A cautionary tale for those who use New Zealand's 'swimmable' rivers

by Virginia Larson / 22 June, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - rivers
Whanganui River/ Getty.

I’ve known photographer Gareth Eyres for more than 15 years. When he lived in Auckland, he used to swing by North & South’s old offices, usually with morning tea muffins and a guide dog puppy at his heel in its little red coat.

Last time I asked, he and his partner had hosted four full-time pups and five doggy boarders at their Pt Wells property on the Matakana Coast. They’re now guardians to a two-year-old that’s graduated onto the Blind Foundation’s guide dog breeding programme.

Gareth’s exuberance set-point is most people’s off-the-chart; he’s one of life’s enthusiasts – for people, puppy walking, photographing New Zealand’s great outdoors and for anything, pretty much, that gets him in and on the water. He’s rafted, kayaked and canoed rivers, lakes and coastline all around New Zealand, the United States and further afield.


As a North & South staff writer, one of my merriest assignments was a travel story – with Gareth on camera duty – on a small-ship “history and cultural” cruise of the Fijian islands. Between the historical and cultural photo-stops, he squeezed in a surprising amount of snorkelling, kayaking and waterfall dive-bombing. One night, with our ship moored at a lick of island in the Yasawa Group, he got wind of a working Sky receiver on a nearby atoll and toddled off to a backpackers’ bure to watch a televised Tri Nations final. He talked someone into ferrying him across the channel or maybe he swam it, beer and chips money safely stashed.

When Gareth moved north to the Matakana Coast, our professional lives crossed over less often. He bought a couple of drones to shoot stills and video, which lowered the cost of aerial photography but also the fun factor, no doubt, of hanging out of helicopters. I figured he’d never turn down a commission that involved getting wet, however, and indeed he did not, at least until a fateful kayaking trip on the Whanganui River in 2013 put him out of action for nearly four years.

I know this because after our years of radio silence, a message from Gareth popped up in my inbox last month. It started in his typically Tigger-ish tone, but then came the shock explanation as to why he’d not been in touch: “I have a bit of a story to tell if you’re doing anything on dirty rivers. Four years ago, I got an E. coli/klebs urinary tract infection from paddling on the Whanganui. All the antibiotics wouldn’t clear it. Got really sick. Then in September last year, I got septicaemia from a mystery source. Then in March this year, the same thing... again... nearly killed twice in six months.”

Gareth went on to say how a savvy doctor’s diagnosis and surgery cleared eventually the infection and very possibly saved his life. But as a long-time champion of New Zealand’s wild places, he was dismayed: “All this from swimming in a polluted river, one of our treasured Great Walks. I wouldn’t wish what I’ve gone through on anyone else (well, maybe Donald Trump!), but seriously... on a main tourist thoroughfare? Yegads. So, if you’re doing a story on rivers, think of me. From someone who has spent his life playing on them, to nearly being killed by one… and not death by rapids.”

I asked Gareth to write the story of his four-year battle against a waterborne infection. I’ll be thinking of him next time I head to one of our lakes, rivers or urban beaches (ever the optimist, he’s already planning a week-long rafting trip down the Clarence River in early summer).

I’ll also be telling anyone who will listen to read freshwater ecologist Mike Joy and Forest and Bird’s critique of the government’s lofty-sounding target of making 90 per cent of the country’s waterways swimmable by 2040. When they dug into Environment Minister Nick Smith’s “ambitious plan”, they found all the government had done was essentially change the definition of “swimmability” – from what was currently defined as “wadeability”.

Of course, we understand our rivers can’t be restored to some pristine state, but a one in 20 chance of getting an E. coli or campylobacter infection in a “swimmable” river is a crying shame.



This was published in the July 2017 issue of North & South.

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