With about two kilometres to go, the magnitude of what I had accomplished over the last four and a half days dawned on me. I’d come 256 kilometres from a majestic alpine mountain region, swam through a beautiful lake, through two remote and rugged gorges, through farmlands, under bridges in small towns and was now about to arrive at the Pacific Ocean.
A little over two hours into what was the final day of an expedition that took a brief moment to dream up, nine months to plan and four and a half days to complete, I stopped suddenly. Calling out to my two support kayakers, I waved them over.
Seeing the urgency in their paddle strokes I realised as they approached they may have thought something was wrong. Laura reached me first. “Thank you for supporting me, and for your amazing efforts. I just want to give you a quick cuddle,” I said, reaching up. Only then remembering not to hug her with both arms as I might cause her to capsize. Instead I gave her a one armed wetsuit sleeve hug. I then swam over to Sam. Now in my raspy voice, from breathing the dry Otago air through my mouth for seven to nine hours per day, I whispered, “thanks mate.”
The three of us then took a moment to reflect on our journey before continuing the short distance to the mouth. We’d just completed the first ever swim of the full length of the Clutha River in New Zealand, from the outlet at Lake Wanaka to the mouth at the Pacific.
A Passion for River Swimming is Set in Motion
A year earlier, I’d developed a passion for river swimming. The passion had been brewing within me since I’d read about multi-day swims undertaken by people such as Martin Strel and Ross Edgely. Although I had extensive ocean swimming experience, I hadn’t swam a long distance in a river since leaving my hometown of Corner Brook, Newfoundland, Canada in 1994. Many years later, during my first summer in New Zealand in 2018/19, I completed a swim across Lake Te Anau, down the 22km Waiau River and then across Lake Manapouri. I was hooked on river swimming!
“Why can’t I do a multi-day swim?” I wondered. On the downside… I’m 44 years old, I don’t have an endless stockpile of cash, no sponsors are knocking down my door, I work full-time as a chiropractor, and even with 30 years of triathlon and open water swimming behind me, I’ve never been an elite level athlete. Sure, I’ve done reasonably well in various events over the years, but I’d never self-organised a multi-day river swim; and organisation is not my forté.
After thinking it through, I knew I didn’t want to undertake an expedition that would take months. However, I could physically and financially do a week-long swim. So, I started hunting for the perfect river to swim in New Zealand.
Through some Facebook interactions and talking with fellow swimmers and local adventurers, I was told about the Clutha River, the most powerful in the country. I started to investigate the possibility of swimming it. It appeared that no one had ever swam the full length before.
I had no idea if there was enough water to make it deep enough to swim or if there were too many dangerous rocks or other obstacles. It was possible the rapids would be too powerful to make swimming the full length, or even part of the Clutha River, an achievable expedition. I had one harbour master tell me I’d be an idiot to swim it. However, local kayakers told me that it may be possible.
Preparing for the Clutha River Swim – 256 km*
I decided that I couldn’t determine if it was swimmable unless I saw it for myself. So in August 2019, I booked a ski trip to Wanaka, where the Clutha River begins.
During my visit, I ran the Upper Clutha trail and a local took me on the river by jet boat. I was in awe of the beauty of this powerful river and it’s immense flow. And I became convinced that it was feasible to attempt to swim it. And with that, the planning began… as did my training.
I believed I had the ability to physically train for and swim the full length of the Clutha River. My training routine involves swimming in the pool 4-6 kms, but in the warmer weather I swim more often in the ocean and bays up to 10-12 kms near my home in Christchurch. I also cross-train with cycling, mountain running with poles, yoga and Pilates. I also ran some mountain tracks overnight to prepare for multi-day expeditions. In the months leading up to the Clutha River Swim I also swam the lower Pelorus River (~ 25 km )and the lower 42 km of the Buller River.
Although I was confident with my training routine, I was a little apprehensive about my expedition planning abilities and whether I would swim the full length within the six days I’d take off work. I definitely didn’t approach the swim with a do or die mindset. Instead I thought, “I’ll swim what I can. If I reach the mouth, great. If not, it will still be an awesome expedition”.
DAY ONE – 58.5 km
With this mindset, all packed and ready to go, the swim began at the outlet of the majestic Lake Wanaka at 8:00 am on the 20th of February, 2020.
The first 44.5 km from the outlet to Lake Dunstan, through rapids known as ‘the washing machine’, eddies, whirlpools, a hairpin bend called ‘Devil’s Nook’, took four hours. It was already the most epic swim I’d ever completed. Day one was completed in the small town of Cromwell at the end of the still waters of Lake Dunstan, which was an additional 14 km. It was a total of eight hours of swimming.
