On Vulcanised Thrones

Tubing on the Waiohine

Henry David Thoreau once said you should ‘mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes’ and, while not strictly clothing, you could say the same about wearing a car inner tube.

This was something I, and three friends did. Our plan was to ride these tubes on the Waiohine River, at the base of the Tararua Ranges. We’d cruise down the river from Totara Flats hut to the enormous swing bridge, at the Waiohine Gorge car park. But before you can ride a tube, you need to carry it, and so we tied the deflated tubes to our packs and, for four hours, lugged them down to Totara Flats hut.

The next morning we set off, walking at first, through the grassy flats the hut is named for, before coming to a shingle river bank, an ideal launching spot. We inflated our tubes till they bulged. We arranged them under our backsides, and wearing pretty much the same duds we had for tramping, waded out into the river, ready to zip down to the swing bridge. Those hours of walking would flash by, reduced to a blur of bush, trees and track glimpsed from the comfort of our vulcanised thrones.

That was the plan. Four hours later we were still struggling along, sodden and waterlogged. One thing to note about tubing is that with a standard car tyre tube, your arse touches the water and your legs are entirely submerged. We carried sticks for punting ourselves along, but they made feeble paddles. The water wasn’t quite fast enough for the speedy trip we imagined, and the whole thing was interrupted every few minutes by rapids, narrow points where the water ran shallow and fast over the rock.

Some of these we whizzed through at risk to our nether regions. One swirl of white water bit my stick in half. But while we were foolish, we weren’t foolish enough to attempt every rapid, and so our trip was made even slower by the need to get out of the water and inspect them before we carried on.

Even so I had a close call. I had cleanly sailed through one rapid, the current taking me ahead of the others. I dropped down to approach a second, and this time a log jutted out into the river. Water surged under it, but just to the right was a gap wide enough for an idiot on an inner tube.

The river had been beautiful at first. Travelling by tube opened up a part of those ranges that I had only glimpsed from the track, the lush river gorge, dense bush clustered on its steep walls, bends that made pockets of deep water, and inviting gravel banks. But after the first few hours, I was tired, a little cold. I was eager to get out. And so, I headed onward, telling myself I’d pop through that gap beside the log. Forgetting that it was the river that decided where I went, not me.

I sailed, smack, bang into the middle of the log. I grabbed at it, and felt the current suck my legs below. I worked hard to clamber up, on to it, my pack pulling at my shoulders and waist, trying to drag me back into the river. I crawled along the log. I got out.

I was more careful after that, and after another hour or so, we came around a bend to see the swing bridge that meant our trip was over. It wasn’t a success in one sense – it had taken an age, and as far as time and comfort go it doesn’t beat walking. But these are things you need to find out for yourself. We’d tried something new, and sometimes that’s success enough, even if it does mean wearing a rubber tube.