It’s a river of reflections. Calm and quiet as it winds through miles of bushland, shining in the sun, with hillsides that drop sharply to the water. The trees are mirrored in the river, spinning and swaying as the canoe glides along. The solitude is immense: no sound apart from the splash and trickle of the paddle, and birdsong echoing high overhead. Then the river’s mood changes. You hear a distant roar, come round a bend and ahead of you the water is jumping, full of whitecaps racing over the rocks. Your heart pounds in anticipation, you position the canoe and head straight for the centre of it. Paddling frantically, caught like a leaf in a storm drain, you shoot through the rapids and into calmer water once more.
The Whanganui is New Zealand’s third-longest river and flows from the heart of the North Island some 290km down to the coast, emerging into the sea at the town of Wanganui. It’s an area steeped in Maori legend and tradition. The story goes that the two mountains Taranaki and Tongariro were both in love with the smaller Mount Pihanga. Pihanga chose Tongariro as her husband, but later had an affair with Taranaki. When Tongariro found out he erupted in fury, forcing Taranaki to flee to the coast. The path that Taranaki left in his wake filled with water and became the Whanganui River.
My journey began at Whakahoro – little more than a jetty. From here it’s three days downstream to Pipiriki, travelling through the Whanganui National Park all the while. I’d not been in a canoe for many years, but was told that wouldn’t be a problem as it was an easy river for beginners. There was an assortment of characters about to embark upon the trip: a couple of German students, two Australian girls, and a Canadian couple who canoed a lot in the wilderness at home. I was the odd one out, because I was going to be on my own the whole time. ‘No worries,’ said the guide. ‘Just keep heading downstream and you can’t go wrong. And don’t ever let go of your paddle.’ Well, that seemed sound advice. The food and camping gear was stowed in watertight barrels, and I pushed off into the river. The guide was shouting something at me, so I backpaddled and cupped my hand round my ear. ‘With the rapids,’ he called, ‘aim for the centre of the ‘V’ shape. You’ll be right.’
Rapids? Nobody had said anything about rapids. It was a bit late now to worry about it, so I gave him the thumbs-up and headed off.
I soon got into the rhythm of paddling economically, letting the current carry me and adjusting the position of the canoe when it began to nose into an eddy. On one bank narrow shingle beaches protruded, covered in dead wood. On the other the mountains plummeted almost vertically downwards, with streams unwinding like tinsel along their flanks. The sun was hot, but as the course of the river twisted and turned the canoe continually passed through deep pools of shade where the temperature dropped sharply. A long way behind me were the Aussie girls in their yellow canoe, but otherwise I was alone. Just me and the bush.
Ahead of me I could hear an ominous roaring sound, like the wind through the trees – except it was a still morning. The first of the rapids. Around the next bend the roar got louder, echoing off the hillsides. The water tumbled and jumped ahead of me, appearing to almost run downhill. I hung back for a while, until I could clearly see the ‘V’ shape in the water – a kind of arrow where the river ran fastest. Digging the paddle deep I headed straight for it. Waves began to slop over the side of the canoe – short, choppy waves that slapped on the hull and then leapt upwards and over my legs. I was caught in the race, the nose veering from side to side as I paddled, the canoe bouncing like a rollercoaster. Then, suddenly, I was through, drifting over huge whirlpools that pulled me towards the bank. It seemed like a good place for a break, so I paddled over to a small shingle beach and had a drink.
After the rapids the river entered a tranquil phase and it was easy paddling all the way to the campsite at John Coull Hut. The sun was disappearing over the mountain tops as I arrived at the small jetty and the air was turning chilly. The campsite was a few minutes’ walk up the sandy bank, and consisted of a long-drop toilet, a solitary waterpump and a small wooden shelter for cooking. The Aussie girls arrived after a while and we sat in the shelter, looking at the stars that emerged above the jagged backdrop of mountains, the night silent but for the sound of cicadas and, far below, the river rushing onwards into the darkness.
In the morning as soon as I stuck my head outside the tent I was greeted by a scene of devastation. Two of my three barrels had been tipped over, and there were bits of wrapper and plastic bag strewn all round the site. This was the work of a possum. Somehow, don’t ask me how, the little swine had got the lid off one of the barrels – the one containing the food. I pulled out the remains of my bread, which had had the corners chewed off every slice running the length of the loaf. The chocolate was gone. Yes we have no bananas. Even the pasta had been nibbled. Maybe there were two of them – one to hold the barrel while the other unscrewed the lid. Either way, they’d had a real party in there. I cleaned up as best I could, and wondered what exactly I was going to eat for the next two days.
The girls decided to leave me some of their bread, having seen the aftermath of my possum attack, and set off again to make good time as they were staying further downstream that night. I dawdled a bit. It was only a few hour’s paddling to the next campsite and I wanted to stop off at one of the most bizarre features of this stretch of river – the Bridge to Nowhere. Initiated as a project to provide employment for returning servicemen after the First World War, the bridge was constructed to span a gorge which was an obstacle to a planned road through the area. The men hacked their way through the bush in this desperately remote place and constructed a magnificent bridge wide enough to take a truck. But it was all in vain. The planners decided to reroute the proposed road, leaving this monumental bridge redundant and swallowed up by the bush a little more each year.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached the campsite at Tikau Marae – an old Maori meeting house, Going in search of water I entered a clearing in front of the marae which was dominated by a bright red totem pole decorated with enormous, gurning figures. Their bulging eyes and protruding tongues were vaguely unsettling; I felt as if I were being watched even when my back was turned, so I gave a little knock on the wall of the meeting house, mentally asking their permission to enter. I sat on the porch of the marae with a cup of tea as the sun went down, smoking a cigar and listening to the silence.
