As we travel around New Zealand we meet a lot of people who are curious about our adventures. Top of their list is ‘so what have you done in New Zealand so far?’ and there is always one particular trip that springs straight to mind – canoeing down the Whanganui.
The Whanganui is New Zealand’s third longest river with it’s source at the great Mount Tongariro, and the story of how it came to be is steeped in Maori legend, which says that the river was formed when Mount Taranaki turned his back on Ruapehu and Tongariro and as he drew away from the mountain range, he carved out the path of the Whanganui. The river is 180 miles long and flows to the Tasman sea in the south of the North Island. It is protected as both a national park, and the first worlds natural resource to be given the same legal identity as a person.
Today the Whanganui is an important conservation site, and an adventure playground for canoeist and kayakers.
We picked a freedom canoe hire for three days with Whanganui River canoes which would taken in almost 90km of the river and mean we would camp at DOC sites on the banks of the river and also at Tieke Marae. A marae is a Maori sacred place or meeting site for the local Maori kainga (village or settlement). I was super excited both for the trip and to stay at the marae and visit such a spiritual place.
We arrived at Raetihi after a beautiful drive from Lake Taupo, taking in the mountains and green forest. We were given a briefing on the trip from the awesome Ben and Rebecca, and the do’s and don’ts whilst on the river. We would be sailing in a Canadian canoe – with all of our food and camping gear for the next 3 days in sealed (hopefully) waterproof canisters. We had to be prepared as there is no phone signal, running water or electricity save for the marae – which would be 2 days paddle away from our starting point.
We got up at the crack of dawn and packed our cannisters. This was a total rookie mistake, we were cranky from a bad nights sleep, it was pissing it down with rain and trying to pack 3 days worth of camping stuff and food was stressful to say the least. I have to be honest here and say that at this point we almost decided to cancel our trip as the weather was horrendous, and the thought of sailing down a cold wet rainy river, with nowhere for a hot shower was something neither of us was excited about. Thankfully our optimism pulled us through.
We arrived at Tamaranui and the weather was still pretty grey. We had a great briefing from one of the guys at Whanganui River Canoes and then it was time to put it and canoe our way to our first stop at Oahouora. I sat in the front of the canoe as the motor and look out – communicating any snags in the river – and Steve brought up the rear being the rudder and captain – telling me when to speed up or slow down and deciding how to navigate obstacles in the water. We set off and immediately got spun round by a moss covered rock, but didn’t fall out and off we went. Our positivity about the weather rewarded us, because just ten minutes into the trip, the rain stopped, the air cleared and we were quickly removing layers because it was a beautiful day on the river. On that first day we canoed and got used to the river for 7 hours – by the end of the day we were knackered but enthralled. There were plenty of other people on the river and the sense of camaraderie between you all as you sail down into the unknown is really one of the best parts of the trip. As you canoe down the river you are at the bottom of a high sided gorge, thick with lush green trees and bird calls echoing around you. You also see plenty of swamp harriers, tuis and ducks – not to mention rogue goats who bleet their location from the river banks. Despite being exhausted, canoeing down the river was both serene and exhilarating. Approaching white water rapids requires some steely determination and clear and consistent communication between you and your canoeing partner. I was really proud of the team Steve and I became on the river.
The camp sites at the side of the river are focused on preservation of the natural habitat, so there are no amenities besides a long drop toilet and rain water for boiling. The toilet is quite an experience – but for the most part it was so wonderful to keep our phones turned off, completely disconnect with the outside world and immerse ourselves in nature whilst making new friends on the river.
Arriving at Tieke Marae was such a relief – the second day was exceptionally long and we were exhausted when we arrived. We walked up the riverbank towards the marae and were awestruck by its beautiful hut, manicured green lawns and brightly coloured totem. We were advised by the Hut Warden to take off our shoes before entering the hut, and not to consume any alcohol in the marae. There was a maori ceremony happening the very next day and I have never seen so much food being delivered an prepared! Maoris sure know how to have a warm welcoming get together for their kainga.
