Whanganui River Journey

“E rere kau mai te Āwanui,
Mai i te Kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa
Kō au te Āwa, kō te Āwa kō au.”

“The great river flows from the mountains to the sea.
I am the river, the river is me.”

The Whanganui Awa (river) begins on the western slopes of the sacred Mount Ngauruhoe and winds down some 300km before eventually emptying into the Tasman Sea. The river has been cared for by the local iwi (tribe, which in this case is the Ātihaunui-a-Papārangi) for over 40 generations, with the tangata whenua (original Maori inhabitants of New Zealand) “using the river and its tributaries to facilitate trade and communication among themselves and as far as [Wellington] at least 600 years ago”. [1]

The second I heard about the 145 km descent of the river that makes up one of the 10 Great Walks in Aotearoa, I felt immediately drawn to it. Considering the popularity of the Walks as well as the upcoming summer season, I knew some planning and booking ahead would be necessary so I sought out the help of a local outfitter. Taumaranui Canoe Hire would book our DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites for us, provide us with all of the technical gear (canoe, paddles, waterproof barrels, and detailed river maps), and shuttle us back at the end of our trip.

Although they would be giving us a briefing on what to expect on our trip with regard to the current water levels, we would be completely on our own to navigate and negotiate our way through the rapids. There would be no cell phone service once we took off and since it was the very beginning of the season, we’d likely be alone on the water for several hours (if not full days) at a time. For the next few weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about our upcoming trip, feeling slightly worried I was underprepared. I’d previously done a 3-day canoeing and camping trip on the Buffalo River as well as a handful of other kayaking, canoeing, and rafting day trips but I wasn’t sure if it would be enough.

Given the 7 am call time for our trip briefing, we decided to arrive the night before and sleep in our new campervan in order to have time to pack our barrels. Since we arrived at camp later than expected because of a last-minute car issue (the driver’s window got stuck), everyone was already in for the night but we found our assigned barrels waiting for us under a small overhang. The confirmation email I’d received had only said we’d have “waterproof storage barrels – 30L and 60L” so I had packed minimally, assuming we’d have to fit our 5 days of food and gear into two barrels. Knowing that we now had four 30L barrels and a 60L one (bigger but less waterproof), we decided to repack our things over breakfast and settled on the following organization:

  • one 30L barrel for food with ‘camp food’ (dinner and breakfast)
  • one 30L barrel for ‘river food’ (lunch and snacks);
  • one 30L barrel each for our clothes;
  • one 60L barrel for our tents and sleeping bags.
My view of our canoe loaded with our barrels and our trusty captain, Robin

At the briefing we learned that there would be about 10 of us total: 4 of us doing the full 5-day descent, 4 doing a single-day trip, and 3 people starting a 3-day trip three days after us. The latter group included a couple that was hiking down to their put-in point and a British girl who was mountain biking solo to her point on the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail. (Impressive.) The presentation featured some helpful videos on how to navigate the bigger rapids we’d be encountering on the trip but I quickly felt overwhelmed by the amount of important information my ADHD-riddled brain would have to retain. “For the rapids, when in doubt, stay right. Otherwise, just remember that you’ll head to the right on day one, and to the left on days two, three, and four. On day five you’ll reach a few rapids where’ll you’ll want to stay right at first then left but don’t worry, this will all come back to you when you’re on the water,” the mulleted owner said with a toothy grin.

After the briefing, with my head still swimming with information, we headed down to the shore to learn how to load and properly distribute the weight of our barrels on the boats as well as how to attach them securely. As we were taking off, the four of us doing the 5-day descent were asked to keep an eye on one another for safety’s sake.

Day One : Taumarunui to Poukaria

Distance: 35 km

Robin’s lovely view of our river maps and the back of my head

We took off at Ngāhuinga (Cherry Grove) around 10:30 am and encountered our first small rapid about 5 minutes later. With Robin as our captain, we got splashed around but passed through it with relative ease. We encountered the largest number of rapids on this section of the river, but nothing that was too challenging. About an hour later, between the soak from the rapids and the scrambling uphill, we arrived at a lavender farm sweaty, mud-streaked, and grateful for the chance to take in the view from above.

