River queen

ISOBEL EWING
Last updated 10:05 12/01/2013
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SAM BRICK
Taranaki Daily News reporter Isobel Ewing takes a canoe trip up the Wanganui river with Andy Gargiulo

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For a bunch of newly minted young professionals, spending summer in an office was a repugnant thought.

"How do people adjust to that?" we whined. While the Christmas holidays spell sloth for some, we wanted adventure.

And so a Facebook group dedicated to knocking off New Zealand's nine Great Walks was born.

Due to two-thirds of the walks being in the South Island, we decide to tackle the Whanganui River journey first - trading aching calves for stiff shoulders, and a wholly novel perspective of the passing scenery.

The planning began and before we knew it January 3 had crept up and we were travelling from various corners of the country to Taumarunui's Holiday Park.

We rose in high spirits on day one despite the sodden landscape - the forecast for clearing skies would ring true, we knew it.

Gear is packed into miniature, allegedly watertight barrels. Bottles of red wine and rum are strategically placed among sleeping bags, head lamps and merino outerwear - reckless and unprepared youth we are not.

It's our first encounter with Ronny of Taumarunui Canoe Hire. That's Ronny of wiry limbs, a mop of wiry black curls and a wide grin. Ronny is a true man of the river.

We are briefed on the risks posed to our cumbersome two- man Canadian canoes by swirling eddies and submerged logs, how to paddle and which lines to choose.

Ronny's grave warnings of perilous groynes (rock structures created by early settlers intended to deepen the channel and allow paddle boats safe passage) and large knobs, had a number of the group snickering.

Ronny drives us an hour south until signs of civilisation begin to dwindle, the road turns to gravel and we reach Whakahoro, the starting point for the three-day trip.

We breathe a collective sigh of relief as we cast off.

With fresh arms and enthusiasm, the kilometres seem to glide by under our keels with deceptive ease as we relish in the sheer simplicity of the experience.

The dip of a paddle in the Earl Grey-coloured water, the silence followed by the drip, drip at the end of a stroke.

I lose all eloquence in those first few hours, mustering just the occasional, "This is SO cool" as my gaze skips from the primeval rainforest, to a darting tui overhead and back to the meandering caravan our canoes form down the river.

A sign heralding John Coull hut in 200m is a welcome sight after 37.5km on the water.

An evening of cards and whisky supped from rinsed-out tomato cans is followed by an early bed after a scolding from the hut ranger at our noisiness.

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Day 2

We slide off into placid waters - the early morning light seems to heighten the river's grandeur as mist rises from its surface.

The gorges are deeper here, and damp tree ferns, flax and lichens droop towards the river's surface.

Turning back we glimpse the trailing canoes materialising like ancient waka from the mist.

At times a fat kereru causes a branch to sag over the water, and the river's edge is peppered with wild goats that pierce the stillness with their startled wails.

We stop at Mangapurua landing to make the quick excursion to the Bridge to Nowhere, a monument to the efforts of those who tried to tame a wilderness.

Returning to the canoes, our silent respect for the river of the previous day is thrown to the wind.

Portable iPod speakers appear and proceed to belt out a tinny Wagon Wheel to the surrounding landscape in what feels like an outrageous act of impiety.

Under the hot sun shirts and jandals are cast off and bodies plunged into the brown water, no regard given to what I picture to be writhing masses of monster eels below.

Red wine is passed around and before long our seven canoes are rafted together, paddles discarded and the singalongs begin to warble across the water.

We drift for about two hours in this fashion before realising an eddy has caused us to begin to float upstream. Paddles are reluctantly lifted and we push through the last 10km of the day into a roaring headwind.

It's with great relief that we finally brush up on to the rocky beach at Tieke Kainga - one of many old pa on the river.

It is a magical spot.

The terraced hillside holds the sun where campers pitch their tents.

A banana tree sways in front of the marae, its roof a striking baby blue against the bush. We are greeted with a venison stew with cabbage and mashed potato, courtesy of good-natured hut ranger, Wai, who sits regally on the deck - the guardian, or kaitiaki of the pa, her chin is adorned with ta moko.

She puffs on a rollie and issues amiable reminders to visitors to remove their shoes before entering.

Wai warms to one of our group members, Nate, a good Taranaki boy from Opunake.

"You're one of us," she chortles.

We get the distinct feeling we're on the receiving end of some Kiwi favouritism.

Wai's voice takes on a curt tone when she speaks of "foreigners".

We leave behind tins of baked beans and packets of raro as tokens of our gratitude to Wai but the box of couscous elicits a lukewarm response.

"I'll stick with meat and spuds!"

Day 3

We move under the shadow of towering cliffs, the sluggish water giving no hint of the three biggest rapids of the trip we are supposed to encounter today.

A deafening roar signals the first big rapid, dancing white water spitting spray up the gorge walls.

We go at it right down the guts, my paddling partner for the day guiding our bow straight with the practised ease of three days' experience.

The canoes bounce through the troughs and over daunting pressure waves with the swooping motion of a roller coaster, producing shrieks and bellows of excitement from their crews.

Soaked but victorious after the final rapid, known as the "Ngaporo Terror", we sight the Pipiriki boat ramp.

Ronny arrives with a picnic basket filled with freshly baked chocolate muffins and ice cold juice.

Despite our occasionally irreverent behaviour, I suspect we were all a little bewitched by the queen of New Zealand's rivers.

Challenge and thrill co-exist with absolute tranquility - cultivating camaraderie and strength in us as it has in the generations of Maori who have lived on its banks.

Back at our desks, the occasional recollection spirits us back to the river; the pull of a swirling eddy, a cascading waterfall, the bleat of a lone goat.

Time to start planning the next one.

- Taranaki Daily News

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