A river road tale

For 12 days reporter Matt Rilkoff and photographer Cameron Burnell discovered an adventure in their own back yard when they used the Patea and Waitara rivers to get from one coast of Taranaki to another. On a path taking them through some of the province's most isolated country they found they were never far from home.

A river will not know time. It plays strangers with years, is deaf to questions of age and blithely ignores the epochs as it carves through their cores.

All it knows is gravity and an insatiable hunger for the sea. All it knows is movement.

For 12 days reporter Matt Rilkoff and photographer Cameron Burnell discovered an adventure in their own back yard when they used the Patea and Waitara rivers to get from one coast of Taranaki to another.
For 12 days reporter Matt Rilkoff and photographer Cameron Burnell discovered an adventure in their own back yard when they used the Patea and Waitara rivers to get from one coast of Taranaki to another.

So we should have known the time we picked to meet this river would be meaningless to it.

But we did not know and when we arrived at our carefully chosen time the river had turned its back on us.

It had linked arms and befriended the strongest wind, welcomed the rain and even made truce with the tide, the one ally we had been sure we could rely on.

We felt betrayed by the waves and chaos these friendships wrought on the placid river we had expected. More than that we felt weak and small against its ferocity. The Patea River was not to be trusted.

There was nothing we could do about that anyway. Far from home the river was our only way back and so, on its grey and muddy bank, we loaded our canoe and pushed out onto it.

With just a few paddles taken I glimpsed from my rear seat a worn sun hat tumbling past me on a bitter blast of cold air and rain that took my breath before I had chance to use it.

"Shall we go back and get it," I shouted to its owner.

"No way," he yelled without turning to face me. "It's gone."

So we paddled on.

It is not a long journey to go back to that which brought photographer Cameron Burnell and I to the Patea River.

Summer was coming and like many others we wanted to get out of the office. Slowly we pieced together a plan that just might do the trick. We would spend 12 days paddling a canoe from Patea to Waitara by river.

We would follow an ancient Maori route, trace 160km of Taranaki's wet twists and turns and in so doing go from one side to the other.

Or at least we would try. And if we could do it, well, we could and if we could not, well, we could not.

When the hat blew past me just moments into our journey I was guessing we could not.

A straight-line hunter wind is beaten by the lazy curls and corners of a river. On that first morning on the Patea River it whipped us mercilessly one minute, lost us in another and then, confused, accidentally helped us as it chased to catch up.

It was still pushing behind us when we met Marg Newlove at her favourite white-baiting possie on a concertinaed silt bank 11km up the Patea River. It had taken us three hours to get there. Our shoulders swore to us it was six.

Marg was the first to meet us on the river and, as we came to expect of all who helped, she was not alone. Her friend Sue Crawford sat beside her, her husband Jim stood and her dog Bob lapped us ashore.

"We couldn't let you go by without coming down," she said handing us warm, steaming muffins. "Try the fudge," she said as soon as those were gone.

The Newloves have farmed the angled, chopped and abundant land we stood on since 1979 and though they have pulled back a bit, they are far from finished yet.

"This is the first time we have heard of someone going up the river in canoe," said Marg "It's good to see young men try something a bit different."

We had only just begun but the heavy grey cloud and relentlessly bullying wind meant we needed this small handful of words more than ever.

It helped us see hope when rain and mud and aching muscles threatened to turn all light into a pinprick at the end of a tunnel 12 days too long.

It reminded us we were on an adventure, a trip we would never forget and that we were exactly where we wanted to be even if the elements were sulking at our presence. And so 24 hours later, when the tranquil ribbon the river had become overnight went back to the angry, brutish thug we had met the day before, doubling in size as we stood there eating our apples, we were ready.

Even at this new faster and fatter level it was lamb compared to the rage it had so obviously flown into one week before.

Above us debris dangled from the trees and had collected in great heaps at every corner. The grass on the banks did not grow straight. It had been combed sideways to point downstream, like arrows on a one way street.

Which might have helped us realise we would not be paddling against this new current and instead would have to tow our long green canoe. Where we could not pull it we pushed and where its eddys allowed, we paddled. When none of these worked we carried it. It was not easy. We swore a lot. Said words that should not be written.

``You're not those canoe fellas coming up the river are you," said Marie McColl when we materialised out of the low evening sun at her Patea river farmhouse later that night. She had half been expecting us, been half ready to see us arrive before her, tired, dirty and hungry.

"I'll expect you'll be wanting a drink," she said as she called to her husband Bill and her grandson Daniel. "Look who's here."

Through the steam from our heaped plates of stew the McColl's talked back the years. "When we first moved up here you could only get in by jet boat but then Bill and his brother put the road in so the kids could go to school," Marie said.

