Waikato River: Delta dawn

By Paul Rush

A three-day kayak along the vast Waikato River takes the traveller through a mysterious world relatively untouched by modern civilisation. Photo / Supplied
A three-day kayak along the vast Waikato River takes the traveller through a mysterious world relatively untouched by modern civilisation. Photo / Supplied

A dawn mist hangs over the weary Waikato River as its silt-laden current surges through the maze of delta islands, where we are trapped in a dead-end passage. A solid phalanx of metre-high waterborne vegetation, for all the world like a Sargasso Sea of triffid plants, blocks any further progress.

Our never-say-die leader, Colin Harrington of StressFree Adventures, boldly stands up in his narrow sea kayak and surveys the scene for several minutes with the utmost gravity, shading his face with an outstretched palm in time-honoured fashion, staring at the horizon like Columbus on a peak in Darien.

He decides to barge through the morass and backs up his kayak for the charge, which flattens the vegetation. We manfully follow him into the unknown.

Surprise, surprise, a mere two kayak lengths away is open water. Our anticipated massive portage is a two-minute scramble.

Our spray-skirts are littered with all manner of aquatic vegetation and slimy creeping things but it doesn't matter, we're on our way again.

This new day will see the placid waters of the Waikato River delta surge out into the white-capped tumult at the river mouth, finally released from the confines of New Zealand's longest river valley. In the past week the waters have cascaded over the Huka Falls, been pounded by the Aratiatia Rapids and pummelled through power-station penstocks to reach this point.

I'm part of a group of keen paddlers heading for Hood's Landing near Waiuku, thankfully well short of the maelstrom at the river's mouth. This three-day kayaking trip will take us from Rangiriri to Hood's Landing with overnight stops at Mercer township and Kaiwaka No 2 Island.

With the help of a 2km current, we spend leisurely days paddling downstream, enjoying the luxury of lying back in the cockpit and admiring the changing view of distant hills, exotic pine forests, willow-lined banks and the prolific growth of flax, bulrush and duck weed. This mighty river is 300m wide in places, fringed by dense willow thickets that obscure the view of low-lying farms on the flood plain beyond.

New Zealand's own Mississippi inspires awe and respect because of its size and its relentless drive towards the sea, unheeding of our little party being silently carried on its back.

In pre-European days, warriors and trading parties plied these waters in waka hewn from giant totara logs and in the 19th-century settlers used it as North Island's Highway One, until the road network was built. This great river has touched more New Zealand lives than any other.

Downstream from Mercern the Waikato cuts a wide, gently flowing swathe through the countryside. Sweeping bends create eddies and backwaters, which we avoid. We cruise 10m out from the bank, evading the occasional black tree stumps that stand up like beached whales in the shallows.

A rhythmic mechanical sound drowns out the birdsong, cicada buzz and the soft swish of our paddles as we draw near a huge pumping station. This is where the Waikato River water is drawn as a permanent supplement to Auckland's water supply.

Beyond Tuakau Bridge the river's character changes completely. The delta region is a veritable maze of low sand islands and divergent channels, which impede the flow. Over centuries the deposition of silt has exceeded the rate of removal and created these islands in a random pattern. The islands carry some imposing stands of native forest, nikau palms and cabbage trees and are lined with the ubiquitous willows and flax. They have the potential to get an unwary kayaker geographically challenged, disoriented or even downright lost, but hey, we're having fun on the bayou.

Our overnight accommodation is a weather-beaten, one-room corrugated iron bach, which is losing the battle for survival against the relentless scouring effect of river currents. A wall of protective sandbags has been swept away and the water is swishing menacingly under the front steps.

Thankfully, no rain is forecast for tonight so we should sleep tight. The owner has plans to demolish the hut and relocate it to higher ground. This is one of many innovative Kiwi DIY creations on the delta, ranging from half-submerged, manuka-screened duck-shooting maimais, to solid floating whitebaiting pontoons and imposing two-roomed baches.

A few substantial dwellings on the Queen's chain are permanently occupied by retired couples and young, bearded fishermen who carry the earnest mien of alternative lifestylers who cherish the pioneer notion of surviving in the wilderness.

Many baches display road signs and conservation notices purloined from the other world beyond the river. Handwritten signs warn visitors to steal property on pain of death, or by contrast, invite them to use the huts but leave everything as they found it.

The delta scene is reminiscent of the Adventures of Tom Sawyer with the requisite feelings of isolation and Deliverance-style mystery and uncertainty. Throw in the Everglades ambience of the swampland and you may well be a million miles from civilisation, gliding anxiously through a tumbledown lost world on the broad green back of the river. Our tour group pushes through more strips of floating vegetation, confident that our leader's experience, backed by his GPS, will take us out of this turbid anabranch of the river.

Dragonflies dart in curious patterns and dozens of bright orange carp languidly browse on aquatic weed, waving a single pectoral fin above the surface as if in greeting.

At Hood's Landing home and a hot shower are now only a two-hour paddle away through the labyrinth of eyots and sandbanks. A pukeko flaps its wings noisily as it darts away towards a ramshackle human habitation hidden in deep foliage. Colin knows the owner of this fine example of absolute waterfront property so we make an "open home inspection".

It's larger than an outhouse but is furnished in the same Spartan style with apple boxes for chairs and a door masquerading as a dining table. The interior finishes fall well below the Ashton Marsh standard, but there's a wire-mesh food safe and a serviceable sink unit.

There's a certain eeriness about entering a stranger's secret world, a dwelling that officially doesn't exist on council records, a no-man's land of private dreams, someone's perfect delta home away from home.

IF YOU GO
The Waikato River is ideal for day kayaking trips or multi-day excursions.

A river paddle makes a very interesting trip, given the uninspiring look of the river from State Highway 1. Paddling through mysterious channels and passages in the pale glow of a delta dawn adds drama. A guided trip provides the convenience of transport at each end of the journey. More importantly, it avoids circumnavigating the same island three times and becoming an involuntary overnight delta dweller.

www.stressfree.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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