Faces in the canyons

Jim Mora rafts a river less travelled, the Clarence, through an ancient landscape full of revelations.
Clarence River

The Clarence River meets the sea.

Right where the Clarence headwaters begin, you could drop four corks into four different streams. They would – with luck – bob down into four different big rivers and eventually into the sea off both the eastern and western South Island coasts. I suppose you could use GPS to discover the winner of this epic game of pooh-sticks. It probably wouldn’t be one of the corks travelling the longer routes east, down the Waiau and the Clarence, but you never know with pooh-sticks.

There are persuasive reasons to raft the Clarence River, one of our bigger waterways at more than 200km in length. One is that you won’t see corks, or any human detritus, for mile after nautical mile. There was one crushed Pump bottle abandoned on the riverbank as we drew near the coast after five days, to remind us we were re-entering civilisation. Odd it should have been a water bottle because the river is pure – no giardia – and we just drank from it using a tin cup. There is didymo, but hardly any – the Clarence’s swiftness and periodic wild purges make it too hard for the horrible weed to gain much purchase.

This is a wonderful journey to detach you from the modern world. No cellphone reception for a start, so beleaguered brain cells recharge instead. And no landmarks used in any of the Tolkien films, so no throngs either. At first it was just our family, but then friends and relatives signed on. We ended up with 31, including guides, the largest party to commercially raft the river. Ben Judge from Clarence River Rafting led us, the old man of the Clarence (old in sagacity; he’s only in his 40s), shrewd in reading the impulses of a river, and anticipating the changes that can tip you out of boats as you encounter a new flow around a boulder or the surprise appearance of a snagging tree.

People clamour for “official” summer holidays in February, but being brought up traditionally means I set great store in logging out of the work computer before Christmas and embracing the Great NZ Holiday Break. You have finished the year, it goes into a jar and you put the lid on. It can stay at the back of the cupboard if it was a bad one. And a good break means you shed urban addictions. I rely on dozens of news websites to find endlessly new aspects of stories, day and night. When that stops, there is a period of what they used to call cold turkey. Scientists studied (appropriately) a group in America plucked from their demented downtown jobs and put on rafts down the Colorado River, and it takes three days (not the trip, the detox). After that you don’t tend to want to know what the world is doing, because you’re discovering what the world really does.

The agreement was each family would cook for everyone else on one night. That task didn’t seem too demanding because we anticipated being on the river until mid-afternoon each day, with tons of daylight spare for reading or preparing meals. That was optimistic; the river was low and progress slow at an average seven kilometres an hour. That speed trebles through rapids, but the Clarence is generally sedate, white water with thrills not spills. It can rage when it wants to, there’ve been sad mishaps and even deaths on it, but rarely. Anyway, each family had one demanding day, getting off the river in the early evening, setting up camp and then cooking a meal for 30 before dark, over a campfire. Even so, the menus ranged from spaghetti bolognese with salad, to a magnificent Canterbury lamb with Southbridge potatoes and plum sauce. Emotion still overtakes me as I recall that meal, cooked by Andrew and Angela using the burning embers of camp ovens. “Give us a headline for this meal,” said someone. “Splendour under the stars,” I volunteered, my frequent perusals of the Daily Mail not having entirely receded from memory.

Thrilling, not spilling, through rapids on the Clarence.

There was Mary and me, and our children Grace, Elizabeth and Jack. There was the aforementioned Andrew (Mary’s brother), with Angela and their three daughters: Julia, Alice and Claire. Julia’s partner, Nathan, came too. There was Linda and Al from Wellington, Ken and Susan from Queenstown, and other friends, Sarah and her husband, Grant, from Auckland. These three couples together brought seven sons. Two of our guides were young women, Lisa and Libby, and four of them were men: Emerson, Gus, Vindy and Sam. They are the artists of the river; we paddle but they place, flicking us past obstacles, adroitly choosing lines down rapids with unnerving names like the Chute (it was), Jawbreaker and Nose-Basher.

We started out from Hanmer, heading to the confluence of the Clarence with the wilder Acheron River. That’s where it becomes properly navigable for rafts. For a long time, the left bank belongs to the enormous Molesworth Station. This is country you can access some of by 4WD, but only with a decent degree of determination. As we floated on from our second night’s camp (Quail Flat, no quail sighted), we finally came to Molesworth’s End, and the beginning of Muzzle Station. More than 30 years ago, Colin and Tina Nimmo arrived there, and stayed. Tales of their early days could have been lifted from books about the early pioneers: getting across the river only in the low flows, hard winters and parched summers, battling broom, briar rose and possums. The Nimmos are the only full-time residents on the Clarence River until it nears the coast. They and their daughters have 600 beehives now to supplement the Herefords and Merinos.

What is astonishing about the journey, as farmland turns to gorges, is the stone – great layers of greywacke at all angles between the vertical and horizontal. Their regularity almost suggests human hewings from the Iron Age, slabs stacked roughly on top of one another for gargantuan construction projects; and the rock composes itself into even stranger shapes; I saw one balanced eccentrically on a slender formation underneath – a giant’s coffee table.

Most eerie were the faces in the gorges – rock, carved by cataclysms and chiselled by weather into visages, ancient and stern. Tolkien trolls caught by the dawn. In fact there are weirdly life-like sculptures of all sorts along the Clarence. “Look, there’s a hedgehog kissing a rabbit!” “Yeah, I see that. What about over there? That’s the big orc from the last Hobbit film.” “No, it’s not, it’s Angelina Jolie, see the lips? She’s beautiful!” Those were the conversations, like the ones you have about clouds.

Rafts beckon as Hugo waits for the journey to begin. Top right: Rafting lets you carry more luxuries than if you are tramping.

