Whanganui River Journey

The last two Christmases we did bike trips.  They were good, but I felt it was time for an easier (less kid whinge) activity.  I have good memories of canoe trips with my grandparents on Adirondack lakes, and I don’t remember putting out much effort as a youngster….my infinitely patient grandfather taught me to paddle, but I was doing well if my whirlpools reached to the stern of the boat.  And we spent significant time just watching the water trails we made as we dipped our fingers over the side of the laden canoe.    

The Whanganui River Journey is classed as a “Great walk.”  It’s a 5 day, 145 km route down part of the Whanganui River, one of 9 iconic journeys promoted and maintained by the NZ Department of Conservation.  We figured a silver lining to Covid is a summer with limited tourists, a good time to visit the relatively “crowded” north island.

We rented a canoe and Jeremiah paddled his sea kayak.  After a rudimentary kiwi-style safety briefing we shoved our gear into six barrels, two dry bags and a cooler, and launched from Taumarunui. 

I was at the helm of the canoe with the two kids in front, while Jeremiah had command of his sea kayak. Thank goodness for the little seat inserted into the middle of the canoe, allowing each child their separate domain….there was enough bickering about whose turn it was to paddle on the left and whose paddling was encroaching into the other one’s territory without sharing a seat!

“If you don’t tip within the first hour, you won’t tip until the last day,” was the reassuring outlook from the canoe hire guy.  The Whanganui has a couple rapids approaching grade 2 white water, mostly on the first and 5th days.  While I’m happy to paddle that in a kayak, I’ve never paddled a canoe in any rapids.  Odds are that one in three canoes takes to the drink during the trip, and my aim was to be squarely in the dry 2/3rds of that statistic.  I was comforted by the fact that the NZ Greatwalks are suitable for novices; with a reasonable level of fitness I didn’t expect anything untoward.   

The first couple rapids had me nervous, but they were straight-forward and I was able to direct the canoe where I wanted to go (basically a straight point and shoot, no fancy manoeuvres required).  We splashed through with only a few gallons of water sloshing inside from waves, and my confidence increased. Unfortunately no photos, cameras and rapid navigation don’t mesh!

First day lunch stop. Milo thinks it’s not cool to smile in photos, he actually enjoyed the trip but you wouldn’t know it from the photographic record.

We pulled into our first tent site by mid afternoon, and managed to set up camp before the rain started.  It rained all afternoon and all night, a steady gentle rain. 

I discovered that our 15 year old Marmot isn’t as waterproof as she used to be, and we were very thankful for the cooking shelter.
We’d already opened the christmas presents at home before we left, and we decided to open stockings a couple days early too…I think we were all in need of some CANDY to weather the rain.

Next morning we dressed the kids in their wetsuits, wrung out the tents, and anxiously checked the river level.  It had only gone up about six inches from the night before, and maybe another inch while we packed, but the water had gone from tannin-tea brown to milky capucchino.  Milo surveyed the turbulent flow.  “No logs or dead animals floating along, so it’s ok to paddle,” he stated, quoting our safety briefing.  He’s a funny combination of worry-wort and bravado, that boy; he likes precision in the rules, and as long as they aren’t his parents’ rules, he follows them.  We launched and sped along amid rain squalls and gorge sides cloaked with fern trees and waterfalls.  Some time after noon the sun peaked out and the outlook improved. 

We whizzed past this totally impressive side gusher pouring into the river, and Jeremiah paused to watch two bewildered ducklings ride the waterfall down to the main river.

“Whakahoro campsite, 400 meters upstream.”  The sign pointed up a chocolatey brown torrent lined with treacherous willows.  I raised my eyebrows at Jeremiah.  “I can’t get up that with just the kids in front.  There must be a trail up from the main river somewhere.”  We scoured the bank—thick bush and no trail.  We tied up the kayak and paddle all together in the canoe.  Zigzagging up the current with willow branches clawing at the edges felt mighty precarious, and despite our best efforts we had to pause in a boily eddy.  “I certainly didn’t expect anything this sketchy in a Great Walk,” I panted.  Quite possibly our sense of river hazards has been heightened by our whitewater kayaking experience, especially my own recent encounter with a side-stream willow.  A Danish couple had clawed their way to the submerged landing just ahead of us, and they generously came back to offer help with their bow rope towing from land, so we made it eventually.  Hauling our barrels up the slippery bank, we saw a sign pointing another 300 meters uphill to the campsite.  “Whakahoro” sounds like a swear word (it’s pronounced “faka-whore-o), and I’d certainly suggest giving it a miss in favour of a friendlier riverside site.  On the plus side, we met Becs from Taupo at this campsite, and she very generously carried a pair of our barrels up to the camp each night for the remainder of the trip. 

