I am the river, the river is me. Kō au te Āwa, kō te Āwa kō au.

What we had been dreading yet anticipating with a nervous sense of adventure from the time we launched our canoe this morning was finally in our sight. It was the notorious rapid Autapu, only 7 km above Pipiriki, our final destination. For the last four days, we had laughed through all the rapids, daring each one to throw us in the river. Even Nia was undaunted by the rapids. Our 10-year-old fearless daughter was steering her kayak, even though this was her first time in any body of water. Autapu seized all my senses instantly. It was striking hard against the jutted rock. It was roaring at its loudest, spraying a flurry of water, and ricocheting one-meter high-pressure waves. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I clutched my paddle harder, determined not to sneak (bypass) our last big rapid, so, ready for one last dare, I paddled right into it. We hit a big wave, and canoe felt like a wild amusement park ride. Going up, I vividly remembered the four people who started their Whanganui Journey four days ago, with zero river knowledge but infinite enthusiasm.

The adventure began at Taumarunui, at the house of Jono of Taumarunui Canoe Hire. After giving us a brief lesson in the safety, sweep stroke and how to aim for the tongue, a smooth ‘V’ of fast water at the head of rapids,  Jono drove us to the launching point at Ohinepane. Navjot assumed his place at the stern of the Canadian canoe, declaring himself the steering wheel and I on the bow was to be the engine of our canoe. Nia was to follow us in her kayak, and Laddu sat in the middle of our canoe, mostly acting as a captain and sucking his thumb.

He waved us off and promised to see us in four days time with fresh cookies at Pipiriki. Dipping my paddle into brown waters of Wanganui we were excited and nervous at the same time to test our amateur paddling techniques for next four days.

Soon river took a bend, and we immediately attempted our first rapid of the day. Navjot started shouting excitedly, “Nia, look for V, follow us” and “fast, paddle fast,” we bounced, got splashed, and then cheered as we sauntered past our first rapid. We were thrilled after our first rapid, and the journey had started. Slowly, we started getting into the rhythm of it, seeing not just continuous green walls but the incredible complexity of vegetation on the cliffs.

The river is timeless and otherworldly, and I felt a profound sense of serenity spreading through me, as we paddled through the still, brown water. The land surrounding the river is only about one million years old sandstone and mudstone. Sharp ridges, deep gorges, sheer papa cliffs, and waterfalls are handicraft of water erosion. Diverse, lush green, oversaturated trees cling to its steep banks, and tree ferns stand out to be most beautiful and distinctive.

Today was for making friends with Wanganui and for practicing how to handle the rapids – broad, shallow, narrower ones with V-shaped entries and high standing waves, fast, curving ones, few pressure waves caused by hidden boulders and snags and eddies. Those rapids were mostly class I or II which gave us a fun ride, though I was intimidated by fast curving ones, fearing to run into the shingle bank or worse into a cliff wall.

Eddy is a deceptive feature responsible for more boat tipping than the rapids itself. Eddies seem to defy physics by heading upstream. Often situated either side of the rapid, if caught in them expect a quick cold bath with no time to gasp.

Today was also the day of singing and enjoying the river. Kids sang “row row row your boat” when Navjot was not shouting orders. We tied Nia’s kayak to our canoe giving her rest in between rapids.

The river was tranquil, and we did not meet many people of the river. Navjot tried his best to scare every bird, by screaming commands at me while navigating through rapids and eddies. We reached Whakahoro campsite in the evening, tired and dry. After pitching our tent, we ate dinner with other four local canoeists. I started feeling a dull pain in my arms, which quickly became excruciating. It grew so sharp, and so intense – made my labor pains trivial. Fellow canoeists offered me strong painkillers, and much-needed tips about rowing a canoe. Painkillers knocked me off for the whole night for good.

Day two and we are entering “no turning back” part of the journey, which means river has no road access till Pipiriki and we are truly in the wilderness.

The river and its surroundings feel untouched and primeval. As we left the first day’s farmland behind, a thick mist fell into the gorge, carved out of the lowland native bush by the river.

Myth and legends still work in those misty reaches of the Whanganui. Legend tells Whanganui is water flowing through the deep scar made by defeated volcano brother Taranaki. He fought a fierce battle with his volcano brother Tongariro over their common lady love volcano Pihanga.
Soon after launching, we entered deep Wanganui Gorge with rock facades painted many shades of green with vegetation. My arms were thanking the kindness of fellow canoeist with every paddle stroke. We paddled through small rapids and laid on our back over long reaches of still water. Fascinated by steep papa (mudstone) walls of the gorge, topped with tree-ferns, streaming waterfalls – we noticed the tone of clouds getting darker. The clouds compensated for the river and drenched us from the top! Numerous waterfalls started appearing as the rain got heavier.

We paddled around a long horseshoe bend, passed Man O’ War Bluff, where once a Maori pa stood in a commanding position high above the river, and Tamatea’s Cave, a  wāhi tapu (a sacred place) advised not to enter. A rusted car chassis stranded in the center of the river was a bizarre looking reminder of human development.  The rain was getting lighter as we were getting close to Ohauora Campsite. We stopped for refueling at a shingle bank below the campsite. Back in the river, we passed more waterfalls, some merely fine spray from the steep banks and some gushing out from narrow clefts cut deep into the soft papa cliffs.

