From Source to Sea - Rafting the Clarence

This article by Kate Batten regarding a source-to-sea rafting trip down the Clarence River was originally published in the FMC Bulletin #129, August 1997. Republished by permission.

To follow a river from its source to the sea seems to satisfy some primal urge and to trace the ebb and flow of the water as it rushes to its inevitable demise in the sea is an apt time for reflection on where one's life is headed. So when invited on a 210km raft trip down the Clarence River in the South Island with "Action in Marlborough" I leapt at the opportunity to take a journey through spectacularbackcountry and through my mind.

The Clarence River begins its journey at Lake Tennyson, approximately 40 kilometres north of Hamner Springs, and runs between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura mountains. It is only in extremely high flow that the river can be rafted from the lake so our journey began at the Acheron confluence. That meant a very early morning departure from Blenheim. After a quick stop at Hanmer Springs, we popped over Jack's Pass to get onto the river by midday.

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The people consisted of a group of outdoors types from the Marlborough Tramping Club, three trainee raft guides from Whenua-Iti in Nelson, a "mad Dutchman", two raft guides and me. We split into two raft loads - the tramping club group stuck together with the guiding services of American import Matt. The rest of us piled into a raft with Deane, a guide from Nelson and veteran of the Clarence River. The sun shone and the birds chirped as we floated our way past desolate, barren, eroded hills which typify that country.

Our big rapid for the first day was The Chute - bubbling, frothing whitewater squeezing its way through a narrow gorge. Time for helmets on and serious paddling but still a glimpse of the magnificent "pancake" rock formations as we whizzed past.

After about six hours on the water, we reached a campsite under willow trees just past Dillon Cone. With the tents up and full tummies, none of us were long out of our sleeping bags.

Day two was a "float day" - no big rapids and not too much paddling. Plenty of time to reflect on the passing landscape which changed from the open expanse to a narrow gorge where the rocks towered above the river and made the raft seem insignificant. The slow pace gave us plenty of opportunity to flop into the river for refreshing swims along the way.

Six hours on the water saw us at Quail Flat campsite nestled in a poplar plantation below a plateau which housed the original Quail Flat cob homestead, shearing shed and shearer's accommodation.

Our start at 9am the next morning saw the temperature already at 21C according to one of the tramper's watches. That heat continued to fry us on the river which meant plenty of swims and sunblock. Meanwhile, the scenery became more grand with the snow-capped peaks of Mt Alarm, Mitre Peak, Manakau and Tapuaenuku crowning the horizon.

Two fairly big but unnamed rapids sped us to our campsite among manuka at Dart Stream. While having a last cooling dip before bed, we were treated to a spectacular sunset of fiery reds and oranges as the light faded.

From the names of the rapids on day four, we were in for a gruesome day. Jawbreaker and Carnage Corner awaited us as we paddled off in the morning through Sawtooth Gorge, so named because of the way the river zig-zags back and forth like the teeth of a saw. We survived both rapids with no problems at all - both rafts stopped so the guides could scout the rapid before we ran them - a reassuring move [and compulsory photography].

I had the perfect campsite on the last night - on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river at Matai Flat. A great place to catch wonderful dreams. Each morning our packing up had got quicker and we had less food to store. By day five we were ready nearly an hour early.

We had a four hour trip to meet our driver at the Clarence Bridge on State Highway 1, so floated our way to the historic Glen Alton Bridge after which the river turned to a whitewater roller coaster ride for the last stretch to the road. Then it was only fitting as a sign of our appreciation to dump our guide Deane into the river before packing up the rafts, loading up the van and making a weary trip back to Blenheim.

After five days and 210 kilometres of river, I felt renewed and reinvigorated and ready for whatever would face me in the coming year. Although not action packed with whitewater, there was just enough to raise my adrenaline level without scaring me pantless.

I will always remember the journey I took down the mighty Clarence and know that if I ever need to renew my direction, that will be the way I will do it.