With the roar of the water nearly drowning out his voice, our guide explains that we have two options. We can walk our boat through the rapid, safely avoiding the jagged rocks. Or we can paddle through it — a challenge that carries with it a high likelihood of submersion in the icy water or, worse, head injury.
We're on the shores of the Rangitīkei, somewhere between Taihape and Mangaweka. The river is perhaps best known for its fishing, but we're here because it's one of the only places in the country where you can white-water canoe.
Yes, you read that correctly. We aren't travelling in a soft bouncy raft or even a nimble kayak. Our watercraft of choice for this adventure is a rigid-sided Canadian canoe, packed to the gunwales with supplies for our multi-day trip.
The sport of white-water canoeing is well established in places like North America (there, it's just called canoeing), but it's still relatively new in New Zealand. White-water rafting and kayaking tend to get all the glory, while canoes are perceived as best for beginners on flat water. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet, no paddling school in the country teaches the sport and there's only one tour operator offering guided white-water canoe trips on the Rangitīkei: Ōhakune-based outfitter Canoe Safaris.
I first came across Canoe Safaris while planning a two-day trip down the Whanganui. It didn't take long before my original plans were sidelined in favour of the Rangitīkei's more challenging rapids. But when my partner and I check into Canoe Safari's lodge the night before our trip, I begin to wonder what we've got ourselves into.
"Expect to capsize," co-owner Phil Collins tells us, before sending us off to pack our dry bags and barrels for the journey.
His words are heavy on my mind when we set out early the next morning. At our put-in spot just south of Taihape, mist hangs low over the road. It's going to be a blue-sky day, but right now the temperature is barely creeping into the double digits. With the river still cloaked in shade, my level of interest in capsizing has hit an all-time low.
I'm trying to work some warmth into my fingers when Collins introduces our first challenge — a technical Class II rapid right out of the gate. Dependent on river levels, paddlers on the Whanganui don't encounter a rapid this difficult until their final five kilometres, giving them days to prepare. We, however, only have about 20 minutes and 25 metres.
"The goal is to make sure the river isn't pushing you around," says Collins. Along with guide Canon Larsen, he coaches us on basic strokes, balance and the importance of teamwork.
"Canoeing is symbiotic," he says. "You have to work well together, and one person has to give up some control."
Then, it's time. Helmets on and barrels loaded, we climb aboard. Sitting at the front, I'm the motor of the boat, propelling us onwards with a classic forward stroke. At the stern, my partner, Keilie, acts as our rudder. She doesn't lift her paddle from the water and instead uses it to ferry us through the river's currents.
This technique will be key if we're going to make it through this first rapid. Kayakers can be reactive at the last minute, but canoeists need to chart their course well in advance. For this reason, Collins likens canoes to cruise ships. But this isn't a pleasure cruise. After successfully navigating through the first rapids, we barely have a moment to relax before approaching the next set.
Over the next half hour, we splash through a non-stop series of Class II rapids, each requiring a different approach to avoid impact with rocks, submerged trees and ledges. Collins scouts out the "Goldilocks" routes—pathways through the white water that feel just right.
By late morning, we're starting to feel confident when we come around a bend and hear a rush of water, unlike anything we've encountered yet. It's a Class III. This grade of rapid, according to Paddling.com, is "best left to canoeists with expert skills".
We're far from experts, but Collins and Larsen determine it can be done with some degree of accuracy and caution. To get through safely, we'll have to enter at a side angle, quickly straighten out to get around a large jutting rock, then cut back across in the opposite direction to avoid a collision with a low overhanging rock bank. One misplaced stroke, and we'll go overboard.
That's when Collins gives us the option of walking our canoe. We nearly take it, until I remember why we chose the Rangitīkei in the first place.
We decide to give it a crack.
I get down on my knees for balance as Keilie steers us into position. As the nose of our boat plunges into the rushing water, I lean back. It's like riding a horse that's bucking its way down a steep incline. We tip to the left, taking on water. This is it. We're going to capsize.
Yet, against all odds, we manage to right ourselves. Keilie has to duck to avoid hitting her head on the embankment, but we arrive at the riverbank relatively unscathed; granted, with about half a foot of water at the bottom of our canoe.