Lauren’s Lavender Farm

A few hours later, we passed by the Ōhinepane Campsite and waved goodbye to the day trippers who were pulling up to shore. With the other 5-day duo still out of sight, we continued on to our campsite at Poukaria feeling happy to be relatively alone, surrounded by patches of farmland and native bush. We pulled up to shore around 4:30 pm and started by getting a lay of the land and clearing the ground around our campsite for the night. I kept looking towards the river, half expecting the guys to show up at some point, but as dusk fell, so did my expectations that they would arrive. (We did have quite a few guests in the form of a family of sheep and some ducks.)

Poukaria campsite and our sheep friends (minefield of sheep poop, not pictured)

Once we set up camp and washed up, I started sorting my things and realized just how much I’d forgotten to pack. First off: the water filtration tablets. Shit. Each campsite had water tanks but they were filled with rainwater that needed to be purified. I’d been planning on managing our gas usage conservatively since we’d only brought one gas canister but now we had no choice but to double-boil all of our water.

Later on, while Robin went off to do his breathing exercises, I ate a snack and absentmindedly reached into my barrel, feeling around for my book until I realized it wasn’t there. Turns out I’d also forgotten to pack my nighttime bag containing my earplugs, eye mask, notebook, and book. Fuck. I had a minor freak out but figured I could just listen to my downloaded podcasts instead… until I remembered I’d chosen to leave my phone in the van in case we tipped and lost Robin’s phone.

It started to slowly dawn on me that I would have to be completely alone with my thoughts at night. While I waited for Robin to finish his meditation, I did the handful of yoga moves I knew from memory and spent the rest of the time laying on the picnic table counting mosquitos and tending to the intense sunburn I’d gotten on my upper arms and legs (I’m ashamed to admit I hadn’t put any sunscreen anywhere other than my face…). Luckily I was so tired from our day that right after we finished our instant soup dinner, I slid into my sleeping bag and fell asleep 30 seconds later.

Day Two : Poukaria to Mangapapa

Distance: 32 km

The next morning, still riding on the high of being able to spend a night without my usual distractions, I suggested to Robin that we spend a morning in silence. While it was a great idea, I am unfortunately still me, so the silence lasted about 30 seconds before I felt the need to punctuate it with some totally unnecessary observation.

I felt like it was taking a concerning amount of time to reach our next point according to the daily paddling time estimates but since Robin was steering and had the map in front of him, I trusted his judgment. As time passed, I started to worry we’d accidentally paddled past camp so I look at the map myself and realized he hadn’t read the full page which contained a detailed breakdown of paddling times between each point. I think we both hadn’t realized just how reassuring the time estimates had been for me up until this point. Up until now, I’d been managing to preserve my sanity by turning the big, intangible chunks of time and space into smaller, measurable bits.

With the map now securely in front of me, we continued on, taking the time to admire Ohura Falls before paddling upstream of the Ohura River. We paddled hard against the current, still holding on hope that behind each bend there might be a hidden waterfall just waiting until we finally let it go. The next stretch was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Since we were nestled deep in the gorge between Ohura Falls and the Whakahoro campsite, we were treated to beautiful views at every turn.

The Maharanui campsite where we took a pit stop was also one of the cutest we saw. It also provided us with free entertainment as the tricky rapid below (which was situated right before the landing) was giving the paddlers a run for their money. A few kilometers later, we moored at the Whakahoro Landing and walked over Lacy’s Bridge (suspended over the sizeable Retaruke River) before continuing uphill to the Whakahoro campground and bunkhouse.

Once we arrived we were flooded with the relief of knowing we wouldn’t have to carry all our gear 400 meters uphill (and twice at that, in order to bring all four barrels up) since it wasn’t our stop for the night. That being said, the cute and bright Whakahoro bunkroom did have its charm: the small, white building is actually a renovated historic building that was once the local schoolhouse. Upon arriving, we ran into the solo female mountain biker from our briefing who was taking the time to hike around before starting her river journey the next day. (I felt such a deep sense of admiration for her capacity to engage in what I truly consider adventure: taking off into the unknown by yourself with nothing but your own skills to rely on.)

