When it rains in Whataroa, local farmers start building arks and high-country cattle grow gills. The heavens don’t merely open, they’re eviscerated against the sharp spine of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, torrents of water scouring deep grooves in the grey schist.
Four days before kayaker Joe Clarke arrived on a 29-hour flight from London, the nearby township of Franz Josef had 130mm of rain in a few short hours. A 2m wall of water washed through the local Scenic Circle hotel and 180 people had to be evacuated.
Rain is a part of life on the South Island’s West Coast, where more than 18m of precipitation can fall in a single year. Moist nor-west winds barrel in from the Tasman Sea, slam into the mountain range and drop everything they carry onto the narrow coastal plains.
After the rains in Whataroa, bushmen and farmers alike break out pans and sluices and start sifting gravel. Alluvial gold abounds, ground out of the hills over eons and stirred up by the floods. There’s gold in them thar hills, as the saying goes, and the banks of the Whataroa River have plenty of colour when the waters subside.
Clarke is chasing more long-term lustre, however. Armed with a paddle, a canoe slalom boat and bucketloads of insect repellent to deter the sand fly squadrons, the 23-year-old is mining inspiration, which could see him pick up some precious metal on a podium in Rio de Janeiro later this year.
Deep in the heart of a twisting canyon up the Whataroa River, amid the giant boils and boulders of the Grand Finale, the river’s last major rapid, Clarke and top New Zealand kayaker Mike Dawson are creating the world’s most extreme slalom course, something that no one else has ever attempted here.
Lengths of twine cross the milky-blue, glacier-fed river, supporting slalom gates over the churning current. Merely running the massive rapids in short plastic creek boats wasn’t going to cut it; instead, the pair unpack their 8kg carbon-fibre slalom boats from a helicopter and drop them into a maelstrom.
Despite this being Clarke’s first experience of what these wild New Zealand waters have to offer, he’s learning fast. “In a place like this, you have to be able to sort your own sh-t out,” he says.
“You have to think about taking the right lines with rocks that you don’t normally have to consider on a slalom course, and we’re in the middle of this massive gorge, so if something goes wrong, you’re on your own. What we do here is different every single day: nothing on the river remains the same. And that teaches you a lot about focus in a way I don’t get at home.”
Unlike Dawson, who was raised on a never-ending diet of flood-fuelled creeks and waterfall drops, Clarke has spent his entire paddling career in slalom boats, competing almost exclusively on artificial courses. A canoe slalom course is usually 250m long, with between 18 and 25 gates to negotiate, either upstream or down, over pulsing water. It’s like trying to steer a rodeo bull over a 400m hurdles track.
Clarke was an 11-year-old student at Walton Priory Middle School in Stone, Staffordshire, when the local canoe club went on a recruitment drive. The Stafford and Stone club, based on the gentle waters of the River Trent, wanted to find four males and four females to join, but Clarke had to rely on his penmanship in order to head off the 60-odd applicants for those spots.
He’d tried canoeing through the Scouts and loved it, and once he’d joined the club, quickly came under the guidance of coach Andy Neave, the father of 2012 canoe slalom Olympian Lizzie.
Neave Snr began spoon-feeding his young charges the same training programmes as his daughter and by the time that Clarke entered his first competition, he was hooked. “From a pretty early age, I had a clear focus that I wanted to go to the Olympic Games,” he says, “and it was just a question of how I was going to go about it.”
He flew through the various divisions and by 13, he’d become the youngest paddler to move into the premier ranks in England. Parents Shaun and Amanda began a familiar weekend trek, driving him an hour each way to the artificial course in Nottingham to train, and he’s never forgotten their sacrifice, or the support of older brother Luke. He broke into the Great Britain junior team as a 16-year-old and won gold in the Great Britain Open a year later.
At 6ft tall and weighing 11st 9lbs, Clarke is muscular and strong, and has developed great reflexes. He’s able to steer his way around a slalom course with sheer power, Popeye-like forearms propelling him across the water.
After missing out on the 2012 Olympics, Clarke knuckled down and got into some serious training at the Lee Valley course. He then went on to win silver at the junior world championships in 2013 and finished on the podium at world cup races in 2014.
Last year, he was the second-fastest qualifier at the world championships on home water – ironically behind Dawson – although the good friends both bombed their semi-final runs to miss the final.
When he heads to Brazil in the second half of July, Clarke will have clocked hundreds of thousands of flying miles between Lee Valley and the purpose-built Olympic Whitewater Stadium in the west of Rio de Janeiro.
“I know with my A game, I could definitely make the final,” he says. “And once you’re in that final, anything can happen. The goal is to make that final and put myself in the mix. Then if I put down a run that I’m capable of doing, a medal will be on the cards.”