Updated: Aug 27, 2021
When I heard a great friend of mine, Mel, had plans to raft the Clarence river for her birthday, I was immediately interested. The Clarence River, also known as the Waiau-Toa, has a 4-6 day rafting trip that takes you from the arid landscape north of Hamner Springs, carries you between the Seaward and the Inland Kaikoura Ranges, and ends at the ocean 15 minutes north of Kaikoura. It's one of the longest multiday rafting trips you can do in NZ.
Luckily for us, many of the people coming were ex-outdoor ed students from TPP, which meant that we were able to guide the rafts and cater for ourselves. Better yet, we had 3 or 4 people on the trip who worked for Clarence River Rafting (CRR), so they knew the river like the back of their hand.
Summer flows meant the river was running very low, which meant we were not able to raft the whole way, I'm not exactly sure where we started, it was on a gravel bank by the river, does that help?
A lucky handful of us were flown in on a helicopter. I'll never forget looking down on the Kaikoura foothills, it looked like a kids sandpit, with valleys and hills going in every direction, unable to make their mind up about where they were going, what they were doing, or who will grow the biggest.
Our rafts and all of our gear were hauled in on the back of utes and met us on the river bank, from there, we took some time to inflate the rafts and lash everything on that we will need for the next 4 days, included 2 barrels dedicated solely for booze ;) Along the way, we encounter stunning landscapes, native manuka forests, sunshine, lots of wind, clear blue water, and big grins.
We set off on the water expecting nothing but smiles and an easy float downriver, unfortunately, things aren't always as easy as you hope for, and after a little over an hour later, we were met with a headwind. At first, it was nothing to be concerned about, but it quickly built to the point that we were no longer able to just float downstream. "Ruby are you telling me we actually have to paddle!?" Twenty minutes later even paddling wasn't working. Not even fast-flowing water could help us, the boat came to a standstill, at times I'm sure we were moving backward! We resorted to jumping out and pushing the boat by hand, stumbling over rocks, and soaked up to our belly buttons. By the time we got to camp, a few stress veins started to pop, but it's hard to stay stressed on a trip like this, so those were all gone within minutes.
The best thing about raft trips is that you don't have to skimp, it's like car camping, you can bring nearly anything. Enough deck chairs for everyone? yes. Cast Iron camp ovens? yes. Multiple tables? yes. Your favorite pair of ug boots? Go for it. Can't decide between a tent and a hammock? just bring both. Every night diner usually goes like this: It starts with a cheap and cheerful snack like chips and dip, then couple hours later you get a hearty meal that somebody slaved over for hours on the fire (we took turns). All of our meals were cooked on open fires, it's quite amazing what you can produce on a pile of embers. Full-sized roasts, shepards pie, Currys, you name it, its probably doable with the right set of skils.
Then there is desert. If your lucky, Emma would be making it, and she would appear with some sort of cinnamon scrolls or self-saucing pudding which she has figured out how to cook in a cast-iron pot. She had worked at CRR over the summer and was a wizard when it came to cooking on the fire. We were very careful with our fire use. There had recently been a bush fire which caused the burning of 300ha of land. We always kept a tub of water by the fire and didn't feed it excessively.
The next day we awoke to a warm settled breeze and blue skies. This day was my favourite of the trip. It was warm enough to swim, and you could just sit in the sun and dry of in the warm breeze as we meandered our way down the river. The sun was out, and new stunning scenery lurked around every corner. There was no sense of urgency, by about 1pm we decided it was beer O'clock, so we got the barrels of drinks out, and kept on cruising through the desert canyons.
Above our heads, the clouds made crazy shapes as they formed and reformed. Sue, our in-house pilot and weather guru was quite astonished. It was like watching a kid with their favourite TV show.
Camp that night was nestled among native kanuka and manuka trees, creating a cozy vibe. I'm quite a curious person, you may have noticed that some of the photos of the camps were taken from a distance away. Well sometimes my curiosity gets the best of me and I end up wandering off up a hill somewhere, today was no exception. This time I managed to drag Emma along with me, however, she only had a pair of open-toed sandals and it was a decent sized hill we were looking at. We scrambled up the hill, using the spindly tree trunks as handles to stop ourselves from sliding down the skinny goat trails. Our footwear was definetly not appropriate, at times it felt like I needed crampons to get up the dusty slope (and I was the one wearing propper trainers). From the top, we had a great view down onto camp and the surrounding hills of the Clarence valley. "Right, now we have to figure out how to get down this thing"
Day three started with cooler temperatures and overcast skies. Throughout the day it threatened to rain but never did. This would be our last full day on the river. I had a turn on the gear raft, partly because I wanted a turn on the oars, but also because my raft full of girls would not stop giggling and had created complete pandemonium. Part of me felt bad for leaving Laetitia alone with that racket, but oh thank god I left.
The gear raft is different to the rest. Rather than relying on the paddle power of the crew, the gear raft relies on one person who has a set of rowing oars mounted on a metal frame. This enables them to mount chilly bins and boxes, then pile the other gear on top. Ultimately, it gets pretty heavy. The gear boat goes slow, but like the tortoise and the hare, it's usually the first one at camp. It's hard work but it's quite enjoyable, it's just you and one other person having yarns and moseying your way down the river.
Our plan was to save most of the drinks for the last night, It was Mel's birthday trip, we had to celebrate at least one night right? Alas, in true kiwi style, we drunk most of them along the way. Luckily Ruby had an idea. She went off digging holes around our campsite. We were wondering what she was doing until she struck something. She reached down, rummaged through the dirt for a while, then, appeared with an unopened bottle of wine, then another, and another. Apparently, the Clarence guides would stash some of their treasures away at the end of commercial trips if they didn't drink it all during their trip. Who knows what treasures lie unopened in the Clarence Valley.
Then we got drunk, there's always one person who goes too hard too fast, unfortunately, this time it was me. I'd love to tell you more about the night but I was in my bed before the night really began.
The last day of our trip was to leave the Kaikoura ranges behind, and head across the open farmland until we reached the coast. Many of us had definitely had enough by this point. After four days on the river, conversation was running low and the idea of sleeping in a bed sounded enticing.
That being said, this was a fantastic trip and I would highly recommend it to anyone if they are ever given the chance. This was actually my second time down the Clarence, but that doesn't matter, I'd go do it for a third time in a heartbeat.
A big thanks to everyone who made this happen! Mitch and Ruby you are appreciated!
Words and (most of the) images by Wilfred Spearing