Words: Genevieve King
Images: Roy Schott
Location: Clarence Valley, Canterbury
A five-day rafting trip down the Clarence isn’t a new experience for me. As a raft guide and Clarence local (I grew up on a high-country farm in the area) I spend numerous weeks on the river each summer. However, it’s a place I never get sick of, and every new group provides a new week of adventure.
Against the odds, this particular trip had started off exceptionally well. In the cold southerly rain, we loaded up the rafts and made some quick introductions before setting off into the mist. The clients (a group of Nelson ladies who often get together for tramping trips) were in high spirits and not put off in the slightest by the dreary weather. The river was rising fast, transforming from a lazy clear stream to a raging torrent of swirling chocolate milk. Shrieks of excitement echoed through the gorge as we splashed our way through the infamous ‘Chute’ rapids, the cold temperatures and soaking wet clothes long forgotten.
We made it to the first available cluster of willows and set up camp, rain persisting. Tarps were strung up in the trees, and a warming seafood bouillabaisse whipped up on the fire.
Day Two dawned relatively clear, and with the river now high and dirty there was no urgency to paddle hard. The wide, braided shallow section of the river was now a brown ocean, rocking us gently downstream. There’s something very impressive about the Clarence in flood. As guides, we become so accustomed to pushing the boats over shingle banks and paddling to make enough ground in a day, so for us, a high and dirty river is a welcome sight.
We pulled in at Quail Flat early and set up camp in a cosy little spot we like to call Secret Squirrel. Tucked in between some bluffs and the river, with tall and slender poplar trees providing a soft, leafy floor, it has always been a favourite place to camp on the second night of the trip. Guitars were pulled out and a cruisy afternoon was spent hanging out by the river and strolling through the lush green paddocks nearby to visit the horses.
With time to spare, I set about making a cake. For the past year, I had been working on a side project – a book of photos, recipes and stories from the river. Most meal times had required the additional pressure of styling and photographing the food, and with the book finally sent off to the printers just two days before the trip, I was enjoying my favourite camp activity of getting creative in my river-side ‘kitchen’. This wasn’t just any old cake; I was in full show-off mode – salted caramel sauce and sesame brittle to accompany a slow cooked spiced apple cake. It’s surprisingly easy to get good results from a camp oven by sitting it on hot coals and loading more on top, but there are many variables, and it’s always unknown whether you’ve been successful or not until you lift the lid.
This time, it came out perfectly. I proudly displayed the cake on the table with a couple of jars of flowering hawthorne to set the scene.
We enjoyed a beautiful meal followed by the cake. Some talented musician/raft guides enhanced the evening with a fireside guitar session, and the conversations between campers flowed smoothly. One lady wondered if we’d ever had to evacuate a trip for any reason? Never, we said. One by one, the campers drifted off to find their tents in the trees. I stayed, watching the glowing embers and thinking about how peaceful it is out on the river, and how lucky I am to call this magical place home.
I put out the fire and went to join the other guides sleeping peacefully under the stars, tucked in beside the bluff with the riverbed below. With a tummy full of cake and the fresh air on my face, I was soon fast asleep despite the full ‘super-moon’ illuminating everything around us.
Suddenly I was running and scrambling over my friends, fleeing for my life and fighting to stay on my feet. Before I could work out if it were a dream, reality, World War 3 breaking out or the earth coming up to swallow us, we were ten metres away from the crumbling bluff, holding each other just to stay standing as we watched the riverbed below foam up and turn to silty liquefaction. The banks on the other side of the river were collapsing into the angry water, and the roar of numerous landslides echoed through the valley. The poplar trees surrounding us swayed and clashed together, those closest to the bank suddenly appearing to have taken on a new drunken lean.
Terrified, I clung to my three friends and tried to come to terms with what was going on. An earthquake. The trembling earth hadn’t yet eased – this was to become perhaps the longest two minutes of our lives. What a shake! Hundreds of questions raced through my mind. Where is the epicentre of this thing and is my family OK? Is the river going to dam and flood? Will there be a devastating tsunami out on the coast? Is this the big one? Will these poplar trees kill us? Are we better or worse off than the rest of the country? And where to from here?!?
Amidst violent aftershocks, we gathered up the crew and discussed a plan. One woman’s tent was perched over a crack in the ground, with a tree branch thrust through the side. Fist-sized rocks peppered our sleeping bags that we’d been peacefully lying in just minutes before. Every new jolt brought new rocks down and produced loud cracking sounds from the trees. One thing was for sure, we weren’t sending anyone back to their tents, and there was no way we’d be sleeping by the river. Everyone gathered up their sleeping bags and mats and we made our way carefully around the broken bluffs and through the recently cracked riverbed to the relative safety of the paddock, joining the now rather distressed horses. A tarp was laid down and impromptu camp set up.
