Adventures on the Clarence

Christmas 2010


My partner Hilary and I were all ready to spend our xmas holidays tramping on the west coast, however the terrible forecast there forced a last-minute change of plan, and we headed for the Clarence instead. I promised Hilary a gentle low-volume grade 2 paddle; ideal for her to get back into kayaking…

The Clarence starts as a small mountain stream in the hills behind Hanmer Springs, flows 225km north through the wilderness between the Seaward and Inland Kaikoura mountains, then meets the sea north of Kaikoura; making one of the longest whitewater runs in NZ. We started from Jacks Pass, and on the first day paddled through small gorges down to the Acheron confluence, where the road ends and the flow increases substantially. We camped on a beach soon afterwards, at the mouth of the first gorge.

For the next two days we floated down endless grade 2 and 3 rapids, through awesome scenic gorges. “Didn’t you say it would be all flat?” complained Hil! By the third night we were halfway down, and after an early finish we spent a relaxing evening finishing off the drybag full of xmas dinner leftovers around a camp fire, before retiring to bed.

“FLOOD!” I shouted as water rushed in the tent door. We leapt out of the tent, throwing everything we could reach to higher ground, then I waded after the kayaks as they floated off into a big brown swirling eddy. The river had silently risen 3m in just a few minutes, and was now 100m wide where we were camped. I soon got the kayaks to shore, but the tent was now a foot under water. We rescued the tent, then I paddled off to retrieve the last bits of missing kit, while Hil moved everything to a ledge in the cliff above. Fortunately the river was no longer rising so quickly, but we were at the bottom of a cliff, our beach was underwater, and it was almost dark.

We could see a larger beach some distance upstream, and after a few ferry-trips with drybags between our legs we made it to a new campsite, high above the river (like last time…) but with better escape options. Fortunately most of our kit had been in drybags when it flooded, and we didn’t lose a thing.  Hil reminded me that the last time we had paddled together was in Lyttleton harbour when the Chilean tsunami came through.

The following day we climbed a nearby hill and looked down on the still-swollen river, which now looked more like something from the Himalayas. After another night, the river had dropped substantially, although was still high. We put back on and continued downstream through endless bouncy rapids. I enjoyed some awesome playwaves, which Hil made the most of the occasional smaller braids. That night we camped at the base of Tapuae-o-Uenuku, a spectacular combination of crags and scree, and NZ’s highest mountain outside the Alps, and finally, on day 6, we paddled out to the sea. The rapids kept on coming right until the end.

Altogether the Clarence is an awesome river for both the scenery and the whitewater. You could do it in 3 or 4 days if you were keen (subject to favourable winds), and there are even DoC huts along the way. The shuttle is as long as the paddle though, and took a full day to hitch.