Saturday, January 11, 2014

Kayaking the Whanganui River: 237km and 239 rapids of wonderment

I had stayed in Palmerston North at the Railway backpackers for several days while maintaining contact with my travelling cohorts as usual and set off to meet them in Whanganui for one of the two sections of the trek I had been looking forward to the most. Kayaking the Whanganui River!
  While in Palmerston North I had planned to get an xray of my foot, but being as it was directly over the holidays you can imagine what a mess everything was. I did walk several kilometers down the road to a radiology clinic, but when I arrived I was told I needed a referral form a doctor. They then recommended I walk several more kilometers to a doc office to get one.  I don't understand this stuff.  I have to go to a doctor, tell them something is wrong and that I need an xray, have the fact that I need an xray confirmed, pay for the confirmation of something I already knew to be true, take a tiny piece of paper basically stating I have paid my medical penance to the radiology center, and then get the xray I knew I needed, for them to finally tell me the part I don't actually know, and then pay them as well.  Can we cut out the middle man here?  Also, while needing a foot xray, could they please possibly spread the medical clinics a bit further apart from each other because I have no car, and I just love torturing myself.  All this hullabaloo didn't sit terribly well right after realizing the key hadn't come in the mail for the house sitting and I was beginning to feel more and more emotionally frail.  So, "You are welcome," to whatever league of doctors I spared from my pathetic state that day, because I know, even if they said my foot was right as rain, I would have ended up in tears. I was just over it.  I did not get an xray while in town.  The pain was slowly starting to subside again and I was hopeful that not having to walk while spending the next 8 days kayaking a river would give me, at the very least, more time to decide the urgency of an xray. So I packed up and got out of town!
  On December 29th I bussed from Palmerston north to Taumaranui, where to my surprise, I was met at the bus station by my friends!  They were waiting for me to get into town so we could all get a ride to Taumaranui Canoe Hire's place of business together.  The company lets you camp on their property the night preceding or following one of their trips so you can easily attend a briefing and waver signing party in the morning.
  We set camp down by the rivers edge where we would be launching onto an exciting adventure the following day.  No sooner were the tents erected then the sky let loose upon us and unleashed its watery furies!  Generally the protocol for this situation is to each retreat to our individual tents and entertain ourselves until the weather breaks, but not this time! How exciting, they had a couple metal shipping containers which they use for boat storage that were practically empty, where we could gather, cook, feast and catch up.  While shouting conversations over the pummelling sounds of rain on a cold tin roof nestled beneath thundering clouds, what else was there to do, but make some art?
Now that's what I call riverside accommodation!

Manu demonstrating the tranquility of puddle kayaking


Come into my parlor

  The first day on the river was a lot of anticipation to get going, which in turn was met with another lesson in patience.  The majority of the trips they send down the river are one to five day trips. Te Araroa trampers however have a tendency to lengthen the trip to an 8 day stretch, furthering them down the path at a decent rate and simultaneously giving their feet a much deserved rest.  Therefor, since the TA's have more time on the river to acclimate and take in the sites, they are last on the priority list to get on their way.  After all the other groups had been briefed, provided with maps and their list of campsites arranged down the river, and had proven they were capable of handling their boat, it was finally our turn.
  Since most people get out of the river in Papriki which is about 150km down river, and only the TA hikers go all the way out to where the Whanganui meets the ocean, the canoe company had little further information for us after Papriki other than a map of the remaining stretch and a list of possible campsites and huts. We were told very little of the following river section other than it has a high density of debris usually.
  Our toughest rapids were expected to be within the first two days, and we were told if we made it through those days without capsizing or rolling our boats, then we would be fine the rest of the way.  Not incredibly encouraging information, but also not incredibly threatening. I'll take it! Can we please just get on the river already!?
  And just like that, we were FINALLY on our way!
  We paddled 35.5km to Poukaria campsite.

Buoyant and forward bound

Even on the river there are traffic jams!

A typical DOC campsite sign


Bleating contests with the livestock
  The second day we were the last out of camp. Even though the day before we were the last to be on the water, with our paired excitement and steady pace we ended up passing people who had left long before us, so we gave ourselves a leisurely start.  Also everyone was being quite patient in allotting me enough time to construct a sculpture before we left. There's an extra element of pressure to work quickly when you know 4 people are waiting on you and being polite about it when they would rather be paddling their way to the next camp and through whatever wonders lie in store along the way.  Never mind the added pressure of wanting to get to camp early because today was New Year's Eve and there was merriment to be made!

GoPro Go!
   Each hour of the first day my paddling became more proficient as my arms familiarized themselves with the cycles of strokes.  I played games focusing on efficiency where my goal would be for the paddle to make as little noise as possible when breaking the surface as it dipped along side the vessel and  carried me onward.  I regulated my rhythm and breathing until it became meditation and my mind focused elsewhere.  The sides of the cliffs and valley walls were covered in a blanket of mossy growth and plants stretched themselves toward you, in the center of the river, as they vied for the suns attentive rays.

