rise quickly and become a ferocious torrent, ripping giant trees from river banks, cutting off hikers and making the surrounding rivers and lakes extremely dangerous. He told us the story of how, five years before, after three days of floods, a jet boat was finally able to head out and check for stranded hikers. Approaching the old Hokuri Hut, and with just the roof above the floodwaters, the rescue party, assuming no one was there, was about to leave when the corrugated iron roof parted and three hiker’s heads popped out.

“Thank god you’re here, we’ve been stuck in this roof for three days with the bush rats and nothing to eat,” they shouted.

We break out of the Hollyford River into picturesque Lake McKerrow to find the wind has freshened and there is a short, sharp chop making the flat-bottomed jet boats very uncomfortable. Pulling up at the Martins Bay Lodge, a new establishment with comfortable rooms (NZ$180.00 per night, meals included), we find Anna and Maria packing up for the winter. They invite us in for tea and cakes and we sit in front of the fire and listen to them complain about the stags routing and roaring around the lodge all night. It is the deer breeding season, when amorous males become very aggressive, roaring through the night in their search for available females. We promise to send Murray and Bill along tomorrow to fire off a few rounds in the hope of giving them a good nights’ sleep.

We wish Anna and Maria a fond farewell and ask them to monitor our VHF calling channel throughout the day in case we strike trouble.

Heading for the Hollyford Bar into Martins Bay, we are astounded to find the sea as flat as a pancake, which is highly unusual in this part of the world. We pass a fur seal colony and cross the bar, flanked by giant sand dunes to the left and sheer cliffs to the right, and hit the throttle for the Kaipo River, about 20km down the coast. The entry to Martins Bay is one of the most beautiful areas on the planet, and was recently featured on the cover of National Geographic.

Arriving at the Kaipo, we find the bar tricky, especially considering that none of the group has traversed it before. Fearless Dave Archibald steps into the breach and turns his boat into the narrow channel behind the crashing surf bar, hammering pedal to the metal as the boat leaps out of the water. He’s through safely in a matter of seconds. One by one, each boat follows and we navigate up the river in convoy past some very daunting stretches of water before finally being halted by impassable rapids after 3km.

We break out the BBQ and comfy seats and Kevin sets about mixing up some extra-potent Bloody Marys. I light a fire, and the kettle is soon boiling away, while sausages sizzle on the barbie. The Gray brothers head upriver to try their luck on brown trout, leaving the rest of us to just sit back and enjoy the isolation in the midday sun, sipping our Bloody Marys and discussing Secret Mens Business.

On the way home, our first mishap occurs when the Thomas brothers, Andrew and Dougal, hit a submerged rock. They pull up on the sand bank at the river mouth, with the bilge pump working furiously, and we discover a jagged hole below the waterline. Sitting in the middle of nowhere with a problem like this requires real Kiwi ingenuity and we are all soon munching chewing gum, which is used to plug the holes. Not exactly ideal, but enough to get the boat back to the Pyke Lodge for some more permanent epoxy repairs.

Around some rocks off the Kaipo River mouth, I drop a hand line, with sausage as bait, and pull up ten good-sized blue cod in no time. A cray fishing boat from Milford Sound materialises from over the horizon, the crew amazed to find us there and they kindly drop off a bag of good-sized crays.

That night, we enjoy lobster bisque, cray fish mornay and blue cod in front of a roaring fire, complemented by a fine 2006 Saint Clair sauvignon blanc. Everyone is in great spirits, some in contemplative moods baring their souls and talking about their families and lives back in the ‘real world’. All agree we need to spare more time for ‘going bush’ in the future.

Next morning we head up the Pyke River to Lake Alabaster, where we encounter the famous “West Coast Barber”, a cold, dense fog in which you literally can’t see more than 20 feet in front of you. We sit on the lake waiting for the fog to clear, which takes a couple of hours, before heading up to Lake Wilmot, where we find Pete’s brother, Wilbur, with a freshly caught 12lb brown trout – tonight’s dinner.

SUDDEN IMPACT

Later that afternoon on the way home, Pete misses the entry to the Pyke River and we grind to a halt from 50 to zero km/h in a horrific collision of gravel and fiberglass. Surprisingly, there is no damage, and, hopping into the freezing waters, we lever the boat (using large timber planks) inch-by-inch back into deeper water.

Arriving back at the Pyke River Lodge, there is great excitement as Bill and Murray, hunting on the flat plains above Lake Wilmot, have bagged a stag. That night they relate the story of how, coming around a bend in the river, they surprised a stag near the river’s edge. Old Bill, standing on the back of the jet boat, had only time for one shot, and managed to down the stag in a shot John Wayne would have been proud of. That evening, we dined sumptuously on brown trout entrée, followed by venison back steaks in plum sauce. Deer in New Zealand, and the South Island in particular, are regarded as serious pests that are putting native flora and fauna under great pressure, so we were pleased to have made a slight contribution to wildlife management during our trip.

On our final day, we decide to visit the failed settlement at Jamestown on Lake McKerrow. Jamestown was intended to be the capital of the South Island, but because of the harsh environment, it soon gobbled up the hopes and dreams of its 19th century settlers and failed miserably. Today, there is little to see, apart from a couple of freehold homesteads, including a magnificent edifice called “Charlie’s Place”, complete with West Coast Bath (an outdoor bath with hot water cylinder heated by a wood fire).

