Don't Be A P*Y
One morning while I was working away in a cafe I heard a faint voice behind me of someone trying to get my attention. I turned around and asked that they repeat what they said. They seemed a bit timid and hesitant to do so..
"Does your shirt say, "don't be a pussy?"
When I turned around, they could see on the front of my shirt, a vinyl print of myself and a mate midway through the air attached to a bungee rope with the faces of pure terror/joy.
Sometimes I get odd comments about the shirt, how I'm an "anti-feminist" for wearing a shirt like that but I brush it off. And hey, I get it, I would never really use that kind of terminology, but I know my truth.
I moved to Queenstown, New Zealand in 2018. It was the greatest move I ever made. The town is brilliant, small, but surrounded by the most incredible scenery I've ever had the pleasure of being a part of. Endless hiking trails and extreme sports, unfortunately the small town party scene took it's toll on almost the entire population but that's another story.
I worked in a bar on the corner of the main street. It was less than a minute from home. My house had no insulation, the windows didn't close properly and the front door was slightly hanging off it's hinges, but it was the coziest of places. I loved being there and always looked forward to spending freezing evenings in with my roommates talking about whatever the hell we could come up with over vegan apple ciders. Anyways, working at the local bar lead to the introduction of well, the locals. I got to know almost everyone in town within just a month of working there. Some of my favourite people to walk through our doors and spend their evenings playing pool over pints were the adventure tourism crews. These folks dedicated their lives to mother natures' extremes, whether it be the rivers, the skies, or the mountains. Queenstown is dubbed the most adventurous city in the world, after all.
I had a few invitations to go cliff diving and bungee jumping while I was living in Queenstown which I humbly denied. A few tourists would come through the bar and have a few shots before their jump, I couldn't believe they were about to put themselves through that horror. I was more interested in adventuring on the land. So when I received an invitation to go white water rafting around the time of my birthday, I thought it would be a perfect way to celebrate. I had never been rafting before, I figured it was a pretty tame sport, I mean my mother has gone rafting countless times, so I was keen.
On the first morning of my birthday weekend I got up early and strolled downtown toward the "adventure tourism strip." The Shotover Canyon Swing and the White Water Rafting shop were right across the street from one another. I THOUGHT I had it in me to jump off a cliff on this given day so I b-lined into the Swing shop. I stared into the eyes of the receptionist, I felt an egg in my throat then it went dry. I noped out of there and kind of skipped/ran/tripped into the raft shop instead.
"Yeah, I couldn't do it. I couldn't jump. I'm rafting today."
"You know, jumping off a cliff is far safer than white water rafting.." was the reply I was met with. Then the receptionist proceeded to draw a giant "S" on my hand and pointed in the direction of the van that would take us to the river.
The drive towards the Shotover River took my breath away. The bus BARELY scraped the pathway that was on the cliff side of the canyon. One miss turn from the driver and that bus would go tumbling down the mountain. Oh but the views... the mountain valleys, the rock formations, the mountains seemed to go on forever in the distance.
We arrived at the base received our safety talks and procedures and got suited up.
"Chief" was a raft guide and a friend to everyone. He gave me a nod. He had another wet suit vest cover in his hands. He put it on me and zipped me up
"it's a cold one today, you'll be in my boat today." He said with a friendly wink.
We all stood in a semi circle as the raft guides chose their crew. We all crawled awkwardly into our rafts and set off down the river. I remember it being one of the bluest skies I had seen since I arrived. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. It was warm but the water was like ice. The river was narrow. It was nestled in the canyon that shot up about 50 meters at times. If you looked down beyond the cliffs you could barely see the peak of the southern alps. The entire scene was surreal and I was barely paying attention to any of the guidance Chief was giving us.
"PADDLE LEFT" Chief commanded with a cry.
All of us amateur rafters gave a bit of a chuckle as we gave our paddling skills our all. A few more shouts from Chief so we understood what to do when the strong rapids came about.
"Do you like surprises?" Chief directed the question at me.
"Depends." I said as my heart suddenly stopped in my throat.
"Well you're about to get one."
Apparently the first major rapid on our journey was called 'The Surprise'. And it was. As we turned a corner the rush of the waves shook the boat, we paddles as hard as we could and then tumbled through the rapids without control. It was thrilling and terrifying. A rush I had never experienced before. The river then took a calm pace. We all had been hit by the ice water at this point, we tried to gain our posture again and wipe the water from our eyes to get set for the next few rapids coming up. I realized that this was actually going to take some strength and sense to get through this river. I was shivering though. I prayed we wouldn't find ourselves under the water at any given point.
"Any boys Lauren?" Chief asked with a very fatherly vibe to it.
