Pack Rafting the Clutha River
 

Pack Rafting the Clutha River


A Journey from source to sea.

A collaboration of skill and curiosity.

A weather window that made it all possible.

The things that lead us down the Mata Au for 6 days and 300km. At times the adventure was more than we bargained for but there was relentless intent to follow the Awa to the Moana.


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I’ve never been in a pack raft before, let alone did I know where or what the Clutha river (Mata- Au) was. Turns out the Clutha river is the second longest river in NZ and the longest in the south Island. It is the swiftest and highest volume river in New Zealand with a catchment of 21,960 square kilometres (8,480 sq mi), discharging a mean flow of 614 cubic metres per second.

All credit goes to my Adventure buddy and seasoned adventurer Chris Lacoste for this trip idea. Chris is the mastermind behind this epic mission. Chris features in almost every photo… thank god he’s a good looking man. Chris’s business Social Nature Movement runs epic trips like this so go check them out…

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I had heard and seen lots about pack rafts and I was subtly envious of folk who owned these ground breaking adventure tools. I was looking for any excuses to try one out. The only issue was I didn’t own one and being a bum aka an Outdoor instructor I couldn’t justify buying one for this trip. So, shout out to Jono Maxwell for lending me his pack raft which he courageously runs laps of access 10 and 14 on a regular basis.

The cool thing about this trip is, we would fly into Wanaka and out of Dunedin so it was a through trip, which meant what I brought on the plane was what I was taking down the river. This was the first trip I had done like this but it seemed in style with a pack rafting expedition. I already felt sorry for whoever would be sat next to me on the plane back to Auckland because i only had two pairs of clothes for up to 9 days. The plan was to meet in Wanaka, stay the night near the lake so we could pack our bags and hop straight on the water in the morning. We met in the afternoon at the pub In front of the lake to touch base and consume some pre trip beers and Banta.

 

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…….Why pack rafts?

Pack rafts are a jack of all trades and a master of none. They can go almost anywhere and perform okay in each environment, plus some can pack down and fit into a bag. Why didn’t we take a sea kayak ,canoe , raft or white water kayak? We believed the pack-rafts would do well on the river sections and perform okay on the flat water. They would make the portages around the damns simple. The key element was being able to pack them in the bag on the plane in and out. Not needing to have to transport a huge water craft or wrangle a local boat which would mean adding the complication of a shuttle.


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Day 1

{26 km – Wanaka lake side to Luggate }

We woke up, got out of our tents and of course headed over for a quick coffee at the Federal diner (when in Wanaka ~ great coffee). Scurried back to pack our tents and we were ready to get on the water. Of course Chris being the outdoor god he is, was ready before me… this didn’t seem to be the last time Chris was sitting on his pack raft while I was scrambling to get ready.

This was my first time in the pack raft aka my new home for potentially up to nine days. It was safe to say I was a tad apprehensive about getting in a craft that isn’t hedgehog proof. I joke, but they are surprisingly rugged. A pack raft at the end of the day is just a glorified bike inner-tube with a lot on Instagram likes. We set off after a quick selfie ( featured above) . Away with smiles, excitement bursting at the seams. All we had to do was paddle around the headland from Wanaka town and drop back into the entrance of the Clutha. Having so much fun, we let our guard down while a solid weather system sneaked in over the hills and before we knew it our beautiful blue sky was dark and the lakes mellow surface was white capped.


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The swift current of the Clutha was a relief from the head winds on lake Wanaka, we quickly became accustom to the mellow push down stream. We stopped briefly at Albert town and camped river side near Luggate creek track.



