In 2013, the New Zealand’s woman’s rafting team won their fifth world title on the rivers of the Bay of Plenty. Two years later, Don Rowe joins them for an early-morning training session ahead of the 2015 World Champs in Indonesia.
The dark jade waters of the Kaituna River flow 50km from inland Bay of Plenty to an outlet near Papamoa on the East Coast. It’s an ancient waterway, home to some of the largest freshwater eels in the world, and formerly a sacred Maori urupa. The river begins at the township of Okere Falls, a short drive outside Ngongotaha, where Lake Rotoiti is dammed by the Okere Gates. Here during peak season, tourists arrive by the busload, packing into inflatable rafts and heading downstream towards and over the 7 metre Tutea Falls.
At 8.30 on a drizzly Tuesday morning, though, there was only one raft on the river, maneuvering about with a rapid fluidity far beyond the reach of a bunch of European backpackers. Like a giant aquatic insect, the raft glided across the surface of the water, six legs pumping in perfect unison, three to a side.
The women on board wore black helmets and grim expressions. After forty minutes of sprint training on a flat Lake Rotoiti, they had carried their raft Te Waka across the dam and were now navigating a section of the turbulent Kaituna. Slalom poles hung from lengths of number 8 wire, extended across the river like so many clotheslines, and the crew weaved between them all with exquisite accuracy – here defying the current, there utilising it for extra propulsion, before eventually dropping over a small waterfall with an almost blasé indifference.
It was professional stuff, as you might expect from the winningest team in rafting history.
Since 1999, the New Zealand women’s rafting team was won five world titles, most notably the 2013 world championships which were held on the Kaituna itself, among several other Bay of Plenty rivers. A team of watersport veterans, they hold numerous medals across whitewater rafting, kayaking, outrigger and even Waka Ama competition.
Founding member Nikki Kelly was in the raft 16 years ago when New Zealand won gold on the Orange River in South Africa. She was there for the next three tournaments too as New Zealand went on an unstoppable tear, claiming four titles in a row and a Guiness World Record for good measure. This year marks her ninth world championship with the New Zealand team.
We had coffee on the deck of the Okere Falls Store, a café and boutique grocery not 200 metres from the dam where Lake Rotoiti becomes the Kaituna River. The store is owned by team member Sarah Uhl, the only woman with as much championship experience as Kelly.
“A good rafter has to be able to adapt,” said Kelly. “That’s why, when we put the team together, it’s not just all outriggers who can paddle hard. We want specialists.”
One such specialist is New Zealand-Samoan Anne Cairns, a Rio 2016 hopeful with two world rafting championships and experience at the highest levels of flat and wild water kayaking. She concurs with Kelly.
“You have to be able to adapt, it’s not a constant – the river is always changing – so you have to be able to read the situation and make adjustments on the fly under some really high pressure,” Cairns said.
The team work individually with personal trainers but, with six people controlling one raft, an intuitive and implicit understanding of the river and how your teammates may react is as important as any physical conditioning. Think the synchronicity of professional rowing, but on the whitewater of a heavy swell. And, as with every sporting endeavour here at the bottom of the Earth, a lack of competition means the team struggles to even get time on the river together.
“We’re way isolated down here,” says Cairns. “In Europe there’s a circuit, a European cup, a European champs, a Czechoslovakian champs, Slovakian champs, Slovenian champs. They’ll all meet and go to each others tournaments. Here, we could maybe race the Aussies but only if they’re prepared to put up money and come over.”
Regardless, from the deserts of Africa to the jungle of Costa Rica, the team, who lack a color-oriented moniker, have excelled on the world stage with unprecedented success.
“The other teams always say, “How do you girls do it? You barely row together, show up every two years and win!” said Kelly. “But it’s hard to get time together. The girls have to take time off work, taking sick days or annual leave or missing out on income just to train.”
Like many sports without bat or ball, white water rafting in New Zealand operates with a total lack of government funding or assistance.
“We don’t have a coach standing on the side of the river pointing out the best lines, or a manager telling us where we’re staying or anything like that,” said Kelly. “We manage ourselves and we coach ourselves. There’s nobody else except our sponsors.”
The Friedland foundation has matched the team’s fundraising dollar-for-dollar for ten years, and the local tourism industry also provides income through Base Backpackers and Kaitiaki Adventures. Even the team’s uniform off the water is provided by Earth Sea Sky, a New Zealand performance clothing company. Kelly doesn’t expect government funding any time soon.
“We were world champions in New Zealand two years ago and got nothing, I don’t think we can do any better.”
But the team continues to win. I asked Kelly how they managed to compete with professional athletes year after year.
“Well the team has always had six very good athletes,” she said. “Everyone is strong and fit even outside of rafting. And nobody is just into rafting, they’re into kayaking, mountain biking, waka ama. We’ve all been at the startline and we know the nerves and how to get off the line. We’ve all got a competition mentality because we’ve all been there.”
I asked Cairns what motivated her at the highest levels when a viable financial future in rafting is completely out of the question.
“There’s satisfaction in doing something like that and getting something at the end of it,” she said. “Not everybody has that instinct, and less and less nowadays. You’ve got to achieve something. It’s cool to put work into something and come out winners at the end.
“We want to win, we know what that feels like, and we know what losing feels like – it doesn’t sit well with us.”