Kayaking the ClarenceHome

By Andy

In December 2004, I joined a group of friends for a kayaking/ rafting trip down the Clarence River. It was the fulfillment of a minor ambition for me - a five day wilderness trip down one of the longest rivers in the South Island. It is about 214km from the start near Hamner Springs to the exit at the coast north of Kaikoura, between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura ranges, which rise to nearly 3000m on each side of the valley.
Beside myself, our group consisted of Russ Read and Julie Bosquet, Gordon Browne, and Bruce and Chrissy Vickerman - all paraglider pilots. Also Saskia and Yelta, a Dutch Kiwi couple with a dairy farm in Northland, and Katerine, a German backpacker who I met the day before the trip started and invited along. Finally, Kent Huxford, an experienced kayaker from Christchurch, joined us. He was the only one to have run the river before, and was a great help to the less experienced of us!

Between us, we had five white water kayaks, one inflatable kayak (Gordon’s), and a hired raft. Four people generally paddled the raft - its load capacity let us make this a rather luxurious trip! (Kayaks have little space for camping gear). Transport to the river and raft hire was supplied by Ben Judge of Clarence River Rafting (L) situated in Clarence village, by the mouth of the river).

We drove from Clarence to the start in rather miserable rain, in two minibuses. Luckily, the rain petered out as we set up camp by the river. Prepared for an uneventful night, we were all heading for the sleeping bags when Ben came back with the very shaken up looking driver of the second minibus. His minibus had failed to take a corner, and was lying on its side on the dirt road a few kilometres towards Hamner! We all piled in the upright minibus and drove to the accident scene to provide the muscle for righting it. Aside from one broken window and some scratches, the minibus was fine - as was the small Chihuahua still trapped inside!

The next day the weather was magnificent! We had a too leisurely start - it was 11am before we were on the river. The first few kilometres were easy, before the river went through an area known as the upper gorge. The rapids got more ferocious, about grade 2+ or 3- and including ‘The Chute’, one of the few named rapids. That was quite exciting for a not very experienced paddler like me - and I had my first swim!
We found a lovely riverside campsite for the night, almost sandfly free (as was the whole river), with plenty of firewood for cooking the first of many enormous dinners (as we over catered substantially!). I was introduced to a kiwi invention, the Thermette - a sort of kettle with a chimney up the middle to draw the fire. Its an incredibly quick way to boil water for a brew - and we needed regular brews to keep us warm over the next few days!

The next day was overcast and windy, but luckily, no wind. The river had minor (grade one/two) rapids almost continuously, but nothing too serious. Katerine borrowed my kayak for a few hours (I went in the raft), and managed marvelously well for someone who had never been in one before!  We passed another group in a raft who had set out a little before us the previous day - two men and a group of late middle-aged women from a women’s group in Taranaki. They were the only other people we saw on the river, and we regularly passed each other over the next few days.

We camped at a sheltered spot on a braided section of river that night - a relief to get out of the wind!

The next started beautiful and sunny, but that didn’t last long. By lunchtime, a wind had picked up, the skies darkened, and heavy rain pelted us. People started getting hypothermic, and when we saw the other group’s raft pulled up on the bank, and a hut half a kilometre inland with smoke coming from the chimney, we abandoned the day. At the hut, we gathered round the fire, dripping pools of water and warming up with repeated brews. I realised we had been lucky with the weather up till now - if we had a cold wet southerly for the entire journey, we would be in trouble - hypothermia would affect the whole party!
The rain eventually stopped - too late for any more progress that day, so we found a great camp spot near the hut, and cooked another enormous meal over a roaring camp fire of willow.

Our fourth day was better. Snow covered mountains (covered with lots of fresh snow down to only 500m above us!) flanked the river valley. Later on we entered the lower gorge, a dramatic twisting section of the river with steep hillsides and cliffs coming down to the water. The vegetation became much prettier here too- up till now the only native flora was on cliff faces inaccessible to stock.  Weeds - rose and broom and willow - had dominated. Now there were no weeds at all! The hillsides were covered in Kanuka, Manuka, pink broom (Notospartium glabrescens) , Marlborough rock daisy, leafless Clematis, and many more dryland specialists. I think everyone got sick of me pointing out yet another pink broom tree!

The gorge was host to the other two named rapids - Jaw Breaker, and Nose Basher. Jaw Breaker was a bit of a frightening name, but the grade 3 rapid was scarcely worse than any other on that stretch of  the river. Unfortunately, though, I discovered why Nose Basher was named!  No, not my nose, but the kayak’s. Going down the centre of an innocuous looking rapid, my kayak decelerated from maybe 12km/h to zero instantly. The standing wave in the centre of the flow hid a large rock! I sat trapped by the pressure of the water, as it ever so slowly took the back of the kayak round perpendicular to the flow, and I tipped out....  and had a swim.

Camp that night was at Matai Flat, one of New Zealand's great wild camp sites, just after the gorge widened out, having passed through the Seaward Kaikouras. A hillside covered with mature native forest came right down to the river flats. It was the only bit of primary growth forest we'd seen on the trip- how it escaped being logged or burnt I don't know, but it was truly beautiful - full of massive matai, totara, kahikatea, and beech.

From here, the river headed south though farmland, then east to the sea, in a final ultra-fast, roller coaster style rapids that lost us 120m height by lunchtime, when we took the boats out at the main road.
What a trip! I’m looking forward to the next river........

Here are some photos of the trip