From Hugh Canard’s Guide to the Clarence/Waiau-Toa – Updated Jan 2022
This is one of the few long rivers of the narrow mountainous islands of New Zealand. It offers fabulous scenery, edible wildlife, and no highways or bridges, and a near-wilderness experience. It has amazing geology and is a living laboratory of the influence of plate tectonics on the New Zealand landscape.
The Clarence is a relatively easy paddle of 4 to 7 days, easy enough for intermediate paddlers and interesting enough for more advanced ones.
There are long flat sections, wave trains, short steep rapids and occasional hazards. Don’t be complacent.
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Most river parties travel via Hanmer Springs over Jack’s Pass (don’t be tempted by Jollies Pass) to the Acheron confluence. There is a DoC shelter and loo there. It’s a long trip and therefore it’s a long and possibly complicated shuttle. There are commercial services which will suit those short of time.
- Hanmer to Christchurch – 140km
- Christchurch to Clarence Bridge – 240km
- Hanmer to Put-in – 30km (allow 45 minutes by car)
- Clarence to Hanmer – 234 km
A two car shuttle for a party of 4-5 can involve 938 km for one vehicle. Most parties use either gullible friends or commercial shuttles. Bike rafters can be superior and have no shuttle. Ben at Clarence River Rafting and Hugh at Raft Rentals NZ do Shuttles for a fee that can be quite cost effective for large groups. Either dropping you off to paddle back to your car or collecting your car and returning it to the take out.
Packrafters have a range of options to combine hiking with the river. You can hike in and out via side routes, climb mountains, and bike trails. Camping is relatively easy as it’s a dry part of the country. Pore over a map there are all sorts of walk in options.
There is a 4WD road from Clarence Reserve Station over the Seaward Kaikouras to the Forbes Hut and Quail Flat and even to Goose Flat (closed for vehicles August 2017) for those who wish to walk in and miss the top sections.
There’s another good foot access route from Molesworth with a number of potential variations via Lake McRae(hut) to river L just above Seymour Hut. Look at the DoC Molesworth brochure for details.
Talk to DoC whatever you plan.
On the River
Most trips are self-supported, camping along the way as you feel inclined. There are new DoC huts along the river now, making it possible for packrafters to live in luxury and carry less gear. Huts are at Palmer Stream, Seymour Stream, Goose Flat and Snowgrass Flat. Despite the map there is no Gibson Hut. Wind is a big factor, so the recommendation is be prepared to camp. The first day is devoid of trees but there is good hammock camping from Big Eddy on down.
You will have to plan your days with some care as the spacing isn’t ideal for river parties. Campsites for small parties are abundant, just be mindful of a very real rock fall hazard in the gorges that has been elevated by the slow spalling of rock since the Kaikoura EQ.
The Clarence can be paddled from Lake Tennyson (200km), but is mostly paddled from the Acheron confluence to SH 1. The Acheron can be paddled for a day to the Clarence. The Acheron is Grade 1 and 2 with a 100m portageable Grade 4 rapid just downstream of a wire cage and just above the historic bridge near the Clarence confluence. Don’t run this rapid without scouting it. At lower flows it is more dangerous as it’s very deep and undercut.
The Clarence/Waiau Toa
A Typical Trip
- Early start before 9am – aim to complete the First Gorge.
- Later start – aim to camp near Stoat Stream on river L and possibly R. Go any further, there are no safe campsites, and you will have to run the Chute in the shade or dusk.
Day 1 – The braided upper river gives way to Bullen Gorge (II+/III) after an hour or two. The Bullen Gorge contains the G3 “Chute”, the first rapid of note. After a right hand bend in the river a Big Rock” appears midstream. It can pin the unwary so avoid its undercut upstream side. After Big Rock paddle 400m and then hop out on river left to scout the Chute.
The Chute is not difficult but it causes a few nervous moments with laden boats and there is pin potential in places. Portages are easy on river left. It is much harder in a flood, Grade3-4. It’s a long day to Palmer Hut from the put in, and most parties camp as soon as practicable after the First Gorge. Options are Tinline Stream (exposed), the Willows or Big Eddy. It’s 26km from the put-in to the Willows maybe 31km to Big Eddy.
Day 2 – This is a long day with easy water, then a massive gorge and then the valley opens out down to Quail Flat, with its historic pioneer homestead. (Goose Flat) Seymour Hut is about 1.5 km upstream of Quail Flat. Both flats are good campsites. This is a 35 – 40km day depending on where you camped on Day 1.