"Then they built the bridge for the dam and now it's so busy. You don't know who is coming up or down anymore. It's changed everything."

That change began some 30 years ago when the Patea River was harnessed for one of Muldoon's power stations. Small by national standards the water it used to generate electricity was more than enough to put the kybosh on any carefully laid out canoeing plans. We had found that out already.

"They let it go mid morning usually," Daniel told us, "If you get up early enough you should be able to get to the dam before that."

Following this advice we rose before the birds, picking our way through log jams and powering through the small rapids as though being chased.

For a while it seemed like we would win but that while stopped at 9.30am when the rising waters once again forced us back to the bank.

"Let's just stay here and have some breakfast then," I said to Cameron. Then trying to remain positive. "Something will work out."

It did not take long. Hours after feeding us Bill McColl found us again. Knowing what we needed he unburdened us of our heaviest equipment, giving us the confidence to tackle the river again.

Even so, by the time we had finished that last 8km to the dam we were older men. We could barely raise our arms, hardly smile and only half-heartedly throw stones to scatter the schooling mullet feeding in the water we had just left.

At least we were in better shape than two dead and stinking eels at our landing spot beneath the towering earthen wall of the Patea dam. Their heads and tails had been sucked off by some grotesque force they had not been built to endure.

"Maybe they've gone through the turbines," Cameron said.

``The eel is an awesome creature. A truly awesome creature," Dexter Kennedy told us later that night as we chinked glasses full of whisky and ice.

In a house overlooking the dam his verandah is a throne fit for a king and to some animals Dexter is already royal.

For five years now wax-eye, tui, morepork, sparrows and anything else with wings have known they can get a meal at his house. Each week he heaps cheese onto a homemade birdfeeder and from his porch proudly watches his subjects flock to it.

"I love birds. I just love them. You're not seeing them at their best. There's usually more but I haven't been able to get the cheese for a few months now. I feel a bit bad about it."

More than birds benefit from his largesse. At the base of the dam each morning he rescues thousands of tiny eels who cannot comprehend this obstacle to their upstream instinct.

Without his help this ignorance would be fatal and eels would disappear from the Patea River, disappear from Lake Rotorangi. His job as their guardian is unexpected. Tattooed and full of stories of hunting and daring he is no stereotype environmentalist. "I used to shoot deer from a helicopter in the 80s. It was just murder, bloody murder. I had an SLR with a 60 round magazine. Boom, boom, boom. It was just murder," he told us on his verandah that same night.

"I woke up one day and I just felt sick."


Before meeting Dexter we had been drinking tea with Barry Kaywood at the campsite beside the dam that held back the lake teeming with liberated eels.

A full time hermit Barry's caravan was parked with a crisp view of the structure he helped build more than 25 years ago.

"I just wanted to come back and see how it looked now," he told me in a quiet cheeky voice that could have camouflaged his real reason for returning.

There were other things Barry had chosen not to tell. They had came up between sips of whisky with Dexter and maybe he should not have told us but he did. That's what drink will do, especially on a hot and muggy night.

"They sent him to Antarctica. To recover the bodies from the Erebus crash. He had to put them into body bags. But it wasn't that easy," he said and I wish he had stopped at that.

Barry chose different, less descriptive words for the same story when I asked him about it the next day. I felt guilty about prying anyway, so was willing to take any answer he had to give.

"We got made to sign an official secrets form so we couldn't say anything about it for 20 years," he said. "Now that time is up and it's not worth telling."

``I heard you meet up with Dexter Kennedy," Matthew Francis said to us later that night on the porch of his farm bach beside Lake Rotorangi.

"He rounded up some wild horses for my father a while back."

A towering redhead Matthew is the third Francis to work the 5000 acre Glen Nui station in the last 70 years ago. As a younger man he had not planned to follow in his father's footsteps but now he can't see himself ever leaving.

"I don't want to be the one that loses this farm," he said as we drank his beer and ate his sausages later that night.

"I do feel a responsibility. My kids are only four and six and a lot could happen I mean, I might work like hell for the next 20 years and then they might not want it."

A rolling and rugged postcard farm of rusting huts, imposing bush and muddy tracks Glen Nui's opposite can be found 12km or so up the lake at Caniwi lodge.

Manicured and maintained to perfection the lodge was bought by Canadian Jean Gauvin and his Kiwi wife Maureen when they had had had enough of dairy farming.

"I was on my way back to Canada from Australia and I thought I may as well go to New Zealand. I meet Maureen on the plane and three weeks later we were married," Jean told us with practiced flourish when we arrived.

