A Clarence River Trip

This article by Jim Hutton originally appeared in New Zealand Canoeing #22, July 1981.

The Clarence River starts in the Spencer Mountains from Lake Tennyson, runs south-east towards Hamner, then swings north-east. on its torturous course to the coast about 20 miles north of Kaikoura. The canoe guide bills this as one of the best canoe trips in New Zealand.

We got away from Christchurch shortly after 9am, with canoes and gear loaded aboard the truck, which we unpacked at the bridge upstream of the Acheron junction where the river seemed very low; we wondered how we would get down the shallow rapids. Leaving at 1pm, our progress was slowed by the care needed in scraping down the shallow rapids, some so shallow that we had to get out and float or line our boats down. The Hossack & Dillon marked the start of the first gorge but these added little as the river became more confined.

At 4.30 we came to the large rock marking the approach to the chute. The very low flow had made the rapid just above tight and hard to negotiate. The only course was obstructed and difficult to read from upstream. Bob hit a large rock and became almost airborne, Brian managed to dodge the obstructing rocks but was swept into the large rock, capsized by the backwash and swept round upside down to roll up in the pool below.

We pulled out above "The Chute" to inspect. The low flow made the chute very tight and rather dangerous with heavily laden, unresponsive canoes. John decided to try to run the drop. He had to go through a narrow gap at the top were the main jet of water poured to the left onto a large obstructing rock, then deflected right into the pool below with a smaller rock in the centre before the pool. He negotiated the upper section but was not able to counteract the force of the current in the chute and his bow thumped the obstructing rock but luckily deflected to the right and safety. However, the thump had broken the front off this canoe. The rest of the party decided to portage rather than risk damaging canoes so early in the trip. John did a temporary patch job and we limped down to Tinline creek where we camped at 6.30pm. Dirk's canoe had also been holed in the rapid above the chute so patching was the chief occupation that night.

On Sunday morning we had a leisurely breakfast, finished boat patching, and set off in sunny warm weather at 11.30am. However more rapids caused further damage to the bottom of some canoes, especially Dirk's so we pulled in at Palmer Stream at 4pm and camped early to dry out and pack damaged canoes.

On Monday we got away at 9.30 and the overcast sky soon turned to drizzle and light rain. We hoped this would raise the water level. Two canoes were still leaking and required 2-3 empties per hour, however, we pushed on into the second gorge.

The only rapid of note in the second gorge was a very rocky one between Elliot Stream and the Fell which was tight and needed careful negotiation. We had lunch in the lower section of the gorge sheltering from the rain under a large rock. We then continued on out of the gorge and passed Quail Flat homestead at about 3pm. Peter must have relaxed in one rapid because he got caught in an unexpected stopper and went for a swim. Depressed that he had been the first one to go for a swim, he was not to know that others would follow his example further in the trip. The rest of this section was uneventful and we arrived at Bluff Station at 5.10pm rather tired and pleased to have some shelter in the woolshed to dry out gear and canoes for patching.

It rained all night and this brought the river up about one foot. On Tuesday we bid farewell to the kind owners of the Bluff at 11.30am. The river was still rising and starting to become discoloured. The rapid below Goose Flat was boney in the upper section, dropping to the right against a willow stump and then swinging left against a rock with a hole below. Some of us negotiated to the left of the rock and hole, others to the right. Bob hit the rock and dropped into the hole but survived. We stopped at Stoney Flat hut for lunch while it continued to drizzle and then continued on to Ravine Hut by 3pm. Again we made an early stop to allow time to further patch Dirk's canoe. We were out of fibreglass now and had to depend on tape to patch a rather nasty hole. The river was still rising and getting quite dirty.

On Wednesday the weather was overcast but fine and the river had cleared a little but still a little below normal flow level. Leaving Ravine Hut at 11am, we made better time with the increased flow down into the third gorge, Sawtooth Gorge. "Jaw-Breaker," the biggest rapid on the Clarence was exciting canoeing. Brian went into the rapid flat out but in the confused water didn't see the large hole, went straight into it and was capsized by its stopper. He ended up swimming the lower part of the rapid. Below here there were many enjoyable rapids including "Nose Basher" plus a few tricky whirlpools and eddies off bluffs. Bob tipped out in one of these so we stopped for lunch. We then continued on through this spectacular gorge stopping at 2.35pm to inspect the old Gibson Hut. The large willow below Gibson was no trouble as most of the water was in a channel to the right. At 3.35pm. we passed Ouse Stream the northern most point on the trip. From here the river swings back south-east. Cabbage Tree Hut was high up on the ridge above the river so we carried on and camped opposite Ned Stream at 4.15pm.

On Thursday morning Bob, John and Roger left at 9am, aiming to be out in time to catch the 3.30pm bus back to Christchurch. The rest of us had a leisurely breakfast and finally left at 11.30am, drifting down slowly and enjoying the odd rapid and the beautiful scenery. It was good to see the sun again. We paddled and drifted on out of the gorge, down through farmland, passing picturesque white limestone cliffs. We had lunch just below a farmer's hut and then carried on to George Stream Confluence and the Glen Alton bridge. From here the river continues over fairly open riverbed for 2-3 miles, dropping more rapidly over larger boulders, creating delightful, almost continuous rapids and giving wonderful canoeing right to the end. We reached the main road bridge at 4.30pm on Thursday, March 5.

The main problem of the trip was reducing damage to the bottom of canoes in the many very shallow rapids. The damage was most severe in older previously patched canoes and we quickly ran out of fibreglass resin and mat. Gauze bandage was a substitute for fibreglass mat. However, we finally had to rely on several layers of tape and taking as much care as possible to dodge rocks. In the lower half of the river the shallow rapids were less frequent as the rain had given more water. In spite of these problems the trip was very enjoyable, although we felt it would be much better at high flow. To those canoeing at low flow we recommend boats with strong hulls and a good supply of fibreglass patching material.