A move to close part of the Kaituna River for safety reasons is being described as "heartbreaking" by local river lovers, who say it will set a dangerous precedent.

Bay of Plenty Regional Harbourmaster Peter Buell has announced his intention to close the Awesome, Gnarly and Smokey gorges to prevent further tragedy, following two deaths since 2007.

"The gorges pose significant danger – even to experienced kayakers – and the risk of another death is a chance I am not willing to take," Buell said in a statement.

But others are questioning the move, saying if they can close one part, what's to stop organisations closing more areas.


Whitewater NZ president Nigel Parry said all adventurous outdoor activities carried risk and mitigating that was an intrinsic part of recreating outdoors.

"We don't close mountains, beaches or tracks when accidents occur, and nor should we be closing rivers," Parry said.

"The intention to close the lower gorges is an attack on what we thought we had as New Zealanders - the right to adventure in the outdoors."

Buell said he intended to close the lower gorges to recreational users from May 1, 2019, but would engage with relevant stakeholders to identify options for reducing the danger for water-users in the long-term.

A facilitated meeting with iwi, landowners and recreational river users will be held before May 1.

Okere Falls on the Kaituna River northeast of Rotorua. Photo / File
Okere Falls on the Kaituna River northeast of Rotorua. Photo / File

The meeting might lead to Buell reconsidering his intention to close the lower gorges.

Existing commercial white-water rafting and other recreational activities outside the gorges would be unaffected by the intended closure.

Buell said the three gorge sections contained a number of serious hazards, including submerged logs.


"Both previous fatalities involved experienced kayakers who had paddled the river many times. However, less experienced kayakers can also access the area, which puts themselves and others, including search and rescue operations in serious danger."

Buell said three options had been considered in relation to improving safety on the river – maintaining the status quo, removing the hazards and closing the gorges for recreational use.

"My legislated role is to ensure people are safe on the water, at this stage, the gorge closure is the best possible option to do this.

"We recognise the closure will disappoint some recreational users who are passionate about the area, but we are prepared to make the difficult decisions in order to keep people safe," he said.

Rotorua Olympic slalom canoeist Mike Dawson, who had kayaked for 20 years around the world, said in his opinion the move "takes away our freedom to something we are lucky enough to have in New Zealand and that's our right to adventure".

He said while Gnarly Gorge was more difficult, Awesome and Smokey were achievable for intermediate kayakers.

He said it was the recreational users' recommendation to have a river clean up to clear the logs, particularly in Knarly, but he had been unable to get everyone together to progress the option since 2015.

Olympic hopeful kayaker Zach Mutton said he grew up paddling the gorges.

"It's pretty heartbreaking really. When I was young, it was a massive reason why I wanted to learn to paddle and why I love it so much.

"It is a really amazing place. You are in a 1m wide canyon with 300ft walls. It is really beautiful and nothing like it in the world."

Mutton said he went down the river for the first time when he was 13 and he described it as "surreal and amazing".

"One of my friends died on the Kaituna but that is one of 10 of my friends who have died on different rivers, so if you start banning parts of rivers you will have to start banning others like Huka Falls and other rivers too."

Raftabout owner Justin Hutton said there were no commercial operators that used the gorges, but from a river lovers' point of view he was concerned it was setting a precedent.

Raftabout owner Justin Hutton. Photo / File
Raftabout owner Justin Hutton. Photo / File

"Will you then close every ski run and every road where someone has died? It seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to me."

He said people who went there knew the risks.

"If there is a fatality on our commercial sections, where does it stop? People who go in there go in with full knowledge generally."

The closure will be incorporated into the next regional navigation safety bylaw review, which will also provide opportunity for further public input.

Deaths on the lower Kaituna River
August 2007 - American tourist Matthew Stidham, 23,
March 2015 - Rotorua competitive kayaker Louise Jull, 26