The son of a high-ranking ambassador the walls of the lodge feature pictures of his father standing proudly over a dead lion, cigarette in mouth, rifle in hand, semi-naked African assistants by his side.

"I suppose they're not really acceptable now," said Maureen as she stood in the kitchen preparing lunch. "But those were the times."

They were an unexpected find in the quiet and conservative country of East Taranaki and its ponderous Lake Rotorangi. They were full of ideas, questions, stories and energy I struggled to match despite being a couple decades younger.

More than that, they introduced us to the bruising sport of croquet, a game I had previously thought fit only for those who could not manage lawn bowls.

"I told you it would get vicious," said Maureen with a wickedly infectious grin as she outwitted us all to win the match. "I told you there were no friends on the croquet court."

Of course they were everywhere else and we met more of them a few hours after leaving Caniwi Lodge and paddling to the end of the lake and back into the Patea River again.

On a bend they used to camp in each summer Peter and Janice Cook and their adult children Sarah and Richard set up chairs and waited for us to arrive at the back of their Huinga farm.

In that inevitable country manner word had reached them we would be coming their way and they had agreed to take our canoe, its cargo and its crew from the Patea River to begin the road journey to Matau North Rd and the second half of our trip on the Waitara River.

It was a stroke of good luck. We had no idea what we would have done otherwise.

Karen and Bob Schumacher picked us up at the Huinga school where Peter and Richard had dropped us at on Saturday night in time for the Huinga Homebrew Festival.

By the time they arrived late on Sunday afternoon we had sweated out our indulgence and welcomed the gentle rock and roll of the winding roads towards Purangi.

From here we would travel up the Waitara River and come down again so Karen could show us Kiwi country – a 13,000 hectare reserve started by her and Bob after a run in with a bottle of wine and a map of their property way back in 2004

Their aim is to have 500 breeding pair of Kiwi there but to do that they need to get rid of thousands of other breeders: stoats, possums, cats, goats and anything else introduced.

"Now this is off the record okay. Do you do that? Do you do off the record," asked Karen quite seriously as she sat down with a glass of wine that night and detailed a particularly gruesome story about a feral cat and a visiting council man whose boot it came to know.

"You have to do it though," said Bob. "You can't let them get away. Do you know how much damage they cause?"

I didn't but both my cats would now get collars and bells I promised them.

The next day as we wove our canoe through the log strewn river Karen paddled her kayak beside us and pointed out trap lines her "boys" have put in to kill the pests and protect the kiwis and, by consequence, all other birds that call the forest home.

Even from the depths of the river gorge the success of these lines can be seen and, if you stop paddling, heard.

Whereas on the Patea River there was often little more than the dopey squawks of moulting and gormless paradise ducks, the Waitara River Karen guides us through swims in the song of its oldest citizens.

I see my first North Island tomtit, look up to witness a pair of circling native falcons, peer excitedly into a small creek packed with koura, almost feel the whooshing wings of kereru and the hum along to the constant tweeting of the tui.

Paddling away from that inland island the next day we could not be sure if it was quieter the further we went but we do know it got louder two days later when we arrived at, and then shot past, Bryan Hocken's sheep and beef farm near Tarata.

"What sort of trick are you playing at," he yelled at us with mock anger and a dramatic smirk when our paths finally crossed late in the afternoon. "Why didn't someone tell you where you were supposed to stop?"

They had. For the three days before we had been told we could not miss it.

"You can't miss it," his neighbours had said. "Bryan will have something organised for you."

As it turned out he did, just as everyone we met had done. Though initially fearful our back country route would be devoid of contact we soon found it quite the opposite. Though sparsely spread, country people gravitated towards one another much more naturally than people did in a tightly packed city.

"I'd thought we might not meet anyone. But we've hardly even had to cook our own meals," I confided to Bryan, who simply laughed and refilled my glass with his homemade plum gin liqueur, spilling much of it on the wool shed floor.

"Don't worry about that," he bellowed. "This is a wool shed."

Two days later our adventure was coming to an end. We had made it through the witching log jams of the Patea and upper Waitara Rivers. We had surged through the bush covered gorges from Purangi to Tarata and we had been thrown from our canoe with careless and regular disregard in the clean water rapids between there and the Bertrand Rd suspension bridge.

The closer we got to the end the stronger the push of the water became. Feeling this new strength we predicted we would reach the Waitara River mouth by Friday lunchtime but our prediction was way off, just as they had been about most things on the trip.

As we pulled our canoe onto the slippery concrete of our boat ramp finish, well ahead of when we said we would arrive, just an early few were there to greet us.

Shaking our hands and slapping our backs they asked the one thing we did not know.

"So what's next?"