Solo sea kayak on the Clarence

Maggie Oakley describes a 2007 solo adventure down the rugged and remote Clarence river. This article originally appeared in The Sea Canoeist Newsletter #136, August-September 2008 (p9-10).

2007 started with my solo kayak-tramp to enjoy the Clarence River.

First for those who are unfamiliar with this stunning part of NZ I include a little bit about the river and environs. The Clarence has its source in Lake Tennyson, which is in the northern reaches of the Southern Alps, to finally end, 33 km's north of the township of Kaikoura on the east coast. The river passes through superb alpine scenery and narrow mountain gorges, growing daily in volume till reaching the sea. The canyon or gorge walls have amazing contorted appearances as the river continues to cut the riverbed ever deeper. The land surrounding the river is known as a "biodiversity hotspot", containing diverse lizard and insect fauna. Also found are the Marlborough rock daisy and nesting sites for Hutton's Shearwater.

Of delight to a river runner is that currently there is no man-made structures impeding the flow or blocking the way for the entire length of the river. This is not a technically difficult river, class II when typically running between 20 to 60 cumecs. When in flood with a flow at up to 300-500 cumecs, the water in the gorges gets pushy and warrants a class II+ perhaps a III. Most trips are run from the Acheron River confluence near the old Molesworth Station, about an hour's drive from Hanmer Springs. The get out is usually at river right under the main road bridge on the East Coast north of Kaikoura.

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At a summer flow the run usually takes five days of four to six hours kayaking per day. This gives four nights camping by the river. Many variations on this are possible. If you want to finish your trip actually in the sea, then put your shuttle vehicle on river left by a lagoon area just a short distance further on from the railway bridge. And if you have some extra days and short river kayaks it is possible to kayak out from Lake Tennyson, resulting in a lake to sea adventure.

Gear taken

As my husband stipulated I take some extra safety items, I hired an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB). The model I chose was waterproof, and small enough to fit in the pocket of my life jacket. I also used a paddle leash, which I habitually use when I kayak alone. I used a Penguin Sea Kayak, rudder retracted and secured, and this proved an excellent choice, swallowing 10 days of food and two changes of clothes in the front hatch. In the back a tent, bedroll, sleeping bag, cooker with fuel, billie, backpack and boots disappeared with room to spare. Behind my seat and secured in the cockpit I put a first aid/emergency box, snacks, sun hat paper and pen and toilet needs and drink bottle. My final item was a tarp which fitted snug and handy beyond my footrest.


My arrangements were with the Clarence River Rafting Company, based 2km's north of the river on the east coast. Here I met up with my driver, Robin Judge. I drove my car and Robin showed me the short-cut back road to the put in. Then he sat quietly while I methodically packed my kayak in the same manner I had practised at home. About midday I was ready to float off down river and Robin equally ready to drive my car back to the coast for me.


Like everyone else familiar with this river my concern always centres on the wind, and I watch the sky for any signs. But I was fortunate and only suffered the very strong gusts on a couple of afternoons and never so strong to chase me off the river. Likewise there were not many days of rain, only my first evening and night, then again on the last evening and night. It was good and heavy and freshened the river and surrounding countryside.

Being alone

The trip proved to be exactly what I was hoping for. On my own I was free to pull in and stop as and when I wanted to. I certainly took a lot more notice then usual of my surroundings. I visited the old Quail homestead on one day, the Muzzle stream another. Deep in the gorges it was jolly hot so I ended up spending several lazy hours swimming and sunning. I also found out how different the Marlborough rock daisy's are as you progress over the course of a four or five days. Taking responsibility for myself resulted in a surprising feeling of calm and peacefulness. A head injury sustained in the summer of 2002 has meant many changes to my life. Well-planned activities, quiet situations, one to one conversations and simple tasks are all safe and appropriate. This trip was perfect for the way my brain works now.

Other river folk

On day four or was it five? Anyway I came across six open Canadian canoes pulled up along the bank. These belonged to a large group of Americans who were attending a National Outdoors Leadership School. (NOLS). They informed me they were partway through a twenty-six day course on the Clarence "doing stuff". As a few more bearded faces peered out at me from the kanuka I wondered if the "stuff" was marijuana, but I am assured it was not. On my last evening I caught up with a small raft and kayak group from Holland. These were experienced kayakers fresh from running trips in the USA, namely the Middle Fork and Grand Canyon rivers. In NZ they had been kayaking on the West Coast and Murchison areas, now they were winding down before flying out to kayak in Turkey. It had started to rain with poor visibility and so we all stopped at Matai Flat. After rigging up some tarps we shared dinner and river stories. A perfect end to the day.

So - There it is:

The Clarence remains the only unspoilt multi-day wilderness river in New Zealand. A beautiful clean river, hidden away in the great valleys of the Kaikoura Mountains. Go visit before the water is needed for the national grid or irrigation.

New DOC huts in the Clarence accessible to kayakers are:

  • Seymour Hut by the river at Quail Flat near the confluence of the Seymour and Clarence O31 429 871
  • Palmer Hut at the confluence of the Palmer and Clarence River O31 314 796
  • Snowgrass Hut at the confluence of the Snowgrass and the Clarence P30 711 059

In 2004, OCKC produced a 20 minute Clarence River conservation DVD called "The Hidden River." A few copies left. $15 includes postage. Funds go back to OCKC for conservation efforts. Contact