While training in Wanaka for the Coast to Coast event I heard of another Event on the Clutha River, I was gutted to hear that it had been planned to run it 2 weeks beforehand and the river was to high so it had been postponed. As a child I what always be captivated by the turquoise blue waters of the Clutha River snaking its way through steep sided river canyons below the road when we had travelled to Central Otago to visit friends. Sadly, it was rescheduled for a date later in the year when I wouldn’t be in New Zealand. So I made plans to return the following year to join the Wild decent of 2015.
The Clutha River or Mata-Au is New Zealand’s second longest river and can be found in the bottom half of the South Island. The Outlet of Lake Wanaka is the start of the Clutha river although the source of the waters feeding the river start much higher up in the head waters of the Makarora River near the saddle of the Haast Pass. Once leaving the Lake Wanaka its 338km or 210 miles to the Pacific Ocean and it is this section that forms the route for the Wild Descent.
The Upper Clutha river, the section from Lake Wanaka to Lake Dunstan has some amazing water features. This is a high-volume river rated up there along side of the biggest and longest in the World. This makes it fast flowing as it has a narrow river course to follow. Near the Town of Luggate not long after leaving Albert Town at the outlet from Lake Wanaka you come across a section known as the Snake, a long s shaped section that flows into a double switch back section, known as the Devils Nook and its not to be trifled with. The first time I saw this I was totally blown away, round the corner you come and bang in front of you is a cliff, the river flows straight into the cliff, part splits to the right and forms a massive swirling eddie that then feeds under the other portion of the river that splits to the left after pushing up, onto and against the cliff face. The river does a 90 degree turn in its own river width to the left. Then as soon as it has completed that left-hand turn, bang its into a Right-hand switch back and around towards the back of the original cliff you were going to paddle into. Totally nutz, that such a high-volume river can behave in this way.
This first section of the river flows crystal clear through ancient glacier terraces laid down millions of years ago, the river has cut a definite river course through what is known as the Maori Gorge. As you drift over the patchwork boulder river bed, the trees, mountains and river bank scenery around is mind boggling, the rapids and other river water features make this section a fun and exciting Stand Up Paddle board route. (N.B. you need to be an experienced paddler for this section and travel in a group with preferably someone who knows the river).
Once you have negotiated the rapids of the Upper section you arrive at Lake Dunstan. This man-made lake was held back by the creation of the Clyde Dam in 1992. This artificial lake is usually calm in the morning and late evenings and a great place to paddle. But as the Central Otago plains start to heat up in the sunlight of the day, the air starts to rise off them this causes a strong wind from the south and that causes a very strong head wind on the lake. Its well worth trying to avoid that as the lake is long and the wave features the wind creates can be quite a challenge.
Over the New bridge you will find the modern town of Cromwell on the western shore of lake Dunstan at the confluence with the Kawarau River. Cromwell used to be famous before the Lake Dunstan was formed, where the crystal-clear waters of the Upper Clutha met the Kawarau’s Silt laden waters was a remarkable site. Cromwell in the Days of the Gold rush was thriving as there was alluvial gold to be found in the sands around the meeting of the rivers.
With Cromwell, Alexandra and Roxburgh all producing stone fruits, the area is known as the stone fruit capital of New Zealand and in summer there is an abundant supply of stone fruits such as apricots, nectarines, cherries and peaches. Apple orchards and vineyards are also plentiful in the area.
After passing Cromwell you head back into the mountains and paddle further down Lake Dunstan towards Clyde its here that the steep sided mountain ranges that tower above you, funnel the winds into an unseen wall of solid air that is virtually impossible to paddle against standing Up. You have to fight for every inch of head way you make, there is no river flow on the lake to help you fight the winds negative affect. Its here in this mountainous area that you will see the first signs of early settlers and the gold mining heritage of the Clutha River, A tiny one room Cottage that was above the level of the new dam sits alone on the new lakes shore a remind of the history and the past which lays below the lakes silk like surface.
Rounding the last bend of the lake you come across the grey concrete form of the top of the Clyde Dam, On the left you can exit the or enter the lake at the slipway close to the main State highway, but if you are looking to continue down the length of the river its best to exit on the Left hand side. Its here that the end of day one ends in the first of 4 days of the Wild Descent.
Day 2 starts here at the river’s edge, We the first section down to Alexandra is once again tree lined. The tall thin Poplar trees of this section line the river banks as a row, showing you the way, the waters are still crystal clear and Alexandra soon arrives at the top of Lake Roxburgh, this man-made dam was created behind another Hydro dam in 1956. The flooding of this section of the Clutha river as with the that of Lake Dunstan took away natural water features, major rapids and waterfalls. While leaving a vast lake for Power generation and other water users, it took away from Kayakers and other water paddlers natural water features for their use.
At Roxburgh you are 120 kms into your journey and you are in the heart of the Otago Gold fields the area just below Alexandra is litter with old Gold miner’s accommodation. High in the hills above the river you will find crushing plants and gold mining working and settlements. In the 1800’s this area was covered in men from all over the world searching for gold. All along the length of the natural river bed thousands of men risked their lives enticed to the swiftly flowing rivers water edge in search of that golden twinkle. The Clutha was nick named “The Widow maker” if you lost your footing in the strong current you were quickly swept away, the unsuitability of a miner’s gab in those days for swimming almost certainly meant drowning.
Just above the Roxburgh Dam you once again paddle through steer sided canyon like cliffs, you are paddling above the Roxburgh gorge natural River course, now flooded to form the lake drowning the Molyneux and the Golden Falls. Its such an awesome scenic wonder that you can lose focus that you are meant to be in a race. But I guess if you’re the only SUP in the race, why worry, You Got this anyway, LOL.
