Ki uta ki tai Mata-au (From the Mountains to the Sea on the Clutha River)


River Whispers from the Mata-au (Clutha river)
Ki uta ki tai (From the Mountains to the Sea)

- Another time on this beautiful playground, called Earth.
Today, the waterslide :).

I’m proud and thankful to be probably the first person, who SUP’ed the Clutha river (NZ second longest river, biggest river by volume and longest river of the wild South Island in winter (June 20 20). A good life lesson, I learned a lot from. Kia ora!

‘Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.’ (Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse)

Running 338 km from Lake Wanaka to its mouth south-east of Balclutha and near to Kaka Point, the Clutha River is the second longest river of New Zealand, the longest river of the South Island and has the highest water volume of any river in the country. Reason enough to paddle it! Another reason not looking at these numbers is just its pure beauty of turquoise colour flowing from the mountains through the dry Otago countryside, some beech forest all the way to the sea and always changing its flow but also always whispering and teaching. It has been a wonderful, interesting and adventurous journey for me which teached me a lot not only about the river but about myself and New Zealand as a beautiful country, which is the reason to write it down to motivate you to experience it yourself. It is a around one week journey. The North Island gave the Whanganui River its own legal identity  and made it to one of the Great Walks.
On the South Island the Clutha River is this river but like everything on the South Island it’s just more wild and more adventurous, so it’s not a great walk for everyone with big eddies and rapids up to whitewater level 3 and dams it’s a great adventure with an amazing history and huge changes over the last centuries!

When I first thought about the Mountains to the Sea project, my first idea was to build a raft out of plastic bottles and make a film and go down with some friends to show the impact of the plastic and trash we throw in rivers and which flows all the way down to the sea and then it’s just gone. Out of our eyes and out of our mind. The idea of the project was to bring awareness to the environment, riverbanks (, pest pollution, fertilizer problems and the problems of dams, like shown in Damnation ( or Blue Heart (, films about the tremendous impact of dams on the river environment, but to be honest we all know anyways about these problems,so do we need another activist (just a little bit sad sarcasm ;))? In the end we humans are selfish just looking for fun anyways and I was planning it to have a great adventure with some cool people and see and explore what's left of a once beautiful river, even with the dams and pollution.  However, due to Covid this project never happened and maybe it was good, because seriously I think the plastic bottle raft wouldn’t have survived some of the rapids. Instead I headed out on my own, after Covid in the middle of winter on a Stand up Paddle Board (SUP). A crazy, stupid, brilliant idea and a fun wonderful trip I can just highly recommend to explore New Zealand, as a wonderful country from another perspective then hiking trails. 

The Maori name for the Clutha from its source to the sea was Mata-au, meaning “surface current”, a reference no doubt to the river's swirling eddies. The early whalers and settlers of South Otago called the river and the district the Molyneux, and the name survived well into the gold mining era.”

In earlier ages it was normal to go down the river by boat, nowadays it’s an adventure and friends were worried about me being out in the wilderness. I guess, it’s all a matter of perspective. 

I started my trip from the shore of Lake Wanaka, harbour side, and ended up at the other side of the shore of Lake Wanaka, close to the Wanaka tree. Just because the wind and waves blew me all the way over and also because I had built a float out of an old duck island, which was horrible to toe behind my SUP. Exhausted and quite ashamed to go back to the hostel after the first day and it was already quite late, I decided to rest in the park under the Redwood tree for a short while and used my SUP as a mattress, which worked great. After that rest, I pulled my “boat” along the shore and me barefoot instead of paddling against the wind, not like planned but hey it could just become easier from here on. I went over to Ruby Island and had a great morning there, with finally a bit of sun to relax. From there I went to the other side and finally decided that the trip isn’t possible by towing the duck island, so I left it. I continued down the first part of the river to the Albert town campground, where I got stucked another three days, because they just opened the dam up at Hawea and flooded the Hawea river and I was really not sure about the influence of this flooding on the Clutha. Instead I went fishing and tried to practice my patience.

Finally, I went off and it worked out better than planned. I was wearing my wetsuit and my life jacket all the time and there were a few huge eddies a really big one behind the Red Bridge. The first night, I ended up in the middle of nowhere on a stony beach and it felt like on a really remote river somewhere in Canada or New Zealand ;), I made a fire to dry my stuff and slept without even pitching up my tent under the stars. Just beautiful!

The first part of the river is a really shallow and stoney alpine river used for whitewater kayaking and fly fishing and just super clear and blue and with a lot of eddies and you need to be concentrated on a SUP all the time and I was wearing my wetsuit and my lifejacket constantly.

After the camp night, I reached Lake Dunstan around noon the next day and it took me almost all afternoon to cross it. That night I stayed at Cromwell Backpackers. Cromwell is a small little town in the Otago Valley and famous as a fruit region. It’s apparently also the town furthest from the sea, not sure if in Otago, South Island or NZ so, there was just a sign.

Located deep in the heart of Central Otago in the valley of Upper Clutha, Cromwell is a special place. Rugged mountains, the meeting of two rivers (Clutha and Kawarau) and the pristine waters of Lake Dunstan – the natural beauty of the area is overwhelming.
The Cromwell basin is home to a host of award-winning wineries; enjoy the scenery while enjoying some of the world's finest Central Otago Pinot Noir.”

