By Harry Brenton-Rule
As we drove off the Bluebridge Ferry, we opted to drive to the start of our week-long rafting trip through Molesworth Station. It would take three hours, but the scenic vistas would make it worth the while. Arriving at the gateway to Molesworth, we had a quick tour through the historic buildings from yesteryear. We then continued on, arriving late afternoon at the confluence of the Acheron and Clarence rivers. In the distance we could see the rugged Bullen Hills, which was to be the location of our first night. After we wrapped our laughing gear around some good tucker, it was time to inflate the rafts, load up and get on the water.
The planning that had gone into this trip was next level. 180km of the Clarence River lay in front of us, which we had allowed six days to paddle. Numerous challenges were going to present themselves and we needed to mentally prepare ourselves to meet them head-on. It was my first time on the river, so I didn’t know how easy it would be to paddle the rapids.
Although mostly Grade 2, there were a half dozen hazards I had read about in my research. They would require a careful approach, scouting ahead on foot to pick the best lines down the boisterous rapids. Some long days would be required – up to ten hours a day paddling. I’d have to learn how to unwrap my raft off a rock, and perhaps the biggest challenge of all, deal with the brutal winds that can batter this part of New Zealand. They can push your raft around and even flip it, if you’re not careful.
After my mate had a quick spew from the nerves, we were off. We had 8km to the Bullen Gorge, which was easy travel and mostly Grade 1. We had a tail-wind, which was a luxury in these parts. An old musterer’s hut marked the start of the gorge. Then the nerves set in, as the rapids in the gorge were large with large pressure waves and big boulders. In the distance we could see a huge boulder smack bang in the middle of the river with a vertical face on it. The entire river pounded straight into the vertical face, meaning certain death if you got pinned on it. 50km winds forced us to line our rafts around this death trap.
Shortly after, we had another challenge called the Shute, which required scouting to pick our line. The Shute had a small one-meter gap with which you had to line up, in order to avoid a wrap. I volunteered to go first, then video my fellow paddlers. My heart was pumping hard and the adrenaline rush hit me like a freight train. I luckily picked a good line and made it through unscathed with 50kg of gear on board. Overcoming that challenge was satisfying, but nerve-racking.
After that, it was all fine sailing to Bullen Hills and our camp for the first night. Once we got camp set up, It was time to shoot some lead.
The sun set over the Inland Kaikoura Range and the barren landscape all around us was a firm reminder of all the overgrazing that occurred in the area decades before. Sitting on a hill, it was time to let the binoculars do the work. It wasn’t long before we spotted three pigs. The one that caught our eye was a nice boar of around 100 pounds, at a guess. The shot was easy and the boar was dead on arrival. Yay, I got my first pig, at 250 yards away, shot straight through the neck. There were some happy souls at camp that night since we dined like we were at a restaurant. Sleep came easy that night.
The next day, after an early start and a goat added to the tallies, it was once again ‘heads down, bum up,’ for the paddle down to Palmer Hut, our chosen lunch spot. To our left towering above us was the Dillon Cone at 2173 meters and to our right was Palmer Hut at 600 meters, which marked the halfway point for today’s 50km journey.
Carrying on after lunch, we arrived at Forbes Hut around 6pm for a quick look, then continued the last 3 km to Quail Flat. At Quail Flat we set up the tents, then I explored the old homestead, the woolshed and the cookhouse. I read about how difficult it was when the musterers climbed the face on the opposite side of the valley called the “Clock Face,” which stood above me at 1091 meters. I took some time to sit and think about the musterers who lived here in the 1850’s mustering sheep and felt so grateful to be able to explore this area, some 150 years later.
As the smell of chicken cooking in the camp oven entered my nose, I knew dinner was ready. I must say . . . man, that food was good chomping and chewing after nine hours of paddling!
The sun set and then rose some eight hours later. It was day three and that meant we had done some 80km on our 180km trip. Once it was light enough, we got going early to avoid the afternoon winds that sometimes frequent these parts. About three kilometers later, near Horse Flat, my Dad took his eye off the river and went bottoms up in his raft, losing his phone. After some fruitless drift diving, we resigned ourselves to the fact it was lost. It was a terrible inconvenience not just because it was worth $2,500, but because he had been recording video on it for the whole trip and all that footage was lost. Ah well! We joked about it and Dad reminded me that the adventure doesn’t really begin until things start going wrong.
