Trip reports

Rangitikei River Race – 9 January 2011

Being a novice paddler is a bit like being a kid and living with monsters in your closet (and in your mind) on a regular basis. For someone who doesn’t like the water, rivers are terrifying. Boils, eddies and wave trains are a bit like dust bunnies under the dressing table, monsters behind the curtains and bogeymen in the closet. Knowing that a river trip is coming up has you nervous by Wednesday, scared by Thursday and terrified by Friday. When Saturday rolls around and you cross that bridge you would quite happily slit your wrists open rather than get in your boat and head downstream. It takes LOTS of river trips before you can confidently turn on the light and be sure that there actually is no bogeyman.

I was on the cusp of this discovery on January 9, 2010. Torn between wondering what the hell I was doing on my perfectly good last day of holiday and feeling excited about seeing people before the race, I rocked up with my support crew ready for a practice run. Having only paddled the 50km once before, I was hoping that the Christmas season and too many pies wouldn’t mean too much pain. The river was flowing at a measly 17cumecs. Some say this makes life easier, but for a self-confessed chicken liner such as myself I think it can almost be harder. No choices! 

Dithering at the sideline trying to decide what to wear I diligently ignored my Coach’s advice of a good warm up. In the end I gauged myself off The Oracle (AKA Kath Allen) and settled on a t-shirt. Before I knew it, we were off. It always takes awhile before you get the feel of the river and the Rangitikei (unfortunately) doesn’t give you much breathing space. At least I was nice and warm throughout the race. Rachel Cashin reported being cold – I guess when you paddle as fast as her you have variables like wind chill factor to deal with!!

So, the first ‘real’ rapid has messed with my head since I got stuck on a rock not long ago and Martin Leighton had to rope rescue me after I pushed my boat into the rapid and flatly refused to swim down after it (I hate the water, remember). Luckily some diligent marshals were on hand to guide us through and I stayed in my boat. Praise Jesus! Calming down a bit, I managed to focus on letting the water take me where it wanted to and loosening up a bit. The virgin rapids were the tamest I had ever seen them so the only other thing bothering me was ‘”Cam’s corner”. Now, The Oracle knows this corner has proved challenging for me and kindly sent me a reassuring text the night before saying it was the easiest she had ever seen it. I don’t think I have ever fallen out there, but I just hate that a low flow takes away my chicken line (SO not fair!!). I approached with determination, ready to PLF my way thorough it….but there was a queue. And a stick in the middle that I didn’t see until the last minute. So I broke the golden rule and changed my mind half way through my line. Needless to say, this did not have a good outcome!! Sheer luck kept me in my boat; you know it is bad when the marshalls shake their heads in despair!

About now, I noticed that some of the wave trains that had never been a problem before were harder. A few swimmers started being seen in random places. This was all the encouragement I needed to really focus on staying upright. Apart from being spun round by an eddy at the end of a wave chain, the rest of the rapids were more or less ok. Walls seemed to be a problem and a place where traffic jammed up so I stuck to my ‘come in wide, negotiate an early exit and kiss the rock (but don’t even get that close)’ strategy. There seemed to be quite a few people who liked walls more than I do!

Nearing the campground, ‘the boys’ started to flow on through. Some grunted a greeting, some said hello and Ben Candy even told me that I was looking good and doing well (bless). And then a bit further down came a crazy, mad, warped lunatic racing up behind me, hollering “Wooohoooo” at the top of his lungs. Prior to the race I had warned Dean Ford that I would have a distinct lack of humour about any antics that threatened my newly found confidence and stability, and that should he wish to pursue such abhorrent behaviour I will have no choice but to set him alight as he sleeps soundly in his tent the night before Coast. Luckily for him, he didn’t touch me or my boat, but the hollering was enough to make me lose concentration. Lots of choice names were called out on his way past, none of which are repeatable.

Somewhere along the way I passed a couple of ‘more experienced’ paddlers who warned me that this was a long race and that I had better not paddle too fast. Which was an experience, because I am not famous for moving through the water like a speeding bullet. The Oracle had promised me that all bets are off in a longer, endurance race and I was putting the hypothesis to the test.

Um, does Ohinighti EVER want to turn up? Because once you get past Mangarere the next stop is Ohinigiti – right? Wrong! There is fake Ohinigiti one, followed closely by fake Ohinigiti two…and then Ohinigiti FINALLY appears, and is a bit of a non event. But it signals the last leg! The home strait! The hard slog! Easy! Right? Wrong.

Almost immediately ‘the unavoidable wall’ looms large. Chicken lines not an option. Nasty buffer wave, even at low flows. So what did the chicken do? Watched someone else, then took a slightly wider line. Which was unfortunate for the guy behind me in the U2 who hadn’t anticipated my move. Follow a t-bone. With me flatly refusing to fall out of my trusty Eclipse. Someone had to go, and it wasn’t me. After helping tow him out and retrieving a paddle all was settled and forgiven. It was time to put this race away once and for all.

Seeing the house on the hill from one side then paddling for 15 minutes and seeing the back of it is somewhat discouraging. At this point, keeping the food going in is a challenge. Hip flexors are sore, shoulders and necks are starting to grumble and feet are starting to cramp up. The solution? Sit up straight, reach and rotate. Or (for the less disciplined amongst us, i.e. myself) CAFFEINE TIME!

I forgot to get some legal speed (aka Enervatine) so Gu would have to do. I diligently pulled off to one side of the river and ripped off the top of my Gu. The first third of that viscous goodness was pretty hard to swallow but I got it down. It wasn’t pleasant so I decided to suck it up and deal to the rest of it in one foul swoop. I took a deep breath and swallowed the remaining goop. All good. Until it hit my stomach and came straight back up again, All over my hands, deck and paddle. Not cool!!

The last hour was a real slog with some big trees, shallow shutes, nasty winds and screaming bodies to conquer. A group of five of us managed to band together and fight the mental battle it took to get closer to the finish line. Which I am convinced was a bit like platform 9 and ¾ - nowhere to be seen when you needed to get somewhere (namely to a happier place).

My apologies for not stopping to console the team member of the famous five who took a swim just before the finish line. When you realise it is a matter of metres a survival instinct takes over. Life becomes about getting the hell out of that boat!!

It was awesome to have The Oracle and my support crew members there to welcome me at the finish line. It was the first time I have experienced such wasted, wobbly legs. It was entertaining – until I remembered that in 4 weeks time I will be feeling even worse and needing to get on a bike to ride 70km into a headwind. Not so funny now, is it?! Sitting in the river for 5 minutes was the best idea of the day and I am quite certain it aided my recovery.

Prizegiving was awesome, with heaps of spot prizes being given out. It was great to see good prizes for ‘longest time on the river’ and ‘most swims’. It was also refreshing to see the number of hands go up when ‘who swam?’ was asked. Although I got through unscathed this time, as kayakers we are all between swims.

A big thanks goes to Dean Ford for spending the best part of the last 6 months yelling at me (all the while, never giving up hope). Thanks to Kath/The Oracle – an amazing friend who has consistently built my confidence. Thanks to Annabel Ramsay who I have learnt to paddle with. We have an unbreakable bond borne out of mutual terror, suffering and conquering! A huge vote of appreciation also to Cam Durno for being an awesome Coach, who got me from zero to 50km in a matter of months and believed in my ability more than I did. Finally, thanks also to the race organisers and the marshals for a fabulous and safe event (even if they do tell porkies and call it a 45km race). Roll on Rangitikei River Race 2012!