Cool runnings in bear country

By Paul Rush

There are heart-stopping moments on a Rangitaiki River jet boat wave attack, writes Paul Rush.

Jovial jet boaters about to run the Rangitaiki River. Photo / Paul Rush
Jovial jet boaters about to run the Rangitaiki River. Photo / Paul Rush

"We're cruising at 75kph - if that's too slow for you we can do 120kph," says Bill Roberts. Quickly I reassure him that the lower velocity is exciting enough, as the sleek blue, 375 horse powered jet boat thunders across the broad lake behind the Matahina Dam. The towering structure is New Zealand's largest earth dam, holding back the waters of the Rangitaiki River near Whakatane.

"We're heading 25km upriver to the Aniwhenua Falls," Bill says, adding with a wry smile, "If you end up in the rapids, hold your lifejackets up in the air. I don't want to have to dry them out. All jokes aside, it's very shallow so you can walk ashore."

As we slide under sheer 50m-high ignimbrite cliffs Bill tells us of his recent photo shoots with survivalist Bear Grylls. The action man wandered through dense bush for a few days, reached the top of this cliff and spotted the access road across the lake, saying, "If I can make it across to that road I'll be safe."

In his whimsical way, Bill tells us that a normal person would simply walk round to the road, but Bear lowered himself down the cliff face to a precarious and very spindly pohutukawa tree and leapt into the water.

A hovering Squirrel helicopter whipped the water into a frenzy and there were jet boats and cameras all around.

It seems that Bear jumped straight into the jet boat to escape the eels, which are as thick as a man's thigh, but I don't believe it. My intrepid survival hero is afraid of nothing and almost certainly swum across the freezing lake. "We had a ball with Bear," Bill says. "He climbed up the waterfall and got an eel stuck in his mouth, taking it all in his stride."

The Rangitaiki Gorge comes up at a rate of knots as we leave the lake behind. The Tuhoe people came down through this gorge to the coast on their seafood forays. They often clashed with the Whakatane tangata whenua, Ngati Awa and Bill recounts how he found a skull with a bullet hole in it.

An old concrete wall on the side of the gorge indicates the site of the original road into the Galatea Valley, which served the rehab dairy farms before the construction of the hydro dam. "I've seen heaps of pigs and goats here," Bill tells us. "I came up here recently with a group of Scotsmen on board and surprised a large 8-pointer red deer stag swimming across the river. Once I saw a 200kg samba deer browsing on the riverbank."

"There's no shortage of brown and rainbow trout in the river," he says. "A local retired guy had the ambition of catching a trout for every day of the year. By year's end he had hooked 400 fish of up to 4kg - on a catch and release basis."

As the river narrows and the rapids get as shallow as 75cm, Bill jokes that he'll jump over the side and click the wheel hubs into four-wheel drive. With full power on, the jet boat leaps over the stony river bed and careers around sharp corners with ease. When the urge takes him, Bill waves a hand in the air and executes a 360 degree spin sending a shower of spray over the outside passengers who react with varying degrees of humour and horror.

As we reach the dramatic cascade of the Aniwhenua Falls, our driver demonstrates the jet boating prowess that made him a world racing champion and four times national title holder, by executing an especially vigorous spin. A head count revealed that all passengers remained on board - some with a few drops of river water on their nose.

"We formed the swift water rescue team for the Yogi Bear movie photo shoot at these falls," Bill proudly announced once his passengers have regained their equilibrium. "They were lowering him down slowly when the rope broke and he rocketed over the falls and splashed into the plunge pool. It was hilarious and the poor fellow was completely drenched by the time we rescued him."

Jet boats are Bill Robert's life and he drives this big blue beast with its 400 cubic inch Chevrolet engine with a skill he has learnt by racing on rivers in Canada, USA and Mexico. As we descend the rapids he accelerates through the bends like the true professional that he is, aiming for a protruding rock and angling the boat around it with consummate ease.

We glide effortlessly through the still, deep pools but when the shallow rapids come upon us, the power pours on and the sharp nose of the boat sweeps around obstacles as if it's an unstoppable beast beyond human control.
Farmland and forest, streams and tributaries, overhanging tree branches and weeping willows flash by. It's a true wilderness ride on the wild side, with ever changing scenery that makes it all unforgettable, if not heart-stopping at times. Soon the beautiful tranquillity of Lake Matahina is reached.

The witty commentary continues as Bill describes how our inimitable Kiwi ingenuity ensured that this giant earth dam and power house that generates 70kw of electricity was commissioned in 1967 and built right on an active earthquake fault line. The man-made structure was severely tested in 1987 when the Edgecumbe earthquake cracked it badly requiring very expensive repairs.

The thrilling ride comes to an end and we regain circulation in our legs with a brisk walk across the top of the dam. Once my heart stops racing I realise what a real jet boating experience this was - one that lingers in the memory. It's not every day in New Zealand that you get to ride in bear country.

Kiwi Jet Tours operates from the Matahina Dam on the Galatea Plains, which are one hour's drive from Rotorua and one hour and 20 minutes from Tauranga. The jet boat ride takes around one and a half hours travelling 25km through the Rangitaiki Gorge to the Aniwhenua Falls and back.


* Paul Rush rode the Rangitaiki white water courtesy of Kiwi Jet and Ohope Beach Top Ten Holiday Park


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