Canterbury paddlers are blessed with this little gem on their back doorstep. The Ashley (Rakahuri) has been kayaked, canoed, tubed and liloed for decades. It feels like a wilderness trip because of the depth of the gorge and anyone walking out faces a lengthy epic.
The Ashley was a pleasant sanity preserver during my university years. We used to skip lectures and head up for an afternoon paddle, especially when there was a good flow in the river. In summer flows it can be a little scratchy, but fine for people just breaking out of beginner stage. (Don’t bother if flows get as low as three cumecs.)
For big action on the Ashley wait until a strong southerly front moves through and douses the catchment. Once flows pass 100 cumecs the fun really starts. I once got on the river at more than 200 cumecs, having crossed the snowfield at the put in wearing footwear and clothing appropriate to our student budgets (bare feet and sewn scrap garments). We told ourselves it was character building. Yeah right.
On the river, settle in for the first few kilometres of easy paddling with lots of good eddies to warm up on. The crux of the paddling occurs about midway down the gorge in rapids that require manoeuvring to avoid the sharp, often shattered greywacke bedrock. About five rapids in quick succession create this crux section. One of them, a pour-over at lower flows, may require scouting by less experienced teams. Portaging is easy until levels are high enough to completely fill the riverbed, drowning any opportunities for scouting or portaging. Once past this section things ease off as the river winds its way down the final few kilometres to the campground.
If you venture out during floods don’t take anyone without a proven big water roll. In flood the Ashley is cold and miserable, and a swim could turn serious. However the trip will fly — about 55 minutes! The campground warden offers a shuttle service for a fee. Call at the office if you want to make use of this.
To get to the take out: find the town of Oxford on SH72 about 40km west of Christchurch. From Oxford follow signs (which start in the town) to Ashley Gorge. The campground/picnic area is on the river right side of the bridge. Drive in to near the toilet block.
To get to the put in: head back towards Oxford. After a couple of kilometres you will see a sign to Lees Valley, Ashley Gorge. Follow this winding gravel road to the first road bridge over the Ashley River.
class IV: > 120 cumecs