Day 2

{ Luggert – Cromwell 45km /Lake Dusten 14 km /31km down Clutha River }

Day two is when the river really starts to feel wild. The day before was a lovely warm up with small grade 1 rapids. Today the river felt a lot more unforgiving with more volume . Paddling across the devils nook was a good wake up on the water.  The reality of swimming would have wasted a lot of time, so the goal was never to flip. After that, it was smooth sailing and even Chris’s Garmin watch “clocked us “ at a top speed of 15 kmph – thats bloody fast for not paddling. The sun was out, and we couldn’t have asked for a better morning. The gradient of the river was gentle and the water was swift which meant we didn’t even need to paddle to push us forward. Chris and I still had plenty of Banta left in the tank and even cell phone service!



Then we arrived at lake Dunsten, our first lake. The lakes were somewhat of an unknown to us. They could be the crux of the trip or a pleasant paddle, we were unsure. It would all come down to the wind direction. Lake Dunsten is 12km long from Cromwell (our desired camp spot).

Luckily the wind was behind us and we road the evenings Katabatic push all the way to Cromwell. We stayed at a campsite 500m from the lakeside. We discovered sitting tall on the back of the pack raft enabled our body’s to act like sails. This did make a big difference. If the wind was blowing in the opposite direction it may have been impossible to paddle and we would have ended up walking. This was a possibility at every lake.



Day 3

{ Cromwell – Alexander 34km Clyde damn }

Staying at the Cromwell campsite meant we needed to walk from the lake side to the campsite which was about 500m away. Chris and I both thought it would be easier to just carry the pack rafts inflated, packed with gear, instead of deflating, unpacking and repacking into bags, saving us time in the long run. We quickly realised that packing down the pack rafts was the right way to go because carrying those things when fully inflated and packed with gear is no short order.

We got on the water around 8am, Chris beating me again. At this stage I was thinking I need to get my shit together, but it seemed to work out because it meant Chris was always on form when I was taking photos. We passed under the Cromwell bridge. When passing under I couldn’t stop thinking about how much fun it would be to jump off and spend some time doing some sweet bombs, but we didn’t have time for semantics. Our cruisy packrafting adventure had turned into a bit more of a grovel than we first expected. It was day 3 and looking at the map didn’t inspire confidence with how far we had to go. Paddling across lake dusten really set in how much effort these things are on flat water. From the map the section of water between lake Cromwell and the Clyde damn looks more or less like moving water because its very narrow. Pay slight attention and you will see it’s just an extension of lake dusten with no moving water.

Although the paddle to the clyde damn was a grind, we were blessed with gorgeous weather and the cliffs on river right side were marvellous to move past. It was frustrating watching the cars and trucks zooming past on the road next to us, with each loud car I thought why don’t we just hitch the flat sections. Chris and I had talked about this and our goal was to paddle the entire thing. Other attempts have been made by folk but have ended up portaging the flat sections. Not us…our goal was to do the entire river in one craft.

We reached Clyde damn, had lunch and scooted over and re inflated our pack rafts. We had learnt from the Cromwell experience not to carry inflated pack-rafts.

Getting on the river after the Clyde damn was a blessing with nice fast flowing river after our first taste of flat water, it felt liberating. We were back to enjoying natures scenic tour with minimal effort. We felt like we had deserved it after the lake Dunstan slog.

We quickly arrived at Alexander. I find first impressions of a place always stick with you and my first experience of Alexander I wont forget. We came floating down the river, Chris and I just yarning away when we saw the towns buildings start to appear over the tee line. On the river side we see a car full with a young dude and what seemed like a couple chicks, obviously enjoying a private setting watching the river move past. Not expecting two men floating down observing the world around them. They noticed us almost immediately and then started yelling out profanity even the girls chucked in a f bomb or too. We were confused… at a guess i think we may have interrupted there private river viewing sessions. Chris and I looked at each other thinking what’s this guy going to do jump in the river after us ? We let it not bother us and continued our causal float down stream to be met by a group of young teenage boys who also noticed us immediately and started yelling profanities telling us we should get out of there town! What a first impression! Alexander didn’t have much to offer either. We parked up on the boat ramp to camp on the side of the river so we didn’t have to carry our pack rafts too far. We set up camp and watched the Alexander evening unfold, countless characters romped by and we even meet a few of the locals. Its funny what you can learn about a place if you watch and listen.

