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Friday 7 Feb 2014
Taupo, New Zealand

Aratiatia rapids

I had seen photos of a set of waterfalls that went from little more than a trickle to a crashing deluge in under 10 minutes when the dam was released, but Jan and I couldn’t find any reference to this in the Huka Falls brochure.  After a little searching, we discovered this wasn’t the Huka Falls, it was actually the Aratiatia Rapids.  There was a 2-hour walk between the two, so we decided to head that way the next day.  Huka Falls is the result of New Zealand’s longest river, the Waikato, being channelled through a narrow gorge before churning over a 10m drop into a much wider pool at the end.  We crossed the footbridge over this raging torrent of bright turquoise and foaming white water and followed the twisty hillside path to a viewpoint in front of the drop.  The river funnels an incredible 220,000 litres of water a second over the falls. 

Once we’d climbed up the steep paths on the side of the gorge, we had a relatively easy walk following the river for about 90 minutes.  It wasn’t a strenuous walk, but it wasn’t especially interesting either, so we began to wish we’d hired bikes like all the other clever people who overtook us along the way.  We finally reached the Aratiatia Dam alongside the hydroelectric power station about 15 minutes before the release.  The gorge was once a spectacular part of the river, but the dam reduced the river to little more than a trickle.  However, three times a day, the water gates are opened for only 10 minutes to allow the water to flood down the gorge again. 

We climbed up to one of the two viewing points up on the cliff and waited…

We saw the gates on the dam begin to rise and watched the water flow out from underneath, but it then had to fill a wide pool at the top of the gorge.  It was another few minutes before we saw it begin to bubble over and find the gaps between the rocks at the edge of the pool and begin to flow down through the rocky ravine below us.  As the minutes passed, each section of the gorge began to rise, changing from a trickling stream to a bubbling, whirling eddy, then to a whitewater rapid, before building to a full torrent.  Rocks that started as boulders the size of houses were gradually dwarfed and then submerged by the water as the river rose and regained its rightful territory.  In the space of ten minutes it built up to a mighty torrent blasting its way down the gorge, displaying the power and beauty of its former glory. 

And then, just as quickly as it rose, the river began to retreat and lose height.  The gates were closed off and the water drained away downstream, slowly revealing the boulders and returning to its shallow placid meandering, only the high water mark on the rocks above giving any indication of the mighty rapids crashing through just minutes ago.  The whole thing took less than 20 minutes.

Part of the second Hobbit film, “The Desolation of Smaug”, was filmed along these rapids.  (I saw the film a few weeks later.  Although it has been CGI’d considerably, I still recognised the setting.)

Jan and I started to walk back to the Huka Falls path, passing a small jetty onto the reservoir above the dam.  The Huka Falls Cruise boat was just about to leave so we asked if they could take us one way and let us out at the top.  It took an hour and it was very relaxing.  The boat had room for a handful of people on the bow and it took turns heading up close to the falls, where we were covered in the mist rising off the water.  It was quite exhilarating to be that close to such a powerful deluge – far more impressive than the falls had seemed from the cliff view we’d had this morning.

The captain nudged the boat into a tiny beach just downstream from the falls and we hopped off into the water, finding a small hot water stream in one corner – our own private hot water beach.  We took another half hour to climb the trails back up the side of the gorge and over the top into the car park again, so the route back was no quicker than the walk, but much more fun.

I spent the evening at the cinema watching “12 Years a Slave”.  It’s a harrowing film to watch, which once again makes me grateful for the life and opportunities I have had.

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Zoe's Big World Adventure Part II - #4 New Zealand and Australia

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I had so much fun in New Zealand and Australia that I'm going back around again! This time I'll see more of the North Island and catch up with friends and family in Melbourne

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