Dodging the New Zealand Death

Learning not to cross a river

We scrambled down from the track and found ourselves on the banks of a river. We’d crossed a few rivers before, but this was a first. It looked almost waist high, and was flowing swiftly enough to make us think twice about what we were doing. None of us had been tramping long. We looked at it from different points, trying to make observations but lacking any real insight. With a vague idea of what we should be doing, we stood at the water’s edge and awkwardly tried to link arms, each of us attempting that in a different way – one grabbing a sleeve, another a pack strap. Finally, looking like a troupe of anxious line dancers, we stepped into the water.

‘The New Zealand Death’ was drowning, a name given to it only a few decades into European settlement. By as early as 1870, 1,115 people had been recorded as died by drowning in our rivers. Rainfall or snowmelt in the mountains, can mean that same river you waded across without trouble would be a killer only a few hours later – rising high and developing a current that would scoop up an unsteady foot. This danger would not have been a surprise to Maori – oral history tells of 50 people dying in one incident, with the rise of two converging streams.

The three of us waded across without difficultly. After a few steps we realised that that river wasn’t so quick after all and we could give up our odd formation and stride out. But it was helpful in revealing our ignorance. While I’m not a person who is into clubs – I was a Scout for all of one afternoon – we joined our university tramping club, and took advantage of the courses it offered. My friend Sam and I spent a day with other amateurs, crossing and re-crossing one of the braids in a gravelly Canterbury river, getting advice and tips from someone with experience.

As Mike McGavin describes on his Windy Hilltops blog, there are a confusing number of methods out there for crossing rivers. To the list he gives, I’d also note the existence of the Canterbury Trot - one I came across in a book by Graeme Dingle and which is described as leaning back with your thumbs in your packstraps and moving diagonally across and down stream ‘with a kind of trotting gait.’

But not all techniques are created equally, and as McGavin says, there’s a case to be made for consistency, for making sure that everyone at the riverbank has the same understanding of what to do. The standard involves holding each for mutual support, but I won’t attempt to be an authority and would instead point you back to the Mountain Safety Council, who offer detailed advice on the subject.

And anyway, I am just a student of river crossing myself. Shortly after our course, we went on another trip, and again we came to a river. We crossed it several times over a couple of days – putting our knowledge into practice. Now we know we thought, now we can cross rivers, and late on our last day we walked into it, the water brown and flowing swiftly. We followed the instructions: our arms were threaded behind each other’s backs, and the straps on our packs had been loosened. But there was force in that current. I felt the gravel and stones slide under my feet, and we struggled to keep our places. We made it out unharmed, still dry, but a little quieter.

It can feel a bit foolish say you need to link up to cross a river, like saying you need to hold hands before crossing the street. It takes courage to make that call. But even more courageous is the decision not to cross, to say that just because you all know a way doesn’t mean you always should. Our rivers can still be too high and too fast for even the best technique, and if no longer ‘the’, drowning is still a New Zealand death.