It was the longest day of the journey, and rain made it almost effortless by speeding up the otherwise leisurely flow. Dripping wet and craving for a hot cup of tea, we welcomed the sign for John Coull Hut, which appeared high on the river bank.  One last rapid and we beached our canoe for the night. John Coull is a modern, comfortable hut, which luckily did not have many people that day. We decided to stay in the hut instead of pitching the tent on the wet and soggy ground. Hut wardens were a very pleasant couple who welcomed our kids and offered them hot chocolate. Kids found the answer to their curiosity. The green, lumpy, slimy globs, which they have been wondering about for last two day. It was Didymo (Didymosphenia geminata) or “rock snot,” an invasive freshwater microscopic alga.

We were joined by few other canoeists for an interesting conversation over the dinner. It was a good day!

Day three and we woke up to a beautiful bright day ready to launch our canoe and kayak. We all were excited about today’s spur trail. Wanganui was at its most dramatic today. Meandering through bush-covered hills, we passed the mouths of the Tāngārākau and Whangamōmona rivers where they join the Whanganui.

We paddled, sang and enjoyed the soft warmth of the sun. Today’s song was “say no to didymo,” Nia and Laddu thought didymo was a funny word. We reached Mangapurua Landing, trailhead to visit much-famed Bridge to Nowhere.

Bridge To Nowhere is exactly that – a bridge that goes nowhere! A poignant reminder of the Mangapurua Valley farm settlement carved out of the bush and then abandoned between the two World Wars. This sturdy concrete bridge was built in 1935 giving road access to the valley, but it was too late. Most of the settlers were gone and a few years later the government closed off the valley. Nature reclaimed the Mangapurua, leaving the bridge isolated in the middle of the wilderness.

We were the only one on the bridge, first silly – jumping and running around, and then philosophical – discussing the impermanence of everything around us, we spent almost an hour there.

 

Back on the river again, we glided down a long steep-walled reach. Navjot had mellowed down with his commands, and we were enjoying the enchanting sounds of the river. The soft stone-rumble of the rapids, an occasional song of a forest bird, a bleat of the feral goats on the cliffs above us, it was an utterly tranquil experience.
Paddling at a relaxed pace, we reached Tīeke Kāinga, where we camped for the night. This place also has a nice big hut. It is a Māori sacred place and visitors are expected to follow tikanga (protocol). Calls of brown kiwi and morepork kept punctuating the silence of the night, delighting us a with special New Zealand treat.

Day four, we fully grasped now why Whanganui is revered as an ancestor by the local Māori tribe. River Whanganui has been granted the same legal rights as a human being on March 15, 2017.
We left Tieke Kāinga with a dull sense of melancholy to say goodbye to the river and trepidation of facing three big rapids. We put our rain jackets and rain pants on, just in case and double checked the straps of life jackets. Soon we were in the deepest part of the Whanganui Gorge,  drifting down a long reach and listening to the occasional sound of the cascading waterfalls. Still water was like a mirror showing a stunning view of upside down gorge.  

The reach ended at the confluence of the Manganuioteao river and not Ngaporo, the first of the three big rapids today, made us hear it loud and clear. Soon the current was drawing us into the V of the rapid as we intended it to do. Before we realize, it spat us out the other side, after leading us into a long plume of standing waves. We laughed and bailed out water from our canoe. One down two more to go.

And now, riding high on the wave of Autapu, immediate future looked very wet. Next moment our canoe was hurled out and away from the rock, upside down. I was face to face with floating didymo for a second, which seemed like an eternity. All three us bobbed up, gave each other a quick glance to affirm our wellness, and immediately looked back at the rapid just in time to witness Nia’s kayak fate. Autapu gave her kayak the same love, which we had received. Together we hauled ourselves, canoe and kayak to the sandbank, which was conveniently on the left bank. We sat there to enjoy watching other canoeists tackling with Autapu, especially two Korean boys who started with us in the morning. A wave tossed them high, they held their arms up in total surrender, and they were out of the rapid. No flipping over! It was strange to feel a bit disappointed by their luck with rapid.  

We launched our canoe one last time and soon passed over Paparoa rapid and reached the boat ramp. Jono came forward to help us pull canoe and kayak. Everything got loaded on the minibus, and we were on our way to Pīpīriki village. Kids were enjoying cookies, Navjot was sharing river stories with Jono, and I was still staggered by my desire to see other canoe capsized. We, humans, are very complex creatures with many contradictions.

It was not just canoeing down the river, it was also a journey deep into my heart, where I discovered humbleness, pride, connectedness, fear, calm, gratefulness, anxiety, hopefulness, irritation, tolerance and perhaps schadenfreude (pleasure-in-others’-misfortune). When you visit New Zealand, you must include this journey on your itinerary. Here is a short video of our journey.

Helpful Information, for those who are inspired to take this journey down the river:

  • There are direct buses between Auckland airport and Taumarunui.
  • The Whanganui River Journey is a five to three-day canoe/kayak trip, up to 145km.
  • There are several DOC huts and campsites available along the river which must be booked in advance. http://www.doc.govt.nz/whanganuijourney
  • Based in Taumarunui, Karen and Jono of Taumarunui Canoe Hire take care of everything for your excellent river experience. They offer guided river tour options, accommodation, pickup from the bus station, car parking and all the gear. You can also hire canoes, kayaks, lifejackets and waterproof barrels. www.taumarunuicanoehire.co.nz