Canoing. A tramper’s luxury. Rather than eating one course meals consisting of instant noodles or chunky soup and drinking only tea and water, you can nourish your body with perishable items and evening cocktails. It was time to give our blistered heels and sore backs time to recuperate so the next leg of our journey led us to the last great walk on the north island which is a 5 day, 145km canoe trip down the Wanganui river.
A little background……….The Wanganui is fed Mt. Tongariro and Mt. Ruapehu (Mt. Doom) – both are mountains that we climbed on the previous great walk. This river was the nucleus of all trade between the early European settlers and Maori (the largest Native tribe). The land surrounding the river is very young, roughly 1 millions years old. Formed of soft sandstone and mudstone from the ocean bed, it has been eroded by water to form sharp ridges, deep gorges, cliffs and waterfalls.
Our group consisted of 8 people, filling 4 canoes. Six of them were Germens – 3 guys and 3 girls. Stephen and I were the only experienced paddlers and we were riding together, therefore we knew the trip was going to be full of hilarious bails. A German expressionless face + cold water = priceless. The river had a similar skill level to that of the Saint Croix later in the summer when water levels are low. The majority of the canoes were 16’9” Old town discoveries, “Canadian canoes” they called them. Taking advantage of the fact we didn’t have to carry any belongings on our back, we had heaps of gear - coolers and barrels full of food and piss. Steve our chauffer suggested that Stephen and I take the largest boat to accommodate all or our stuff. The boat was not an old town; it was a meter wide, 17’ Feelfree. Talk about a piece of shit! I think we would have been better off taking a bath tub.
The trip began at 10:00 from Cherrygrove. After a crash course from Steve about hut locations, major rapids and dangers on the river, Stephen and I were very excited to make passage but the germens had faces riddled with uncertainty. About 20 minutes in we hit our first set of rapids. We were paddling like mad men but were still minutes behind the streamline Old towns. Coming around the corner where you could see the fast breaking water, two Germens were down. Their canoe was wrapped around a rock and both of them were hanging on for dear life as their heads were bobbing in and out of the freezing cold water. “Lift your feet up and let go” I yelled. In the meantime our tub was taking in so much water because of the shallow sides that we almost joined them. Upon reaching shore Stince and I grabbed one of the old towns and paddled to the “U shaped” canoe. We loaded all of their gear into our boat and freed the capsized boat. I had to swim with it while Stephen paddled the gear to shore. After a few solid foot stomps to pop out pressure wounds, the old town was back in working order. Again the Canadians saved the day.
That evening we tented along the river at the designated department of conservation (DOC) camp site. For dinner we fried some burgers and made a garden salad. We sipped cold beer with a few veteran canoers’ and played a germen card game called two heads (similar to that of Oh Hell) with the entire crew. Many good stories were exchanged and our group became close very quickly. The night was a great pace setter for the remainder of the trip.
The sleep was shit! Trying to share a 2 person tent with Stephen is next to impossible. You cannot pass the centre of the tent into his territory or he will wake from a dead sleep and viciously chop you. You cannot snore or breathe to heavy and recently I have developed a horrible snoring problem so sleeping had been unpleasant for the both of us. We were on the river by 10:00 just in time for the rain. It’s amazing how frequent the weather can change from ten minutes to the next. All day we were paddling in down pours, catching sunny breaks and getting thrashed by south westerly winds. I hooked two beautiful rainbow trout but both raised and spit out the hook. The waters were a murky brown due to the rain fall, making fishing conditions poor so we showed up the Whakahoro (pronounced “fuck a whore oh”) hut empty handed. The hut was located in a sheep farm below the main lodge of our canoeing company. As usual the Germens began “guganheiming” back and forth so Stince and I decided to walk up to the lodge. Gou-gan-heiming is the word we use for German conversation because it is a suitable word that depicts most words used in the German language. If only we knew what the night had in store for us.
Just as we put our foot in the door a squirrelly looking Kiwi ran to greet us. He spoke very quickly with a heavy accent and used so many actions to accentuate his conversation that it was almost impossible to understand him. His name was Dave and boy was he ever a character. I would compare his presence to a camp fire. You could sit there and watch him and be entertained for the entire evening. After the hand shakes and small talk he invited us in to his living space. Pete his other friend introduced himself and handed out beer. I noticed a guitar resting in the corner so I picked it up and began to strum quietly. Immediately I was bombarded with requests so I began to play like nobody was watching. Stince was singing along, Pete was stomping his feet and Dave was snapping and clapping. The musical setting catalyzed an unforgettable evening. They treated us to spaghetti and we all shared stories which had great impact on our lives. Within an hour of meeting them I felt as though I have known them my entire life. Just when things couldn’t have gotten any better one of the rare species of Owl called a Morepork flew in the illuminated room. He was catching the meaty moths that were circulating the outdoor light. After many escape attempts while blinded by the light he rested on the centre truss of the high ceiling. Its intelligent eyes were jetting around the room, studying the surroundings. Rarely a Moreprok is seen by the human eye so we were all memorized by its presence. We burned our midnight oil dry and upon dispersing, many times one mentioned how special the evening was.
