A journey on the Whanganui River is to follow in the paddle strokes of countless travellers over centuries, yet it still feels like you are an intrepid explorer in darkest somewhere. It is a chance to immerse yourself in both the pure landscape and the indigenous culture of New Zealand.
There is a safety briefing from the Ohakune canoe hire company and then we were “putting in” at Whakahoro. We had three days to travel the 145 kilometres to the landing at Pipiriki.
Over thousands of years the Whanganui River has cut slowly through the ancient sandstone to form the steep-sided gorge through which we travel in our Canadian canoes with the sun on our backs.
The surrounding hills are high about the river and you feel enclosed by the land and the rich virgin forest of the Whanganui National Park. The rapids are gentle and we quickly gained confidence in handling our “floating island”.
Sometimes the river flows clear and sitting in your canoe you get a sense of rushing with the water over the stony bed. A native falcon soared overhead and white headed cormorants sun themselves, dragon-winged, on the rocks.
In other sections of the river, the stream appears to move slowly, the surface becomes a smooth mirror and you paddle in a trance through a blue field edged with forested mountains and white clouds sailing by under the water.
We nosed our canoes up several winding tributary streams, overhung by vines and lush jungle. Water from tiny streams sprays out through the sunshine and falls like a necklace of diamonds.
Before the era of road and rail, the Whanganui River was an important route linking the central plateau of the North Island and the Tasman sea coast for both Maori and then European colonists.
Before the arrival of the European river traders, the river was the home of the Maori tribe of Te Atihaunui a Paparangi. A series of hapu settlements along the banks of the river were called the “plaited braids of Hinegakau”. The Maori believed that every bend of the river had a Kaitiaki or guardian spirit, which controlled the Mauri or life force of that place.
Accommodation along the way is in the form of New Zealand Department of Conservation huts and campsites, and the Marae at Tieke Kainga, which provides 20 bunks to travellers.
On the last day the cliffs become higher; at times I felt our little craft was to be swallowed up by this extended cleft in the land. From the quiet water the voices of unseen orators could be heard, somewhere behind the trees on the top of the cliff. The intoned Maori speech echoed through the gorge.
Just to test everything we have learned about handling the canoes over the past days, the final rolling rapid is a big one. Driving our canoe through the water, we hit the second wave sideways. The boat miraculously stayed upright and I kept paddling in the front, through the rushing waters.
A large rock was looming straight ahead. I shouted at Mr Wandering Kiwi, trying not to sound strident but there was no response. I looked over my shoulder in panic, only to see him up to his armpits in water and the entire back half of the canoe in the river. He was bailing frantically.
With a huge effort I turned the half-submarined boat aside from the rock but the battle against the incoming water was a losing one and he yelled that we should both paddle for the shore, desperately. We only just made it before the boat submerged. The prow of the canoe grounded on the bank and I stepped ashore, completely dry. Mike and the rest of our friends were not so lucky!
Finally, in the afternoon we reached the fringes of the native forest and the National Park. Three small brown boys watched us from the bank on a bend in the river and the tallest raised an animal horn to his lips, the sound reverberated thinly. The canoe company guys were there to meet us at Pipiriki landing. The Kaitiaki of the Whanganui River had performed their job well.
Paddling a canoe down the Whanganui River is one of the best travel adventures in New Zealand I have experienced. Bar none. Forget bungee jumping and jetboating – in my view these adrenaline-fused activities count neither as adventure or travel. It can be the most thrilling activity in the world but if it doesn’t take you to the heart of a travel destination it’s just not adventure travel.
By Natasha von Geldern
Although a river journey, the Whanganui is designated part of New Zealand’s “Great Walks” network. There are a number of companies offering canoe hire in the central North Island town of Ohakune.
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