Rivers and me - going with the flow

For every life there is a river running through it and usually, if you're long in years, more than one of these meandering arteries of green or blue or brown.

The first one I came to know was Rakaia, a fierce braiding scratch of excited water pushing itself through the dullness of the Canterbury Plains.

It was on its shingle banks that I learnt to fish for salmon but not actually catch them and it was also there that I learnt to carefully choose and violently skim flat stones across its surface.

Not many people seem worried about skimming these days but in 1981 a skimmed rock was a bigger threat to the health and well being of our nation than alcohol and methamphetamine are now.

You see, back then it was a well known fact among mothers that seven out of 10 river skimmed rocks, no matter which direction they were thrown, went on to kill a child.

The physics of just how one tiny rock travelling at a relatively slow speed could cave in someone's head and kill them eluded me then, and continues to now. But that doesn't stop me, when skimming a rock, from looking both ways as though crossing a road and then aiming that flat surfaced killing machine for the deepest, most inhospitable depths. Just to be safe.

After Rakaia there was a brief dalliance with Waikato, that deep old man of the north. Coming from the small but powerful southern waterway this slow moving leviathan pockmarked with rusting barges, broken down towns and the monolithic Huntly power station, filled me with foreboding.

On trips to Auckland from our temporary base in Morrinsville we would stop for a break across from this bleak riverside temple to industry. There is a good chance it could have been perfect weather every time, but in memory there is always a chill wind blowing and the sort of sullen low cloud that precedes a nuclear holocaust.

And perhaps it is because of this that I have not stopped in Huntly for more than 20 years or perhaps it is because Huntly seems to do its best to be uninviting.

After Waikato there was a more steady relationship with the gentle and unassuming Oakura, the river I should have known first but left before being properly introduced.

For the first few year years I only talked with its last 100 metres but once I had mastered jumping into it from the tree across from the Kaitake Rugby Club, I moved upstream in search of bigger thrills.

Everyone who has grown up in Oakura will know that thrill is found as you leap off the edge of its river bridge and, in a held- breath silence of fear and joy, plunge into water 10 or so metres below.

Once, while me and my brother and his mate Andrew waited for cars to provide an audience for our daring bridge antics, a photographer strode towards us in a whirr of clicking and indignation.

"You know you're not allowed to jump off here," she said confidently and for two or three seconds it looked like our bridge plunging were over. Luckily, Andrew saved the day.

"Pigs arse," he said as he leapt with an oink into the relative safety of the water below.

Brought up to respect the older generation, my brother and I had never witnessed such defiance and while I lacked the vocabulary I now employ, at the time I remember thinking "holy truck Andrew" before jumping in myself.

But it wasn't always jumping. Sometimes we would tie a rope to the railings and swing underneath like coastal Tarzans, my jagged chipped front teeth testimony to the dangers of letting go too late.

Other times we would sneak cigarettes and go eeling there, once catching a monster so big it snapped the handle off one of my mother's wedding present steak knives.

Then as we got older there were bonfires and parties and drinking and fireworks and spinning for kahawai at its mouth.

Like so many relationships I did not know what I had with Oakura until I somehow ended up trading it for the insipid and crotchety Manawatu.

For three years I tried not to get involved but it would not let me escape that easily and pulled me in to help rescue a fat woman seemly resigned to being caught in its slow and depressing currents.

"Leave me alone," she asked us as we laboured to pull her moaning weight ashore.

In Oamaru, where I first tried to be a reporter, I came to know the stoic, proud and fearsome Waitaki. There too I came to be part of a rescue, if only by trying to chronicle the drama of two salmon fishermen whisked out to sea in its powerful grip.

"Did you see what happened?" I asked the fishermen still casting on its banks as though nothing had happened.

And then, because I could see they were regarding me with some suspicion, I told them about Rakaia.

* From January 31 Matt Rilkoff and Taranaki Daily News photographer Cameron Burnell will follow an age-old "river road" as they attempt to paddle a canoe from the mouth of the Patea River to where the Waitara River empties into the Tasman.

Taranaki Daily News