Drift Diving the Waikato

Drift Diving the Waikato

By-Simon Brown

Drift Diving the Waikato

Drift Diving the Waikato

Drift Diving the Waikato

Drift Diving the Waikato

The dive briefing was cut short by a long scream terminated by a loud splash. At a bend in the river a small boat was recovering the source of the scream, untangling the bungee from the jumpers’ ankles before ferrying them to the pontoon. Used to interruptions like this Casey the dive guide carried on with the briefing, detailing the unique features of diving in New Zealand’s Waikato River.

Having seen the river thunder over Huka Falls the day before the only thing I wanted to know was where we exited the river. Casey assured me we exited the river some two kilometres upstream from the churning white water and no diver under her care had ever gone over the falls … yet. But there were other, more relevant concerns when diving the Waikato: rocks, submerged trees, eddies and back eddies, the vocal bungee jumpers and meningitis. Collisions with bungee jumpers require common sense. They don’t jump with divers in the water and no one submerges until past the jump. The nasty meningitis bug was unexpected. Just upstream from the exit point a thermal spring pumps 40 degree water into the river. Whilst the chances are small, a strain of meningitis has been found in thermal pools and if the bug manages to find its way into your nose or ears a trip to intensive care is booked. Avoiding the bug is simple; surface before the spring and keep your head out of the water until the exit.

The dive brief also mentioned the sport of scuba surfing, but more of that later.

The river drains from Lake Taupo and has been harnessed to generate some of New Zealand’s demand for electricity. Depth and flow of the river depends on how many people leave their lights on or leave the tumble dryer running – the more electricity needed means more water. Demand was nowhere near peak and entry to the river was a short walk off a narrow sandbank. Drifting on the surface, the group neared the bungee jumper bend and once past Casey gave the signal to descend. There is a large eddy at the base of the bungee jump. A good place to hunt for the missing personal effects deposited by the jumpers, the eddy is also an easy way to spend 20 minutes circling the same spot rather than drifting downstream.

In less than 10 metres of water the current was sluggish to say the least. A few bottles, an old boot and a supermarket trolley lying on the riverbed are hardly the stuff of legends and I was starting to think ‘is that it?’. But the river was slowly changing. The pace quickened and the depth decreased as the river started to rip. The next two minutes were a blur of rocks, riverbed and trout as the narrow channel squeezed the flow from ten to two metres deep. I always thought the flow of water would mean any impending collision with rocks was impossible. Deciding to test this theory I relaxed as I headed towards a boulder … Collision looked inevitable and with no time to fin into free water I instinctively stuck my hand out and pivoted over the top, somersaulting as the current dragged me downstream. From that point on I resolved to take evasive action.

The river started to relax and the drift slowed to a crawl. Gravel replaced the bedrock river bed and in places I started to slowly fin to maintain pace. The current was still there, just sluggish and lethargic compared to the previous section but the lull didn’t last long. I could start to feel the tug of the water, using my fins was a waste of time as the next ripping stretch started to flow. As I was slightly ahead of the group I thought I could hold on and let them catch me up. The first boulder I grabbed rolled over like a polystyrene film prop, the second tore from my grasp, unable to maintain a hold in the rush of water. The riverbed gave way to smooth, polished rock and Casey demonstrated the new sport of downhill scuba surfing. Standing upright with a near-empty BCD Casey now let the flow of the river drag her downstream, her fins bounced down the bedrock. One rule for this sport is always make sure your weight belt is secure before standing up. One of the group ended up with the heaviest ankle weights in history as his belt slipped past his knees, coming to rest on his fins where they eventually slipped off, sending him surface ward. An uncontrolled ascent from three metres is not ideal … and he spent the rest of the drift scooting along on the surface with Casey for company.

Keeping left at the small island squeezed river and divers through a slot just five metres wide. The pace here was blinding as the river rushed through the gap and into a wide, gravel covered stretch just before the thermal spring. Casey motioned for us to ascend and just before the spring we were back on the surface. The temperature climbed from the constant 15 degrees of the river, to a comfortable 27 degrees, the warm water filtering through the zip, ankle and wrist holes of the wetsuit. A very comfortable spot to warm up but it did remind me of the warm feeling after peeing in your wetsuit except the heat came from outside, not within.

Warmed by the volcanically charged water we continued to drift on the surface downstream to the exit point, nearly three kilometres from the start where the minibus was waiting to collect divers and gear. A 40 minute dive in the river consumed about half a 12 litre tank, so what better than return to the start for a second run? Diving the Waikato is not deep, there are no wrecks and the only fish are the occasional trout. But that’s not the attraction. The Waikato never stops and a dive can be done anytime night or day, how long your dive lasts depends on New Zealand’s demand for power. Just remember to exit the river before the Huka Falls.

Author’s note: I would not go in this river without a local guide.

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