A Great Walk on Water
Our Track Story
A NZ Great Walk on a river, how is that even possible? This is my questioning thought when I first looked at the Great Walks list to develop the Great Hikes App. After a quick online search, it became obvious that I don’t need the divine ability to walk on water, but just a boat in which to float downstream.
A few months later, the day had arrived to ride the river. After several weeks of long walks with a heavy pack full of GPS and camera equipment, the thought of giving my legs and blisters a rest and storing gear in a barrel seemed very appealing. How hard could a non-walk be I thought? I was about to find out!
My first decision was to take a mate on this journey. I was not going alone on the water. I needed someone comfortable in boats. My nephew just happens to be Captain Dan. Daniel has plenty of boat skills from sailing small yachts in his youth to now captaining a massive research ship that he pilots down to Antarctica. While he is very seaworthy and fun and I could make a great second mate … at the moment he is somewhere far offshore on another adventure.
I decide my friend Phillip who is experienced in sea kayaks would be a good fit. He ultimately becomes my Captain Phillips as he takes the stern to navigate us away from the attack of any waterway hazards.
Our first decision together is whether we hire sit-on-top/inside sea kayaks or to try a Canadian canoe. While we both have experience with the first two, we have never tried a single-bladed paddle in an open canoe. Despite knowing there are river rapids that would fill a canoe in seconds, we go with it as it seems more fitting for this type of journey. Whanganui River Canoes at Raetahi were happy to kit us out with a double Canadian canoe and gear and to shuttle us on our three-day independent journey beginning at Whakahoro near National Park.
As our driver pulls up at the road-end we find out that (1) Canadian’s just call them ‘canoes’, (2) we have made a good choice with the woven seat rather than the plastic one and (3) we need to aim for the ‘V’ shape in the rapid to put us in the best position to stay upright. That last lesson is the one that I will remember today as well as for a lifetime.
Our first few paddle strokes see some drama unfold. Our shuttle-van companions in a double canoe just ahead of us must have phased out at the safety briefing. The first 100m of this tributary before the Whanganui River confluence has one obstacle … a log that just breaches the surface. Whether the young Auckland boys who were gently drifting sideways were taking a selfie, getting their last Snapchat in or just oblivious to the danger ahead I am uncertain.
As I watch the imminent disaster unfold I am amazed how their tippy canoe manages to stay afloat. Their canoe hit the log dead centre on the port side, raised them out of the water, and with a quick twist let them go while rocking them so violently I was certain they would take an early dip. Their recovery was slow and shaky, their wobbles eventually petering out but the ‘Aucklanders’ now had more experience of what not to do for the river obstacles ahead.
Reaching the wider flow of the Whanganui River, Phil and I were at a point of no return – as the only vehicle access now is at the journey's end. The river here quickly leaves the river flats and we pass a deeply incised forest-lined gorge. We have entered a wilderness. After negotiating a few minor rapids and obstacles we start to use river slang for what lies ahead. Significant obstacles become ‘nasty snags’, rapids are ‘lumpy bumpies’ and tricky eddies become ‘deadly eddie’.
Despite our lack of river experience we feel we are picking up the skills needed to make a clear run downstream. After passing the first campsite, the river gorge tightens further around the Man of War Bluff and past the now-tamed whirlpool that once turned massive riverboats in circles. Ahead I can see our lunch spot at a campsite on a shingle riverbank. There are dozens of canoes pulled up and our fellow paddlers watch from the bank for those attacking the last rapid before pulling in. I’m not a fan of audiences and this is one of the largest rapids we have met so far.
Ahead of us at the end of the calm reach are a few canoes. We watch others drop successfully down the whitewater gut before it’s our turn. Paddling as quickly as we can we make a successful plunge, get splashed and are overcome by relief. The relief is shortlived. Suddenly an invisible hand turns our canoe near the watching group as we hit the eddy line …
“it’s a powerful deadly Eddie” I yell,
and instantly our canoe swings upstream. We wobble badly and struggle to counterbalance. I fear ditching so close to the first-day onlookers as we grip the sides to control ourselves and our canoe. Somehow still afloat the rumble of the pebbles under the floor of our boat signals our safe arrival. We pretend there was no panic but we sit ashore for some moments to settle our nerves before taking lunch.
