We’re both beginners, with plenty of ignorance to pool, and there’s a three-day, 80km river trip to Pipiriki ahead. This will be a steep learning curve.
Dave from Wades’ Landing Outdoors makes it sound easy. ‘You could chuck an empty canoe in the Whanganui River and it would end up at Pipiriki. It’s only people make things complicated.’ In other words, he’ll get his canoe back whatever. Call me fussy, but I’m hoping to arrive with the canoe underneath and two random canoeists high and mostly dry on top.
The Whanganui River starts life on the slopes of Mt Tongariro, in the middle of New Zealand’s North Island, then winds down to the sea. Once an important waterway for Maori people and settler farmers, it is now popular with canoeists. It is still remote, though. It takes the best part of an hour in Dave’s truck to get from the nearest town, National Park, over the rough road to our launching place at Whakahoro.
Once there, our clothes, cooking gear and sleeping bags are stowed in plastic barrels, along with enough food to last a week and enough decent Hawkes Bay wine to get us through a couple of nights. Cameras are handy in sealed ‘dry bags’, ready to be pulled out at scenic points.
But first we need to practice this paddling business. Dave pushes us off into the swirling water, muddied and swelled by recent rain, and we’re on our way. For the next few hours we random paddlers zigzag awkwardly across the river, sometimes forwards, sometimes backwards, making ungainly circles as we’re caught in invisible whirlpools and eddies. We bubble over patches of choppy water, our knuckles white on the paddles. We strain our eyes for telltale ‘V’ shapes on the surface ahead, which Dave has warned us signify hidden obstacles or rapids. Other paddlers, less random than us, steer neatly past and disappear round the bends.
Eventually we realize that, in spite of already making every mistake possible, we haven’t gone overboard. So we relax and pull out the cameras. It is truly fabulous landscape. The steep mossy cliffs lining the Whanganui’s banks remind me of Peter Dombrovskis’s iconic photo from Tasmania’s Save the Franklin campaign. The river is lined with dense forest of tree ferns, rimu trees and rata vines, with beech trees dominating the higher slopes. Numerous waterfalls gush, trickle or pound into the river below.
On flat stretches, the only sounds are the gentle lap of randomly co-ordinated paddle strokes, and the musical calls of the glossy black tui birds that dart from the foliage to circle above us.
The river does all the hard work, whirling us downstream at about 8-10 kilometres an hour. We’ve soon completed the first 37.5km and bump into a muddy landing below John Coull Hut, where some 20 canoes are already moored. This Department of Conservation hut has no showers, but it does have gas stoves, pit toilets and bunk beds. Hut accommodation is on a first come, first served basis, but latecomers can pitch tents on the nearby campground.
Enthusiastic volunteer wardens, retired teacher Brian Laing and his farmer brother Murray, help with unloading gear, provide weather forecasts (cloudy, sunny, chance of rain) and remember everybody’s name. Over hearty food and heartier drinks, we meet some of our fellow travellers – youth leaders Drew and Amy from Canada, Danish scientists Dorte and Sune with their two young boys, and a friendly group of 50-something Kiwis who meet up each year for an active adventure.
Someone tries fishing in the river, and there’s a moment of great excitement when the small eel he’s hooked is suddenly eaten by a monster eel as he reels it in. As night falls, bats flit in the trees and kiwis call across the river. Well, according to Brian and Murray they’re kiwis and who am I to argue?
The next day’s paddling seems easier, and is broken by a welcome chance to get out of the canoe and walk an easy 90 minute round trip to the ‘Bridge to Nowhere’.It’s an impressive concrete span over a gorge, a relic of the time this was farmland, before being declared National Park.
At Tieke Kainga Hut a large totem pole reminds us that this area is sacred to the Maori people. Each bend in the river had a guardian spirit controlling its mauri (life force) and in quiet moments it’s as if we can still feel them.
By the third day, twelve hours of paddling have made Emma and me considerably less random and we’re almost travelling in straight lines. We welcome the appearance of a few rapids to give a frisson of excitement. Occasional jetboats bringing day-trippers up the river show we’re nearing civilization, and we feel justifiably smug about our achievement compared to their wussy mechanized transport.
Too soon we make a neat bump-free landing at Pipiriki, where Dave is waiting with the truck. New Zealand lost the rugby while we were away, apparently. There was a cabinet reshuffle. A celebrity marriage is on the rocks. The stock market is down again. Who cares? I’d rather be paddling randomly.
The writer was the guest of Visit Ruapehu, Wades Landing Outdoors, The Powderhorn Chateau and Tranz Scenic railways.
Getting there: Train from Auckland to National Park or Okahune takes just over six hours and costs NZD99 one way. http://www.railnewzealand.com
Staying there: The Powderhorn Chateau, Ohakune has double rooms from NZD198 http://www.powderhorn.co.nz. Adventure Lodge, National Park, has dorms from NZD30 p.p. adventurenationalpark.co.nz
Further information: 3 day canoe hire from Wades Landing Outdoors, including all equipment and transfers costs from NZD150 p.p. See whanganui.co.nz. For other guiding companies and activities in the area see visitruapehu.com
First published Sun-Herald, Sydney