Darragh Walshe and family traverse the historic and beautiful Whanganui River.

"So, do we need a gun?"

First classic quote during our three-day family canoe adventure down the Whanganui River. This from the 11-year-old middle daughter, after listening to our family pep-talk covering the key elements of our journey. In particular the methods and terminology on how to negotiate the white-water sections.

"Say what?! — a gun?! — what are you on about?!"

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"You said during our trip we need to shoot the rabbits!"

Cue: Family laughter. "No, we said shoot the rapids! As in successfully negotiating the white-water sections of the river."

In this case, talk of rapids caused laughter, but in most cases over the three days it caused a mix of anxiety, excitement and exhilaration. We were fortunate we had an experienced paddler in the form of the matriarch of our family who helped set us all at ease — in particular our three girls aged, 9, 11 and 14.

Our flotilla consisted of two Canadian-style double canoes for parents paired with one of the youngest children, as well as a single open-style for our 14-year-old.

"Wow, kids — look at that !"

Day One of paddling began from the remote hamlet of Whakahoro, home of the must-stay Blue Duck Station, and within moments one of the most frequently-used quotes of the journey was exclaimed. The scenery was "just amazing" with something new around every bend.

Sheer cliffs, enticing beach stops, birdlife, native bush and the occasional waterfall provided a cool shower for a passing paddler.

We were blessed with three days of clear blue skies and a warm 25C-plus. We had chosen three days between Christmas and New Year and though the dry weather ensured a magical experience, a lower, and slower-running river did make the paddling harder.

Well, not quite so hard for the two younger kids who, after each sporadic stint of paddling, could reward themselves by reclining back on our gear barrels and relax to the soothing sounds of the river. It still didn't stop the occasional "are we here yet?" later in the day. But to be fair, six to seven hours of paddling is a solid day's work, especially with the regular arrival of an afternoon head wind on a slow flowing river.

"You can't come this far without going Nowhere."

Day Two included an option to tie up at the Mangapurua Landing and take a 40-minute hike (each way) through native bush to the Bridge to Nowhere. Given the Whanganui River journey is oddly categorised as one of New Zealand's Great Walks, there is an implied obligation to get the legs working and break a long day of paddling.

The Walsh family canoeing trip on the Whanganui River. Photo / Darragh Walshe
The Walsh family canoeing trip on the Whanganui River. Photo / Darragh Walshe

The bridge is a quirk of history and planning. Construction began in the mid-1930s to create road access to the settlements across the steep Mangapurua Valley. These settlements relied heavily on the river as a trading route, but by the time construction was completed, the settlements were largely deserted and the road connections to the bridge were never completed. So the bridge sits to this day, spanning the impressive gorge but with no road connection on either side, and thus aptly taking those who traverse it by foot ... basically nowhere. To be truthful, that is how the kids felt after their hike, but the impressive structure and history behind it was appreciated by their parents.

"Oma Rapeti"

Our Day Two destination was the small Maori settlement of Tieke Kainga which includes hut and camping facilities as well as a marae. For many international visitors it was their first induction into Maori culture and a welcoming experience it would have been for them.

By the end of the powhiri, we all felt a closer connection to our fellow river travellers and also a closer connection to the river and both its practical and spiritual significance. So where does Oma Rapeti come in? During the powhiri, each group had the opportunity to tell their story through their whaikorero and ours was about our family connection to the area. But we couldn't help include the story about "shooting the rabbits" as a segue to our waiata Oma Rapeti. "Keep paddling !"

Day Three took us from Tieke Kainga to our final destination, Pipiriki, through the three largest rapids of our journey.

The key to negotiating rapids is locating "the V" to provide the best route through the white-water, and to keep paddling to ensure your momentum takes you through.

We were extremely happy to survive all the rapids without capsizing, the only delay being the need to stop after the largest rapid to bail out excess water. During this process we watched six kayaks follow behind us, four of them capsizing. Each capsize was due to the occupants forgetting to keep paddling and the kids took on a supporting role from the riverbank shouting encouragement to "keep paddling!"

It was another long paddle to our final destination, however the staggered rapids and the exhilaration they created helped get us through to Pipiriki in time for our early afternoon transfer.

Our boat-hire package with the Blue Duck Station and Blazing Paddles included a relocation transfer to our car. And the driver was most happy to accommodate a hunger stop at Raetihi for meat pies and pastries. We had the feeling this was not an uncommon request.

We devoured our comfort food with the satisfaction of what we had accomplished as a family. We had kept paddling, successfully shot every rapid, and experienced endless "wow" moments that we will remember for a long time.

CHECKLIST

Getting there:

flies 36 flights weekly between Auckland and Whanganui.

Further details: For information about accommodation and canoe hire, go to blueduckstation.co.nz and blazingpaddles.co.nz.