Chris and I knew the next day was going to be the biggest. Chris said let’s get up at 4 am we don’t want the day to drag on. I said let’s not get up at 4 am it wont be light until 5:30 so we compromised and planned to get up at 4 am.




Day 4 

{  Alexander – Beaumont  80km }

 


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4 am arrived with the alarm going off next to my head  snuggled in my sleeping bag. I could hear Chris was up moving around obviously packing his gear. I hear footprints which means Chris is way more ready then me. I cant let him be on the water before me again! I didn’t want to let the team down. I started packing up my sleeping bag and mat in my tent. The next thing I hear was Chris faint voice “ahhhhh allan? …… Ahhhhhh! Run!” my ears perk up, I’m suddenly very awake, then a tremendous amount of water starts smashing against the walls of my tent, for a second I thought the river was in flood and I was going to be drowned and trapped in my tent. I then hear Chris yell “SPRINKLERS!” I burst out laughing. We were in a very public park and the park had automatic sprinklers that popped out of the ground and spun around, there must have been over 10 of these things. As I was laughing away in my dry tent poor Chris wasn’t finding it as funny while he ran around trying to save his gear from getting soaked. It was a crude wake up that’s for sure. At the time I had no care for being up that early it was day 4 my back and shoulders were sore and I was grumpy from dodging sprinklers in the dark.


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Once we got on the water I had a very different feeling. I was suddenly thankful that Chris had insisted we get up this early because the canyon below Alexander was nothing short of stunning. The sun rose over the ridge lines and slowly filled the valley with light. The water was still and calm and the colours of the changing light reflected off the water, making it one of the highlights of the trip.

Shortly after the sun had risen we ended up at a historic gold miners town ship. The Clutha river was known for the gold rush era. We ended up passing many gold refiners along the length of the river. They were the oldest buildings in NZ I had come across, our human history In NZ isn’t very old relatively speaking, so seeing these old stone huts felt pretty darn special. I don’t think a lot of people had been to this area, the old house’s felt well preserved. Later on we would find out that half of the stone huts had actually been submerged from the instalment of the Roxburgh dam further down. It seemed a real shame to drown our history like that. I could only imagine what infrastructure lay underneath us. Then again, I’m sure the people who benefited from the power of the damn would trade a small amount of cultural history.


 


We reached Roxburgh damn in good spirits the flat water was another slog but the beauty of the gorge made the pain disappear in some ways.

It was roughly 25km to the damn from Alexander so we were only a quarter way through the day, the moving water was a motivator ! Chris even went for a dip. Chris dived under and pops up 5 meters down stream  “yup its moving fast” I hear Chris say, music to my ears.

We cruise down at good pace passing Roxborough with the rest of the full day ahead. We had roughly 50 km to go.

Not long after Roxborough I stared feeling funny… I couldn’t put my finger on it. I thought I might put a couple solid paddle strokes in to see what my energy’s levels were like …. subsequently 3 very slow lethargic paddle strokes. I then realised I needed to stop, something was wrong. I pulled to the side of the river got out and sat on the riverbank with my head between my legs feeling extremely ill. I see Chris come around the corner, so I waved him over. As he approaches I vomit three or four times. Chris got to the bank and we took 15 mins to chill out. Chris handed me a fist full of pills and says take these. I drank some water, had an apple and sure enough I was right again. Maybe it was heat stoke or fatigue, but that fist full of pills sorted it.  We had steady flow the rest of the way with lots of fun rapids. The sickness and the long day played on my nerves in the rapids but thankfully Chris helped me through and we reached Beaumont. I would be lying if I said some of the rapids didn’t make me nervous. Ive always been nervous around rivers but I feel comfortable in grade 2 water. The Clutha rapids are heavy at times. When the flow is big it turns the small eddies and holes into obstacles that can flip you.

