Wet and wild on the Whanganui

SIMON DAY
Last updated 05:00 10/11/2013

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Less than an hour after we launched our five-boat fleet - four two-person Canadian canoes and a kayak - the first piece of white water disturbed the supreme tranquillity of the Whanganui River. There are more than 200 rapids on the river and our amateur paddling techniques were about to face their first test.

The river bisects the rainforest of the Whanganui National Park and is a window into colonial and Maori history.

Classed by the Department of Conservation as one of New Zealand's nine "great walks", the Whanganui River Journey is a 145km five-day (or 87km three-day) canoe trip, through otherwise almost completely inaccessible wilderness.

On an extended weekend boys' trip, we attempted to squeeze the extended version into four days.

If our first attempt at this mild white water was anything to go by, the nine of us weren't going to make it back in time for work.

The first two boats and the kayak negotiated the rapids with success, despite one 180-degree rotation on a rock. The second half of the flotilla was not so lucky.

Hamish and Rich's canoe quickly filled with water and they disappeared beneath the water, still attempting to paddle their submerged vessel. Hysterically distracted by the sight of sinking friends, Ben and Will were ejected into the river in a collision with a boulder. Their boat wrapped around a rock and the current filled the canoe, the pressure near breaking point.

Luckily the boat was sturdy enough to withstand the weight and was freed after nearly half an hour. The "waterproof" bag carrying our phones proved less durable.

It was our first lesson that despite its supreme beauty, nature is the boss in the Whanganui National Park. For hundreds of years the region has repelled attempts to be tamed.

Settlements, farms and infrastructure projects were turned back by the dense bush or left abandoned in the harsh microclimate.

The river and its surroundings feel untouched and primeval. As we left the first day's farmland behind, a thick mist fell into the gorge, carved out of the lowland native bush by the river.

Hidden tui amplified the serenity as we paddled through the still, brown water. You feel cut off and far from civilisation.

By car, the river can be accessed in only four spots - two near Taumarunui, one at the start of the three-day journey at Whakahoro, and the exit point at Pipiriki village.

We based our trip in Ohakune, where rafting company Canoe Safaris looked after us. Halfway between the start and the finish, the cute ski town has everything you need to prepare for the trip, as well as good spots for a preparatory or celebratory beer.

We stayed in the Canoe Safaris Ohakune lodge, which made the dawn start to load our gear into bright blue airtight barrels just a little easier.

At our entry point just south of Taumarunui, we had a brief lesson in the "sweep stroke" and how to aim for the "v" in the rapids. Then we were set loose down New Zealand's longest navigable river.

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The two-man canoes take a minute to get used to. The front seat provides the power, the back seat delicately controls the direction. To the frustration of my crewman Nick, I guided our canoe on a rather indirect course down the river.

However, after half an hour we started to get the hang of it, and could quickly aim for the fast moving parts of the river. It was flowing swiftly after heavy rain and the going was relatively easy. We often rafted the canoes together, letting the river carry us downstream.

By the time we arrived at our DOC campsite, everyone had gone into the river and we were all soaked. One capsize left Ben straddling an upturned canoe as the rest of us performed a rather hopeless rope rescue.

But our tents, camping gear, sleeping bags and clothes had stayed dry in their blue barrels. We set up camp at the well-maintained site, and had dinner on the stove before dark.

We had prepared the food before the trip and frozen the meals in zip-lock bags. But what began as gourmet camping fare transformed on defrosting into slop distinguishable only by colour. Red breakfast slop was a favourite.

As darkness set in, it felt like we had the river to ourselves. Perched with headlamps around the small covered shelter, we drank red wine from a bladder.

The high-pitched calls of brown kiwi filled the night (the largest population in the North Island is found in the Whanganui National Park), before we fell asleep half-drunk, half-exhausted.

The mornings were briefly horrific as we slid back into wet thermals and frosty lifejackets. But, after a cup of instant coffee, bowl of red slop and the workout of paddling, we were soon warm.

The river is at its most dramatic on days two and three. The gorge is deep and the rock facades are painted green with vegetation. Waterfalls shoot from the steep walls into the river and exploration of the tight tributaries leads to even more formidable forest.

There are random reminders of human development too. A rusted car chassis sits stranded in the centre of the river. And the carcass of a cow accompanied us for a long period, trapped in the same river current.

At Whakahoro, the last settlement for 87km, we are joined on the river by other paddlers. Family groups, couples, and tourists flood into the river from a hut hidden down the Retaruke River. The river is full, but it never feels crowded. Among the river's many bends, we could often see only our group.

Stopping for the night at John Coull Hut, the site was fully booked and tent space was tight, but the neighbours were friendly. In the hut, others had the luxury of bunks and a fire.

By day, jet boats momentarily disturbed the peace, shooting more impatient tourists through the gorge. They are dumped at Mangawaiiti Landing for the 40-minute walk to the famed Bridge to Nowhere.

The 38-metre-high bridge is a symbol of the forest's victory over all who tried to conquer it. After World War I, the government settled soldiers on the land, hoping it could be farmed. The concrete bridge was built in 1936, but just six years later the last of the settlers abandoned their infertile farms.

In the indomitable forest the river was once the main, and only, highway through the central North Island. Born on the northern slopes of Mt Tongariro, it runs south 290km to the Tasman Sea.

It was used to explore and survey the new colony. In the late 19th century, long before jet boats, steamers delivered tourists up and down the river.

Local Maori were renowned for their canoeing skills. The river and its surrounding forest were an important source of food, and it was used as a trade route for more than 600 years.

The river holds huge cultural and spiritual importance for Maori, too. There are many versions of the creation story of the river. The most famous tells of the battle of the mountains Tongariro and Taranaki for the heart of Pihanga. Taranaki lost and was forced to flee towards the setting sun, carving the river and filling it with his tears.

On the final night, we stay at Tieke Kainga, the only marae on all the Great Walks that doubles as a hut and campsite. Once a major trading post, the marae and village are being redeveloped with local iwi and DOC.

Here host Wai, with her moko and machete (which she lovingly calls her "husband"), keep you entertained.

By day four, near perfect weather had slowed the rainfall and still water required hard paddling. The rata, rewarewa, rimu and kowhai forest started to give way to clearings of farmland as we came closer to civilisation.

The sun warmed us as we approached the end of the journey. Canoeing this river is a classic Kiwi adventure, an easily accessible trip which takes you through some of New Zealand's most impenetrable back country.

But with a final set of rapids, we finished the way we started, submerged and soggy, bailing water from the canoe on the final boat ramp, before lifting it onto the trailer waiting to take us back to our cars at Ohakune.

Fact file

The Whanganui River Journey is a five- to three-day canoe trip, up to 145km.

There are a number of DOC huts and campsites available along the river which must be booked in advance. Huts are $32 per night, campsites are $14. Children under 17 stay free but bookings are essential. doc.govt.nz

Based in Ohakune, Canoe Safaris has canoes, kayaks, lifejackets and waterproof barrels for hire. They also offer guided river tour options, accommodation in Ohakune, and car parking. canoesafaris.co.nz 

- Sunday Star Times

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