Late morning of the third day on water, SUP`ed around the corner and made a stop in the Old Gold town of Cromwell. It seems like ending up in another time. It was one of the biggest Gold rushes in the modern era and occurred from 1861-1864. I stopped for a Cafe in one of the old Pubs with a great atmosphere before I continued crossing another lake - Lake Dunstan. 40 km long and 26 sq km of water to the other end and to the impressive Clyde dam. It took me all day and I didn't even make it to the other side but found a pretty old, cool shepherd stone hut with open doors and open window and built out of huge stones to sleep in. The Clyde dam is 100 m heigh, 490 m long and generates around and generates 2,100 GWh per anno which makes it NZ’s third largest hydroelectric dam. It took me almost all day and three walks to carry all my stuff around, visiting Clyde, another cute, old Gold town - highly recommended to visit the Dunstan House Cafe, 1898. The water behind the dam was “weird” and made some noise and I was glad when it calmed down again. In Alexandra I stayed in Marj’s Bed and Breakfast and was the first guest after lockdown. A great, family atmosphere. The first part from Alexandra to Roxburgh is scenic - there must be a reason why they build a bike trail along the river ;).
Another dam meant another long lake! This time I made it to the end and crossed the dam but then it got dark so I bivied in a gorge next to the dam.  

“The Roxburgh dam was commissioned in 1956, creating Lake Roxburgh. Then in 1992 the Clyde Dam was commissioned filling the Cromwell Gorge and creating Lake Dunstan. The building of these dams for HEP was pretty controversial at the time, the results of which have changed the landscape considerably. Both the Cromwell Gorge  and the area north of Roxburgh were famous for their huge rapids. In particular the 'Cromwell Gap' and the 'Terminator' which now lie buried under Lake Dunstan and 'Molyneux Falls' and 'Golden Falls' which lie under Lake Roxburgh.” (Out of Alice Browers: Clutha River: From Source to Sea Packrafting the Clutha report) 

Couldn’t say it more neutral but I really recommend to watch Damnation and Europe’s Blue Heart. Yeah, dams are impressive and maybe one of the best ways to produce electricity. I have no other solution but I know how a free river whispers and feels, so alive so free of chains. Yes, you can prison a river and yes New Zealand made the Whanganui a legal person. River’s are not doing anything wrong. They are just rivers. 

However, back to my beautiful adventure, because after a while the river got beautiful and wild again and I passed Millers Flat and Beaumont and some crazy rapids I didn’t expect on the way.
Then the river got quiet and calm for a while and I thought I could paddle through the night to catch up with my friends Mirco and Robert in Kaka Point. Not a good idea! A river can always change and a rock and some eddies made me almost fall in the river while it was dark. With wet trousers and cold, around 0 degrees and high humidity I made a fire in a swamp island in the middle of the river and froze all night and waited till the morning to finally go again. It was freezing, especially barefoot without much moving on a wet SUP and around 0 degrees. I went through beautiful beech forests on a calm river basically not paddling and just trying to warm up my feet and hands somehow. It was a calm day on the river with finally some sunshine, the days before have been all really cloudy. I ended up in Balclutha and enjoyed the town, the beautiful bridge and stopped already in the afternoon instead of rushing to finish my trip. The last part is easy, wide and enjoyable before getting to the river’s mouth. I chose the southern mouth arm to Molyneux Bay, almost 6-8 km beach walk away from Kaka Point. The sea looked too rough for me and so I paddled a bit in the old arm and carried the stuff for the last km along the beach - a long walk. It got dark again and I slept at the beach under one of the kids building wood houses to finish this great tour! 

Hitchhiking back with a big SUP on COVID 2 Level was another adventure but after 2 rainy days I got a ride to Dunedin.

River Whispers
- What we can learn from a river. Some parts and quotes out of-
Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse:

‘Love this river, stay by it, learn from it.’

“When Siddhartha awoke, the pale river shimmered past the door of the hut, and in the forest the cry of an owl rang out, deep and clear.

As the day began, Siddhartha asked his host, the ferryman, to take him across the river…
‘It’s a beautiful river’ said Siddhartha.
‘I love it above everything. I have often listened to it, gazed at it, and I have always learned something from it. One can learn much from a river.’ 

But today he only saw one of the river’s secrets, one that gripped his soul. He saw that the water continually flowed and flowed and yet it was always there; it was always the same and yet every moment it was new. 

‘The river has taught me to listen; you will learn from it, too. The river knows everything; one can learn everything from it. You have already learned from the river that it is good to strive downwards, to sink, to seek the depths.’

Above all, he learned from it how to listen, to listen with a still heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgement, without opinions. 

The river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere, and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past, nor the shadow of the future?’

And once again when the river swelled during the rainy season and roared loudly, Siddhartha said: ‘Is it not true, my friend, that the river has very many voices? Has it not the voice of a king, of a warrior, of a bull, of a nightbird, of a pregnant woman and a sighing man, and a thousand other voices?’ 

Often they sat together in the evening on the tree trunk by the river. They both listened silently to the water, which to them was not just water, but the voice of life, the voice of Being, of perpetual Becoming. 

The river seemed like a god to him and for many years he did not know that every wind, every cloud, every bird, every beetle is equally divine and knows and can teach just as well as the esteemed river. But when this holy man went off into the woods, he knew everything; he knew more than you and I, without teachers, without books, just because he believed in the river.’


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