To portage the Roxburgh Dam, you exit on the left via a slipway, up on to and cross the road, down a narrow walking track to a natural rock harbor where its safe to launch from below the swirling broiling waters of the dam’s outlet pipes. The confined river course at this location means that once in the flow again you are quickly speeding on towards the end of Day 2.
Below Roxburgh the flattens out the deep river widens and becomes shallower; in places it slows but the clever paddler follows the strong flow paths. The willows here line the river banks and their overhanging branches cause a real danger for the unwary paddler that may get swept under them. But there is plenty of room in the middle of the river.
The river is flowing southeast and past the towns of Ettrick, Millar’s Flat and Beaumont. Numerous gold mining dredges worked these stretches of the river in the 1800’s today only one remains and brings a welcome interest as you paddle past. Its noise fading into the distance as the rhythmic splash of your paddle once again enters the water. The Rongahere Gorge below Beaumont is an an touched corridor of native bush lines the river bank, the river here produces some interesting sand stone river bed erosion channels, some reach up to the surface of the river sharp like as a knife, wavily like a kites tail. The river currents here are confused and one minute you are full steam ahead and the next you are entering a boil that has stopped your forward movement and then starts you off to a side ways direction. I must have a warped sense of humor as I totally loved this section. As you will see in the video below, one minute you were standing the next you were in the river, the boils and currents were so strong yet the surface looks so flat.
The Gorge gives way to the plains above the Tuapeka River. The plains here give a far-reaching view that seems endless after the confines of the mountain ranges that you have been paddling through for the last 2.5 days. The river seemed to have more down hill slope here and seemed faster or it may have been I needed to drink more. You’re now heading south and once past the chain ferry of Tuapeka mouth which carries passengers and vehicles across the river. It is only a short distance to the end of day 3 at Clydevale. This was a field beside the river for our campsite and a trip to the local tavern a short distance down the road for a full-on meal.
The early start the next morning was meant it wasn’t a late night to bed. You always slept like a log. Got up had breakfast and got pack to leave. Today meant that I didn’t have to get Grant to run me to the start point for my 1 hour head start lol I could just go direct from the bank. The other 2 teams and support crew watched me off Vowing to chase me down, as they had done each day. It was all in the best possible taste of course, but secretly I powered down real hard that morning, With around 30 kms to the get out point I wanted to at least get in first one day and today was going to be that day. I reckoned with a head start of an hour I was easy going to do that.
The river was dead calm, no wind on the surface, the cool morning air as the sun hadn’t warmed it up yet. It was cold to start with so I needed to paddle to keep warm the Pomahaka River came and went and it wasn’t long before the township of Balclutha loomed on the skyline. Balclutha and the region is prone to flooding, the Clutha’s average discharge is 614 cubic metres per Second. The highest recorded flow was in the storms of June 2015, peaking at 1621 cubic metres per second or 57,200 cu ft/s. I rounded the bend in the river to view the 2 bridges that cross the river here.
I remember the 100 year flood of Oct 13-15th1978 that effected this region as I paddled towards and under the Balclutha Road bridge. Its massive supports having been rebuilt after the Clydevale bridge had been washed away in the Oct 14-16th 1878, (read it again carefully) washed down stream and colliding with the road bridge a destroying that also. I was grateful for the steady flow of the days level and headed for the railway bridge to find the right hand fork in the river. This area is known as the Inch Clutha, and in geography terms is the river Delta of the Clutha river. We were taking the right hand fork down to the coast near Kaka point.
The rivers had divided and the flow had reduced, we were almost at sea level so the flow and assistance I could expect from the river was nil. With the end of the even looming at Paretai I had to dig deep, I still couldn’t hear the boast of the other 2 crews, but I wasn’t going to give up now. I nearly missed him, he looked like a farmer parked on the Rivers flood defense wall, I was mid river heading down the straight and heading on down the river. Hell bent on the what was around the next bend. When the calls from the bank became a bit more urgent, looking up and suddenly realizing that it was Adam the event organizer sitting on the top of his truck. That’s was it, I was there, First home, a smile kept across my face as I came ashore. I had done it. I said I would, I knew I could, and I did.
The 2015 Wild Decent was complete, it had been run a couple of times before, but had to be postponed each time because of water flow and level issues that would make the event to dangerous to run. In 2015 the numbers of entrants were only 6, I guess put off by the commitment to training and the inability of being certain that the event could or would run.
Initially I was only going to be allowed to paddle the river sections of the Race. As that way I could compete inside the hours that marshals would be on the river. But as the event was now cancelled and we were being adventure paddlers under our own insurance and guidance we were free to paddle our own plans.
Because of the likely hood that I would hit high winds on Lake Dunstan by midday on Day one a SUP would’ve struggled to get to Clyde in one day, I choose to split day one in two. Paddle to Cromwell and then on to Clyde the next day. After that I started 1 hour ahead of the other teams each morning and finished when I got to the end each day.
While sad that the event had been cancelled, I was glad that it had. As I could paddle the whole route. The route is an amazing river journey if you want an adventure in South Island New Zealand.
And yes I finished the 2015 Wild Descent River Tour first, lol, but at around 27 hrs I wasn’t the fastest.
Here is a couple of short videos of the trip.
And the Second, from the front of the Kiwis Kayak without me knowing, they lay in wait for me to pass, Then came after me. Yes im the little dot in front of the Kayak. They weren’t hunting me down, honest. The Kiwi Team Grant and Dave, I returned home to paddle with them both in New Zealand 2020.