Crossing the fast flowing Otehake River, 15 m wide, 1 m deep. Arthur's Pass Region, South Island, New Zeeland, March 2005.
Crossing a river after a full night of rain can be tricky. We should have walked around it, taken the alternative trail on the East side and use the bridge but this would add an extra hour or 4 km.
Arriving at the Otehake river, only 2 hours from the main road, it was swollen by heavy rain that lasted from 5 PM last night till 9 AM this morning. A sign from DOC tells us to stay on the North side and further down we would have to cross the joined Taramakau and Otehake Rivers.
We try to avoid this and cross ASAP as further down the river may deeper. Also, a 4WD starts across the river, and this should take us to the road in only 1.5 hours along a leisurely trail. We were warned by other hikers that if your loose the trail on the North side, you have to crash through dense woods which takes forever.
The Otehake river is fast flowing, looks hip-deep at most and we carefully look for the widest braided part with the lowest current above rapids. Walking up and down we do not find a braided part with multiple channels and there seems to be only a single channel because of the heavy rain last night.
We hesitate, the narrow main channel has a swift current, is 15 meters wide and a depth till the hips is the absolute limit for crossing a stream but we are not sure about the real depth. Taking off the boots we are attacked by dozens of sand flies so I hurry up.
I go first using a dead tree I found near the river as a stick for support. As you always need two support points for safety when crossing a swift river I use a thick and heavy dead tree. My companion is going to use my two walking sticks. He lost his earlier this week. A one-foot support is very tricky, you get easily pushes over by the current, so I concentrate.
My right slipper breaks off instantly on the uneven rocks in the shallow parts and now I know why they always recommend you to use sturdy Tevas. I left them home because of the weight.
I put the tree stick in the water and first fixate the stick on a safe hold, move one foot while holding steady the other foot and the tree. Once this foot is steady I move the other foot still with a steady tree. Most difficult is now to move the thick tree carefully and find a new good support point as the strong current pushes at the wide stick but the weight does help to stabilize it. Now the process is repeated for the next two steps. It takes a long time to cross the 15 meters but luckily the water is not cold and only half of it, some 7 meters is really fast flowing. In the deepest part, my hips reach the water and the current is at its strongest and my briefs get wet. In the mean time I get bitten by midgets but I have other worries like wet undies. The midgets seem to be experienced, waiting for trekkers to cross and take a bite.
This was a scary crossing. I wore my rucksack with shoulder belts only and no waist belt in case I would loose my footing so I could shake of the rucksack and swim out of the river and not drown helplessly like a turtle on its back. I now realize I could also loose the rucksack including my passport in the fast flowing stream moving at 8 km per hour so there is no point running after it as you can never catch up.
My companion also starts his crossing but he is 3 meters further down, hitting a deeper part of the river at the start of the rapids. Luckily he has two ski poles for support but is worried to loose his toe slippers and has to keep his front upstream instead of side stream which destabilizes his position. Again, he should have used Tevas. After crossing he complains about the sand flies that kept on following and biting him, even in the deepest part of the stream. He also did not like me taking photographs of someone about to die in the river but I respond that these would be a nice memory for his parents.
We are relieved after the crossing, this is not the way to do this. You really need a 30 m safety rope in case someone is pushed over by the fast flowing river. My 12 m rope was too short. It is also much safer to take off the back pack, put it in a plastic bag and just pull it over. Loosing a ruck sack is the least worry that can happen when you are pushed over by the current, you better not die. The New Zeeland newspapers regularly report on missing and presumed dead hikers that are caught by the swift current crossing a river.
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