Beneath the rapids

UK Adventurer Anna McNuff and NZ Endurance Athlete Hollie Woodhouse teamed up for the two-day tandem at the 2019 Kathmandu Coast to Coast. Completing the 243km event in 16 hours, 21 minutes, Anna shares a tiny moment in her preparation for the Coast that will stick with her for life.


“Paddle, paddle, paddle!!!”

Hollie is crying out at me from the front end of our banana yellow tandem kayak as we rush towards what looks like the inside of a washing machine. Moments later, we’re engulfed by furious glacial water – what only a second ago was a quiet blue ribbon of river for us is now foaming white and as loud as it is cold.

Things were not going well. Only five minutes earlier we had wedged ourselves on what is known as a ‘surprise’ boulder, which reached out and snatched our boat. Like the earth-moving sheet of ice that feeds this river, we shifted forward by only millimetres, awkwardly wedged with our rudder on the boulder and the front of our boat on the bank.

As soon as I gave in to the idea that we were going to be hurled backwards down the rapids, something worked in our favour so that we found ourselves facing the right way, racing to catch up with the main group who were…oh look…over there…to our left. Why were they to our left? If they were over there, and we were over here, then…oh.

As we enter the rapids my head snaps sharply forward and in the roar of the crashing water I hear the voice in my head remind me not to focus on the fact that we are heading straight into a steep, rocky bluff.

Two women in a kayak

Hollie’s shout breaks the train of thought, and I dig in to follow the command, moving my arms like a demented windmill. It works – we pop out like a cork onto the other side of the rapid and into clear water. Wahooooo!!! We scoot a little further downstream and ‘Eddie out’ into the bank. ‘Eddying out’ is a new term I have added to my vocabulary in the past four hours, along with ‘wave train’, ‘boyle’, ‘ferrying’, and ‘sweet as’ (although I suspect that the latter is a Kiwi term and not kayak-specific). My teeth are chattering, my hands are shaking. I am bubbling with adrenaline.

I start to think about how this all seems a little extreme for what is only my third kayaking session in New Zealand.

Here’s how the progression has gone:

  • Session one: a gentle 40 minutes on the Avon River in which I gripped the paddle so hard that I wound up with tendonitis in my right wrist and had to ice it three times a day for a week.
  • Session two: an hour-long morning session with 30 other experienced kayakers, where we were repeatedly overtaken by those in single kayaks.
  • Session three? Surely that would be a six-hour jaunt down the Grade II rapids of the Waimakariri River? Of course it would!
Two women in a river

Safety rules

In all seriousness, and having started my kayaking portion of prep for Coast to Coast a little later than hoped, a journey down the gorge that day was the best thing I could have asked for. We were lucky. We sneaked into the guided trip with TopSportNZ with under 24 hours’ notice. Everyone else in our group was more experienced, and most had had previous trips down the gorge cancelled due to bad weather or dangerous river levels. What lucky ducks we were to get a shot at it first time.

Aside from the learning experience, there was a practical side to my trip down the Waimakiriri that day too. Although as a tandem kayak team member I don’t need a full Grade II kayaking certificate to compete in Coast, I do need a river safety certificate. And to make sure I proved my river safety worth I had to do a ‘wet exit’. A wet what? I know, a wet exit – as in, get myself out of the boat in moving water and show that I can make it to shore safely with Hollie.

The wet exit

Hollie and I were feeling rather smug that, unlike many of those around us, we had not fallen in during the course of the day on the Waimakiriri. This likely has something to do with the fact that tandem kayaks are like stable battleships, but let’s forget that for a moment. Unfortunately, our smugness and ability to stay upright didn’t help my wet exit predicament. There were no two ways about it. We had to tip ourselves in.

There was a lot of chat from our guide about what one should do when you are upside down under the water, and I began to wonder how on earth I would remain calm when I suddenly find myself doing that upside-down Spiderman kiss with a brown trout. As it happened, when the time came for us to ‘tip-in’, instinct took over. I tipped, held on to the paddle with one hand and grabbed the loop on my spray deck with my other hand. I was out of the boat in a flash. That was the hard part done, right? Wrong!

Hollie and I realised that we had never really discussed who should take charge when actually in the water. Hollie, of course, is used to falling in herself and only having herself and a small kayak to think about. As a novice kayaker, I am not used to falling into water from a kayak and so was learning the ropes on the spot. That combination was a bit of a disaster as it took us a while to get in sync. Trying to right the kayak as we were swept swiftly downstream by the river was no easy task either. It took us a few goes and two misses of shallow banks before we got the hang of it. A few big kicks later and my legs met the bottom. Wet exit… tick.

Women running in Coast2Coast

The only way is up

After the fun on the Waimakiriri, my kayaking continues on a steep learning curve. My irritated wrist has calmed down and is back to normal after three weeks and every time we go out we are better, faster, smoother, more comfortable.

I have even started going out on the river alone on days when Hollie isn’t around. And do you know what? I absolutely love it! I mean…really love it. I think about kayaking when I go to sleep and I want to do it pretty much every day at the moment. It was the thing I was the most nervous about for Coast to Coast and it is turning out to be the thing I now take the most joy in doing. Imagine that.

Learn more about the Kathmandu Coast to Coast


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