Packrafting in Fiordland National Park

Grab your fold-up paddles, your blow-up rafts and your all-conditions backpack because today we’re going on an outdoors adventure literally like no other in New Zealand! Today, we’re going packrafting!

Now, what the hell is packrafting?

We were a little unsure to start with too, but it’s about making the most of the wilderness, both water and land, while packing light! Pack rafts are essentially blow-up rafts that will take you down river rapids and across lakes. When it’s all done, you roll it up, pop it in your backpack, and hike from there. There is only one company in New Zealand that you can go on a packrafting trip with and we are going to be joining them for a trip in Fiordland National Park – a World Heritage Site.

THe start of an expedition

We get picked up by Arno from Expedition in Te Anau and meet two other packrafting buddies today, Rachel and Johnny. From there, it’s to the beginning of the Waiau River – a river that connects Lake Te Anau with Lake Manapouri.

Once parked up by a forest, Arno starts putting equipment in piles for everyone, from some hardcore backpack dry packs to two half paddles.

Meeting our packrafts

“You can have Laura,” Arno says to Laura as he hands over a bag smaller than a sleeping bag with the name “Laura” written on it. Robin has “Kim”, Rachel has “Betsy”, Johnny has “Lisa” and Arno has “Smokey” named after his cat. We guess these are the things we are going to be relying on to get us down the Waiau River today!

Wetsuits, jackets, helmets and life jackets on, we now walk through the bush carrying our gear to the riverside. First things first, we need to blowup our packrafts.

Feeling epic on our first packrafting adventure! Feeling epic on our first packrafting adventure!
Landing on side of the river for a picnic lunch Landing on side of the river for a picnic lunch
Paddling off into the distance Paddling off into the distance
Paddle high-five! Paddle high-five!

A PACKRAFT ASSEMBLY RACE!

A demonstration from Arno shows how to roll these packrafts out of their bags and blow them up with a bag pump. (Thank God we don’t have to do it completely with our lungs)! The final and most important step is to then introduce yourself to your packraft, then she will treat us well. Now, it’s our turn…

In true BackpackerGuide.NZ style, we make a competition out of it: who can blow up their raft first.

3… 2… 1… GO! We are crushing our bag pumps between our legs, doing whatever we can do to get the air in the pack raft quickly, but looking beside us, Arno has a raft pumped up in no time, Rachel is not too far behind, Laura is a weak third place, Robin’s attempts are pathetic, and Johnny has run off somewhere to park the van… It’s madness out here in Fiordland!

MASTERING OUR PACKRAFTS

After attaching our packs to the rafts and putting our paddles together, we are getting into our packrafts for the first time and getting used to them on the river.

Much different from a kayak, these things are a lot more sensitive to every paddle stroke sending us around in circles if we are not too careful.

Soon enough, we get used to the packrafts maneuverability and are now heading down the river for our first packrafting river skills lesson: mastering an eddy. An eddy is water flowing in an opposite direction to the rest of the river due to the water hitting an obstruction and can be a b*tch! One moment, you could be facing one way, then the next, you are facing the other and being carried downstream in a direction you didn’t want to go.

A CRUISY SECTION DOWN THE WAIAU RIVER

PASSING THE PACKRAFT TEST

When Arno is satisfied that we can tackle a baby eddy, he takes us to its mama. This is our packrafting drivers test. Gulp!

As each of us paddles into the fierce current beside us, we become slaves to the river and it carries us off downstream until we can fight our way back out again… It’s fair to say we all failed our packrafting test. Sad times.

BUT! With determination, Arno’s teaching abilities, and our ever-growing bond with our packrafts, we finally pass the test to a satisfactory level where we can continue on this 22km journey down the Waiau River.

RAFTING DOWN THE WAIAU RIVER

A mix of rapids and cruisy currents await. We bob up and down as we take grade 2 rapids straight on, fearful of falling out of the raft, but, damn, these rafts are pretty darn stable! Unfortunately (or fortunately, however you want to look at it) we don’t have any flips on this trip…

Riverside picnic

As lunch approaches, this can only mean one thing: riverside picnic!

We pull up on the side of the river underneath a long swingbridge. We have each been given a mean lunch bag of beef, chutney, lettuce and whatever else sandwiches, an apple, muesli bars and cookies! It’s a feast fit for kings right here!

We apologise to our rafts as we get back in a little heavier…

Enter Lake Manapouri

The river journey comes to an end as we enter Lake Manapouri backed with atmospheric views of the Kepler Mountains. In theme with today’s weather, they are moody grey. This is what packrafting with Expedition is all about though, taking on the elements, rain or shine.

The mossy and enchanting Kepler forest The mossy and enchanting Kepler forest
Checking out the river we just paddled down Checking out the river we just paddled down
The finale: crossing the swingbridge The finale: crossing the swingbridge

Transforming into hikers

Landing on a pebble beach, we let the air out of our packrafts, roll them up, and pack everything onto our backs. We change from wetsuit to hiking gear as we now go on a 8km hike along the famous Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks.

The Kepler Track

Paddles sticking out of either side of our backpack, helmet and life jacket attached to outside of the pack, we feel pretty badass walking through the forest kitted out for awesomeness.

Native robins sit on branches and judge us as we hike through their beech forest. Covered in bright green moss and tiny orange leaves fallen from the branches, this is just another stunning forest in New Zealand with an enchanted feel about the place. We also hike over boardwalks carrying us through wetlands filled with geese and ducks.

back at the bridge

About one hour later, we are crossing the very same swingbridge that we sat underneath for lunch. By some sort of miracle (that we like to call “Johnny”) the van is parked just by the swingbridge!

Helping Arno pack the gear into the back of the van marks the end of our unique expedition in Fiordland National Park. It’s an activity crossed off the bucket list that we didn’t even know should have been on our bucket list! Packrafting is a completely new way of experiencing the wilderness for us, which we will definitely take up if we have the chance to do it again!

After an eight-hour trip, we are happy to chill out back at the Te Anau Kiwi Holiday Park and sleep in our campervan which is literally rocking us to sleep in the strong gusts of wind.

Tomorrow, it’s back on the road for one of the most popular road trips in New Zealand: the road to Milford Sound. Join us then!

Laura and Robin
CONTEMPLATING WHETHER TO GET BACK IN OUR PACKRAFTS...
CONTEMPLATING WHETHER TO GET BACK IN OUR PACKRAFTS... Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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See you tomorrow!

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