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River Swimming – a Metaphor for Life

The Buller River was a swim that I’d unconsciously brushed off as a ‘training’ swim for what I was considering my summer main event, a multi day swim down the Clutha River. But the Buller River was not just a training swim. It was an absolutely beautiful and majestic gorge to swim through, and while I didn’t realise it until later, it was more than that as well.

It was more importantly a place of self reflection. Well, at least it was during the calmer sections when I wasn’t speeding down rapids and dodging rocks!

A Transition from Competition to Self Made Adventures

I began to realise at some point, perhaps around four hours into this epic swim that I was having more fun in the water than I’d ever had before. I’d been a triathlete and marathon swimmer for most of my life. For a number of years I felt that my interest in competition was waning in favour of self-made challenging adventures. I thought that this was somehow a step away from who I was and what I had enjoyed for so long. Part of me also felt that it might have been a sign of getting older. Maybe age was the reason that I no longer cared about racing around a set course and set distance for the sole purpose of getting to the finish line as fast as possible. 

While I still love the feeling of pushing my body to the limits and revel in the post adventure ritual of eating delicious foods, warm cups of tea and the camaraderie small groups of friends, I now place equal or greater priority on stopping now and again to soak up the scenery, the views and watch the wildlife.

Rob Hutchings Swimming the rapids in the Buller River

I also began to want to do triathlons or multisport events where the swim didn’t feel like an afterthought. Probably that was because while I ‘m hardly an elite level swimmer, I’ve always been better in the water than on the bike or the run.

In an Ironman, the 4 km swim takes only an hour or so out of an all day event. Even in an Ultraman – a 3 day event, the 10 km swim just takes 2.5 – 3 hours.

I always wanted to do a triathlon that was outside the box where it was a full day swim, full day ride and full day run. I also wanted to swim in an environment where few triathletes would ever venture. At the start line of many triathlons, many competitors moan if there’s even more than a ripple in the water, often loudly complaining about any sort of a wave.

So the Buller River swim was exactly what I wanted for the swim course in a triathlon. It took all day and I can’t imagine too many triathletes lining up to tackle the river.

The day following the swim, I rode my Mt. Bike along the Paparoa track and ran Avalanche Peak on the final day. It’s safe to say though that while swimming down rapids on the Buller, I also realised that nobody would ever ask me to select the swim course location for an actual triathlon event. 

Avalanche Peak Summit, Day 3 of a Self-Made Adventure Triathlon.

Self-Made Solo Adventures

Self-made solo or small group adventures and expeditions were allowing me to spend more time embracing my nature as a dual personality introvert / extrovert. I’m quite chatty and extroverted at times. Although I love being around people, I prefer most of my free time quietly training on my own or in a small group and get as far away from people as possible. I revel in camping or spending the night in one of New Zealand’s back-country huts on my own.

On the Buller River swim, I fully realised that self-made challenging and non-competitive adventures were my thing. I became okay with the fact that competition no longer mattered to me.

The Majestic Beauty of the Buller River Gorge

Wild Swimming vs. Marathon Swimming

I further realised that the concept of “Wild” swimming was much more appealing to me than “Marathon” swimming. Marathon swimming can be more about following rules to get across specific courses, and while mostly done solo, it is a very competitive environment.

Furthermore, the popular routes and events can be very costly. Spending several thousand dollars on a single one day swim was less appealing than having multiple swims per season in unique and equally beautiful environments for the cost of a hotel room and buying my kayak supporters a pizza.

In the season that I swam the Buller, I was able to do multiple wild swims, cycle tours, hikes and the multi-day swim down the Clutha. I did this all for less than the cost of a single recognised route that was popular amongst the marathon swimming community. 

Rob Hutchings swimming in Lake Pukaki with Mt Cook in the back ground
Swimming in Lake Pukaki, New Zealand, with Mt Aoraki (aka Mt Cook) in the background

River Swimming – Absolute Freedom and No Control

For all of my adventuring, what I have been enjoying the most is river swimming. Among the general public, river swimming is almost a complete unknown and the concept of swimming through rapids baffles most people. Among much of the marathon swimming community, it’s still not common and is often viewed as ‘downhill swimming.’

What most people don’t realise is that river swimming, despite obviously going faster than in a lake or in the ocean, doing your stroke against the oncoming current makes it much harder work. Frequent sprinting is needed to get through rapids, around bends, dodging rocks and other obstacles. This makes river swimming particularly challenging.

Rob Hutchings swimming the Buller Gorge
Buller River Rapids

What I like most about river swimming is the feeling of absolute freedom in combination with knowing I have no control over the river. River levels can drop or rise rapidly, forcing the swim to be aborted or shortened. Swimming through rapids and the ability to dodge rocks requires a trust in yourself, trust in the water and your kayak supporters.

Despite requiring a highly trained and unusual skill set, there has to be an acceptance that despite your best efforts, you can’t fight the flow. You just have to go with it.

“You can’t fight the flow. You just have to go with it.”

Rob Hutchings rock dodging in Buller River swim Rapids
Getting directed to dodge a rock in the Buller River rapids

I now view river swimming much like a metaphor for life: seeking freedom, enjoying the ride while accepting the total lack of control. At best, we have influence over events and outcomes, but control is an illusion. Few things make that more obvious to me than swimming down a river.

Future River Swimming Adventure Plans

So far I’ve swam New Zealand’s Buller, Clutha, Pelorus and Waiau Rivers and there’s several more that I plan to do. When I run out of options for swimmable rivers, I’ll be repeating them and adding a few twists to the style of adventure.

In December 2020, I plan the first attempt to swim the Waimak Gorge, part of the kayaking section of the legendary New Zealand Coast to Coast multisport race. Most of the Waimak river is too shallow for river swimming, however the gorge section is comparable to the Buller River. I estimate it will take 5-6 hours to complete.

I’d also like to swim sections of the Clutha again. However, rather than swimming on consecutive days, I’d like to swim the river in triathlon style. Swim a section on one day, then take a day for a bike ride around the region, followed by a hike or a run the next day. Perhaps have another day to rest and relax, then swim down the river further and repeat it the triathlon style in a different sections of the river.

I’ve got my eye on Queenstown’s Shotover River and also North Island’s Whanganui, Rangiteki and Waikato Rivers. That, along with the lakes, oceans and fiords, should keep me occupied for a while.

Below are some links some of my river swimming blogs.

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