DAY TWO – 28.5 km
Day two was more challenging than I anticipated as the water remained still for the full 17 km of the Cromwell Gorge, when I expected a current. What I thought would take 2 to 3 hours, took over 5. It was then that I had my first doubts as to whether the swim would be fully achievable in the 5 to 6 days I’d allowed for.
The entire time I was swimming, my wife was with a crew from a national news station that were taking footage for a segment on TV. I was surprised to still see them at the boat ramp at the Clyde Dam where we had to exit to get around the dam. After another interview, and a very late lunch, I was thrilled to be back into rapidly moving river water for the 11.5 km to Alexandra. We sped along exceptionally fast, in an exhilarating 1 hour and 15 minutes.
DAY THREE ~ 52 km
On day three, we entered the Roxburgh Gorge, described as a ‘fast moving lake’, from the bridge at Alexandra. For the first two thirds of the 25 km journey there was a current but it progressively slowed as the second dam on the Clutha loomed up ahead. Ironically, just as the current stopped a head wind picked up as if on cue. We covered the first two-thirds of the gorge in two hours and the final one-third in three hours and twenty minutes – talk about uneven split times!
Even so, the rugged and beautiful rock formations, the mountain goats, and the cyclists and walkers shouting encouragement made it a spectacular swim.
After another late lunch on a secluded ‘beach’ in the gorge, we took a remote and winding road around the dam. We re-entred the water for the home stretch of 27 km to Miller’s Flat at 4:00 pm. It’s safe to say I have a new personal best time for 27 km as we roared through the water and the beautiful scenery in exactly two hours.
DAY FOUR ~ 84 km
On day four, I’d hoped to get within striking distance of Balclutha, the nearest town to the mouth. Having swam 27 km so fast we thought it possible to swim the 88 km, if everything went well. We weren’t sure if a few sections of rocks might mean it would be a tight squeeze through with danger of a collision or a forced exit to walk around for 300-400 meters or so. However, the high water levels from a flood 2 weeks prior made passage possible, although there was some rock dodging to do. It required some skillful coordination by my kayak support crew, with one scouting ahead and radioing instructions to the kayaker beside me. While rock dodging is inherently dangerous and admittedly not for the faint of heart, never in my life have I felt so alive swimming through rapids and around rocks. I’ve never been an elite swimmer, however I feel perfectly at home in the open water and nothing lights me up more than swimming in rough conditions.
With daylight waning, after a total of 9 hours swimming, we got to within 4 km of Balclutha. We decided that 84 km was a good effort for the day and that it would be nice to swim under the Balclutha Bridge on the final morning – a short 22 km to the river mouth. That night, we didn’t set our alarms as we knew we had a short distance of moderately flowing water ahead of us.
DAY FIVE – 22 km
On the morning of day five, the final stretch, I couldn’t believe we’d come this far. The end was in sight, and everything had gone off without a hitch. Almost in autopilot I got into my wetsuit to begin swinging my arms for one final day.
Stepping out of the water onto the sandbar at the river mouth on the Pacific Ocean I couldn’t believe that I’d done it – I’d swam the full length of the Clutha River. My wife was there waiting for me with a journalist, and the only other sole in sight was a lone local sitting on the front lawn of his small holiday home (known in New Zealand as a Bach). I knew the mouth of the Clutha was quite remote, but it was surreal.
After taking the time to soak up the magnitude of what we’d just done, it was time to pack up and get back to reality. My wife had to leave our support van quite a ways from the mouth as there was a locked gate blocking the dirt road. However, as we made our way up the dirt road, that lone man let us know he’d opened the gate and offered my wife a ride on his three wheel motor bike to retrieve the van. The remoteness of the mouth, the humble experience of kiwi hospitality that we’d experienced throughout the swim, made my first ever multi-day river swim an adventure I’d never forget. As the Kiwi’s say, it was ‘Sweet As.’
Preparing for the Clutha River Swim ~ 256 km*
*Distances don’t add up perfectly as the GPS tracker only recorded every ten minutes, or even less frequently in remote areas, which cut out many of the twists and turns on the river.
I finished the Clutha River Swim almost exactly a month before New Zealand went into full lockdown as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. While I was having the adventure of my life, I was only vaguely aware of the virus and had no inkling about what was to come.
During the seven week lockdown period when I had an unexpected 7 weeks off of work, I learned how to become an amateur film maker. My tech skills have always been limited at best, however I found that I enjoyed making the documentary of the Clutha River Swim as I felt it was a fun and adventurous story to tell. I invite people to watch the documentary on Youtube and subscribe to my channel as I plan on documenting many more of my wild swimming adventures in the coming years.