Thursday, January 21, 2016

Clarence Clear Water Revival

How can baby boomers with failing hips and knees get the wilderness experience of tramping without the tedious business of putting one foot in front of the other for days on end? An email from ex Auckland University Tramping Club mate Alan had the answer: a five day rafting trip down the Clarence River. A few months and many emails later, Alan had organised a party of ten and a rafting company to take us on the adventure.

The Clarence River is the eighth longest in Aotearoa, 230 km from its source at Lake Tennyson, making its way north east between the Inland and Seaward Kaikoura ranges, before turning to reach the Pacific Ocean just north of Kaikoura. It's true wilderness country, with only a few four wheel drive tracks offering access to the outside world. Part of it lies in the Ka Whata Tū o Rakihouia Conservation Park.

We gathered at Hanmer Forest Camp - in itself a trip down memory lane, staying in two bed forestry workers huts. Next morning the Ultimate Descents bus arrived with three rafts in tow, and we were on our way to the Acheron confluence, to start the rafting journey. Dressed up in life jackets and helmets, we set off in our two passenger rafts, accompanied by Whio Nui, the Big Blue gear raft carrying our overnight gear in large drybags.
Tim and Alex take raft Karearea down to the river at Acheron
Alex gives us a crash course in basic rafting skills

Although our guides Alex and Ariel handled the general direction and speed of the rafts, we were the reserve power for the raft, tweaking the accelerator with the commands "back" "forward" and "relax". The latter, which meant to stop paddling, often because were heading for rock, was sometimes emitted in the same tone that actors in medical dramas use for "Clear!" as a patient gets a life saving defibrillation.

Team Karearea: Bernard, David, Ariel, Sheryl, Jocelyn.
Whio Nui aground
The river was relatively low, making for more obstacles as we headed through the first gorge. At one stage we formed a queue behind Whio Nui which, despite Sonny's steering skills, had obstinately gone though a gap sideways and got stuck. However this and other obstacles were soon overcome - sometimes by the "Clarence Bounce" where everyone on a grounded raft jumps up and down to free it.
Big Eddy campsite
We camped at Big Eddy, a willow-skirted backwater with an established camp, and our guides got to work on lighting a fire for a brew, and establishing the latrine with a guide rope and helpful yellow bag to indicate occupied status. Given that I didn't have to carry my gear, I'd decided to eschew the closed cell foam part of the wilderness experience, and slept soundly on a Warehouse LiLo in a generous sized tent.

Team Kereru paddle hard for the camera
Next morning we carried on down river, the occasional rapid providing variety as we observed the wildlife: pied stilts, paradise ducks, herons lower down - and frequent herds of goats clambering the hillsides. A hole in one of Whio Nui's pontoons necessitated an early lunch stop opposite Palmer Hut, accessible by four wheel drive from the inland Kaikoura road, which got me thinking about possible combined mountain bike and raft trips - perhaps a future adventure. Patching completed, we headed down to Quail Flat, where Solana introduced us to the traditional rafters' dessert of chocolate stuffed bananas baked in the campfire.
Solana demonstrates chocolate stuffed banana
I went for an early morning walk up to the Quail Flat homestead, a 1870's cob cottage, still in use by farm staff. Alongside, the old shearing shed has been restored by DOC.

Interior of Quail Flat homestead
Solana doles out mid stream treats from Whio Nui
The day turned sunny and hot, and we got views of Alarm and Tapuenuku on the Inland Kaikoura ranges. David and I had climbed "Tappy" in 1972, and of course a view of the snow capped peak is a feature of biking the south coast of Wellington on a clear winter's day.
David downs paddle to photograph the Clarence side of Tapuenuku
We were glad of a swim at our lunch spot near Goose Flat, though less enthusiastic to be battling wind in the afternoon as we made our way to the DOC hut at Snowgrass Flat. Robins explored our gear while Solana topped off a generous meal with a camp oven crumble.

A glance at the Snowgrass Flat hutbook showed that packrafting in individual lightweight rafts has become a popular way to navigate the river - following the lead of John Mackay and Piers Maclaren who went down the river in the 1970s on "chariots of tyre", an adventure recounted in John's 1978 book Wild Rivers.

Next morning marked the end of the fine weather. We breakfasted in the rain, and broke out the wetsuits for the first time on the trip. A small hole in the meticulous planning appeared - we'd run out of toilet paper. However this helped us to remember our youthful adventures - I recalled the AUTC trip leader who only took one roll for a ten day trip, doling out two sheets at a time on application.

Red Peak rendered in rock
As the river cuts through the rock, it reveals the tortured patterns of metamorphic folding. At one point, a very creditable reproduction of the Red Peak flag design appears, created geological aeons before the 2015 flag consideration project.

As we descended the valley, cabbage trees and Kowhai started to appear, along with seagulls signalling the approach of the coast. At Boundary Stream, where the valley opens up, we made our final camp, dining on camp oven corn bread and chili, followed by pear topped cheesecake. Solid rain during the night made us glad we were no longer in AUTC 6'x8' japara tents, but turned the river brown with mud, and pushed the tethered rafts in towards the shore.
Ruth, Alan and Juliet supervise the chili, Boundary Stream camp
The higher river, and difficulty seeing obstacles in the muddy water, meant it was time to don helmets and wetsuits again. But we raced down the flats without incident to the final challenge, where Ariel found a perfect line past concrete and steel flood protection works debris, and delivered us to the take out point beside the SH1 bridge. For lunch Solana created a final culinary highlight, fresh sushi.

So is rafting the new golf? Maybe not, but in the hands of an expert guiding team it provided a unique wilderness experience where we could relive our youthful wilderness adventures without challenging our failing bodies too much.

More photos of the trip on Flicker