That afternoon, we sit on the beach at Martins Bay beside our fire and bathe in glorious sunshine, reflecting on the ambience, peacefulness, and sheer unadulterated beauty of this World Heritage spot. Late afternoon, from the top of the sand dunes, we witness an amazing sight. A pod of endangered bottlenose dolphin cross the bar and head up the Hollyford River. Incredulous, we watch as a well-orchestrated aquatic round-up unfolds. The dolphin herd small trout and other fish into shallow water, where they indulge in a spirited feeding frenzy. I am told later that this is one of the few places in the world where dolphin are known to visit and feed in fresh water.

The final night is tinged with a hint of sadness. Our adventure is almost over, but as we share our impressions with other members of the group, it becomes apparent that a bond has developed between us, born of our adversity and triumphs along the way. We also vow to spend less time at our work and more time with our families.

The next day, sunny again, we head back up the river and meet our helicopter for the airlift over the rapids. We re-group at Gunn’s Camp for a final Bloody Mary, some fond farewells and vows to all meet up again in some other extreme location sometime in the future.

As we drive out of the valley, it begins to rain. The gods had truly smiled upon us.

Footnote: Cost per person for this particular trip is $NZ2500 per person, which covers 1 night bed and breakfast in Te Anau, transport into Hollyford, helicopter flights, four lodge nights with breakfast and dinner, all jetboating for four days and guided fishing and hunting as required. Generally, there are two to four spots available one achtrip. The next trip will be in April, 2008. For information, email Peter Steele at: pdsmarine@xtra.co.nz.

The coming of the jet age

It was more than 50 years ago that Kiwi Bill Hamilton finally achieved the revolutionary break-through he’d been looking for after three years of hard work. His goal was to build a boat capable of traversing the shallow, rock-strewn rivers flowing across the wild, often inhospitable back country of the South Island in which he had been born and grown up.

By this time, he had retired back to Irishman Creek – his large sheep station in the South Island’s rugged McKenzie Country – from his heavy engineering company, CWF Hamilton & Co. Bill and wife, Peg, had time on their hands to enjoy the fruits of a successful business enterprise, forged from decades of hard work and ingenuity. But that didn’t stop his enquiring mind from searching for more challenges. His retirement was soon put on hold as he became preoccupied with a new idea for powerboat propulsion.

Early attempts at creating a boat capable of motoring against the flow of shallow and hazard-strewn rivers using retractable propellers and air screws failed to deliver the level of performance Hamilton desired. After airing his frustrations to Christchurch boat builder and pattern maker, Arnold France in 1953, France responded by presenting him with a copy of Popular Mechanics. The American magazine featured an article on a device called the Hanley Hydrojet, a crude water jet that inducted and expelled water through the bottom of the boat. It was the spark Hamilton was looking for and he commissioned his son, Jon, a qualified engineer, to draw up something along similar lines. A prototype was hand-fabricated in his workshop and installed into a 12-foot plywood boat powered by an ancient Ford car engine.

Performance of this first water jet was not particularly startling, but it did at least show promise. When the jet was reconfigured so that the water was discharged through the transom of the boat, rather than the hull bottom, performance levels improved dramatically and thus was born the Hamilton Jet. As the Hamiltons developed their jet technology, news of their success spread quickly around the globe, aided greatly by the success of expeditions they undertook in the 1960s and ’70s on various rivers around the world, including the Colorado in the US, the Ganges in India, the Sun Kosi in Nepal and the Zaire in Africa. Their boats not only proved up to the challenges, the Hamilton Jet technology captured the attention of the world. Since then, the same technology has been applied to all manner of craft, but is still most associated with the shallow draft river boats, derivatives of which now feature in jet sprint racing here in Australia, as well as in the US, UK and NZ.

Sydney-based documentary maker, Paul Mullan of Black Magic Media, in conjunction with jet boat enthusiast and past president of the New Zealand Jet Boat Association, Paul Smith has produced Against the Flow – the Hamilton Jet Tale, a 1hr 15m production tracing the development of Hamilton’s boats. It includes plenty of historic footage of the early expeditions, as well as commentary from such luminaries as Sir Edmund Hillary, who led the two major jet boating expeditions to the Sun Kosi in 1968 and the Ganges in 1977.

Against the Flow – the Hamilton Jet Tale tells the story of the development of the Hamilton Jet across 50 years. Using a combination of interviews with key players and rarely viewed archival film footage, the production evolves through the eyes of those who were a part of this exciting period.

A highlight was the discovery in the US of Wee Red, the only boat to have ever traversed the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, both up and downstream. Jon Hamilton, who piloted all four boats through the most difficult rapids, was able to authenticate the boat, and during filming was delighted to meet with a group of Colorado river enthusiasts, who plan to restore and display it.

Jon Hamilton also provides fascinating insights into life at Irishman Creek and the other wide ranging accomplishments of his father.

Against the Flow – the Hamilton Jet Tale is available for $40, plus $7 postage, from jetboat@blackmagic.com.au.


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