The vastness of the river and its many arms

She told us of a small café uphill that had just opened for the season. Though I didn’t need a break, I couldn’t pass up the chance to dry myself on their patio now that the sun had come out, so I ordered a small black coffee. I don’t know how to explain this without sounding melodramatic but the tiny luxury of getting to order a drink felt so much like I was breaking something sacrosanct like I was somehow desecrating the austerity of my quality time with nature, that I instantly felt guilty about my purchase. (Can you tell I went to Catholic school?)

Back on the water, we took a few moments to scope out any potential side trips and to decide how we’d navigate through upcoming rapids. Though our river maps were quite comprehensive with regard to the technical information, I felt grateful that they also offered a few words on the Maori history of the river and its banks. I learned that in the early 1800s, “the Makakote Pā (a Māori village or defensive settlement) close to Whakahoro was ‘the scene of a great siege between the downriver and the upriver Maori. It continued for so long that the upriver Maori (the tribe under siege led by Topine Te Mamaku) were running out of food. In desperation, they presented their children to the aggressors, who then took pity and left’“. [1] (Yet another reminder of the indelible effects of colonialism and the marks they leave…) But before the Europeans arrived in Aotearoa, “within the dense ngahere (native forests) of the Whanganui region, [the local iwi] cultivated the sheltered terraces and built their pā on strategic heights. The Whanganui hapū (sub-tribes) were renowned for their canoeing skills and maintained extensive networks of weirs and fishing traps along the river until the arrival of riverboats forced changes to customary practices“. [2]

After leaving Whakahoro, the feeling of venturing into the heart of a rich and rugged landscape with bush-clad valleys and lush waterfalls started to sink in. We enjoyed long moments of feeling perfectly isolated, nestled in the wild gorges. Since we’d started to feel more comfortable on the water by that point, we took turns laying back in the canoe with our eyes closed, listening to the trickling waterfall and the birds while the other navigated. I appreciated just how pristine, untouched, and quiet the river felt (at least for our first 2.5 days) and how often it reminded me of my beloved Buffalo National River back in Arkansas.

Another beautiful gorge we came across on our side trips

While I did enjoy the long periods of calm, I had to laugh at how often I seemed to feel compelled to break the silence by mentioning how nice it was. After a particularly long stretch of quiet, I would ask Robin what he’d been thinking about and it was often very prosaic, like the shape of a certain boulder or the color of the water. I felt a bit jealous and found it frustrating just how far and deep my mind seemed to wander, and how difficult it seemed for it to stay in the present, on the surface of things.

I’d been dying to wash up properly and since we were once again alone at Mangapapa (our home for the night), I took advantage of the small sink that was hooked up to the rainwater catchment system and stripped down to give myself a good scrub. Our numerous side quests, which often required carefully treading on quicksand to make our way up to hidden waterfalls, meant that we’d accumulated a thick layer of caked-on dirt on our skin. I was grateful for the feeling of being clean under a fresh pair of pajamas, a luxury that’s rarely afforded on a multi-day camping trip.

After our respective alone times (meditation for Robin, stretching for me), I made dinner while Robin hung our things up to dry. We played a quick card game as the sun set and by nightfall, our little tent was calling us to bed. Between needing to remember what we’d put in which barrel, making sure that all of our quick-access necessities were in the same place, and remembering in which direction each rapid approached, I found myself not only physically but mentally drained. I fell asleep fast and hard, barely having the energy to do anything but lower my (borrowed) eye mask like the night before. In the middle of the night, I woke up needing to pee which is always my least favorite part of camping because you have to leave your warm cocoon and awkwardly birth yourself out of the tent, but tonight I was treated to a perfectly clear, if foreign (to me), night sky. Without any familiar constellations to help me find my way around, I feel completely lost when looking up at the Southern Hemisphere’s night sky.

Day Three: Mangapapa to John Coull Hut

Distance: 29 km

The next morning we woke around 6:30 am and divided up our tasks as usual. I’d floated around the suggestion that I try my hand at steering the canoe on a relatively quiet stretch of the river meaning a part without many complicated rapids to navigate. In preparation, I’d been trying to keep my eye on the flow of the water and the V that it formed, trying to anticipate Robin’s moves to avoid getting turned around by the eddies or getting sucked into the whirlpools. The sky had been ominously grey all morning and sure enough, the moment we set out for the day the rain came down hard. As we got back on the canoe after one of our side quests, I did try navigating but after turning us in a circle three times, I realized it would take me far too much time and energy to start learning something that Robin had already managed to do so well, especially now that there was little to no current helping to push us forward.