  There are points along the river so impressively breathtaking that in an understanding reverence everyone stops paddling and quietly lets the current carry them through the luscious wonderland. The only sounds are reminders of a forgotten land, long before humans.  This place has a spirit that cannot be ignored.

  Snaking our way through changing vegetation and furthering ourselves from civilization we came to that night's campground at Mangapapa having paddled another 32.5km. When we arrived at the site we found and encampment already set up. One tent had 3 wings to it and could have housed a gaggle of circus carnies. It's residence and their friends in the three adjacent tents had brought coolers, glass wine glasses, and a stereo. So of course we assumed they also had a disco ball in their urban bivouac castle and discussed our party crashing strategies over dinner.
  To our surprise the after dinner scene was quiet. Phil, an American TA (Te Araroa-er) explained the silence was due to the eel fishing down by the river, so we went to investigate.  Yes, that's right eels are very common in Kiwi waters and are very often eaten.  So apparently to catch them, you take raw meat, wrap it in cloth, (in this case the cloth of choice was a section of men's underwear), tie fishing line to it, and dangle it in the water.  Eel teeth are positioned facing backward so if they get a bite with a good grip all you have to do is fling them up onto the shore, and there's dinner!  If you want to play catch and release they can easily be let go with out so much as a scratch.  We watched and hurrahed every time one was flung to shore.

Eel fishin' (that was the little one)
Laura had ideas of having a silent dance party where we all wore our headphones and danced together to our own music, but not everyone had music devices.  So for a short while, we danced on the edge of the river to her music. One earbud each, often only catching half of the song. She singing lead, and I her backup diva.
Laura's other back-up diva. The lip-sinking blue rubber cup of the Whanganui!
The hard to impress audience

  If you ask people what the best part of the trip was, in their list of things to be excited about are always the following.
  -They didn't have to be walking. Their feet got a much needed break.
  -They didn't have to carry their packs. The canoe hire company offered to hold them and return them to us
    when they retrieved their boats at the end of our journey.
  -Because we didn't have packs, and didn't have to carry everything, we got a whole list of pampering treats because weight was suddenly no issue. Fancy treats included, but were not limited to:
    -Fresh fruit and veggies. We could have made a nutrition commercial Sesame Street would have been
      jealous of. You have to keep away that Scurvy!!!
    -More than one chocolate bar. On a side note I am curious what it is in chocolate that makes every
      person on this trail crave it daily. Seriously, crave!!! At certain junctures it can be used to bribe and
      barter :)
     -I saw a lot of Pringles potato chips this week. Clever Pringles! They are so much less crushable in a
      tube!! The river man's choice of chips.
     -Oh, and last but most importantly, we got to bring alcohol!!  I mean come on, it was New Year's Eve!! We may be in the deep forested recesses of jungle land, but we still want to ring in the new year right!!
  Our celebratory libations consisted of wine decanted into plastic bottles, ciders, and one bottle of Bailey's also in a plastic bottle. Classy Bunch!!!  The festivities although fun, were no match for sleepiness. I originally had plans of kissing my backpack at midnight, right on a heart shaped patch my friend Julia had given to me in the Boise airport as I left for this journey.  The joke being that I have had this pack for 7 years now, which is longer than my longest standing relationship, and apparently more reliable :)  Unfortunately the kayak company was holding my bag for me, so instead I gave everyone a hug.  An early hug. Try as we might, we had given up and dispersed for bed at 10:30.
  I woke early the next morning , made coffee and oatmeal with chia, my typical morning start, and took the time to myself before the others woke from their slumbers, to watch the morning fog lift away from the mountains, making way for the sun to say good morning in that wonderful way only she knows how to do.
New Years on a river in the deep roots of the jungle could not make for a better setting to look over the past year of my life and reflect. What a long journey it has been.

After being the first ready to go, perhaps spurred by holding everyone up the day prior, I had time for a yoga session on the rocky bank.

It was a beautiful day of exhausting my camera over landscapes that ultimately will do no justice to what I saw.  Sun laden riverbeds, green moss, waterfalls, driftwood, hours of singing to myself. John Denver, Simon and Garfunkel, Jim Croce, Patsy Cline, pretty much any soft river friendly songs that came to mind. By the time we reached Mangawaiiti after 37km I was inexplicably exhausted. I got to camp, climbed the ridiculously high and steep staircase to camp, set up my tent, ate food, and went to bed at 6:45 where after writing in my journal was probably passed out by 7:30, just in time for the rains to come.

Mangawaiiti's staircase of doom!

