The rise in popularity of river floats on the Waikato River at Taupō has sparked calls for people to be aware of the risks.
There are more drownings in rivers than any other environment in New Zealand. This year’s overall toll is particularly bleak, with 86 drownings to date.
In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of people attempting to float down the Waikato River from the lagoon area below Control Gates Bridge to Hipapatua Reserve (Reid’s Farm). Most use cheap blow-up flotation devices rather than rafts or kayaks, and lifejackets are often not being used.
Police, the Harbourmaster, Taupō District Mayor David Trewavas, and the Tūwharetoa Māori Trust Board all say the trip is more hazardous than people expect. Every year, police and the Harbourmaster are called to rescue people on the river and drownings are, sadly, not uncommon.
The Trust Board says it is extremely concerned to learn that a group attempting the river float recently found itself in grave danger. The risk to their wellbeing meant the Taupō control gates, which manage river levels, were closed so the group could be recovered safely.
These near misses happen far too often, and the Trust Board has a simple message for all users of Taupō Waters this summer: “Kia tūpato, kia ora!”
Kia tūpato means to be careful! Kia ora means to stay alive!
Being careful means that only strong, fit, and experienced swimmers should attempt the river float. An appropriate flotation device, like a lifejacket, should be worn at all times.
Staying alive means you should not do anything to put your life, or the lives of others, in danger. It also means that a safety plan and communication considerations should be in place when approaching Taupō waters.
Lake Taupō Harbourmaster Jamie Grant says he’s concerned about the number of people who attempt the river float on blow-ups such as air beds and pool toys without wearing a lifejacket. Alcohol consumption is also a safety risk.
Fresh water is not as buoyant as sea water and the river has unpredictable currents that can catch even strong swimmers unawares. If people miss the exits at Ōtumuheke (Spa Park) or Hipapatua, there are only a few places to get off the river before the current will drag floaters over Huka Falls. Ensure you look for the signs that show where to get out.
Water Safety New Zealand says the biggest issue with river safety is that people underestimate the risk or believe there is no risk at all – and also overestimate their ability.
Advice for people attempting the Waikato River float is to make sure they know where they are going and where the exit points are, have a safe well-maintained flotation device and some way of steering it, wear well-fitting lifejackets, keep an eye out for each other and save the drinks for when they are safely off the river.