Otago: Darting up river

By Justine Tyerman

Justine Tyerman goes for a hoon up the Dart River.

Justine Tyerman floats down the Dart River. Photo / Chris Tyerman
Justine Tyerman floats down the Dart River. Photo / Chris Tyerman

"Sorry, but you have to get out of that Funyak now. The trip is over and we have to pack up," the guide said to me.

But the end of our Dart River adventure had come all too soon so I refused to get out of my bright orange inflatable kayak when we arrived at Paradise. I just lay down in my Funyak and the guide finally had to tip me out.

With both of us in tears of hysterical laughter, he admitted he had never had to forcibly extract a client from a Funyak before but he did consider it the highest of compliments.

We were last minute additions to the expedition that day, having decided on the spur of the moment to actually do the trip we had planned for years.

We had driven the spectacular scenic route up the side of Lake Wakatipu for lunch at Glenorchy with friends, and casually inquired at the Dart River Jet Safaris booking office if there were any vacancies. "Yes, two, tomorrow. Are you in or not?"

My ever-prepared husband just happened to have our tent and camping gear in the car so we signed on in a state of high excitement at having been so daringly spontaneous.

Hooning up the wide, shallow Dart River, far too fast in a huge, grunty jetboat, I had to make my usual deal with the fear that sometimes threatens to overwhelm me when I do risky things.

I locked it up in the box and said I would let it out at the end of the trip if it didn't spoil the thrill for me.

It seemed to work. I was so relaxed at the end of it, I couldn't, or wouldn't, budge.
The jetboat took us 37km up the beautiful braided, glacier-fed Dart, deep into Aspiring National Park and the Main Divide, a place of such grandeur new words should be invented to describe it.

The landscape is remote and astonishing, an area Sir Peter Jackson eagerly seized upon as Middle Earth for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. One of my fellow Funyakkers said, "Aren't we lucky to be up here in Middle Earth country." I nodded politely but actually thought, No, aren't they lucky to have filmed here.

We then transferred to our pump-up, Canadian-style canoes to paddle and drift our way back down the Dart in a serenely peaceful reverie, such a contrast to the deafening, turbo-charged power of our earlier ascent of the river.

Our lunch spot at Rockburn Chasm again left me searching the inadequate English language for worthy adjectives.

The chasm is a narrow, steep-sided gash, only one Funyak wide in places, which extends deep inside a mountain. I'm not sure why but I held my breath - perhaps I feared the spell would break - as we paddled silently on water so clear the shafts of sunlight penetrated the aqua-turquoise like laser beams. I wanted to stay there, which set the pattern for the rest of the day really, an adult stuck in childlike behaviour, trying to prolong the magic.

As a child, at the end of our summer holidays in Arrowtown, I would hide - quite frustrating for the parents with a car packed up at the end of a shimmering hot Central Otago day, waiting to head off on the long drive back to Dunedin.

I was enticed out of the chasm by the promise of a delicious buffet lunch served on a sunny bank of the Dart, surrounded by spectacular mountains which have given the place its World Heritage status.

The rest of the day was dreamlike - floating gently downstream in the late summer sun amid ancient beech forests, waterfalls, glaciers and craggy mountains that made my heart soar - to a place appropriately called Paradise.

In 1990 Te Wahipounamu (The Place of Greenstone) South West New Zealand World Heritage Area, which includes the Dart Valley, was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in recognition of its outstanding natural beauty.

Dart River Jet Safaris, the only operator on the Dart River, is owned by Ngai Tahu.

The 46km drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy is rated one of the Top Ten scenic drives in the world by both Conde Naste and Lonely Planet.

- nzherald.co.nz

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