After lunch, we are off again down a massive chute with the biggest ‘V’ shape I have ever seen. We are amongst several other canoes all making their way to the first hut on the river and our overnight camp. With plenty of room in each of our two blue watertight barrels, we elected to take a tent each, which we soon pitch before chatting with others. The next day dawns fine one so we pack up camp, untie our bow line and head for another downstream adventure.
We enjoy both the calm stretches where we can look around at the steep canyon scenery, the steady flowing reaches where our arms get a rest and the rapids where our strokes are precise, quick and our communication rife. Day two is fascinating with a few side guts to explore. One detour into a crack in the gorge walls reveals fossilised mussel shells in the rocks before we get back into the main current and swirl away to Mangapurua Landing … the access walking track to the Bridge to Nowhere.
Pulling up at the landing is an exercise in balance and weight shifting. Other boats are nestled together with a steep slippery bank offering few options for reaching the safety of the river terrace. The river here is swift and if we miss our mark we miss the walk. We manage to pull up and hop between several canoes to reach the terrace. All ropes lead to a single steel pole and the knots appear like a tangled nest. Once our canoe is secure our legs get a stretch as we walk along the forest track to the forgotten bridge.
This is not my first visit. I had been here once before as the bridge is part of the Mountains to Sea cycle trail that I mapped for the Great Rides App. Taking a few extra photos and enjoying lunch away from the river we return to the landing. The first challenge is to untie our rope from others, the next is to carefully crouch low as we hop between boats and the last is to paddle frantically to the opposite bank to take photos of another campsite for the app.
Surging away from the campsite we continue downstream where the high sided gorge widens with patches of farmland scattered along the river’s edge. We had reached Tieke Kainga, a place of deep cultural roots. As we tie up we are greeted by two kaumātua (respected tribal elders), later we are formally welcomed onto the marae. The welcome starts with a pōwhiri as we pass through the gateway onto the grass lawn. The ceremony is beside an ornately carved pou and the meeting house, all surrounded by rainforest.
It is a memorable cultural experience to be welcomed to their spiritual home. We later return to our tents beside the river – today this waterway’s importance is recognised by having been granted the legal rights of a person. We sleep well beside the gentle flow of the Whanganui unaware that tomorrow it will lead us to the largest rapids of the trip.
The next morning we pack up camp early and continue our journey. After a couple of bends, we leave the strip of farmland behind and return to the tight and steep-sided gorge. Here the river seems to have no flow, the waters are dark and mirror-like with the only imperfections being the drips from lush ferns that are high overhead. Over the past few days, we heard the nervous whispers of others about a rapid called the 50:50. Of the hundreds of named rapids on the Whanganui River, the next stretch of river has some of the swiftest. The most infamous is the Autapu or 50:50 – half stay in, half fall out. Now we see that the 50:50 lies directly ahead.
Here the river runs whips along beside a cliff on the left with foreboding whitewater pressure waves down the centre that look like surf at the beach. We take a direct line down the middle and our canoe responds like a bucking broncho pitching me up at the front before descending into the bowels of the spilling waves. Phil at the rear is full of commands. “Paddle hard” he shouts as he steers us clear of a deadly Eddie to my right while I frantically paddle with all my might. It only takes a few moments to bounce through the rapid before it shoots us clear into the next long calm stretch, which we welcome. It is incredible how fun and fear are so closely intertwined and how we are now living for the scary moments that the Whanganui dishes out.
The last minutes on the river include two further rapids before reaching Pipiriki and our shuttle pickup. After reaching the boat ramp and bailing out and putting the canoe in the rack, we drive back to Raetahi which gives time to reflect on our days of walking on water. We had an incredible time together paddling, camping, walking and exploring the diversity of experiences, unlike any other Great Walk. At the start of this trip, I question how an NZ Great Walk could ever be muddied by a non-walking journey. After all, a walk is a walk, right? After tramping all the Department of Conservation’s premier tracks I can now say that the Whanganui Journey adds a lot of value and tends to complement the other Great Walks.
It is not the only Great Walk that can be paddled with tracks like the Abel Tasman Coastal Track. The Heaphy and Paparoa testify that Great Walks can be cycled too. So maybe it is time for the Department to consider rebranding the Great Walks. If these great journeys include walking, kayaking and cycling or a combination, then maybe one day the NZ Cycle Trail (Ngā Haerenga) name could be borrowed. In the future, a new family of our country’s premier outdoor experiences could exist called Haerenga Nui – translated as ‘Great Journeys’ – all linked together through our country forming a network of fabulous outdoor experiences.