By Way of the River

By Natalie Beittel

The native people of New Zealand, the Maori, named the peak Tapuae-o-Uenuku, which translates to “footprint of the rainbow.” Its jagged peak and surrounding shoulders are rugged and rough looking, and for most of the year are covered in snow. Situated on the South Island along the Clarence River, Uenuku rises almost out of nowhere, as it is so close to the ocean. At almost 9,000 ft, it overwhelms other nearby mountaintops. It is said the mountain had a profound effect on both the native islanders and the first white explorers who came to New Zealand and watched the peak become clear in the horizon as they sailed in from the South Pacific Ocean.

Last spring, I went abroad to New Zealand for a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), for which I received full college credit. I spent the entire semester outdoors, and the alternative-collegial adventure was split into three main expeditions: sea kayaking, white water canoeing and backpacking,

I traveled in a canoe down the Clarence River for 30 days. The Clarence River begins many miles inland on the South Island of New Zealand, and moves southeast curving this way and that until it finally flows into the sea by the coastal town of Kaikoura. My NOLS group was dropped off at the start of the river and was picked up at the ocean in one month later. At that point we would have a day to shuffle gear around and then head off to the mountains to backpack. All of our food and gear for the river was with us.

The river valley was like nothing I had ever seen. Our NOLS group of 10 students and two instructors had just left the green rainforest-like climate of Marlborough Sounds, located at the northern tip of the south island, where we sea kayaked for weeks. A stark contrast, this valley was barren, brown and empty of trees. The many dusty peaks rising up out of the sides of the shallow beginning of the Clarence were speckled with tufts of tall grass called tussock. Here we began our journey down the river. On day one at the head of the Clarence I could see Uenuku’s peak faintly in the distance.

I found canoeing incredibly exciting. On my knees with straps over my thighs holding me in, I learned how to lean with the boat asking it to turn, sometimes leaning so far we dipped the deck edge under the water. Flying down rapids scared me, but I couldn’t get enough. I’d hold my breath as we narrowly avoided slamming into large boulders sticking up out of the water, or colliding with the steep rock walls the river slid along before making a sharp turn.

Similar to a desert, the air was very dry and the sun intensely hot during the days. Even in the heat, we wore long sleeves and sunglasses to protect us, because the sun is extremely powerful that close to the equator. This is amplified by the reflection off the crystal clear turquoise water. At night, the sun traded places with the moon and the temperature quickly dropped. We needed puffy jackets and hats to stay warm.

Each day, we left camp in the morning, packing up all of our gear and loading it into water-tight barrels which were tied into the boats. In the afternoon and evenings, when the mood struck and we found an appealing spot, we would pull over and unload everything and set camp up again for the night. This way of travel made me feel so relaxed and free. Our only obligation was to make it to the ocean in 30 days. The rest was up to us. At camp, we set up tents and tarps. With no trees to provide shade, we developed elaborate tarp systems we called “tarpetechture” to protect us from the sun, using our canoe paddles as anchors. Often in the evenings I would run up the nearby treeless mountains to get a good view of the valley below. The lack of trees meant I could wander unobstructed in any direction I pleased, except for the occasional encounter with free-roaming herds of cattle.

I slept outside most nights, sometimes tucked in by thick, tall grasses that rose up along my sleeping bag and framed the stars above me. I would watch the sunrise in the mornings from where I slept, seeing the mountains slowly start to glow orange and red.

Moving along the Clarence 10 to 20 kilometers a day, our surroundings changed rapidly. All of a sudden, we entered an area where the mountains closed in on either side of the river, with steep rocky ledges rising sharply out of its bank. The river was constricted here, and the rapids became more frequent and violent. Unable to negotiate some of these waters we would have to stop and walk along the shore. This meant we had to let the canoes slide down the foamy water without us as we held onto them with long rope lines. When the shore did not allow us to do this we completely unloaded the boats and gear and carried them over rocks to where the river was calm again. This was a long and labor-intensive process involving many trips back and forth to bring a load. Camp was always a climb in the evenings, and we setup on any flat spot we could find. Now, Uenuku was becoming more and more visible and mesmerizing, its deep blue top speckled with white glowing snow.

Then as quickly as the river constriction had come, it was gone and we were surrounded by tree-covered hills as the rainfall increased with our closer proximity to the ocean. As the days went by, we came alongside Tapuae-o-Uenuku and flowed past it. Now I had to look over my shoulder each day to see it and I watched it falling behind. When the sun revealed the summit to me each morning, the snow seemed to have increased over night. New Zealand’s fall was coming as the river dumped our boats into the sea.

Here, our canoeing expedition was over. The ocean materialized seemingly out of nowhere as we floated under an auto underpass (the first mark of civilization in weeks). We got out of the boats and ran through the sand dunes to the edge of huge crashing waves and all stood admiring the sea and saying goodbye to the Clarence River. It was hard to imagine that tomorrow we would be on route back inland to begin our mountain travel.

Natalie Beittel is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]