Kayaking the Whanganui River

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush tackles foaming rapids on a six-day journey down the Whanganui River.

Colin leads the way downstream. Photo / Paul Rush
Colin leads the way downstream. Photo / Paul Rush

"A journey of 1000km begins with a single step."

I draw inspiration from this ancient saying as I cast off from Cherry Grove, Taumarunui and take the first of 100,000 paddle strokes that will take me 145km downstream to Pipiriki.

What's life all about if it's not accepting physical and mental challenges, accomplishing them and moving on with renewed confidence to tackle other ventures?

All such philosophical thoughts, along with doubts and fears and work worries, are instantly banished from my mind on hearing the ear-splitting roar of the first rapid. In a remarkably short time my world shrinks to a 22km stretch of brown swirling water that leads to the first campsite at Ohinepane.

Alex, an enthusiastic multi-sport racer, leads our group over the first rapid with consummate ease. Colin, an experienced adventure operator, slots in behind. I join the train next and Robert and Eileen, regular campervan travellers and kayakers, follow in line astern.

The kilometres speed under our keels with deceptive ease until, suddenly everything goes awry. Alex bumps over a shingle bed in a shallow stretch of the river and squeezes through to safety. Some of us grind to a halt and suffer the indignity of climbing out and dragging our kayaks into deeper water. But somehow Robert rides up on the side of a hidden boulder and flips over. Shock, horror - a capsize in the first hour.

Robert desperately clings to his upturned kayak, eventually finding a footing on the rolling riverbed boulders and we are on our way again.

Thrusting out into the current next morning we feel secure in the knowledge that we have served our collective white-water apprenticeship and absolutely dismiss all errant thoughts of mayhem and carnage.

We lunch on the old Kirikau Landing and visit the Maraekowhai Reserve to see the famous Hauhau Niu Poles that symbolise the return to peace after the 1860 wars.

Just as we reach a new psychological comfort zone and settle into the peaceful cadence of the river, a new drama occurs. A Canadian canoe from another party is underwater, lying on its side and stuck fast on a tree snag, exposing its huge interior to an implacable five knot current. Colin takes charge and instructs the sole remaining occupant to "throw all the barrels and tents into the current," which instantly gets everyone's attention.

We quickly assist in reuniting the whole party and their gear. Later the hire company delivers a replacement boat to them.

A new dawn sees us full of expectation and joie de vivre, prepared for any contingency. And would you know it, nothing actually happens.

We breeze through the rapids like they are merely ripples on a mirror lake and even enjoy an ice cream at the canoe hire centre at Whakahoro.

We are in good spirits the next morning ready to make an intimate connection with mother nature. But there's just one problem - we can't see a flaming thing. Persistent drizzle dampens our newfound enthusiasm and an umbrella of brooding mist blankets the sandstone cliffs. Waterfalls cascade from giant rock fissures above us as we paddle along.

The mist clears occasionally, revealing the beauty and tranquillity of the deeply incised gorges; the primeval rainforest, the tree ferns, flax and lichens clinging to the towering papa cliffs.

We pop in to visit a group who are snug and warm in John Coull Hut as a perverse form of self denial, before pressing on to our cold, drizzly camp at Mangapurua.

Day five is all sweetness and light once more for our visit to the famous Bridge to Nowhere, which stands as a monument to the folly of trying to tame a wilderness.

Our kayaks dance frivolously over a rhapsody of rapids and we burst into song at times about 'rowing your boat' or 'cruising down the river.'

Birds sing along with us and ducks graciously concede right of way.

The river is timeless and otherworldly and at times it seems if ghosts of the past are accompanying us.

Constructs of the imagination are easy here. Is that a pa site on the mist-shrouded cliff top? Are vine ladders hanging down that cliff? Is that the flash of paddle blades in the sunlight on a distant waka?

We awake to a fine, misty rain and find the river has changed its mood - again. We are undeterred and take a brief side excursion up the beautiful Manganuioteao River, where much of the feature movie River Queen, was shot.

The final much maligned Autapu Rapid is actually a bouncing bundle of joy with one metre pressure waves, a deafening roar and flurry of spray.

Soon the long awaited Pipiriki boat ramp is in view and we're pleased to see Errol from Taumarunui, waiting to transport us back to hot showers, home comforts and a fun-filled debriefing.

Was it all worth it? Yes. I experienced a profound sense of mystery, solemnity and grandeur on the Whanganui River and believe I felt the spirit or 'mauri' of forty generations of Maori who have lived on its banks.

One day you may feel the magnetic pull of the river as I did. Like me you may succumb to its life force and mystique, and savour vivid memories of high drama and absolute tranquillity, challenge and camaraderie.

The Whanganui River is the quintessential Kiwi adventure journey. It is undoubtedly the Queen of New Zealand rivers. Don't pass it by.

CHECKLIST

* Although a river journey, the Whanganui is part of New Zealand's Great Walks network.

Entry points: The most popular river trip is from Cherry Grove in Taumarunui to Pipiriki on the River Road, taking four to six days. Commercial canoe operators tend to start at Ohinepani 22km downstream, to avoid shallow rapids. Whakahoro (also known as Wade's Landing) is popular for two- to three-day trips to Pipiriki.

Group size: The grade 1-2 river is suitable for small groups and commercial parties of up to 30 people. From a risk management viewpoint, the minimum number is four to six people, to ensure full support for anyone who capsizes in the rapids. The 90km Whakahoro to Pipiriki section has no road access so total self-sufficiency is a must.

Canoe/kayak hire: Commercial operators in Taumarunui, Ohakune, Owhango and Wanganui offer guided trips or independent hireage, providing all gear required for the journey. Canadian canoes with waterproof barrels for gear are the most popular but around 20 per cent of river runners prefer the personal challenge of a five-metre kayak with a spray skirt and storage hatches.

Jetboat trips: Scenic tours depart from Pipiriki, Taumarunui and Whakahoro. Jetboat pick-ups can be arranged after a one-day paddle on the river (e.g from Whakahoro to the Mangapapa campsite). The operators provide transport to the Matemateaonga walkway and the Mangapurua track. A popular excursion is the four-hour return trip from Pipiriki to the Bridge to Nowhere.

River People: Te Atihau Nui a Papa Rangi people have lived in kainga on river terraces and have built pas on strategic heights for 40 generations. European missionaries travelled upriver in 1840 and some settlers followed. A riverboat service operated from 1891 to around 1920. Around 7000 people canoe the Whanganui, New Zealand's longest navigable river, each year.

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