The stones watched us paddle past them, and we found more. For two days we were in a great valley between the Kaikoura mountain ranges, before we cut through the Seaward Kaikouras to find the ocean. The Clarence has a section of flat, square stones, just like pavers, emerging from the hillside under volcanic pressure. It has its own version of the Moeraki boulders, formed from the sediments surrounding fossils from millennia ago. This is a river with a trove of secrets reserved for the few. Its changing course and earthquake up-thrusts provide geologists with pieces of the entire planet’s history, in layers: chert, iridium from the great asteroid collisions, limestone. The limestone is especially striking in the river’s bed as vivid white rocks, like round dinner plates set against the grey. This phenomenon lasts for dozens of kilometres.

Living in Kaikoura as a boy, I’d always wondered what this country was like, between these two big ranges. In my imagination was a dark, mysterious world of gorges with towering sides. They are towering, but it’s not dark. There’s manuka and matagouri and the occasional field of blue borage, the mountain daisies finding perches on rock ledges even the goats can’t access. There are so many goats. It was just as thrilling to me seeing them on the near-vertical faces as my first sight of a New Zealand falcon on the hunt, plunging onto unseen prey.

One day we saw a large ferret on the bank. The McIntyre boys, William and Kieran (very fit, being rep football players), were on my raft with their young brother Regan. “There’s a ferret,” noted Gus, our guide. “Let’s get it,” said William. (We were on the other side of the river and the ferret had spied us.) “You’ll never catch it,” said I. “Yes, we will,” enthused Kieran. “Ferrets are slow.”

Ferrets are quite slow and this one made a bad choice of bush to hide in. The two older brothers bounded up the steep slope, assailed it with rafting paddles, and it couldn’t outrun them. The junior brother administered the coup de grâce as it rolled up into a ball of surrender and came back down the hill. Main credit for the kill went to the brother now to be always referred to as “One Ferret William”, until he can add to the tally. Goat-chasing proved less successful, which I was secretly pleased about.

Each spring before the rafting season, the guides go down the river together, noting changes in the river, acclimatising themselves. Along with the guides go some of their mates and various interested locals. One is called Uber Male. He’s a spraying contractor, and was on a raft with guide Bridget. Bridget is a vegetarian. The Uber Male saw piglets on the bank. He asked Bridget for a knife, but all she had was a small one with a blade of the length popularised by the Swiss army. Uber Male grabbed it and plunged into the river. As the piglets saw him coming, they disappeared. So did he.

No Wi-Fi or 3G – just fire power.

For about a quarter of an hour, a wide variety of sounds issued from the scrub, as a number of rafts assembled. There was squealing and grunting, puffing from the Uber Male, branches breaking as they were trampled by hooves and feet. At the end of this period, preceded by sudden quietude, the Uber Male emerged carrying a very large boar with long tusks. The boar had come to defend the piglets, and the Uber Male had shrewdly surmised that this patch of flat ground was his territory. He instantly calculated (correctly) that this boar, therefore, probably wasn’t very fit. After that came attrition, the simple matter of wearing the boar down as the two of them raced back and forth. Then came the despatch of an exhausted porker with perhaps the shortest knife in the history of pig-hunting in New Zealand.

We had our own regular dramas. On day three, the weather packed up. I was trying to appreciate the oddly beautiful effect of raindrops bouncing high out of a river, but my glasses were fogged up and my teeth were chattering. I was reminded of how quickly the body succumbs to cold when wet. We shivered as we paddled, and awful memories were rekindled of former tramping trips trying to pitch tents and keep belongings dry in downpours. Thankfully, by evening it was fine again.

Then there was Al’s dramatic medivac rescue. Dehydration on the first day brought an onset of migraine, which he couldn’t cure by drinking. He sat wretched in one of the rafts, throwing up all the water he tried to keep down. A helicopter came, he was flown to Kaikoura and put on a drip, and by the following morning he was back on the river with us. He only missed an hour’s paddling. Modern technology may subtract from our awareness of the planet, but it adds opportunity for it too.

The Clarence’s topography has been dictated by earthquakes and old volcanoes. After that first September quake in Canterbury, the Elliott Fault caused a hillside to collapse, blocking the river completely for 10 hours. It spread out over shingle flats, getting higher and higher until it burst through the rubble. Occasionally, we would see big stones bounding down the high hillsides, raising columns of dust in their tumblings.

Journey’s end at the river mouth north of Kaikoura; paddlers all present and correct.

An absence of screens wasn’t mentioned by the children once during the week. Pirate boardings and frequent water fights between rafts meant constant entertainment. There were high rocks to dive off and scree slopes to slide down. One of rafting’s greater joys is simply rolling off the side and joining the current.

At the end of the fifth day, we had come to the last kilometre. We raced the rafts in a mad dash from the SH1 road bridge to the ocean, everyone straining at the paddles to get there first, calling out to synchronise the strokes: “1-2-3-4, come on they’re catching up!”

“Backpaddle!” called Ben as the Clarence rounded its last curve. The trick is to get to the bank before the tremendous current takes you out into the breakers. The surf along much of that coast is not kind.

Kaikoura fish and chips (who can afford the crayfish now?) were the celebratory meal, and there is a memorable way to eat them – up at the lookout at the south end of town. You look down on the bay, the village, and the incredible east coast stretching north. It’s a view of an island far away from everywhere else, in the middle of a huge, deep sea. Thank God for that. There still aren’t too many of us to wreck the place, and you can go down the Clarence River the same way they did in the 19th century. All that’s different, really, is we wore lifejackets.

Words by: Jim Mora

Photos: Mary Mora, Alan Doak and Getty Images

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