She was a teenager when we met her.

She giggled and chuckled as she skipped through Taumarunui, spreading her unbridled joy for life and youthfulness.

This young lady had a rendezvous to keep: in the autumnal colours of Cherry Grove she was meeting Ongarue: this was not her first love – there had been several since she set out from the Central Plateau - but each one changed her and made her stronger.

Onwards curled the Whanganui River, smug in her recently accorded legal "personhood" that recognises the relationship she has with her iwi.

My companion and I pondered as
we paddled between her banks: was she male or female? But there was no contest. From her surging power to her determined serenity she was 100 per cent woman.

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We next met her at Whakahoro, about a two-hour drive from Taumarunui through the rugged Kaitieki Valley. OUr hire company, Blazing Paddles, had loaded our Canadian canoe with four waterproof barrels we had packed earlier, full of our food and clothes for the next four days.

We were reintroduced to Whanganui by her friend Retaruke who gently led us from the banks of the Blue Duck Station into the watery clutches of her big sister. By now Whanganui was a confident woman and fully in charge – although a little grubby from a day's heavy rain.

If we didn't listen to the signals she whispered as she slid over the rocks and papa banks she quickly punished us with a slap of cold water or spun us around in hidden eddies.

Mostly though, she behaved and we all got on famously for the next three hours.

Campground
Campground

At our late afternoon stop at Mangapapa she showed her jealous side, gripping fast to our hull as we struggled to leave her embrace for a night's rest on her grassy left bank. The Department of Conservation campsite offered a basic shelter for cooking and eating and a long-drop toilet – and a magnificent view of the river right from our camp beds.

I was convinced I heard a kiwi calling in the night as I lay in a tent that felt like it was gently rocking under a quarter moon.

Whanganui had barely rolled back her snug blanket of mist as we set off shortly after 9am the next day for the 20km-odd paddle to John Coull hut.

The scars of her journey through New Zealand's stunning back country landscape marked her now: tree trunks and branches were embedded just below her surface and rock falls slashed her sides. But the battle between river and invaders was won at the terrifying whirlpool known as Tareipoukiore, a raging maelstrom of tree trunks and muddy waters that aroused fear in all who had to pass by, the brochures told us. We were told it had the power to spin around one of the paddle steamers that once traversed these waters.

My heart was in my mouth as we neared the spot in a Canadian built for two. But broken tree trunks and branches scattered like chewed up and spat out carcasses were the only evidence of the churning violence of the pool and we safely paddled by.

Tamatea's Cave was a sightless eye: I wanted to stop to get the iconic photo of the river encircled by the cave's mouth and fringed with lush ferns but we sensed the tapu of entering this place. We did not stop.

At times the Whanganui River showed a gentle side. Photo / Helen van Berkel
At times the Whanganui River showed a gentle side. Photo / Helen van Berkel

At times Whanganui was calm and restful under the warm summer sun, encouraging us to literally put our feet up and rest on our dry bags as she almost silently led us through bush-clad valleys and white-walled gorges.

But she continued to gain strength as she surged onwards, fed by the waterfalls and streamlets that rushed to her like lost children seeking sustenance. Her eddies threw us to the bank at the Ohauora campsite, where we pulled in for lunch.

Ohauora is one of several Department of Conservation campsites dotted along the river. Don't expect hand dryers or flush toilets: the long drop toilets are a shade more modern than the bug-ridden shacks of my childhood but it's still BYO toilet paper.

The indomitable lady had one goal in mind: her union with the sea and she continued to lead us to John Coull hut, a leisurely seven-hour paddle from Mangapapa. John Coull had the services of a DOC ranger and radio access to weather forecasts (fine) from the outside world – still no toilet paper, though.

Kayaks beached at John Coull Hut. Photo / Helen van Berkel
Kayaks beached at John Coull Hut. Photo / Helen van Berkel

It's a popular stop for river travellers and more than 40 people pitched their tents and snored in the hut bunks that night. Ranger Kate fretted about the late arrival of six young men as reports came in from other paddlers of the heavily drinking group's misbehaviour. They finally staggered into camp well after dark, wet from numerous tip-ups, deservedly punished by a disrespected river.

Even the rude young men paused the following morning as a Maori river guide chanted his prayer to the flowing waters before the misty early-morning start. Despite so many paddlers starting more or less together, the groups quickly spread out and we were able to commune with the river in peace once more.

Today we were joined by the Tangarakau and Whangamomona rivers, who slipped in alongside us with barely a ripple. And it was a day for an essential diversion: we rafted up with other canoeists at Mangapurua Landing for a side trip to the magnificent Bridge to Nowhere. As well as an opportunity to stretch our legs, the Bridge to Nowhere was a peek into the colonial attitudes when belief tried to defy reality and failed.

The magnificent Bridge to Nowhere. Photo / Helen van Berkel
The magnificent Bridge to Nowhere. Photo / Helen van Berkel

Most of the families for whom the bridge was built had long gone by the time it was opened, leaving the river valleys to the birds and the Maori who had first claim to this place. Our destination for the night was Tīeke Kāinga, 29km from our morning camp. The living marae on the river will always be associated in my mind with the moment my country changed forever. Tieke Kāinga was one of the flashpoints in the "occupations" as Maori defended their land. The ubiquitous blue tarpaulins of that time are reflected in the blue-painted roof of the marae where all of us – a motley crew of Germans, Kiwis, Swiss paddlers – were officially welcomed onto the marae with a powhiri that included a minute's silence for Christchurch.

Christchurch?

After three days off the grid we were shocked to hear the news: the 49 people shot dead in two mosques – plus one who died later in hospital. Mingled with the vicarious pride in the display of our unique Maori culture to international visitors was the shame and shock of struggling to understand or even believe that this atrocity could have happened in our land.

Even the river was upset: we checked the trip plans Blazing Paddles had provided for the next day: three major rapids to negotiate, including the one rather scarily known as 50/50. That meant half the people capsized. I knew we would not be in the right 50: I wrapped all our goods in heavy-duty plastic bags, sealed them in the waterproof barrels and carefully secured everything to the canoe. We were going to get wet.

We successfully negotiated the first long S-bend with only a lapful of cold water.

The next we weren't so lucky. Our anxiety levels rose as we watched as the first five kayaks in front of us capsize.

Then it was our turn.

We paddled, paddled, paddled but I heeled too hard and too fast and over we went. My world filled with rearing green waves and panic. For a few minutes I held onto the bow of the canoe I had to let it go and ride the current to shore. Other kayakers helped bring in the craft, the barrel containing my $1000 camera bobbing in the water for a frighteningly long time. (It was fine.)

White cliff of the Whanganui River. Photo / Helen van Berkel
White cliff of the Whanganui River. Photo / Helen van Berkel

We dried out on the river bank before tackling the next rapid where my navigator failed to see a large rock in the middle of the stream. We crashed headfirst into it. In what is probably the funniest thing I have ever seen (but decided not to remark on) she flew right out of the canoe and disappeared into the river. She bobbed up in line with my bow, to my screams of "move! Move! Move!" as I fought to avoid running her down and bring the canoe – and her – safely to shore.

The final rapids lead to Pipiriki, where most people end their river journey. (Survived with a splash and a spin in the eddy.)

Safely on the bank, I farewelled the river that had sustained us, challenged and disdained us for the past few days. Not only is this great lady classified as a person, the journey we had just done is also considered one leg of New Zealand's Te Araroa Trail. So you could say, this lady is a tramp.

Blazing Paddles
glenn@blazingpaddles.co.nz
0800 BLAZIN or +64 21 991 564