"Excuse me?" I laughed at Chiefs sudden question.
"You fallen in love in Queenstown yet?"
"Good. Look after yourself. Boys are stupid."
Chief had such a calm about him. I felt safe with him. Everyone did.
"You know, I was supposed to do the Canyon Swing today. but I chickened out." I confessed.
"Nah! Rafting is more dangerous. You should jump. Don't be a pussy."
That was the last thing Chief said to me. We took a sudden turn around the corner of the river as we set towards the toughest rapid of the course.
We set up our raft to face the rapid head on, but oddly enough a gust of wind completely took us off course. We were heading toward the rapid sideways. I was sitting on the left side of the raft, so I was going to be the first person to hit it. If I'm honest, I don't remember a lot about the flip. All I can remember is looking down to my left and slightly behind me, seeing the whirlpool rapid down below what looked like a waterfall, a massive rock in between us and the water, and when I looked up at the sky I could see the front of the boat in the sky. The boat itself was vertical. I don't remember seeing any of the rafters, I don't remember hearing the roar of the water, I don't remember the temperature, or any smells, it is completely dead memory.
"PADDLE. HARDER. HARD HARD HARD." I do recall hearing Chief yelling.
I felt like I was underwater for ages. My eyes were open, all I saw was grey. I wanted to breathe so so badly. ICE. I grasped the water around me trying to grab something. I didn't realize the water would be so deep. I was searching for something in the water. I finally came up. It was probably only a second I was under. I looked around frantically for something to grab on to so I could breathe properly. The rescue kayak-er was pointing at the shore and screaming
I climbed up on a rock and crawled on to the shore. What a THRILL. As rafter after rafter joined me on the side of the river bed clinging to rocks we started to laugh hysterically. We high-fived, hugged it out and bonded over the buzz we were feeling. When I stood up to shake off the adrenaline that was rushing through my body I saw our boat quickly float out of site around the bend in the river, with another rafter clinging on to it. I knew from our earlier safety talks that she couldn't swim. We watched her disappear with the boat. After some time, it went quiet. No raft guides came to check up on us.. I figured they were all out looking for her. We sat as a group on the rocks, freezing, huddling, for what seemed like an hour. Our fruitful conversation eventually died out as we started to become scared about what could possibly be taking our raft guides so long to check up on us. We shared glances at each other, knowing exactly what we were each thinking. I think at one point we decided to accept the fate of our fellow rafter and sat in a prayer.
We were sitting in a small cove of rocks, hidden from the entire view of the river. We could only see the rapid in front of us. But we could hear the fast paced foot steps of someone running over the rock formation and when we looked up we saw our rescue kayak-er scaling down the boulders towards us to grab a first aid kit. We all kept our mouths shut as she shot right back up the rock face and out of site. Our hearts broke.
When we were eventually told Chief didn't make it I remember I was pretty inconsolable. I laughed hysterically while crying, a sensation I can't describe properly and I hope to never feel again. I couldn't cope with news like that. I was taken by the hand and guided toward a higher platform above the river to await a helicopter that would take us back to home base. I couldn't really breath. I was wide-eyed and shaking.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The weeks that followed were filled with a fear of death, anxiety over every change in the weather, but it was also filled with love and friendship. The community really came together in the weeks following Chiefs passing. A beautiful memorial was held on the river. A traditional Hakka was performed in the Shotover Canyon, the cries so emotional and strong that echoed through the canyon walls and hit us with the power it gave. As a community and a family, we took another journey down the river. 12 boats in total filled with people that loved and cherished Chief; but there could never be enough boats.
As we made our way down the river, we shared stories and memories and laughed at all the crazy things Chief used to say. The most common phrase of course, from everyone, was..
"Don't Be A Pussy!"
The Canyon Swing looks over the Shotover river and as we turned the river bend we could see at the top of the cliff, crowds of people looking down on us waving us through. We had our faces to the sky, eyes filled with tears, hearts filled. Then to our surprise a couple crew members jumped from the cliff and swung through the canyon missing us by a few meters only. Flowers and ferns filled the sky as the jumpers released them from their arms as they swung. The petals gracefully fell into our rafts below.
Our final rapid, the Cascade, was met with cheers and screams as everyone stood up at the end of the journey and jumped from their rafts and swam all the way back to base. As I swam I thought it would be quite the honour to swing through the canyon just as Chief said I should.. the next day, that's exactly what I did. I'm no pussy, Chief.
Rest In Peace Chief, Muano Rua Chief. Thank you for the journey, the advice and the strength. I live each day with the adventure you inspired in me and I continue to live with passion and love in your honour. Chur Chur.