With the clients settled and attempting to get some sleep, we dug out the sat phone and tried to contact the outside world. Someone got through to family in Nelson and Roy could contact his parents in Methven, but there was no ring tone on the East Coast. This was bad. There wasn’t much to do but lie down, and with the initial adrenaline spike over, I slept surprisingly well between aftershocks.
We were woken at 6am to a chopper landing beside us; a nice surprise to see Guy Redfern from Muzzle Station. It must have been quite a sight, 14 campers asleep in the middle of the paddock. Guy had snippets of information but none of it very good for us. Thankfully the quake hadn’t hit Christchurch or Wellington too drastically, but there was no word from Kaikoura or anyone around Clarence. Equipped for a week in the wilderness, there was no immediate concern for us. The clients knew their families were safe and there was nothing we could do but carry on. We made our way back to the picturesque campsite which had felt like a death trap just hours earlier. My jars of hawthorn blooms were still standing on the table, quite a weird sight when it felt like the rest of the world had gone sideways. Breakfast was fried up on the fire, and the campsite packed down. I don’t think I’ll be staying there again anytime soon.
It was a strange feeling pushing off from the newly fractured river bank. An eerie haze lay over the valley, and the strong smell of fresh earth filled the air. The cattle which had been so noisy during the shakes were now licking the newly excavated mineral-rich banks, seemingly unaffected by the events in the night.
We had only travelled a few kilometres when Guy came swooping in, landing his helicopter on a narrow island of boulders in the river. “You’d better pull in at our place, the river’s dammed at the entrance to the gorge,” he said. Wow. This quake was worse than expected, and we didn’t even know what was going on outside our little bubble yet!
The next 24 hours were spent waiting at Muzzle Station. Waiting for the dam to burst. Waiting for word from the outside world and waiting to find a new way home. The river was certainly not an option. It was a worrying time for me, knowing that our farm sits on numerous faults and limestone outcrops that surround the homestead. Grim images kept sneaking into my head, despite the efforts of the other guides to keep spirits high.
Ironically, at one of the most remote high country stations in the country and with cracked walls and crumbled sheds by the homestead, I managed to get on the internet, watch the news and even use the flushing toilet. Being entirely self-sufficient and isolated sure has its positives! Frustratingly, all we had seen of Clarence in the news was three Hereford cows perched on an island of landslide debris, looking a bit confused but otherwise quite relaxed. I couldn’t tell which neighbour they belonged to but judging by the land damage surrounding them, things were obviously very bad.
Through a complicated network of friends and relatives of locals who could fly in with private planes, I was finally able to establish that my parents, along with everyone else in the valley, were alive. My cottage was gone, the woolshed and deer yards destroyed, and we had new hills running through the farm. The seabed had risen, and crayfish lay waiting to die, high and dry in what used to be their underwater landscape. The homestead was miraculously still standing, and my parents quite lucky to be alive. Relief and frustration hit all at once, and with many unanswered questions, it was a long and emotional sleepless night, made more exciting by a vicious nor’wester ripping through the camp.
By the following afternoon, a friendly pilot from Nelson had stopped by and offered us a ride home. Yes, please! It was a very emotional flight, surveying the damage to the river and waiting to see my home and family. Luckily I have a very active imagination and had conjured up in my head scenes far worse than the reality. There were no stranded crayfish on the front lawn, but the front lawn was now ten metres higher than it had been when I left for the raft trip four days earlier. Mum, Dad and my brother were all surprised and relieved to see me dropped off on the driveway. I gave them a quick hug then checked to see that the Jack Russells and my pet pig were safe and sound. Adventure over, now it was cleanup time.
When I eventually got to my cottage, literally split in half by the uplifted fault but somehow still standing, the first thing I picked up out of the rubble was a painting of a quote I’d done earlier in the year. “You are a ghost, riding a meat coated skeleton made from stardust, riding a rock through space. Fear nothing.” Quite fitting I thought. Can’t wait to get back on that river!
This article was written almost two months on from the catastrophic November 14th 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit the top of the South Island of New Zealand.
Genevieve King grew up on a high-country farm in Clarence, north of Kaikoura. She works as a raft guide on the river, taking people on multi-day wilderness adventures. Cooking on an open fire is her favourite part of the job, and over the past year she’s been working on a book of photos, recipes and stories about the people of Clarence.