The parking lot

   31km onto Ngaporo the next day as the clouds played chase in the blue sky above and my kayak and I become more syncopated. I worked my way beneath waterfalls and into caves and set to work on a sculpture as soon as we got into camp.  The largest I have made. So large in fact it was difficult to photograph without paddling across the river. A 20 foot version of the flower I always dream of.

Untitled: Drift wood, pumice stones, and grass


Nature's shower
    During our paddle that day we stopped at another campsite for lunch where there was a marae, which is a meeting house for the Maori people and were given a tour.  There are structural guidelines for being able to enter a marae requiring representatives of both tribes incorporating an exchange of tribe history through chants while women fulfill their cultural exchange through song.  But as we didn't have a tribe leader, Brent, who was caretaking over the place, (he was married to a Maori woman and thus a member of the tribe), was kind enough to let us in anyway and give us a tour answering all of our questions. Unfortunately, just beyond the threshold to the grounds my camera died, so here are the few photos I captured.

The most intricately carved pou whenuas I have seen. Oh, and sometimes I kayak in a ninja outfit.

 That night we were followed to the Ngaporo by a group of people who had been quite loud, drunk and rude the night prior at the Mangawaiiti site.  The Whanganui River section is technically one of New Zealand's Great Walks and gets high traffic particularly on their summer holiday break so you have to book your campsites in advance, and there was no way for us to escape the parade of rudeness.  We did however get a few good laughs out of them as they made a habit of sinking their canoes on a daily basis, so I personally thank them for that, but I am not so sure parts of my friends would agree the laugh made it worth the trade.
  Well., Manu had had it. He decided they had kept him up very late the night before and surprisingly had risen very early in the morning, putting forth zero effort in applying camp etiquette.  They were unapologetically loud with no regard to anyone around them, including the neighboring family with young children.  How was Manu to take his revenge?  Well, as I lay in my tent that morning debating on when exactly in the next 5 minutes I would make my first moves at getting up for the day the loud familiar clapping together of muddy boots was happening right in the middle of camp, but with seemingly more oomph than usual.  Manu's signature move for teaching other campers lessons in rudeness. I giggle to myself. Then suddenly!! A crazy manic scream! Did he really just do that? Oh, yes he did! No one was sleeping in today. How could they? It sounded as if for a brief moment someone was getting murdered in the middle of camp.
  Over breakfast Pieter told the account of the possum who stole his water bottle and took it up a tree in the middle of the night, after having torn apart his rubbish bag, leaving trash and wrappers strewn about the camp. I'm sorry, can we go back to the part where I said the possum took his water bottle up a tree!? They have no shame those little buggers!  Pieter had to throw a rock at it to get him to release the goods.  I asked him if he at least got a photo of the thieving varmint with the loot in the treetops. He said sarcastically over his steaming pot of oatmeal "No. Grabbing a camera for a photo of the possum I was fighting in the middle of the night was not my first thought."
  Possum attacks, maniacal screams, and grumpy canoe sinking camp neighbors...let the day begin!!!
  Our goal was to split the last 90 some kilometers into three days knowing the last day a some point we would be battling an incoming tide. The weather held up well and we had a tailwind to assist us most the day.  We were making good time so we pushed on to Downe's Hut, having paddled 48km that day.
Downe's Hut. Fancy fireplace included.

Dinner by candle light

Hanging it out to dry
  The last day on the river, sitting in our kayas, waiting for everyone to be ready Manu told me I was like a dancer in my kayak. Very graceful. I thanked himfor giving me such a nice complimetnt and we sat there for a moment.  Suddenly he grabbed the front end of my kayak and pushed me toward the rapids and said "You go first (inaudible words dressed in a French accent).
  "What did you just call me?"  I asked, thinking due to his last statement that it was some flattering term for a dancer.
  "Crash Test Dummy!" he said, pushing my kayak once more toward the rapids. Well there you have it. Having spent the last two days leading first through most of the rapids, enjoying picking out he best line, and turning around to give pointers to the next person through, I had acquired a river nickname. It has a nice ring to it :)
 We powered through head winds and for the last 1.5-2 hours we were also battling high tide, but we didn't want to stop and wait for the tide to go out. When promises of showers, food, and laundry facilities are on the line you would be surprised at how much energy reserves yo actually have.
  We had travelled a 237km 8 day trek, with 239 rapids, in 6 absolutely amazing days and although I know this was a horrendously long blog post, there is no length of words that can express how grateful I am to have had such an experience.  As if the weather god (whom they have named Huey over here), were sending us an approving wink and a nod, the clouds darkened and rain poured down less than 2 hours after our arrival, and it has been raining very steadily there since.  Perfect timing!!!
  Let the adventures continue!


  1. Absolutely magical Ceratops. Thanks for sharing it so elegantly. Safe travels ahead! love you dear.

  2. Amazing and inspirational. Keep the post coming. I love escaping my reality and joining you on your trek. - Kimmy