The Clarence River is one of the country’s longest rivers, paddleable for most of its length. It is born on the eastern slopes of the magnificent Spenser Mountains. It flows south from Lake Tennyson, but swings northeast to where it has carved a route between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura ranges. Once through these it sniffs the sea and heads sharply back southeast to emerge on the coast north of Kaikoura. Throughout almost its entire length the countryside is a stark mix of tussock high country and cleared land. Winter temperatures are bitterly cold, while in midsummer the area bakes. Spring provides optimal conditions for a leisurely end of year float down the Clarence.
The first complete descent of the river was by raft in the early 1960s. Since then the Clarence has been descended by almost every means available. Through the 1970s it was considered a challenging river run, and many canoe clubs held an annual outing to it. Times have changed and it is more popular as a social river expedition, with most parties using a variety of craft from kayaks, canoes and rafts to provide transport to the sea. The use of rafts to carry all camping equipment, and beer, also opens up the experience to many who have never been on whitewater. In the era of plastic downriver racers it won’t be long before people do the trip in one day.
Most whitewater action lies in the gorges where severely shattered and twisted greywacke rock provides excellent edges to rip rafts, kayaks and anything else that might run into them! The Top Gorge and the Saw Tooth Gorge rapids are in the class III range, requiring manoeuvring amongst boulder gardens to avoid the inevitable wall at the bottom.
The river can be split into three distinct sections. The logistics and campsites are yours to choose depending on how many days you are on the river.
Upper Clarence Gorge
This section extends 50km to below Palmer Stream and contains one gorge. The only rapid of note is The Chute which is a straight run over a drop into a pool. This drop is heralded by a hard bend to the left and a huge flat rock in mid stream. Most of the water in this section is shallow shoal rapids with pools in between. Once clear of the gorge the river opens out and is flanked by tussock-covered hill country.
Middle Clarence Valley and Gorge
This 70km mid section has no major whitewater, but plenty of class II boulder gardens to keep interest up. From the Gloster River confluence the Clarence flows into a deep gorge before Quail Flat and the middle Clarence valley. This easy section is overlooked by the magnificent peaks of the Inland Kaikoura Range—Mounts Alarm, Tapuae-o-Uenuku, and Mitre. The old Quail Flat and Bluff Station homesteads are also of note.
Lower Clarence Gorge
From Ravine Hut the valley narrows as the lower, or Saw Tooth Gorge approaches. This 84km section contains the most interesting whitewater of the journey. The walls of the Sawtooth Gorge are high and badly eroded, providing the material that produces the rapids. The whitewater is moderate until just downstream of Jam Stream where the Jaw Breaker lives. I can only assume the early river pioneers took some hefty physical abuse through this section as the next rapid is known as Nose Breaker. Scenic pools and flat stretches lie in between the rapids. Nearly all the rapids in this gorge are similar, with a straight rock garden line that slams into a wall at the bottom.
Placid, deep water flowing between vegetated hillsides provides a stark contrast to the open eroded country upriver. Once clear of the gorge the river braids and you need to choose carefully to avoid running aground in the wrong channel. The Glen Alton bridge arrives just as you are getting sick of the braids. Depending on time and conditions take out here or continue to the main road bridge. The last section has some delightful shingle chute rapids with sizeable pressure waves making an exciting end to the journey. The take out is on the true right at the bridge. Watch out for the large concrete blocks in the river around the bridge which have metal protruding.
Camp anywhere you want to—this is New Zealand after all! If you are using raft support go for a comfy trip and ensure you are self-sufficient for shelter. Take a map and compass, plenty of warm clothes and a good stash of beer and wine. Most parties spread the trip over three and a half days and aim for these sort of places:
- Day 1 (afternoon) Acheron Bridge-Below Tinline Creek.
- Day 2 Below Tinline Creek-Quail Flat
- Day 3 Quail Flat-Ravine Hut
- Day 4 Ravine Hut-Main Road
There are a number of musterers’ huts spread down the river, but they are locked so parties must rely on their own shelter.
The lower valley is prone to strong nor’west winds and some parties, especially rafts, have been unable to make progress down the river. The best plan in these circumstances is to wait it out. Make sure everything is tied down and all river craft are weighted with large boulders. UFO sightings on the Kaikoura Coast in the 1970s were probably flying rafts belonging to unfortunate teams that didn’t take these precautions.
To get to the put in from Hanmer Springs: follow Jacks Pass Rd out of the township. When the road first hits the Clarence River turn right and follow the river to the bridge at the Acheron Accommodation House along 20km of gravel road. Put in below the bridge. Before you take off make doubly sure that your shuttle driver knows the date and place to pick you up.
To get to the take out: this is on SH1 about 42km north of Kaikoura. If you want to take out, or just sightsee up to Glen Alton bridge, drive over the Clarence River bridge and turn up-valley on the first road. Follow your nose and signs to Glen Alton.