At the end of a very long day we set up on the side of the river on some sand banks. There are two things in Beaumont; a bridge and a pub, not a lot else. The people we encounter at the pub were what you would describe as “salt of the earth”. You could pick us from a mile off, you could tell that we were traveling through. The pub was filled with hearty men “the pride of the south”. We mentioned our trip to the boisterous woman behind the bar in conversation but she didn’t seem to care. It seemed a bit strange and I think the fact we were freedom camping made her angry. Outside of hunting and farming the conversation was narrow. Chris and I enjoyed a beer and some hot chips after a long successful day .



Day 5

{ Beaumont to Balclutha – 60km }

It felt like we were on the home stretch… second to last day. once we hit Balclutha it was an easy paddle to the ocean. At this point I thought we would have felt a bit more worn down then we were, surprisingly we were in good spirits and it almost felt like it had become routine. It seemed to be the first time we could look back and really take in just how far we had come, although, today was another full day of paddling. Beyond Beaumont was almost all flowing river but got progressively slower as we reach Balclutha. The day went by quickly, it was still a big day. In the afternoon it turned overcast with short downpours and gusts of wind. Chris and I talked about how lucky we had been with the weather. We both agreed if the weather had been foul and if the wind direction was wrong on the flat water sections, then perhaps pack rafts wouldn’t of been the right choice. We eventually arrived at Balclutha and it felt like a false summit, but the end was in sight. Chris and I were both in good spirits, we felt fairly worn by the time we had got to our campsite. We stayed at the Balclutha motor camp and met Denis the owner.

Denis had a large family tent already set up behind his Canavan with mattresses’s and we gladly took up his offer to stay. Later that evening after having a hot shower and some dinner at the local Mexican restaurant we were invited back for a beer with Denis. The small talk suddenly turned into compelling geo politics, story’s of travels around the globe and Denis’s successes and failures in business.  It turned out that Denis had lived a very full life. Chris and I were taken aback by the conversation, not expecting the owner of this campground to be such an intellect. I don’t think Chris or I regretted that beer. We decided that the next day was only going to take a half day with some 3 days before our flight out of Dunedin so we had time up our sleeve. A sleep in was in order.



 
Day 6

{ Belclutha to ocean – 19 km }

The Final Push! the Clutha river splits into two before reaching the ocean. We chose river right because it was more direct. The river was slow moving and fairly consistent the whole way. We were hoping to be able to paddle out to sea but that wasn’t the case …. As we approached we could see the medium sized waves dumping and crashing onto the flow of the river mouth so unfortunately it was a no go.

We reached a retaining wall of rocks holding the river mouth, we jumped out and saw the Beach!

WE MADE IT !!!!!

My lips were cracked and bleeding so smiling was painful but worth it. A hug and a cheesy selfie before we had some snacks and started our walk back. 


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It was an odd scene at the mouth of the Clutha. Abandoned houses covered in sand butting up onto farmland with no residents. We started our walk back to the campsite and we had to pass through some private land. We bumped into the farmers and got the algood. Lucky enough Denis came and picked us up half way back for a box of beers and that was it. We paddled the Clutha river from lake Wanaka to the ocean!

We caught the bus to Dunedin the following morning and spent two days with friends before flying back to the Big Smoke Auckland city.



  { Conclusion } 

Paddling the Clutha river is undoubtedly one of my favourite trips I’ve done. It was an amazing mixture of wild spaces and relaxing places. At times I felt challenged and other times I felt calm without a worry in the world.

It was more of a slog than either of us anticipated, but it was worth it in the end. I highly recommend doing this trip if your competent in a river environment and don’t mind paddling on flat water. It could probably be done in a sea kayak if you were confident in heavy grade 2.

If you have made it this far… A BIG thanks to you for reading ! I really appreciate YOU!

Cheers 🍻 Allan Carpenter.