Suddenly there came a sound that jolted me upright. A gunshot. It was deafeningly loud and echoed round and round the surrounding peaks like a fusillade. Then I heard laughter and low voices from the riverbank. Four men came walking up the hill, dressed in camouflage. I saw the outlines of the rifles they carried slung over their shoulders. Although I couldn’t make out their features, they were all extremely large and judging by their accents, all were Maori. I wasn’t feeling entirely comfortable to be sitting on the porch of their marae.
I needn’t have worried. One looked up and saw me sitting there. He started comically, and called out: ‘Hey bro, you gave me a fright, sitting in the dark there.’
I gave him a fright. That was a good one. I stood up and greeted them in a slightly bashful way. They looked wild. All had long hair and tattoos, with one sporting a full moko, the traditional tattoo that covers the entire face. They clumped up onto the porch in their heavy boots and sat down with weary sighs.
‘What are you hunting?’ I asked, more to make polite conversation than anything else.
‘Deer,’ announced the guy who’d spoken to me. ‘But we didn’t get any today. That shot just now,’ he nodded to the guy with the moko, ‘Rangi here just took out a possum. Not much left of it now.’ He grinned.
Rangi smiled wolfishly. ‘They’re a pest,’ he announced. With his accent it sounded like he was saying ‘They’re pissed’.
‘Tell me about it,’ I said. One of the little sods ate half my food last night.’
They found this hilarious. ‘Yeah, you’ve got to watch them. Hey, we’ve got loads of fish here, bro. Take a couple.’ He reached into his bag and slapped down two large trout onto the table in front of me. ‘No worries.’
We grilled the fish on the barbie and all ate together, the conversation revolving almost entirely around fishing or hunting. They discussed types of bait for a while, then moved on to ammunition and its effectiveness. At one point Rangi spread his arms wide and said: ‘Look at this. This whole place. It’s just the best.’ The others nodded solemnly in agreement. While the place was undeniably pretty, it dawned on me that they saw it in very different terms to me – almost regarding everything in the landscape with a quasi-religious reverence, such was their connection to the land.
They were still snoring in the marae the next morning when I got on to the river once more. It was my last day on the water, with only a few hours of paddling to get to Pipiriki where I was being picked up. The river flowed on, slow and sluggish, the landscape on either bank becoming increasingly pastoral; after the wild bush of the previous days, now I was seeing occasional fields surrounding small, tumbledown houses, and once a flock of sheep. But the peacefulness was deceptive – the river had one last surprise in store.
I heard the familiar rushing noise again, and felt the current quicken. ‘Not a problem,’ I thought to myself. ‘I’m getting the hang of it now.’ Round the bend I saw masses of white water, and looked for the ‘V’ shape to aim for. There wasn’t one – a large tree lay in the centre of the river, its roots pointing skywards. The water sluiced by on either side of it, forming a shape more like a ‘W’. I decided to aim for the right and dug deep, shoulders cracking as I powered the canoe into the rapids. I was going alright, speeding along, when there was an almighty bump and then a grinding sound from the hull. I had got stuck on some rocks just below the surface, right in the middle of the rapids. I tried poling with the paddle to get off them, but couldn’t shift. The water rushed by me on either side, and then the canoe began to tilt round, facing the rapids side-on. This was not a good sign. I realised I was going to have to get out.
I managed to swing my legs over the side and stood up. Almost immediately I slipped and went in up to my chest, hanging on to the canoe with my right arm. Remembering the advice of the guide at Whakahoro about not losing the paddle, I stowed it under the barrels. I began to pull the nose of the canoe around to use the current. Inch by inch I swung it till it pointed downstream, then gave a mighty heave and hung on for dear life. The canoe lurched, was caught by the current and started to move. Suddenly it took off, acting like a giant float, with me hanging on to the back. I held my breath as we plummeted through the rapids, my world turning green as bubbles of river water filled my eyes and ears. Then I was out the other side into calmer water. I could see a small shingle beach to the left, so still hanging on to the tail of the canoe I kicked my way over to it. Pulling the canoe up onto the shingle I did a quick kit check. The paddle was still there. I had been lucky not to capsize completely and although I was soaking wet, I was pretty much unscathed.
I set off once more, and within just a few minutes the jetty at Pipiriki came into view. Although I was just about ready to get onto dry land after three days on the river, the sight of the waiting minibus unnerved me – part of me just wanted to keep paddling, and avoid going back to the ‘real world’. But there on the jetty were the Aussie girls waving me in, laughing at my sodden clothes and bedraggled look, and I paddled across to them, climbing out of the canoe for the last time and leaving the river behind me.