Te Araroa (Part 9) : The Whanganui River Journey, day 54-57

Day 54 : Whakahoro – John Coull campsite (36 km / 22.4 mi – off-trail canoeing section)
Day 55 : John Coull campsite – Ramunui campsite (29 km / 18 mi – partly off-trail | Total: 1292.6 km / 803.2 mi)
Day 56 : Ramunui campsite – The Flying Fox campsite (51.6 km / 32.1 mi – Total: 1344.2 km / 835.2 mi)
Day 57 : The Flying Fox campsite – Whanganui Holiday Park (53.1 km / 33 mi – Total: 1397.3 km / 868.2 mi)

Jan 1 – Jan 4
Total days : 4 | Canoeing days: 4
Section distance : 151.3 km / 94 mi (official trail miles only)
Average distance per day : 37.8 km / 23.5 mi (official trail miles only)
Total distance : 1397.3 km / 868.2 mi

This was the start of our river journey. Huddled underneath the trees in our life jackets, sheltering from the rain as it unceremoniously poured down on us, while our barrels sat unloaded on the dirt track. We were in a queue of trucks launching canoes and tourists down the river and we were in the back. Everything was grey and murky and the river looked dull and cold. It was cloudy and chilly and I was so hungry I opened one of the barrels and started eating the crisps that were right at the top, quickly and desperately. Food. Then it was our turn.

The way before us cleared and we grabbed our boats and carried them to the water. Everything was busy, life jackets and peddles strewn about, everything plastic and colourful. We loaded our canoes with our barrels, and received a last minute recap on how to actually handle a canoe. I asked for the green boat – the red wasn’t as visually pleasing, and then we were deemed ready to paddle down Whanganui River. We were in Whakahoro, facing probably the most unique part of a long distance hike, the five day paddle down the river, all the way to Whanganui. This was an official part of hiking the TA: canoeing.

The next moment we were on the river. The canoe floated, I sat and marvelled at being aligned with water, yet I wasn’t in it. The rain had stopped and the skies were cloudy. I vaguely realised what a blessing that actually was, a sun reflecting bright against the water would’ve proved too strong. Everything became colourful again, the trees green and vivid and the rocky outcrops glistering with raindrops.

Bee at the front as we leave Whakahoro

In my head this was the serene experience I’d been waiting for, which was based on my experience of a quiet paddle down a blue exotic river in a hot country, with just myself and the jungle around. The reality proved somewhat more chaotic. I was in a canoe with Bee, in a group with six other people. And while I knew how to kayak, I would soon find out I had no idea how to canoe.

That first day Bee sat at the front, while I trialled the back. The group glided along, all attempting to change our hiker legs into canoeing arms. It was alien and new but everyone was excited, and we were all ready to give it a good go. We were supposed to stay together as a group so we tried to watch out for each other a little, although we soon assumed our own paces, some going faster, then slower, kind of like hiking. We were in a group with Nobu and Kei and Gina and Jordan, who both shared canoes just like us. But I was jealous of Martin and Rob who both had their own kayaks, as I would’ve loved to have my own boat. I had no idea it was possible to book one.

Bee’s picture of me, excited and taking us in all the wrong directions

However, canoeing soon proved very different and a lot more frustrating than anything I’d done before. Working with someone else was a challenge, and the boat kept going all over the place. We lingered in the back of the group and I was desperate to be at the front, but we couldn’t even keep a straight line. We both ended up paddling on the same side in order to keep the canoe straight, which was the opposite of what was supposed to happen. Clearly we were doing something very wrong.

It took me all day to realise I was simply fighting myself. I thought the person in the back was the engine, but it wasn’t – the one in the back had the more subtle job of steering and adjusting the direction, a constant negotiation. Bee was in the front and had been saying she lacked arm muscle, and to make it all worse I was on full power in the back – pushing us in the wrong direction, then forcefully trying to adjust, and breaking without realising it. She did short strokes in the front and I did long ones in the back, and clearly it wasn’t a good match. Not to mention we were the only in our group with two women, putting us at an immediate disadvantage with less physical strength.

When I realised what I was doing wrong I tried to slow down and focus on steering, but I still struggled. I just couldn’t get it right. My dream of a serene river journey became a frenzied exercise and catchup game. The others seemed to be able to relax now and again, while I felt like I was fruitlessly powering through the entire trip. It was exhausting. We were often at the back of the group or would find the others floating about, waiting for us to catch up. I hated being the weakest link.

Apart from the general learnings of how to paddle a canoe, we soon got thrown into our very first rapids. The rapids were explained to us a week before, when we attended the canoe hire company’s safety briefing. They had gone through the most significant rapids and advised what to do to avoid the overhanging branches, the cliff faces along the curves in the river and the hidden rocks in the midst of the scariest rapids. The boat also came with some papers, which included a map with notes highlighting these obstacles again. I was quite apprehensive as water hasn’t always been my friend, and watching others capsize ahead of us was horribly daunting. But once our boat got thrown into the current for the first time and we faced our first few anxious moments (with some desperate, last minute yelling at each other about going in opposite directions) the rapids became quite exhilarating.