The side creek had gone down about 30 cm overnight but the landing is still submerged. With that drop went the majority of the water’s energy. I wish I had gotten a photo the previous afternoon!
There were a few showers that night, but the real rain held off. We emerged Christmas morning reasonably dry.
He’s been rocking his blue sleeping bag suit.
Paddling Christmas morning was the best—sunny weather, with the high river speeding us along with little effort.  We counted 176 waterfalls and sang old camps songs, and cruised into John Gould hut in good time to have a swim before cooking dinner.
John Gould Hut is very welcoming with the sunny deck and picnic tables.
Not as cold as south island rivers!
Couscous and ham for Christmas dinner

Next day we were staying in the hut at Te Keiki, where there’s a marae.  Reading the informational panel at John Gould hut, we learned that we’d need to be prepared for a traditional maori greeting—the man of the group would need to say what mountain and river we’re from, along with the necessary family introductions and thank you’s.  The woman of the group would need to sing a song, preferably a folk song from your country of origin.  I spent the paddling day practicing Yankee Doodle, which seemed a bit irreverent but was a favorite with the kids.  Alison Krauss’ “When I went down to the river to pray” seemed fitting, this being a river journey and all, but I doubted I could pull that off tunefully.  I settled on the Amish song “Tis a gift to be simple.”  In the end I was spared.  Marilynn, the hostess/caretaker of the marae, suggested that the whole group sing one song together.  The one kiwi family among the group was more familiar with the requirements of the occasion, and chose a maori song that the kids learn in school. 

Marilynn’s husband is the DOC officer in charge of the hut, and Marilynn is the person in her iwi (tribe) who has taken on caretaker job for the marae, which includes welcoming visitors each day.  Her dad did this role before her. 

The land on which the DOC hut sits is a contested bit of ground; DOC built it without the permission of the maori group who historically controlled the land around the Whanganui River, so the iwi staged a live-in protest where they occupied the hut until a suitable arrangement was reached. Thankfully the arrangement allows for regular people to use the hut. I didn’t realize upon booking that the maori consider that to be their land which they graciously share.

Naomi asked Marilynn about the “taniwhas” on the pole (a taniwha is a monster), and Marilynn patiently explained that the carvings are of ancestors, not monsters. The kids appreciated the anatomically correct male figures.
Marilynn also generously spent some time showing the kids the craft of flax weaving.

In this delicate balancing act for control, Marilynn was most gracious, explaining our roles in the ceremonial greeting and making many allowances for us being from a different culture.  Apparently there is no other marae that allows their visitors to speak, she told us proudly.  Though they still hold the tradition that a woman must not speak and must enter behind the men.  “That’s not very 21st century,” whispered the Danish woman.  I heartily agreed; of all the traditions to bend, treating woman as second class citizens seems to be a logical starting point. 

We started our last day’s paddle expecting the river gradient to increase; this last day had four named rapids to negotiate, as well as a few numbered ones between.  We put the kids in wetsuits and tied every loose bit of gear to the boat.  But the first long stretch was flat, with a wicked headwind, and I worked hard for every meter travelled, aware that our shuttle was booked for 1:30.  We passed the first described rapid in puzzlement—where was the rock mid-stream that we were meant to go left of?  We slowly realized that the water must still be high enough that the challenging waves were “washed out,” the term whitewater paddlers use to mean the features are so far under water that they aren’t tough to negotiate.  The real challenge was the headwind. 

We made our shuttle time, but another family were waiting for didn’t turn up on time.  The canoe hire guy checked his clipboard.  “Powell, that’s the group with two kids in front and the mom in back who’s a really good paddler, right?”  I hesitated; we were waiting for a family with three kids and two adults; they had two canoes, but I wasn’t sure how their kids were arranged.  Jeremiah chimed in; “No, you’re thinking about us.  The family we’re waiting for has three kids.”  Realization dawned sweetly.  That “really good paddler” he was referring to was me.  I let the accolade go to my head; I figured my battered self esteem needs all the help it can get these days. 

Eventually the canoe hire guy organized a local jet boat to launch in search of the other family, but much to our relief they rounded the bend just before the boat hit the water. 

The Danish couple are in the third row (the tall ones!), Becs is in purple and Andrew is peeking out in back. Hurray, we all made it through that last day of headwind!

Looking back on the trip, one of the major enjoyments was the little cohort of people who we spent the evenings with at the huts.  Since Christmas morning the personalities had been the same, and the comradery grew day by day.  There was the Christchurch family Milo called The Freckles, who kept strictly to themselves the first day but by day three had thawed sufficiently to be cordial.  There was a friendly hippie German couple living in Golden Bay, as well as generous Becs and her paddling friend Andrew (not partners, she carefully clarified), who had spent two years teaching English in Armenia, and had interesting things to say about a wide range of topics.  Then there was the nice aforementioned Danish couple, who had interesting things to share about Scandinavia. I find this with all the Great Walks that I’ve done, oddly enough.  We plan the trip to get out into the wilderness, but the most memorable part is the people we meet along the way. 

Back in Taumarunui we treated ourselves to a hotel room, soapy showers, and a nice Indian restaurant.  Stage one of the family trip had been a success. 

4 thoughts on “Whanganui River Journey

  1. Thanks Molly,
    Love the account of the adventure and all your reflections upon it. Did Schroon paddling help you? The advice I recall about shooting rapids is to aim for the V shape the water makes between rocks and stay low in the canoe! Great memories you’re giving your family.

    • Hi Uncle Dwight,
      I don’t remember spending much time in the canoes on Scroon, we were always in the tubes! The one habit I kept from Scroon paddling with the Whitehead family as kids was standing up to better view which side of the stream to aim for…. Whanganui has exponentially more water in it than the Scroon though, so most definitely bigger rapids.

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