Thursday, April 20, 2006

Life on the Sledge



Faster than a speeding rubber raft over rapids....
It's a sled, it's a kick board....
It's SLEDGING!!!

And it's a world class sport in Europe and New Zealand, outrageous fun and we did it...soaring over Class 4 rapids on the Kaituna River in nothing but a wetsuit, life jacket, helmet and fins on a sledge.

Say What???

Sledging (or "slihj-ing" as the Kiwis say) is another one of the New Zealand's fabled adrenaline-amping activites and we couldn't resist.~> read more (with photos)

 Andy and I read about it in guidebooks, saw brochures and knew it involved water, us and some crazy plastic contraption called a "sledge" but were simultaneously intrigued and puzzled. The only Sledge I knew was "Sister Sledge" and while "We are family" is a great song, I knew this wouldn't translate to white water rapids.

So, we drove to Rotorua in the Bay of Plenty on the North Island, a playground of thermal pools, green and frothy white rivers, even greener acres of sheep pastures, and a plethora of outdoor tour operators with a knack for raising your adrenaline-- and possibly fear quotient by an order of magnitude. As Andy and I arrived at Kaitiaki Adventures at 8:30am, we were greeted by a very perky group of raft and sledge guides with plenty of mojo and moko -- the Maori term for tattooing -- who divided the sledgers from the rafters and started us in training. Adze was our teacher, a native Kiwi and Maori who had crinkly, smiling brown eyes, the most laid-back, encouraging disposition and best accent ever. So great was his rhythm and cadence that Andy and I felt we'd gotten our money's worth just hearing him sing things out like "goize" (guys), "eez-zey-peez-zey" (easy peasy), "ihv-ree-thingz'-kyewl?" (everything is cool?) and "fihrry glyde-ing" (ferry gliding)!

The sledge is like the front half of a sled, curved and hydro-dynamic, but made of the hard plastic usually reserved for snow saucers or drink coolers. About 30 inches long and 24 inches wide, the sledge has metal bars on the left and right front that are your handles. Rule #1 is never, ever let go of the sledge! Hang on to those handles for dear life. Rule #2 is turn your head sideways as you go headfirst into the churning, foamy rapids, so you don't hit the pretty parts of your face on the hard parts of the sledge. Rule #3 is that you will get tumbled upside down in the water, churned and spurned by the rapids, but adhere to Rule #1 and don't let go of the sledge! Instead, hang on tight to the handles, crunch your tummy muscles (if you're lucky enough to have them--ha!), pull the sledge in toward your abdomen and roll sideways in the water -- pushing your sledge forward so you pop back above river-level and ready to float.

"Yeah, right," I thought as I watched with eyes that I'm sure were the size of the $2 Kiwi coin in disbelief, "really easy-peasy."

The next step to get sledge-ready was donning our outfits. Of course, that got me excited, but our sledging numbers didn't include accessories that I was familiar with wearing. Or anything fashionable for that matter. Adze fitted us, if you can even call getting yourself squeezed indelicately and bulging into matte black neoprene being fitted, for full wet suits and booties, plus we got polypropolene long john tops, a helmet, fins and a life jacket. No jewelry either -- and that came from Adze to me as an imperative, not a statement that we wouldn't get any to wear for the sledge ride. Too bad. Andy, myself, a British couple, Adze and our other guide Tak, piled awkwardly in all of our neoprene into a van with our sledges in a trailer towed behind, and off we headed for sledging the Kaituna.

The Kaituna River was distracting in its beauty -- which was a good thing when I saw the foamy white of waterfalls and rapids churning over rocks and knew that we'd soon be in that feisty froth. First, however, Tak and Adze took us down through some caves where Maoris (NZ's native people of Polynesian descent)used to hide the women and children during tribal wars, and then they spoke of their tribes' respect of mother nature and said a Maori blessing before we entered the water. As I eyed the sledges and then the rapids, I personally hoped this was more for our tourist benefit rather than safety, but was taken by the seeming authenticity of the moment as they spoke the foreign but mellodious words in a natural theater of craggy lava rock, velvety green ferns and clear teal river water.

One, two, three -- SPLASH!!! Into the river I jumped, sledge in front of me, landing like with a splat-whack akin to a belly flop. Only the sledge protected me, and I was instantly buoyant in the river and able to thrust about just fine by kicking with my fins with unanticipated control. Excellent! It appears I'll be swimming for this one, instead of sinking!! The Kaituna's currents were strong, really unexpectedly so, and its force wanted to push me and my sledge into the vortex right away. But Tak and Adze grabbed us all by the sledges into a cove area of rocks and went over the rules again: hang onto the sledge, turn head sideways over the rapids, be ready to flip, hang on. And then made each of us practice flipping over, tucking our tummies and rolling back over upright and ready to rock and roll for another rapid. I was both surprised and relieved to find that maneuver wasn't as hard I as expected -- it almost felt natural when you're under water -- and I was now getting excited about just doing it for real.

Soon enough, Tak and Adze had us four sledgers lined up in a row and we burst off the rocks with a push into the open river and got carried away in a current of fun. Floating and maneuvering the sledge was easy, and I loved how fast the river was running and pushing me along. I personally find rafting kind of boring and don't feel like I'm doing anything of consequence when I'm on one, but this was totally different! On the sledge, it was me, it and the river working together (and against each other) and I felt my adrenaline raise as I navigated rocks and eddies, and saw our first rapid section in sight.

Being in the water and seeing the actual physical drop of a rapids section in the river, hearing the water rushing over rocks and seeing the green water turn to milky white foam at eye level was truly exhilirating. I think I let out an unconscious "whoo-hoo!" as I sledged over the rapids, remembering to turn my head, and loved how the river tossed and turned me. It was kind of like going down a water slide, but a lot faster, and was more physical as you had to kick once you hit the bottom of the rapids. Yet you still got that sensation of "liquid stomach" when something is really exciting and unexpected, plus seeing the rapids swirling about you and watching the sledger in front of you disappear into the white water for a moment was awesome and amazing. I got a bunch of water in my mouth, but that was only because I was laughing and smiling -- I didn't know a river could be this much fun!?!?!

We sledged five more sections of rapids, each one a bit better than the last, and finished up with Adze and Tak teaching us how to kick into a rapid, letting the force of the water keep you in place so you're sledging upstream for a moment and feeling the water surge over and pour onto you. I did flip at least once, but it happened so fast and I rolled over naturally, so it wasn't a big deal at all. Really, quite easy-peasy. I know Andy loved sledging too as he kept trying to keep his eyes open to see all of the fun and nearly lost a contact, plus I heard a few other "Yeah! Yippeee! Yee-haw!" out of others -- and no one in our group was even from Texas.

Check out the photos and see us sledging -- it's definitely one of the highlights for us in New Zealand: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Sledging

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those were awesome pictures! I love them and it looked like so much fun. It totally looked like jungle and gorgeous!
Love, Wendy

2:31 AM  
Blogger jskalet said...

the sledge pictures are incredible, i want to do it. dad

8:25 PM  

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