We camped at John Coull campsite that first night. Our distances were spaced out pretty well – some people had a few awkwardly short starting days because the campsites were fully booked up, but we lucked out with our itinerary. The two-day section until Pipiriki had to be pre-booked, which we’d organised at the Taumarunui i-Site, as the paddle down the river was a popular tourist destination. But after those first two nights we would be able to choose from a variety of campsites scattered along the river towards Whanganui, and we had the option of finishing in the usual five days, or push some long days to do it in four.

At the campsite: Jordan (standing), Martin, Nobu and Kei, Gina and Bee

The campsite was cluttered with tents and tourists crowded the few shelters. I hadn’t seen any site this busy before. For the first time Bee and I went through the motions of emptying the canoe – untying the rope that secured all of our barrels and carrying them up to the campsite. We instantly realised what a mistake we’d made. We’d thought we could finally bring all the food we’d been dreaming of as we wouldn’t be carrying it on our backs. But we’d never imagined how steep the climbs from river level up to the camp spots with those hysterically heavy barrels would be. Those five large barrels and the one dry bag that contained our backpacks were just about the very last things we wanted to be hauling up after a long day of canoeing down the river.

Once we made it up we set up our shelters on one of the grassy tiers, and I watched everyone make dinner in front of their tents, until it began to rain. Martin and Jordan both had tarps, and it looked miserable – in these weather circumstances, I was happy to have a double-walled tent.

The next day we set off by 8am. I sat in the front of the canoe which seemed to work out better. After a short while, Bee was much better at keeping our boat straight and I was happier in the front, trying to stick to the task of just paddling. The river was still busy with tourists but the day progressed without many highlights, except for the Bridge To Nowhere.

The Bridge To Nowhere was situated somewhere near the river, and was exactly what it claimed to be: a bridge leading to nowhere. It was a forty minute hike from an awkward mooring point where it was so busy you had to balance yourself walking across other people’s boats and climb a virtually vertical wall in order to get to shore and fix your boat’s rope to a pole. I explicitly had no interest in walking all this way to look at an obscure pedestrian bridge, which led to nowhere. Everyone else wanted to go, and I was happy when Bee wasn’t too keen either, until we got there, and she changed her mind.

Again, I desperately wished I had my own kayak. If I had my own boat I could’ve let them hike while I paddled along, enjoying some solo time and taking some pictures. Now, I was stuck waiting in a boat on the water while the others leisurely walked to watch a bridge do nothing, and taking more time to eat lunch. I was really not enjoying this aspect of the river journey. I couldn’t be happier when we finally got going again.

Following Gina and Jordan
Another one of Bee’s shots of me
Martin in his canoe

That night our campsite at Ramunui looked like a shabby eco-village with a variety of plants and trees, an outdoor shower and pit toilets at the end of the campsite that were tiny and dark and horribly unappealing. I crawled into my tent and just when I was ready to prepare my food, it started to violently pour down with rain, and a thunder introduced itself immediately, terrifying me. It lasted for hours, the lightning illuminating everything and the thunder so loud I lay in my sleeping bag with my eyes closed and hands over my ears, trying to numb the noise and forget that I was in a thinly walled tent, dangerously exposed. The rain water created a river that flowed underneath my tent and everything that touched the surface caused the water to slowly seep through. I was wiping up water from underneath my pad, and all the stuff sacks lining the sides. Immediately everything was damp and uncomfortable, but luckily the rain and thunder stopped as the night drew closer. I woke again to a grey day, clouds hanging low, making for a scenic start of the day.

We made our way toward Pipiriki, and I watched the sun trying to break through, slowly making way for clear blue skies. Most tourists ended their journey here, and so would Rob, who was planning on walking or biking the rest. The most intimidating rapids were on the stretch just before it, and we soon hit one of the most anticipated, which was called 50/50, because 50 percent of people capsize going through.

We watched as others ahead bumped high and low until the end, or crashed in the waves. There was a beach of pebbles to one side, and the rapids in the narrowed river on the other, with a huge pressure wave that looked like it had created a giant hole in the middle. Waves bounced against the cliff to the side so our main objective was to keep from crashing into both the cliff wall and the giant hole. I was steering again that day, and I was cautious while adrenaline kept me on my toes. I managed to keep us away from the wave – and everyone else in our group made it through as well. As we floated around just after, we watched one boat after another capsize.