Day 3 – The Kaikoura earthquake created a rockfall that dammed the river before the river breached the dam and eroded a new channel. This formed the “Dambuster rapids”, (Dee slip) several Grade 2+/3 rapids. Assume these rapids will be constantly changing. It’s a good plan to scout them as the rock is very sharp. These rapids are located at the end of the wide flats where the Third or Sawcut Gorge starts to close in. Scout from river left. Portage or chicken run river right. The “Jawbreaker” rapid is just after Jam Stream courtesy of its bouldery bedload. It is a straight run Grade 3 rapid with large waves. The main G3 feature is easily avoided and many will ask “was that it”. “Son of Jawbreaker” follows. In this gorge the rock is so shattered and unstable from the earthquake that large rockfalls occur during rain. Be vigilant! There are quite a few bouldery rapids and bluffs down to Snowgrass Hut. There is great camping around Snowgrass hut or continue further to Gibson Stream where a beautiful grassy flat offers good camping (but no hut). It’s a 45km day from Quail to Snowgrass. Slow in a headwind!
Day 4 – The rapids continue with the “Nosebasher” reaching G3 at times and being a common portage. After Gibson Hut (gone) campsite its into the final gorge. The most common campsite is after the gorge at Matai Flat in a grove of huge Matai trees. It’s pleasant shade on a good day but a chilly spot outside of summer. A potentially warmer spot is downstream on grass amongst the Kanuka (but check the WAMS database for private land). This is a 31 km day.
Day 5 – The valley opens out to a broad flood plain with shallow flats and birds everywhere.
After the Wharekiri Bluff (Corner Hill) is the Papatea Fault Rapids. These are rated Class III due to the size of the continuous wave trains. The river was diverted north by a massive fault which uplifted the whole valley floor up to 6m at Limestone Hill. This vertical offset of the river floor created a gnarly rapid that over time has mellowed. The river has now eroded upstream and incised a gorge rapid. Immediately after this are the remains of the recently destroyed Glen Alton Bridge, which creates hazards at low flows. This was once a possible exit point. If you want to get out continue downstream a kilometre and exit river left wherever the newly eroded riverbank allows it. Downstream the steep gradient continues with some nice roller coaster rapids. As you approach SH 1 bridge beware of crap in the river in the form of “sputniks” or “hedgehogs”, large cubes of concrete with railway iron sticking out. These are hard to see in the cloudy water. The old bridge abutments are a more obvious hazard.
You can take out just below the SH1 bridge on the river left, or continue past the railway bridge to the sea (take out on river right). You can meet Kahawai and dolphins here, making this a rather exotic completion to a long river journey.
In general, some rapids have awkward willows, so keep a wary eye out. There are many bluffs and a few rocks where you don’t expect them.
There are two gauges, and you need to add the flows together to get the Clarence flow.
The Clarence Valley gauge was destroyed by the Kaikoura earthquake and the replacement is not calibrated to flows
The Clarence is bony but navigable by packrafts at almost any flow. A combined flow less than 5 cumecs is really low. Low flow means a slower trip, more paddling in the flat bits, more rocks to avoid., and having to carefully pick your braid otherwise you’ll be beached..
Rafts won’t like such low flows so you’ll have the river to yourself. A good flow is 15 – 25 cumecs. Over 50 cumecs at the start will mean that the Chute rapid will push Grade 4. The Clarence can flood but doesn’t get more technically difficult, just offers potential for much more extended swims as the laterals and bluffs become more powerful.
In December 2020 it was packrafted by several groups at flows of 35 cumec to Snowgrass. The Chute rocks were largely submerged making it an easy passage. After waiting out a flood the group paddled Snowgrass to SH in a single day at over 100 cumec (combined) at the put-in. It was very pushy with grabby eddy lines but all rapids had chicken runs available. This flow is not recommended as swims would not have been pleasant due to, amongst other things, the difficulty of recovering gear (They had no swims).
Roger Parkyn contributed a combined flow analysis to help you with the year-round seasonality and deciding when to book your annual leave if traveling from outside the region.
The Clarence is situated between two high mountain ranges that lie across the prevailing westerlies.
- It can be very hot.
- It can be very, very cold.
- It can snow.
- It can rain.
This applies at any time of the year. Snow can fall at Christmas. The location between two high ranges, the elevation, and the distance from the ocean means that the Clarence valley can experience some very severe frosts.
But mostly it can blow. A southerly is manageable but cold, but a northerly or north-westerly can be extremely violent with alarmingly ferocious gusts. N and NW winds blow upstream until you pass Gibson Stream. Progress can then be very slow. Most injuries in this river have been caused by wind. This applies on the river and in camp. If it blows it’s often prudent to simply stop somewhere sheltered and sit it out. When westerlies threaten there can be grey skies with no wind then in literally a second you will be overwhelmed by a wind gust that showers you with tennis ball-sized stones. It’s easy to lose a packraft in such circumstances. Laden 4.2m rafts have been capsized and then lifted 50m up the side of the gorge into trees. Deflate and secure your gear.
This is no exaggeration and is based on Hugh Canards personal experience. Please exercise caution until the weather plays its hand. In New Zealand it will change.
The Clarence is one of the best long river trips in New Zealand, more so because it’s not overly challenging whitewater.
Feature Photo View from Tapuaeonuku (D Martig)
Lots more photos here