A lot of people had told me not to do it, come to think of it they were actually only voices in my head, trying to scare me from accomplishing something I’d had on my ‘must-do-that-sometime’ list (similar to a bucketlist without the whole having to die at the end of it nonsense). I’m talking about paddling from downtown Christchurch all the way back home to South Brighton via the wild waters of the Avon River. Navigating the twists and turn, old bridges, discarded Jim Beam bottles and water wheels was never going to be easy but I’ve lived in this city for a long time and it just felt like it had to be tackled, regardless of the dangers that lay ahead. I just had this fear (call it irrational) that I would somehow get stranded early on in the journey stuck in a sewer grate while the bemused latte set along the strip looked on while sipping hot pancakes. Stupid, I know but humour me.
The day before this epic adventure, I scoped out the journey using Google Maps and spotted a few shallow sections. Not to be underestimated a lack of river depth could have us beached as (bro), ripping the hull in two and having us flailing in the water while the shrieking eels closed in on us. I was slightly perturbed by this possibility but threw caution to the wind, confirming pick up next day with our good friends Errol and Beeb who would provide transport into town and farewell us. They could possibly have been the last two people we ever saw.
Up at 7.30am I was busy doing final checks on all the equipment, well actually it was just making sure the kayak was a total spider-free zone. A lone daddy long legs could scuttle the entire mission causing blind panic amongst the crew and crushing morale – I couldn’t take that risk. A quick vacuum of the house completed my pre-launch routine and we were good to go.
As we approached the Boatsheds on Cambridge Tce I was getting butterflies. Would this really work? Had I thought it through enough? Would there really be pirates? It was too late to back out now. Pirates or no pirates we were going down that river. Our anti-pirate measures would hopefully keep us safe – Herb our mascot ‘friend of the pirates’, Crystals pi-rat outfit to confuse them and my water pistol. We found our launch spot at the bottom of the rapids. Apparently the rules (aka Errol) state that one’s kayak must back on to the rocks of the rapids otherwise it’s instant disqualification. Leaping in we backed up to the rapids, got the nod from the officials and we were away! The official time was 10am and we had 15km and about as many bridges to cross under before we safely back home.
Initial enthusiasm was dampened when we ran aground about 20m down the river. Using paddles we shoved off and were away again feeling good that a swift downstream current was doing the lion’s share of the work for us – all we had to do was steer our way through bridges and oncoming punters and we would be fine. The first stretch through the inner city was definitely the most interesting and a unique experience seeing the Christchurch CBD from the river. There were a few more shallow patches and on a couple of occasions I actually jumped out and pushed us along, like getting past the water wheel, but we soon had depth again. We waved to supporters (and bewildered tourists) on the banks and took a ton of photos – simply because of the unique vantage point, nothing to do with not having seen Christchurch city streets. I did think to myself as we passed bemused punters that a pirate could probably make a respectable living from all the wealthy tourists passing by – and they looked like they were unarmed too, easy pickings.
Fabulous weather made it a perfect occasion for paddling as we cruised past Christchurch icons like the old court house, the Strip, the bridge of remembrance and Victoria park. Past the fire station and over a couple more shallow sections then the river got deep and we lost our view of beer cans, CDs and plastic bags that littered the river bed. While that meant we didn’t have anymore ‘beached as’ issues, we did lose the downstream current, now having to rely on paddle juice to keep moving. And keep moving we had to, as we planned a toilet stop (a combination of coffee and other liquids, as well as the constant splashing wasn’t helping). We had Porrit Park in mind as it we remember facilities there from when we did the City to Surf and the rowing club there made a good landing spot.
Paddling through the suburbs of Avonside and Dallington wasn’t quite as interesting but still idyllic and with the fantastic weather made us think who wouldn’t want to live in this great city but we both knew the truth that these days are but precious rarities – we enjoy them while they last, and today we were making the most of it! After what seemed like a long stretch and several bends that looked identical we made it to the rowing club at Porrit Park. I made to get out but my whole leg had gone to sleep so pretty much fell back into my seat. Weird. I tried again, this time using my ‘awake’ leg. It worked and we landed. Crystal dashed off to use the facilities while I guarded the booty.
While I waited I made myself familiar with the river rules, particularly important now we were entering rowers territory, with those crazy rowing skiffs and their coaches barking orders from a bike on the bank. A local member of the club allowed me to use the toilets there, making one bladder gladder. Finally Crystal made her way back. Turns out there weren’t any public facilities and she had run back to Avon Park and used the toilets there. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I’d just used the club’s toilets right where we’d landed.
We pushed off again, for the last half of the journey tackling a couple of sandwiches as we rowed. A headwind was making things a little difficult as I fondly remembered the downstream current we enjoyed at the start. Splishing noises alerted me to a rowing skiff coming up from behind (or was it Crystal yelling out ‘Jason’?) and we turned just in time to see the skiff gaining fast. Unfortunately for us they didn’t have eyes in the back of their head so had no idea we were there until they were on top of us, just to the side, but we avoided being beheaded by their oars (or oar-struck!?) because they lifted as we ducked. And here I was worried about pirates. Tragically I had also left my cellphone in Errol’s car so if we had been beheaded there was no way I could call for help.
On the home stretch we started seeing more familiar sights. Gone were the pleasant leafy suburbs of Avonside and replaced with the browner tones of Burwood and Brighton. There was a bit more traffic on the river (for some reason all crowded on to our side of it) and sadly no outgoing tide was pulling us along. Instead we battled a north easterly wind, determined to send us back up river. Not having my phone I didn’t have ready access to the time so we guessed. It felt like we had been on the river for hours. Crystal thought it was only two. She was probably right. I knew that simply because of her track record in that department. I was most interested in how much water would be in the diversion we needed to take to get to our place. At low tide it turns into a muddy bog, which makes paddling just a tiny bit challenging. There was a plan B but I couldn’t be bothered having to walk the kayak home and it just wasn’t in the spirit of the event anyway.
We rounded the corner and there was the diversion with just enough water to carry us all the way home. We powered the last stretch and ran it up on to the beach right outside our house. We had done it! And not even the pirates could stop us. As I hosed the kayak down and put it away I really felt like looking for the nearest hammock, the early start and all that shoulder action had taken its toll. But not before I crossed it off my list.
Next time we’ll bring reinforcements!