After 50/50, we thought we’d had the worst, until just a little further up we found ourselves in a sudden rapid that was unexpectedly treacherous. The water pulled us forward and delivered us to a giant tree trunk we hadn’t spotted yet. We crashed into it sideways, and found ourselves wedged tight against it, right in the middle of the bashing waves. We may have been able to dislodge ourselves and get out of the rapid unscathed, but the next moment Gina and Jordan crashed right into us, capsizing themselves and sinking our boat.

Immediately, the shock of crashing caused me to hyperventilate, even though I knew we were all right. In fact, our situation was entirely hilarious and while we were shocked, we were laughing at the same time. Nobu and Kei were taking pictures of us because it was just too funny not to: our boat was underwater but we were still sitting in it, trying to paddle ourselves forward. Bee and I were both resisting the fact that we were in a sunken ship. We thought we could paddle to shore, or hoped that the natural current of the river may deliver us there, but nothing much happened. We remained in the boat, paddling, until we realised we had no choice but to swim to shore. Martin grabbed the rope attached to the boat and pulled it along, while we swam to the riverside where Gina and Jordan were also trying to organise themselves, after their rather dramatic capsize.

Nobu took this picture after our crash! I couldn’t help but steal Nobu’s hilarious picture of Bee and I in our sunken canoe – Nobu and Kei’s blog post from the day is pretty funny! Find it here!

Gina had lost one of her slippers, but somehow in the mayhem of the crash, had managed to pick up my plastic bottle, which had been loose in my canoe. I found my phone swimming in the pocket of my jacket, but luckily the device itself was waterproof. Not everything was fine: our backpacks were in a large dry bag and while we didn’t check immediately, they would undoubtedly come out sodden, and come to stink like the river. The worst thing was that one of my barrels was ill-fated to open in the water, and my down jacket and food had gone wet with the dirty water.

When we finally got going again, Martin capsized. He was in his kayak, in a seemingly shallow spot, and it appeared a completely random happenstance. Then we reached Pipiriki, where we left Rob, and where Nobu and Kei decided to stay at a place nearby, called Jerusalem. Now it was just the five of us. We were no longer fixed to any bookings and were free to go to any campsite we liked. We soon decided to finish the section a little earlier, and turn the five days into four, making the last two canoeing days about 50 km each. This would help Jordan and he was trying to set a Fastest Known Time for the TA, but I think we were all quite keen to go back to walking. While I’d enjoyed the different pace of the river, it was quite overwhelming to always be around a group of people, and not having the freedom to continue solo and doing things in my own time.

So we continued in full force. My arms were in pain with the efforts of keeping up with the others. The weather had gone from a sunny streak to a sudden darkening sky again, and it began to rain and thunder just a little behind us. We all realised we should get off the water, apart from Bee, who exclaimed she loved being in the water during a storm, blissfully unaware of the very real danger of electrocution by lightning. When we passed a lonesome sign that said ‘Coffee’, we immediately moored, tied our boats to dead trees and walked up the dull gravel road.

We had landed ourselves in a cluster of just a few buildings, none of which looked like anywhere you could buy coffee at all. All we found was a small child standing in the entryway of his home. We must’ve been a sight: a bunch of dirty hikers looking like drowned cats in the rain, trying to talk to this toddler who was giving us nothing in return. We could see or hear no parents, and after a short walk around, decided we should continue on. The thunder had lessened, so we got back into the boats, and quickly moved on to The Flying Fox, which had a lovely garden to set up our tents, and the most horrible climb up to deliver our barrels. Even though I enjoyed the extra food, the barrels were hardly getting any lighter. I’d clearly bought way too much.

Our final morning on the river

It rained all night again, and the next morning we were ready to finish our journey. It was a boring day. The river had lost its rapids and had gone from clear to brown and dirty, and the cliffs and forests were interchanged for roads and farmland. It was another 50 kilometres to Whanganui Holiday Park, where we would finish the river journey and leave our boats behind.

We ran into the French couple that morning, who had started their canoeing the day before us. They started late that day, as we were approaching a point in the water where the current changed direction. We had to wait at a dock and had lunch while the water rose and plummeted again, and we continued into our last, tiring and long day. The last few hours we found ourselves in a deluge of rain with no option but to continue on. We were cold to the bone, with everything saturated, trying our best to keep going in a strong headwind. We watched the others slowly move further ahead of us, while Martin floated in between to stay close. When we finally reached the holiday park we were spent. We pulled the boats onto shore and stacked them where the canoe company would be able to pick them up again.

When we entered reception they laughed at us – they declared quite rightly that we looked like we’d just come off the river. We were a mess. Wet, tired, and in pain. We’d finished the Whanganui River journey.

The river is getting murkier and the weather is slowly darkening…
The final push to Whanganui

Published by

Rosanne Luciana

A Dutch-born London-based hiker who has swapped an East Asian backpacking experience for the opportunity to truly immerse herself into nature, by quite simple, walking.

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