My hands still shaking, I turn to watch Collins take his turn.
He moves smoothly through the water, his performance akin to canoe ballet. He pivots and turns with grace, never once losing balance, always on-pointe. If he's a ballerina, then we're more like drunk teenagers in a mosh pit; flailing about and soaked in sweat, praying that we didn't get knocked out.
By the time we arrive at the Mangaweka campground, we're only just starting to dry out. After setting up our tents, we walk up to Awastone, a restaurant set high on the river's banks. Collins tells the server — a white-water rafter — about our journey and about the Class III rapid that nearly took us out.
"What's that rapid called?" he asks her.
"Oh, we just call that one 'the Portage'," she says dismissively, referring to the act of carrying a canoe over an obstacle rather than going through it.
Setting out the next morning, our confidence has improved, although I'm not entirely sure our skills have. Either way, I start to relax in my seat and admire the river. At 185km, the Rangitīkei is one of New Zealand's longest rivers, stretching from the Kaimanawa Ranges near Lake Taupō to the Tasman Sea. In the words of Kiwi poet Sam Hunt's Rangitikei River Song, I finally stop, "Listening, rather, to the river: hawk and high plateau, rivermist below."
Welcome swallows swoop and dive, catching insects off the water's surface. Our canoes carve their way through deep gorges hidden from the farmland above, the white papa (mudstone) cliff faces towering hundreds of metres above us. They're sculpted like icing on a birthday cake, with trees for candles on top. There are no jetboats to interrupt the river's natural rhythm, and the water is so clear that it's easy to make out trout below.
After a stop at the Whitecliffs Boulders — massive cannonball concretions formed millions of years ago from mudstone, not unlike those at Moeraki — we're in the home stretch. Collins and Larsen paddle ahead, allowing us to chart our own course. At one point, we get turned around in an eddy and our guides' canoe slips from view. When we finally catch up, we can sense their disappointment that we're still dry.
A few days later — when Keilie's bruise from "the Portage" has developed into an inky blue on her thigh — we drive to Pipiriki. It's time to tackle the river that we intended to do in the first place — or at least part of it. A lush green to the Rangitīkei's moonscape, the Whanganui River feels placid in comparison. That doesn't mean it doesn't offer up some challenges. As a jetboat carries us 10km upstream to our starting point, its driver points out the rapids we need to be prepared for.
"That one's called the 50/50," he says. "We call it that because you have a 50 per cent chance of falling out."
We watch as soaked paddlers pull their swamped gear from the river.
We fully expect to capsize — but once we find our Goldilocks route through the worst of it, we know we'll be just fine.
CHECKLIST: RANGITIKEI RIVER
Do: Ideal for beginner and intermediate-level paddlers who have already done the Whanganui — or who are looking for a little more excitement — Canoe Safaris offers one- to four-day guided trips on the Rangitīkei River. All-inclusive trips start at $285 for adults. canoesafaris.co.nz
Bridge to Nowhere's Express Trip is an unguided half-day paddle down the Whanganui River. After a short jetboat ride upstream, paddlers travel the 10km back to Pipiriki by canoe. The journey takes roughly two hours. It costs $95 for adults and $50 for children age 7 to 15. bridgetonowhere.co.nz
Stay: Canoe Safaris operates its own small lodge in Ōhakune, which is ideal for its early morning trip departures. The motel-style rooms include kitchenettes, starting at $140 per night.
For longer stays or a touch of luxury after your canoe trip, Rocky Mountain Chalets has centrally located two and three-bedroom units, starting from around $210 per night. rockymountainchalets.com
Eat: Set on the banks of the Rangitīkei River across from the Mangaweka Campground, Awastone is a "riverside haven" that's open daily from 8am to 8pm for coffees, snacks and bar meals. If Canadian canoeing isn't your thing, it's also the base for white-water rafting and scenic floats down the Rangitīkei. Family-friendly tours cost $90 for adults and $75 for kids under 16. White-water kayaking clinics and shuttles for independent paddlers are also available. mangaweka.co.nz