The next day we were storm stayed. The heavens were pissing and the wind was blowing. Dave was very excited to have us stay an extra day so he called Pete to bring his 454in3 300hp jet boat to the landing to take us for the ride of a life time. As much as I hated being in a deafening motor boat traveling in waters that should only be navigated by canoe, it was a hell of a time. This boat could accelerate from 0 to 80km in two seconds and turn on the dime. The hull of the boat went as deep as a canoe so you should literally jump rapids when flying up river. Normally a jet boat ride costs $150 a person but for us the only condition was to have a fire with them later that evening. The Germens joined us for the fire and again the night was fulfilled with great stories and ab-busting laughs. We all were fortunate to witness the sport of sheep bumping. Sheep bumping is a native sport which involves getting on a 4-wheeler, extremely pissed in the wee hours of the morning and knocking over sheep as they run for their lives. Dave was very experienced so no sheep were harmed during the show.
Staying the extra night was not anticipated so everyone’s food supply was behind a day. Being the amazing host’s that they are Dave and Pete drove two hours into town to buy a list of food items we needed in order to complete the trip. It was hard saying goodbye to our new mates but I guess all good things must come to an end. They insisted that we come back during our travels to work with them and stay at Pete’s house. What generous men.
The trip that day was very slow. The water was high which hid many of the challenging rapids beneath the surface creating many swirling eddies. Again the water was murky so fishing was like dropping a line in a mud puddle. The bath tub did not fair well in these waters, if we stopped paddling for a moment our momentum would shift in the opposite direction. Reaching the John Coull hut was a great relief. That evening I cooked pasta and we sat around the kitchen table commenting on an outdated People magazine and playing who am I. Our body’s were exhausted from hours of paddling and spending two nights the crazy Kiwi’s so we were all in bed by dark.
The water was clear the next morning so I was looking forward to catching the trophy Rainbow trout I dreamt about. We were on the river very early because we had 40km to paddle. This morning Stephen put everyone’s name in his hat and drew out new canoe partners. Our current travel buddy Simon had been working on the beautiful German in our group and you could tell he was praying that his name would be picked with Hanna’s. Stephen rigged the draw and when their names were picked together you could almost see him jump out of his skin. Stephen was picked to canoe with another girl Stephanie and I was fortunate to partner with the clown of the group named Carsten. Carsten was a powerful lad so manning the back of the canoe was a pleasure. All day we paddled together like a four pontoon catamaran. Carsten snagged my only fishing lure, so again I was not able to fulfill my promise of fish for dinner. We shared songs back and forth, raced around many corners and had some splashing fights. It was definitely the most beautiful and entertaining day on the river so far.
Our hut site that evening belonged to the Maori tribe (native Indians). There were beautiful hand carved totem poles around the perimeter of the property, a large cooking hall and sleeping area. Carsten, Stephen and I made the traverse to the other side of the river after dinner to check out a luxurious building on the crest of a hill that we could see from the river. It turned out to be a comfortable lodge equipped with a bar, guitar and large deck with a panorama of the river. We had very interesting conversations, sipped a few toddies and watched the sun descend below the horizon before heading to bed.
All of the Evenings are very peaceful in the wops of New Zealand. There is never the constant sound of clicking crickets or bubbling frogs. It seems as though every species enjoys a peaceful evening.
It was the last day on the river and roughly 2 hours in we pulled ashore to hike an hour to the famous Bridge to Nowhere. The landscape felt as though we were trekking through the lush rain forest of the Amazon. Ferns were towering 15ft in the sky and moss covered vegetation was aimlessly growing in all directions. The combination of sunshine and sounds of exotic birds melded to create a setting only one could dream of. An elevated concrete bridge was doing exactly what it was famous for – leading to no where. While throwing many objects off the bridge I decided to make things a little more exciting and pee a waterfall. The Germens were now beginning to understand our humor.
After a swim, 5 hours of paddling and one last pitch of large rapids we reached the pick up point where Dave was waiting for our arrival. We unloaded the canoes, tied them down and headed back to Tongariro National park. This trip was definitely the best great walk so far.
Currently we are staying at a hostel in Nelson. Nelson is a city with the population of 40,000 located on the northern tip of the south island. It receives the most sunshine out of any city in New Zealand. Tomorrow we begin our first day of work on an apple farm, thinning the trees.
Thank you all for reading. The blog from our great walk (the 4day northern circuit) before the canoeing trip should be posted in a few days.