"What are you doing? Other side!"
"Left side. Heave! Right side. Heave!"
Our first day of the Whanganui River journey was a clamour of commands back and forth between my partner Neil and me. No matter how deep we dug our paddles, we would inevitably find ourselves carried effortlessly by the flow of the river, straight into the side of the bank.
It was like navigating a pistachio shell through a rip.
It is said there are stages in the quest for competence. In the first stage, we do not understand how to do something and are unaware of our deficit. To progress our skills and knowledge, we must first recognise our shortcomings.
Continuing our furious push through the rapids, we rescued ourselves from willow branch entanglements, collided into the odd boulder and let the river decide our rest spots, wherever we ended up beached.
"What do you think the river is going to do to us today?" I asked Neil as we hobbled out from our tent the next morning. By this point we had jokingly started calling the journey our Five-Day Predicament.
Before us lay the widening river, coiling its way through moss-lined gorges striped intermittently with waterfalls. In calm stretches this scenery is mirrored in perfect, taut reflections.
Journeying deeper into its reaches, we felt the river's primordial past within our bones. Every bend, every lap-tide rock etching, every mysterious wahi tapu speak of powerful forces. I sensed the memory of ancient battles lost and won along the banks and in the forests. The majestic beauty of this place has a way of embedding itself in my subconscious.
At night I had vivid dreams of water swirling smoothly around rocks like silk. By day, we would find ourselves frustrated and eddying, bow pointed upstream, defying logic like a compass needle pulled by a wayward magnet.
I had hoped to master canoeing with my power steering. But now it was clear - the river has its own will.
It was on the third day that I decided to trust the river. I was conscious of my own incompetence and had nothing to lose. Approaching the rapid, I would take a moment to tune in to the currents, making carefully calibrated steers in harmony with the flow. In an environment where every move is magnified – one unnecessary paddle on the wrong side can send you careering sideways – I learned to be more sensitive, to go with the flow.
We reaped the rewards. No more eddying. No more over-correction. Hurtling through the rapids became second nature as we threw the kilometres behind us.
Back on land, I would feel myself gently rocking back and forth for days afterwards, as if still in a current of flotsam and foam. The river had come with me.
Great rivers have been our food baskets and transport routes. But they are more than that. They nurture our sense of self and wellbeing. They are our teachers.
He waka eke noa.
- Anne-Elise Smithson is an Auckland-based environmentalist and has become a Whanganui region enthusiast.