The next challenge was the Muzzle Stream rapid which turns out, was the hardest rapid in the entire trip and we did not know this at the time. The river narrowed and forced water over a huge boulder. My Dad was carrying 200 kgs of payload and got caught in the main current. With no choice but to run it, he got pushed up onto the side of the rock, almost flipping again. I only just managed to stay on my raft, getting caught in a wave train and missing the rock by inches. We thanked our lucky stars and carried on.
Five more kilometres of paddling got us to Goose Flat Hut. This hut burned down, along with 300ha of grassland three days later, after another party’s campfire got out of control. Later that day, we made it to where the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake had caused the surrounding rock faces to collapse, creating a giant lake. This rapid was super challenging. So to avoid another near-death experience, we lined our rafts through this rapid and not long after made camp at Dart Stream. After a quick hunt and baking pinwheel scones in the camp oven, it was time to hit the hay after our 40km day.
The next morning, we made the small 8km trip downriver to the Branch Stream junction and set up camp for night four. We cooked sultana scones and drenched them in butter . . . yum. As the sun lowered in the sky and the air cooled, it was time to hunt. We put some kilometres under our belt and got the bino’s out, spotting well over 100 goats and counting. After one hot barrel, I had a mob of goats on the deck.
Walking back to camp, it dawned on me that we were on the downward leg of our trip with only 50km to go. After a late start the next day, we got going with plans of stopping at Deer Flat. After spotting five goats and zero deer, it was time to down some food and get moving again. Dark clouds made their appearance as we tailed it further downriver.
Approaching Cabbage Tree Hut, the wind was a howling headwind of about 60km an hour. We saw three beaten bodies that decided the weather was enough for them and they had made camp. We battled on ahead with only 5km to our next camp.
Little did I know, but this would be my first near death experience. The wind had now picked up gusting at 80kms an hour and then, without warning, the rain started. I was wearing a t-shirt that was full of water and started shaking. I had to pull over to put my raincoat on, even though I was already wetter than a fish.
In the next ten minutes, I went a total of zero meters, paddling hard out but getting blown upstream. I could tell hypothermia was about to kick in, so we had no choice but to pull the pin. We were in a gorge so finding shelter was going to be a miracle. Taking all my clothes off, I found my lifeline – a thick woollen shearing top and long johns, which I put on while my Dad’s mate went to find a flat spot up a side creek. Luck was on our side and he found a rock bivvy with a small flat area next to it. We cleared an area big enough to fit our two tents, carried the gear up from the river and quickly set up our tent fly. Under this, our tent got warm and dry.
At this stage, the wind had increased to around 100km an hour and we could hear it roaring up the gorge. Located up a steep side creek, we were in the best spot possible. It was some quick actions on our part that saved our bacon. After having a cup of sweet black billy tea, our souls lifted. We reflected on one of the biggest challenges we had faced, including what we had done right and what we could do better next time. Acting early, good gear and woollen clothing no doubt saved our lives. Dad got the camp oven out and cooked up a huge feed of lamb shanks, potatoes, kumara, mushrooms and carrots.
That night we slept really well . . . I mean, really well. The next morning we welcomed the calm after the storm, so we got going early. We still had 40km ahead of us and exiting the gorge, we would face a strong southerly headwind all the way to the coast. Some five hours later, without event, we got to the take-out and Mum and Ella turned up not long afterwards to pick us up.
Reflecting on the trip, I loved every bit of it. A week-long trip is always going to have its ups and downs. It taught me that planning is essential and don’t take shortcuts on the right gear because it might save your life. And lastly, the best way to overcome a challenge is to face it head-on.
We’re delighted to share another trip report from recent recipients of FMC’s Youth Award Grant. These grants are awarded four times a year, so if you’re inspired to get some financial support, head over to FMC’s website to apply.