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Racecourse Rapid

About the River

The Clutha Mata-Au is New Zealand's largest river and one of the swiftest and most unspoiled high volume rivers in the world. It is the longest river in the South Island, flowing 338kms (210miles) from Lake Wanaka in the Southern Alps, through the Central Otago semi-desert - the driest region in New Zealand, to the Pacific Ocean.

The river's course is diverse and spectacular. We know and love the entire river, but our eco rafting home is on the upper reaches. Lake Wanaka, at the head of the river, gathers primarily glacial and snow-melt waters, and acts as a rock-flour filter, providing the Upper Clutha Mata-Au with unusually clear, turquoise-tinted water - a very rare characteristic for a large river. This stunning water rushes away from the mountains through a spectacular, golden semi-desert landscape of ancient glacial terraces.

The Clutha Mata-Au's average discharge into the Pacific is estimated at 614 m3/s, comparable to many much larger but slower flowing rivers (the Nile is 650 m3/s). This heavy flow, concentrated into a relatively confined river channel, makes the Clutha Mata-Au notoriously fast flowing. It is the swiftest river in New Zealand and is often listed as one of the swiftest rivers in the world, alongside Australia's Macleay and Fitzroy Rivers, the Amazon and Atrato Rivers in South America, and the Teestra River in the Himalaya.

The original Maori name 'Mata-Au' refers to the formidably 'swift current' with its unusual turquoise 'green' colour. When Captain Cook sighted its impressive flow entering the Pacific, he named it 'Molyneux' after Robert Molyneux, Master of the Endeavour. Later, during the gold-rush, the miners increasingly called it the 'Clutha' - Gaelic for 'Clyde'.

River Grades Explained

The following classification is based on the international grading system. Grades, sometimes referred to as Classes, are approximate rather than definitive measures of a rapid's seriousness or difficulty. The nature of a rapid can alter quickly due to increased or decreased flow, new obstacles, and changes in the riverbed:

Grade 1. Easiest
Rapids have small regular waves. The passage is clear and easy to recognize. Care may be needed to avoid obstacles like trees and rocks.

Grade 2. Medium
Rapids have regular medium sized waves up to 1 metre, easy ledges, drops and eddies, and gradual bends. The passage can be recognized and is generally clear, though there may be rocks or tree strainers in the main current, and over-hanging branches.

Grade 3. Difficult
Rapids have fairly high waves of 1-2 metres, broken water, stoppers and strong eddies, exposed rocks and small falls. The passage may be difficult to recognize and manoeuvring to negotiate the rapid is required.

Grade 4. Very Difficult
Powerful rapids with high, irregular waves, broken water, often boiling eddies, ledges, drops and dangerous exposed rocks. The passage is often difficult to recognize and precise and sequential manoeuvring is required.

Grade 5. Extremely Difficult
Very powerful rapids with very confused and broken water, large drops, violent and fast currents, abrupt turns, difficult powerful stoppers and fast boiling eddies, with numerous obstacles in the main current. Complex, precise and powerful sequential manoeuvring is required. A definite risk to personal safety exists.

Grade 6. Unrunnable
All previous difficulties increased to the limit of practicability. Extremely confused and violent water so difficult that controlled navigation by raft is virtually impossible. Significantly life threatening if swimming and unrunnable by all but a few experts.

The Ecology

Eco rafters encounter a variety of bird species throughout the 'Summer' rafting season. These include the friendly and playful Fantail (Piwakawaka), Kahu (Australasian Harrier Hawk), White-faced Heron, Paradise Shelduck (Putangitangi), Grey Warbler (Riroriro), Oyster Catcher (Torea), Spur-winged Plover, White-fronted Tern (Tara), Rock Pigeon, Kawau (Black Shag), Karoro (Dominican Gull), California Quail, and Bellbird (Korimako).

The river corridor is home to many uniquely adapted native plants able to tolerate the extremes of the semi-desert climate. The dominant native is Kanuka (White Tea-Tree), interspersed with other small-leaved hardy natives such as Olearias, Matagauri and some Manuka (Red Tea-Tree). Fascinating ground cover natives include the cushion plants, Raoulia Australis, R. Hookeri, and R. Parkii. Introduced species include Crack Willow, bordering much of the river, and on the riverbanks Lupins, St. John's Wart, and California Poppies are common.

The Gold

The Clutha Mata-Au is the second richest gold-bearing river system in the world, the richest being the Yukon. New Zealand's greatest gold-rush began on the Clutha Mata-Au in 1861, continuing through many stages over the years. When alluvial gold became scarce, massive gold-dredges were employed to scour the riverbeds and banks. In 1900, some 187 gold-dreges were operating, the last finally ceasing work in the early 1960's.

Today, gold is still mined in some areas, but Resource Management laws and public land beside water (the Queen's Chain), require the protection of waterways. Floods periodically release and spread new gold into the river from the quartz reef veins in the tributaries. The swift Clutha Mata-Au soon breaks this down into fine alluvial gold, which averages 98% pure. The ancient terraces along the river also contain gold-bearing quartz. Your Guide knows where to look!

Clutha Mata-Au River Parkway

The outstanding natural, recreational and cultural values of the Clutha Mata-Au have remained remarkably intact despite a range of historical and recent development pressures. The more remote reaches of the river, such as the Upper Clutha Mata-Au, retain an impressive wilderness quality which may soon be lost if the river corridor is not better protected. In 2003, Pioneer Rafting Guide Lewis "Finn", initiated a project to create New Zealand's largest river Parkway, with a river-length trail, along the entire Clutha Mata-Au corridor from Lake Wanaka to the Pacific Ocean. In 2009, Contact Energy released proposals for four large hydro dams on the Upper and Lower Clutha. The Clutha River Forum, an alliance of conservation groups, opposed all four dam proposals, which were abandoned in 2012. Local groups are now working to make the river-length trail a reality.

Haliday's Bluff View
Halliday's Bluff View

"We thoroughly enjoyed our time on the river with you. I hope we can return someday."
~ Appy and John Stookey, Sheffield, Massachusetts, USA.

Chalmer's Reach
Chalmer's Reach

View From Reko's Bluff
View From Reko's Bluff

Reko's Point Conservation Area
Reko's Point Conservation Area

Kanuka Tea-Tree Blossom
Kanuka Tea-Tree Blossom

Pumphouse Rapid
Pumphouse Rapid

Nook Gap
Nook Gap

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Lake Wanaka 9343, Otago, New Zealand