Time to step up  Cruising down the Clutha

Aimee Smith steps up from passenger to trip leader on a glorious paddle down the Clutha.

To say I’m new to the outdoors is an understatement but since being in New Zealand I have been really lucky to meet so many great people in the packrafting community. After a summer of people taking me out and showing me the ropes, I felt it was time that I started to step up and not just be a passenger. So I approached my friends about a trip I had thought about and offered to take lead.

The trip I had planned was from the Red Bridge by Luggate, down the Clutha River to Maori Point vineyard by Tarras and then The Lazy Dog vineyard in Queensbury. I was excited that by packraft we would be able to do in 10 minutes what, by car, would be a 40 minute journey circuitously via distant bridges. 1o minutes just meandering from one side of the river to the other.  Not all of this eventually happened, but this was at least the start of the plan. I had been down the higher sections of the Clutha and was pretty happy with the level of water and complexity of rapids, that being not very complex at all. This trip was more of a relaxing paddle down the river with some nice rewards at the end than any sort of technical exercise.


The pin shows the start point at the Red bridge.

As part of my planning I initially went on NZ Topo map to have a look at the proposed section of river and The Otago Regional council (ORC) website to check the flow http://water.orc.govt.nz/WaterInfo/Catchment.aspx?r=UpperClutha . I’d seen a lot of the river from the road but just wanted to have a look at access points and how the river actually flowed.  I printed out the right topo sections then laminated them, (well I was going to be using them on the water), and set about planning access points.

I called up both vineyards. Maori Point (03 428 8842) gave very detailed instructions about where to portage from the river.  Apparently they actually had a campsite next to the river, I have friends who have now camped there and they rave about it as a beautiful place where the calming bubbling from the river lulled them to sleep, but it is definitely necessary to check with the owners first if you plan to do this. At this point , Maori Point was meant to just be a stop on my way to a pick up by car at the Lazy Dog vineyard (03 445 3211).

I started to ask around my mates for information about the river, everything seemed fine until the night before my mate Riki asked me what I was going to do about the ‘Devils nook’. A strong swirly whirlpool that is encountered straight after the Red Bridge. This was news to me! However, most people I asked didn’t seem to know much more than hearsay stories about friends of friends who had encountered difficulties at this section of the river. Not being able to find out any clear information, in spite of calling round a few jet companies, (who did get back to me but unfortunately after the trip, my fault for leaving it so last minute). I decided to call that bit of the river and instead planned to take the Luggate creek track along the river until we felt like we had found a safe enough place to enter the river. I have since found out that the whirlpool is around a Grade 2 and easily traversed by keeping to the left of the whirlpool and putting in some extra effort while paddling. However, not being aware of this prior to set off I thought it best to make sure everyone was safe.

We hiked for about 2k from the Luggate creek track carpark. The day was calm and sunny blue skies with a couple of clouds. Perfect weather for packrafting. We could have hiked much further but we found a little bit of a clearing in the trees just down from the track. Climbing down we unpacked the rafts and started inflating making sure that we were aware of any stray sticks that could cause harm. All boats inflated and safety gear on we accessed the fast flowing river one by one keeping our speed down to ensure that we could paddle within a safe distance of each other. We put on the river around 10am.

The river inself felt a lot slower when you were actually on it compared to how it seemed from the track. We paddled for about an hour and a half before coming to our first marker, a cable way accross the river. By this marker I judged us to be about half way to our first destination and it was time to crack out some lunch. The river was flowing nicely and there were no big rapids to speak of. The only thing to be mindful of were the trees along the river bank, which could potentially be ‘strainers’ if you weren’t paying attention and strayed into them. But in the middle of the flow, things were sweet as. The next section down to our next marker, another cable way seemed to take longer even though it was less of a distance, there were a few small rapids and the river flowed a bit faster especially around the bends but all still firmly at a grade one level.

Past this cable way things started to change. It was getting close to around 2:30 at this point. We went past Archangel wines on our left and could see the long vineyards stretching out followed by a large gravel pit. Around this point there there were some big wave rapids, while only stretching a short distance they warranted some strong paddling and needed to be hit right in the center of the peak to ensure that I didn’t tip. As it was I took on a lot of water and was grateful for my self created bailer made out of a large yogurt pot attached to my boat by a long string. While I was very proud of this invention I have since found out, having been on a safety course, that actually this was probably not my finest creation as tying anything to the boat with a long piece of string could actually, if things go wrong, cause entanglement. While on a grade one rapid with relatively little challenge or risk of bailing this may not be a problem, on larger rapids or more technical sections this could cause an unnecessary risk and is now something I no longer do. While the rapids were really fun, they were isolated to the left hand side of the river and are easily navigated round just by taking the right side as you are paddling down.

As we went round what should be our last curve of the river we started looking out for our marker points, a swing hung from a tree followed by a metal bath. While we had been on the river for most of the day now and it seemed like this last short section took the longest. But finally on the left in the distance we saw a lovely tree with a handmade swing. We started paddling towards the bank and were then rewarded with the view of a metal bath. We all exited our boats and deflated slightly to allow for the suns rays to increase the volume of air without causing a bang. Not being entirely sure how far away the vineyard was but being content in the warm sun, we left our boats on the side of the river secured together and with enough heavy rocks inside them to ensure that they didn’t fly away.

We followed a well marked rabbit trail and ended up in a pine forest. We had been told to make sure that we kept the pine forest to our right but having been distracted by the beautiful views and some fantails we ended up walking up through it instead. This was easily rectified when we realised that we were going wrong. Back on a car track we continued up towards the vineyards where we were met by the cheerful owners who proceeded to do a wine tasting of their beautiful selection with us. We at around this time got word from our car pick up wondering where we were and telling us that regrettably, Lazy Dog vineyard had closed for the day. As we were already way behind our expected schedule, it was now pushing 4pm, and with a wine already in hand, we weren’t exactly put out and our friends had to make the half hour trip round to join us. We considered going down to the river to deflate our rafts but as we were well supplied with wine and the section was easily accessible by car we thought there was no rush to get things ready when an easier job could be done in due time.

We sat in the sun enjoying the landscape. While things didn’t go exactly to plan we considered the trip a success and will definitely be looking forward to repeating it next summer season.

Aimee Smith is a member of the FMC affiliated Packrafting Association of NZ (PRANZ). She lives in Wanaka and has been keenly exploring the regions rivers with paddle and packraft. 

Wilderlife