So what about this pub? Well, arriving at the marae we realised that there was another campsite on the other side of the river….with an alcohol license and the siren call of a cold beer was enough to help us forget the exhaustion and rampant sand flies….so we pulled our canoe up river and sailed down to the other side and into the pub. I hve never paddled for a pint before – it’s quite the memory! It might have only been a Speights golden ale, but a flushing toilet and a cold beer was mana from heaven at that point.
Thanks to some very naughty possums, our night in the marae was very restless – and I would throughly recommend camping instead of staying in the hut if you’re thinking of taking this trip. The camp ground is just below the marae and is set across two large steps and has beautiful views of the sunrise and down the river.
Our final day had quite the surprise in store for us. We had been told that there was a stretch of white water towards the end of day 3 on the river – and that many people go thrown out. What we found out whilst leaving was that there were in fact 3 separate rapids with drops of over 1.5m – and 50% of people get thrown out. I’ll be honest, I was grumpy. I’d had barely any sleep and did not want to get thrown into cold water. We set off and I stayed very quiet – determined to make sure that we didn’t actually attempt the rapids and just pulled the boat across the shingle and past the water. The anticipation for getting to the first set of rapids was almost too much to bare – as we approached every corner I craned my neck to listen for that familiar rumbling of water, and my heart was racing. After what seemed like an eternity on an eerily quiet river – we were staring into the mouth of the first 1.5m drop. It didn’t look like much – at that point – so my f**k it gene kicked in. I kept remembering something my brother said when I went on a hang gliding trip with him ‘if you don’t have fun, there’s no point’ – so we aimed the boat for the rolling v that marked the middle of the rapids. I felt like the roman warrior Boudica as we approached those rapids and the boat lurched forward. What seemed like a mighty craft on still waters suddenly felt like a leaf being tossed into a stormy ocean. All we could do was paddle and paddle and paddle. As we crashed through a wall of white rolling water, I remember feeling the adrenaline pump straight through my veins and I shouted out ‘COME ON!!” as the boat wrestled with the water and we did our best to stay afloat. Then, just a split second later, the boat stabilized and the water calmed to a dormant ripple – quiet until the next unsuspecting visitor. The exhilaration was like nothing on earth. There was no way I was dragging that canoe out of the water – I was facing each and every one of those rapids head on.
We approached the second rapid – and this was the big one – it was also right on a corner, so you got chucked into rolling white water only a meter away from a hard rock face. It also didn’t look like anything at all until the nose of the boat was pointing downwards into the base of a white, foaming, metre high rolling wave of water. Too late for Steve to call a navigation change – I braced myself for impact – would this be us in the drink? Was the boat and all our belongings about to get flipped into the deep? The boat rocked, we got drenched in water and then all of sudden we were spinning round and heading for a rock face – all as our fellow canoeists watched on from a small shingle bank on the other side of the river. I just remember shouting to Steve ‘relax your bum!! Or we’ll sink!!” – relaxing your bum is the best boating advice I’ve ever been given. It lowers your centre of gravity – and the act of physically relaxing is good for your mind as well. It’s ok – permission to laugh granted! A few seconds later I looked up and out to realise….We got through!! We were still afloat! We rowed our boat over to the pebble bank – to bail out the gallons of water we had taken on. In doing so, we were able to stand at the side of the river and watch many other canoes attempt to take on the rapids – some successfully, and some rather unsuccessfully, much to our entertainment.
Back on the river, we eventually made it to Pipriki where we were picked up by Whanganui river canoes. I felt so incredible coming off that river. It was such a magical three days – and taking on those rapids without falling out at all made me feel like a warrior. I was beaming for days after – and there is no greater feeling than your first hot shower after three days of no running water!
Once back at camp we were treated to the most beautiful moon rise over Mount Ruapehu – the perfect end to an incredible three days on New Zealand’s most majestic waterway.
I would throughly recommend this trip – wether you’re an experienced canoeist, or you’ve never been in a canoe before. The team at Whanganui River Canoes are great and there are plenty of guides on the river – you can even choose a guided trip if you’re uncertain about whether a freedom hire is right for you.
Until the next adventure,