Premonitions of the Wairoa River would begin to seep into my dreams several days before I was scheduled to run it.
If on Saturday, Wednesday night required conscious effort to push thoughts of its rapids from my mind to enable sleep.
By Thursday, a faint but ever-present knot of tension would settle in my gut.
Come Friday, resistance was largely futile. A few hours disturbed rest was the best that could be hoped for before rising before dawn to drive the two hours to the river’s put in. Eating beforehand was out of the question.
The Wairoa is a river of steep gradient, constricted flow and narrow margins. For experienced guides a consistent challenge, for a newbie like myself a seeming hostile and unforgiving environment in which to learn my craft.
Compounding the complexity, the river was only available to raft a handful of days, scattered throughout the year — the rest of the time its waters were diverted to a nearby hydro power station.
Lessons learned one day often could not be reinforced by practice for weeks, sometimes months. Mistakes would prey on the mind, assuming a life and energy far disproportionate to their reality.
The run was short, perhaps two miles from put in to take out, but aside from a few fleeting pools between rapids, there was little in the way of respite.
Even the put in was challenging, requiring rafts and people alike to negotiate a descent down steep boulders with the aid of ropes set into the rock, all this at the base of an eighty foot waterfall.
Once afloat, precious little time could be allocated for practicing paddle strokes as immediately around the first bend awaited Wake Up, a rapid short and sweet from which no one emerged dry.
From that point on, the action continued in a heady succession of narrow slots between large boulders, steep drops and tight twists and turns — Double Trouble, Mushroom Rock, Devil’s Elbow, The Waterfall and Rollercoaster. In any of these, a mis-timed paddle stroke, weak ferry angle or inadvertent contact with terra firma could easily result in an overturned raft and a less than enjoyable swim through shallow, rock-strewn water.
If the knot in my stomach had loosened somewhat as the phony war of anticipation gave over to the immediacy of action, it returned in spades as we floated into the pool above the rapid called The Waterfall.
Here, there was often a logjam of rafts, as only one at a time could run the falls.
Beyond the horizon line of the falls a guide would be stationed on a rock mid-river below. It was his or her job to signal to those waiting above whether the preceding raft had successfully negotiated the drop, or whether there had been carnage, swimmers to be rescued and rafts to be righted.
Crossed arms above the head signaled the latter, a single arm raised with clenched fist meant the next raft was clear to run.
The knot would retighten as I waited my turn. A succession of clean runs ahead of me meant, by the law of averages, I was bound to flip.
A succession of flips meant the river gods were unsympathetic that day, and I was bound to follow suit.
Finally, as my turn came around, a kind of detached calm would settle over me. Too late for second guessing my career choice.
The next sixty seconds would pass in slow motion — the deceptively simple yet powerful hydraulic at the entrance to the falls, the quick correction of the raft’s speed and direction as you lined up for the drop, the eyes of those waiting below fixed on your every move, the final command to the crew to get down and bury themselves at the bottom of the raft, the feeling of helplessness as it dropped over the lip, and either that of elation at the realization that you’d made it, or else the chaos of the yard sale of swimmers, paddles and overturned boat if you didn’t.
All this with the knowledge that The Rollercoaster, bigger, longer and steeper, awaited a mere thirty yards downstream.
Beyond The Rollercoaster, the river gradually mellowed the last half-mile to the take out.
Any feeling of exhilaration at having completed a successful run was tempered, or any feeling of dread at having flipped was magnified by the realization that you had to turn around and start from square one, do it all again.
A guide ran the river three times in the same day.
Only at the end of the third run could I truly relax, eat for the first time in twenty four hours, and bask in the afterglow of survival, enjoy the sense of accomplishment, and try not to think again about the Wairoa until the Wednesday ahead of the next time.