A group of friends is lucky to be alive after a private rafting trip turned from adventure to living nightmare.
Experienced rafter Ellis Emmett and 14 friends from Canada and Europe had planned a scenic eight-day rafting trip on the Clarence River, something Ellis has done without incident at least once a year for the past 15 years.
"It's always a great trip, it's an amazing piece of our country in there. We had always wanted to do it in winter because the mountains are so much more spectacular," he says.
The group, aboard three rafts, set off and with the fantastic backdrop of the snow-capped ranges, things started out as hoped, with a warm nor'west wind to top it off. But on night four, when the group was about 130km into their journey, things took a turn for the worse.
"We didn't have any rain where we camped but there must have been a hell of a lot up in the high country. The river flooded but we made the call to continue."
Before entering the 50km lower gorge the group discussed their next move together and made the unanimous decision to continue downstream and attempt to reach the Snowgrass Hut.
By the time they got into the lower gorge, Ellis says the river was looking pretty swollen. One of the group members, a cameraman from Canada, was dropped onto the side of the bank to film the raft coming through the rapids. But when Ellis tried to eddy out to pick him up, disaster struck. The raft was sucked out and swept around the corner, leaving his friend stranded.
"We ended up in the roughest part of the river," Ellis recalls. "It was running about 120 cumecs. Normally it would be around 12 to 15 cumecs at this time of year, so this was about 10 times the volume, probably even more where we were as the gauge is at the head of the river."
Battling against huge 2.5m pressure waves, Ellis's raft was flipped, throwing the four occupants overboard and down the raging torrent.
One of the party, a woman from Sweden, had a particularly harrowing experience, clinging on to the upturned raft which carried her more than 2km down the gorge before she let go and managed to swim to shore. Another was eventually picked up further downstream also, while Ellis and two German friends were swept 500 metres downstream before they managed to scramble to dry land, albeit a steep cliff face with limited exit options.
"We were all just too busy trying to save our own lives," Ellis said.
"My friend Steffen was clinging to the cliff only 25m downstream. I didn't know we'd been swept that far at the time. It wasn't until I looked at Google maps that I measured it and realised."
With the Swedish girl missing downstream and believing the cameraman to be stranded upstream, it was decided to get helicopter assistance. A satellite call was made and the rescue was on. The helicopter managed to regroup the party, and it was also decided to fly some of the crew out as there were only two rafts remaining.
The rest of the group continued, after waiting for 24 hours for the river to subside, and eventually found the missing raft on the third day, upside down, about 30km down the gorge.
"I lost a lot of my gear, but I just keep telling myself that luckily nobody drowned or was seriously injured."
The next four days were spent rafting out, the river still in high flow but very manageable, says Ellis. But it will certainly go down as the most adventurous Clarence River rafting trip he has ever experienced, and he is no stranger to rafting.
"It is called adventure for a reason, there is always risk involved. But I have rafted hundreds of times all around New Zealand, and the Clarence is generally the most sedate river. It's just unfortunate I made that mistake when trying to pick that cameraman up, we were just a few seconds too late. Sometimes the difference between making it and not can be just a couple of paddle strokes."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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