Gazing out the window of a shuttle van was when the inspiration hit me to have yet another amazing Kiwi adventure that one could argue was a little outside the box.
Several months earlier I’d swam across Lake Te Anau and down the Waiau River, then across Lake Manapouri to complete some of the most exhilarating 35km of swimming I’d ever done. The river swimming bug was born.
I’d only been living in New Zealand for 11 months and I was having a variety of great adventures, from swimming in the lakes and ocean, back country mountain bike packing and mountain running and fast packing in the Kiwi Alps.
I’d just finished a three day Mt. Bike ride of the “Old Ghost Road”, appropriately billed as New Zealand’s most wild mountain bike ride. Now in the shuttle being brought back to my car, I found myself staring at the wild and beautiful Buller River and recognising that the water was definitely deep enough to swim. Mesmerised by the majestic beauty of the river, when I got home, I immediately called the kayak touring company “Ultimate Descents” and asked would they guide me down the river. “No problem” was the reply, but then I clarified that I’d like to have a kayak tour except that I didn’t want to be in a kayak.
“Ooookaaaay….” came the response, the staff member obviously thinking that this was the dumbest tourist who’d ever called. Explaining that I was a marathon adventure swimmer and describing my swim down the Waiau, I convinced them that I wasn’t 100% crazy and that an attempt at the Buller River might actually be feasible, if not somewhat safe.
We quickly ruled out swimming the upper Buller as it contains far too many rocks, shallow sections and some small waterfalls. From the point where the Old Ghost Road starts to the mouth, however, a distance of approximately 50km, it was determined to be safe enough – at least safe enough by river swimming standards – to attempt to have a go at it.
I’d already decided on attempting to swim the entire length of the Clutha River later that year in February 2020, a swim I believed would take 5-6 days. I decided as part of my training, I’d swim the Buller River in January. Based on the normal Buller River flow rates, I estimated that I’d take about 6 hours to reach the mouth, but there was really no way to know as I found out that nobody had ever attempted to swim the Buller.
I’d come up with the idea in April 2019 to swim the Buller. Because the Clutha River Swim preparation and organisation of the multi day expedition occupied most of my head space when I wasn’t working, I admit I’d begun to unconsciously brush off the Buller as nothing more than a training swim for the Clutha.
More than Just a Training Swim…
When I left home the day before the Buller River swim for the drive up to Murchinson, I began to realise again that this was more than just a training swim and I began to feel the butterflies in my stomach. When I finally got to the final section of the drive which passes along next to the Buller, I thought to myself, “Shit just got real…”
Stopping by the river and taking in the majestic view of the Buller Gorge, the strong rapids and pristine but fast moving water, I began to realise why nobody had ever swam this river. This wasn’t to be a mere training swim – this was ‘main event’ level adventure wild swimming at its best. I hadn’t swam down a river for 11 months and doubt began to seep into my thoughts. Maybe there was a really good reason why nobody had swam the Buller. Maybe this is too dangerous? Maybe my scouting mission from a van after a long bike ride was not sufficient to determine if this was a good idea or not? River swimming is inherently a dangerous undertaking and I was about to be the first person to attempt to swim a river that I’d seen once in passing from the road.
I finished the drive to Murchinson and had a discussion with the management of Ultimate Descents and the support kayaker, a young but experienced paddler named Jayden who preferred to be called “Flannel.” They both agreed that this was feasible for a strong, confident swimmer but I should be prepared to be pulled from the eddies a few times and that the water flow was not at it’s normal strength for this time of year due to a recent lack of rainfall.
I was confident in my swimming ability but doubts remained as I went and had a curry at a local cafe and settled into my small hotel room for the night.
The Buller River Swim Begins
When morning arrived, I met Flannel and Phil (the support car driver and also the operator of a drone camera) and I felt doubt disappearing and the normal pre-adventure jitters set in, but more from excitement than fear.
We reviewed the safety plans, checked the weather and had some concern that in mid to late afternoon a strong weather front was forecast to move in. We all agreed that while it would be great to reach the mouth of the river in Westport, the swim would have to be cut short if the conditions began to get dangerous. For now, the weather was great.
Final safety checks complete, the Buller river swim was underway just a short distance from Lyell, the small place where the Old Ghost Road Mountain Bike and hiking track begins.
I had estimated that the swim might take approximately 6 hours to reach Westport, approximately 50km away. I calculated this based on the speed in which I’d completed the Waiau river the year before – a 22km river which I finished in a little over 2 hours. Under average conditions for this time of year, my calculation may have proved to be correct. However, after the initial flurry of fast moving water, the conditions were anything but average.
Water level was well below average and I’d failed to account for several sections of strong upstream currents where tributaries flow into the Buller, meaning that rather than swimming with a current for the entire journey, a significant portion was actually against the current. There was also an extremely strong headwind and quite a few twists and turns in the river, so the swim was taking considerably longer than I might have expected.
I wasn’t terribly concerned about the pace – the goal of this journey was always to enjoy the majestic beauty of the gorge from the unique perspective of being a swimmer. Flannel expertly guided me around rocks, around shallower sections and down the thrilling rapids, and on two occasions having to sprint extremely hard to dodge the rocks.
Since the road closely follows the Buller River for a long section, we noticed several cars and camper vans take notice of us. I could hear shouts of encouragement when we stopped for refuelling with food and sports drinks.
Flannel and Phil kept in constant radio contact and Phil would relay safety updates back to Ultimate Descents back in Murchinson.
Rapid after eddy, twisting around corners, rock dodging and upstream current after whirlpool, we were now over 6 hours in to the Buller River Swim. Westport was about 10km away.
Phil received word from Ultimate Descents that the weather front was now moving in fast and that swimming through the mouth was absolutely not an option. We were likely to be hit by gale force winds within 30 – 45 minutes.
After a quick radio conference between myself, Flannel and Phil, we made the decision to make the end of the gorge the finish line, about 42km from where we started.
Since I’m also a runner, the idea of a 42km marathon swim was fantastic.
As we approached the spot where Phil was waiting with the support car, there was no doubt in my mind that we’d made the right decision. Despite going down river, the final two kilometers took over 45 minutes, a distance I’d easily cover in less than 30 minutes in still water. All up, the swim took 7 hours and 12 minutes. While I didn’t reach the mouth, I felt we’d all earned a pizza.
Almost immediately after we’d exited the water and strapped the kayak to the roof of the support car, the winds hit and I was grateful that we’d all had sense enough to make the correct call about when to finish the swim.
Had I been swimming 20 minutes longer, we’d have been in trouble. The section of the river following where we’d made our exit offers less places to get out safely.
On our way to Westport for our post swim pizza celebration, watching the river from the van, there was no doubt that we’d made the right choice.
Flannel said that he would have abandoned a kayak trip in these conditions, let alone a swimming trip. Then when we saw the mouth, we knew that if I’d attempted to make it through to the ocean, it would have ended very badly.
I’d love to swim the Buller multiple times and hope to have a small group of ‘wild’ swimmers join me for it for the full 42km or sections. At that moment, the Buller was one of the most satisfying swims of my life. I was absolutely thrilled with how it went.
With the footage that Phil took from his drone and regular camera, I made a short film of the swim. Enjoy!