From its source at 1,700 metres above sea level and beneath Clarence Pass in Canterbury’s Saint James Range, the Waiau Toa/Clarence River flows 230 kilometres to the Pacific Ocean on Marlborough’s east coast. This makes it New Zealand’s eight longest river, which in itself is not of any particular notoriety. However, its waters have carved their way through some spectacular and varied landscapes. And certainly of note, at 170 kilometres, the Waiau Toa/Clarence’s navigable stretch by intermediate level kayakers and rafters, is one of the longest in New Zealand.
Four-wheel drive tracks trace much of the river valley on the river’s true right up to Stoney Flat. From there, they extend further on the true left to about five kilometres north of Ravine Hut. At least eight huts are also located beside or near the river along its length. So while it would take many days, it’s possible to walk much of the Clarence River.
But why would you when 170 kilometres is raftable on Grade II to III river. Grade II is described as having:
- Rapids with regular medium-sized waves (less than one metre)
- Low ledges or drops
- Easy eddies and gradual bends with passages easy to recognise and generally unobstructed, although there may be rocks in the main current, overhanging branches or log jams
While my own background is tramping and mountaineering, it quickly became apparent to me what advantages river rafting offers (the biggy – no backpacks). All your gear goes into watertight drums and bags, strapped in the centre of your raft to provide stability. With no concerns about weight, the standard of food (and wine) rises far above what I’ve been used to on my trips into the hills on foot.
And aside from creature comforts, travelling at water level on a raft offers a new way to enjoy your surroundings. Constant downstream movement is possible even when you just sit back and relax, which is possible quite frequently on the Waiau Toa/Clarence on its calmer stretches. And if variety is the spice of life, then a rafting trip down the Waiau Toa/Clarence is very spicy.
A fun swifter section
While the rapids encountered are mostly moderate to easy, there is still plenty to keep you on alert. Countless right-angled corners demand bursts of paddling to avoid being forced against cliffs or into powerful eddies. Steep and narrow sections create choppy waves to bounce through and by which to get soaked. Shallow sections demand concentration to avoid being grounded or worse, and boulders above or just beneath the waterline must be dodged to avoid being hung on (or tipped out by). Vigilance along the riverside is often needed to avoid being ‘sieved’ by willows that reach out with long branches and gnarled root systems to trap you.
On calm sections, there’s impressive variety in the landscapes you pass to keep you enthralled. Up at 700 metres above sea level at the confluence with the Acheron River, where the rafting journey begins, the surrounding landscape is decidedly alpine with river flats and tussock merging into mountain scapes. At times the river narrows, carving its way through high-walled gorges and bringing you up close to astounding geological wonders – sheer solid rock, layered and folded into tortured strata that speak of a dynamic planet and immense forces of nature.
Scouting the route to the ‘Chute’, deemed the crux of the entire journey. Here is a nice example of the geomorphic rock formations beside the upper river.
On the first day you encounter the Chute – a point where the entire river flows through an approximately four metre wide channel constrained by rock walls, with a decidedly unfriendly looking rock thrust up mid-stream, some 15 or so metres downstream. This is the ‘crux’ event of the rafting challenges on the river. Being unguided, our party took the time to pull over upstream from the Chute to scope it out on foot, before taking the plunge. So long as you take care to position the raft, you can commit to the right line and the Chute is fine. We discovered this with a sense of relief after getting past the rocky obstacle.
Looking at the Chute
Because our party hired and collected our rafting gear from Clarence on the first morning, we had to drive south to Hanmer Springs and then back up the southern part of the Molesworth Road to reach our start point at the Acheron confluence. We only got onto the water mid-afternoon, so our first day ended after four-and-a-half hours rafting on the true right of the river, roughly halfway between Cloudy Hut and Palmer Hut. We hadn’t encountered anyone else on the river and it felt like the world was ours alone. While enjoying glasses of chardonnay that matched the sumptuousness of the sunset, we were also pleasantly surprised to find very few sandflies at dusk during our four nights camping, although they appeared with a vengeance at dawn.
End of Day 1 – at our campsite beside the true right of the river, after about 4.5 hours of rafting
To make up some distance, our second day was our longest. We negotiated several more gorges, punctuated by broad sections affording impressive panoramic views. At a lunch stop at Palmer Hut we met some pack rafters and, further downstream, some intrepid cows beneath steep cliffs. While they were surrounded by rubble with no grass in sight, they seemed unperturbed. After travelling for nine hours, we pulled in at a bend in the river south of Goose Flat Hut, again on the true right at another suitable place to pitch our tents.
Morning, Day 2
Our setdown point beneath Palmer Hut
Afternoon, Day 2
Intrepid cows on the true right of the river
At our campsite beside the true right of the river, end of Day 2 – about 9 hours of rafting
Sunset, looking north to the inland Kaikouras. Tapuae o Uenuku is the dark pyramid left of centre.
There was a pleasant repeat of chardonnays at sunset, but this time the landscape had become even more spectacular. We were now well into the valley hemmed in by the seaward Kaikouras to the south, culminating in 2,610 metre Mount Manukau and the inland Kaikouras to the north. A black pyramid drew my eye to the distant skyline, as it caught the rich red light of sunset. This was 2,885 metre Tapuae-o-Uenuku, the highest peak in New Zealand outside the Southern Alps. It was interesting to see it from this new vantage point.
At our campsite beside the river, morning of Day 3
The calm water position
At our lunch spot, Day 3
A fun swifter section, afternoon, Day 3
On our third day and after seven hours of rafting, we reached the campsite near Snowgrass Hut. Again we were alone, feeling privileged to enjoy the continued tranquillity. During the day the weather had become significantly sunnier, so we enjoyed another benefit of travelling by raft – the ability to simply flop overboard, fully clothed, to cool off as we floated downstream.
Other rafters on the river, Day 4
Sunset from our campsite, Day 4
Day Four got busier. We had many twists and turns until Cabbage Tree Hut on this six-and-a-half hour section of the river, as well as encountered several other rafting parties with whom we shared our last campsite. Because we’d set off later than usual that morning, we had to work hard with our paddles to reach camp that afternoon due to a stiff headwind that apparently arrives in the afternoons – a trap for the unwary.
Looking southwest to the seaward Kaikouras, morning, Day 5
Looking southwest to the seaward Kaikouras
We had to line the raft through this treacherous section of submerged willow roots
A view west as the river broadens out near the coast
Looking west back upriver, morning on Day 5
Our final day was a surprise to me. With only about four hours more rafting until we reached the sea, some of which we would pass through farmland, I hadn’t expected the scenery to be so impressive. The river had bent back on itself so that we now headed south, with beautiful views back to the southern flanks of the seaward Kaikouras. We also travelled through some spectacular white rock formations that appeared to have been blasted about the landscape by some errant meteorite strike. And the broader river with more flow treated us to some of the best wave bounces of our entire journey.
It was a fine way to finish a very fine journey through a distinctively wonderful part of New Zealand. As we reached the coast, a stiff wind had built as huge billowing clouds engulfed the seaward Kaikouras. We felt the first spits of rain. Next morning, 30 January, the seaward Kaikouras were covered in fresh snow.
The team at the completion of our journey, at the river mouth, midday Day 5
Peter Laurenson is a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club and editor of FMC’s Backcountry. For more images and info about Peter, visit www.occasionalclimber.co.nz.