Buried Deep in the Mokihinui
Blogger: Top of the South Conservation Advocate, Debs Martin
“You’ve got it lucky”, a West Coaster said in reference to the weather forecast. And indeed we had. This river receives 6 metres of rainfall a year –half of this usually falls in the month of October.
Labour Weekend – and we were set for an in-depth, in your face, exploration of the Mokihinui River. Along with Whitewater NZ, Forest & Bird organised this trip to once again highlight the proposed plight of the Mokihinui River.
In April this year, state owned Meridian Energy was granted resource consent to dam the mighty Mokihinui River – the 7th most important river in New Zealand for its natural values.
The dam – equivalent to a 20 storey building – would flood 330 hectares of riverbed and public conservation land, and create a deep and inhospitable reservoir 14 kilometres long.
But the decision didn’t go ALL Meridian’s way – and the single ecologist on the hearing panel voted against granting consent. His grounds? The intact eco-system of the Mokihinui, the diversity of wildlife and the complexity of forests and riparian vegetation.
So what’s happening now? Forest & Bird, along with the Department of Conservation, Whitewater NZ and the West Coast ENT group have all lodged appeals. The hearing is due in early 2012.
But we don’t want the cost of an expensive hearing – after all Meridian is owned by the state; Department of Conservation is a government agency; and the three NGOs could do much better things with their funds.
So it’s off to the Mokihinui, to show New Zealand and the world, what an important place this is – and to experience the true wilderness that the Mokihinui offers.
Suicide Bluff: it’s a name to haunt even the most regular of trampers. And indeed, it had haunted me for the past 3 years. Despite rafting the river and walking part of the gorge – I’d never walked into the interior from the road end before.
As a tramping route, it traverses the impressive Mokihinui gorge by perching high above the river – with steep, vertical drop offs
Carved out of solid rock, this old pack route is one of the most impressive river walks I’ve ever been on. With the call of thundering rapids far below, rata and rimu wrapping around each other, dense kiekie festooning tall podocarps, and large carnivorous snails Powelliphanta almost littering the track, I was in for a treat.
Hot sun, shorts and singlet – some cooling river crossings. Tramping heaven.
Squelching through sphagnum beds over Anderson’s Flat, the rimu towered overhead – sentinel against the clear sky, the old pack route leads to the ghost gold mining ‘town’ of Seatonville –abandoned in the early 1900s.
A few rusty relics of gold lie on the ground, but as the gold was sluiced from the river, very little remains and natural re-vegetation has almost obliterated signs of human habitation.
Around the corner from Seatonville, the approach of Suicide Bluff is imminent. The Mokihinui was wracked by the earthquakes of 1929 and 1968. Whole hillsides fell into the river, creating a melee of boulders that kayakers and rafters love. They also create huge slips that require some negotiating. With a steep up and over one slip, I was primed for the Suicide moment. And then it happened, without fanfare – suddenly a wire rope to hold onto and I’m over. Nothing in it really (just DON’T LOOK DOWN)!
My fear conquered, we wove our way along the rest of the river up to the stunning flat forests above the Mokihinui Gorge. Just before dusk , we rolled up to the Mokihinui Forks Hut delightfully framed by kahikatea and beech. With the hut to ourselves, we settled in for a warm evening lit by a full moon; entertained by western weka and distant ruru greeting the night.
Sunday – and the crowds are due to arrive. At first light, we were expecting over 100 kayakers and rafters, along with boats galore, to arrive in by helicopter. At the sound of a chopper beating against the sky I ran down to the beach to wave them in – then it ducked out of sight and the sounds of WW2 rang out!
Back up to the Hut, we could see the chopper heli-hunting a herd of deer, and making a nimble job of it. We now understood why the Mokihinui gorge forest shows so little sign of animal browse. Deer can devastate forests and will browse broadleaf species down to nothing culminating in forest collapse. We said a silent thanks to those hunters who remove deer from our forests, and with a billy of porridge in my hand, we scooted down to the riverbank to await the thronging hoards.
Soon helicopters filled with activists, politicians, media and kayakers started landing across the other side of the Mokihinui River – i.e. an impossible ford! After a period of frantically waving a yellow pack liner, we were picked up and transported across the river. What a sight – kayaks of every rainbow colour, people darting across with helmets, wetsuits, rafts being pumped up by hand, choppers landing and going – the logistical exercise of getting people to this remote spot was self-evident.
With other Forest & Birders there to greet us, we unfurled the 60 metre lone banner. It helped focus the day and remind everyone that we were here to celebrate the Mokihinui and ensure that we would do what we could to keep Meridian’s thirsty reservoir from tapping into this priceless wilderness.
Meridian argue it is for the benefit of the Coast, energy for the country, and they don’t have a choice. What they don’t say is that the West Coast will already be self-sufficient in power with schemes already consented, and that although the scheme will provide power to the national grid – it is the most destructive form of ‘renewable’ electricity that could be mooted. Plenty of other options exist, including energy efficiency, geothermal, solar and sensitively sited wind and marine options.
If the dam and reservoir were to go ahead, it would be the largest inundation of public conservation land ever seen for hydro purposes. Given that Meridian are sponsors of Project Crimson – a significant effort to rescue rata and pohutukawa across the country – the irony is this scheme would flood hectares of rata forest. With at least 16 other threatened animal species, and rare assemblages of ecosystems, such destruction is not sustainable energy.
But the morning was ticking on, and it was time to depart back down the gorge – only this time in a red, inflatable and ‘safe’ raft. Our guide was experienced in wild rivers, and certainly knew his drill (I’d once worked as a raft guide on a less challenging river so I felt he knew his stuff). Of course we were safe.
Famous last words.
With some first-time rafters on board, we plunged joyfully into the sparkling white foam, and the front of the boat came up, and kept coming up! Next thing I’m in the water and grabbing for my life-line – the boat! It was an auspicious start to our day. Wet, safely onboard and blessed by the Mokihinui River we continued our descent – somewhat quieter and definitely reflective.
But nature was to delight us again, with a karearea (bush falcon) in a death flight towards a kereru over our boats. Cameras were shooting the scene from the myriad of rafters and kayakers on the water . In rapid flight, you could see the sharp eyes of the karearea. Truly memorable!
A tightly negotiated gorge greeted us around the bend – 500 metres of pounding water, rocks splattered throughout, and an almighty plunge to finish – heading directly into a granite wall. This time our guide had us working hard, and with paddle forward, left back, over right, hold on, and GET DOWN – we survived this run with whoops of laughter. Watching people’s faces as they surfaced from the final plunge – fear, excitement, grim determination – every emotion was easily read.
The remainder of the river gorge alternates between pushy rapids and deep still pools, as well as a driving current over clear waters.
The day was one of non-stop action, total concentration, weariness, excitement, laughter and appreciation. The monument of the gorge silenced frivolous conversation as we cruised beneath steeply forested slopes that commanded appreciation. Young vegetation clothing the flood zones and slip slopes, gigantic rimu reached skywards.
The last excitement is always for the end – and with a wall of water bearing down on a rock wall we held our breaths as we slid through boulders, and bounced off the wall, before paddling home to safety – and warm dry clothes!
The Mokihinui was host to us for a weekend – a generous host – a challenging host – and a gracious one in the end.
Please help us in our work to save this precious river. You can do your part. We need you. The river needs you.