Given the recent rains, the scenic middle reaches of this part of the river featured so many waterfalls we lost count. Past the Mangapapa Campsite, we looped around the Kirikiriroa Peninsula and passed through the Tarepokiore (whirlpool) rapid. Because of the high water levels, the whirlpool was virtually nonexistent but according to the map, before regional dredging efforts managed to attenuate its pull, in the early 1900s, the rapid was notorious for capsizing the steamboats that would get too close. Past the rapids, we paddled by a large overhang known as Tamatea’s Cave which we admired only from afar as it is wāhi tapu (a sacred place), before continuing on Ōtaihanga Reach towards our final stop for the day at John Coull.

During our stop at the only campsite we’d be passing by today (Ohauoura), we chatted with a trio of European researchers who arrived a few minutes after we did. Since we knew we didn’t have as many planned stops that day, I suggested we paddle upstream of a small side creek partly to draw out our time on the water but mostly just to tire myself out. I was so scared of arriving to camp too early and having too much time left with nothing but my thoughts that I sought out as many side quests as possible. On one such stop, I could hear the dull roar of a waterfall behind the boulder where we had stopped. Access to the fall required either climbing up the top of a small waterfall over some boulders or scrambling up the side of the grassy slope next to it. While Robin tied up the canoe, I climbed up first and was surprised to see a huge rock wall with a beautiful silver and green pattern made by the moss and the pulverized rock behind the fall. Even though I was still a bit cold from the rain earlier in the day, it was too pretty to not wade through the chest-deep water to the waterfall.

When the sun finally came out we took the time to eat a snack and lizard around on a big boulder before heading to camp. John Coull was the biggest campsite we’d seen yet: the campsite had room for about 15 tents and a 24-bunk hut was on the adjacent patch of land. After we tied the canoe up, we lugged our barrels up to our spot for the night and headed to the hut’s terrace to eat our lunch. When we walked back just a short hour later, there were at least 3 new groups setting up camp, including the Europeans we’d passed earlier in the day. After having spent almost three full days in near-total isolation, I started to feel a bit crowded so I walked back to shore and found a little rock to read on.

My solitude lasted about 10 minutes before 5 new canoes arrived. I trudged back to my tent grumpily and saw that there was now a tent pitched right next to ours. I was about to start complaining until I realized it belonged to the other 5-day duo we hadn’t seen since the beginning of our trip. The guys (Alex and Caleb) were incredibly sweet and invited us to join them for games on the shared picnic table between our tents over tea. A short while later I subtly excused myself from the table like a lady but quickly realized all pretense was futile since I’d be walking the 30 feet to the drop toilets with my very clear toilet bag (which had sanitizer, toilet paper, and wet wipes) in hand.

Our morning view from camp

As we all started preparing dinner, the mouthwatering smell of roasted meat hit our noses at the same time. The big group that had arrived last was cooking what looked like a leg of lamb and potatoes over a spit roast while pouring themselves wine into real wine glasses. Though the four of us were in shock at the fanciness of their dinner, even Alex and Caleb pulled out a pan and made quinoa with sliced cherry tomatoes and spinach for their dinner. I tried to hide behind my backpack in shame while I dumped our daily dinner of dry soup mix and crumbled ramen into lukewarm water. It slowly dawned on me that I’d been inadvertently “roughing it” my entire camping life. I’d only started camping in my mid-20s and had mostly done so with Robin who grew up in the French Alps. After their feast, the big group started setting up camp right next to our tent. I wondered why they needed so much space until I realized their tents which were so large that they had a sort of living room filled with cozy blankets and pillows. Later, as I crawled into my mattress pad-less, thin sleeping bag and started to close my eyes, I heard the unmistakable sound of an inflatable bed being filled.

Day Four: John Coull Hut to Tīeke Kāinga

Distance: 29 km

The next morning, I sat at the picnic table drinking the last remnants of my instant coffee and working through my overly generous serving of oatmeal and watched as a hand holding a real tea kettle extended from the guys’ closed tent served morning tea. Since I still hadn’t finished my breakfast after packing our things and since I hate wasting food, I brought my bowl of oatmeal onto the canoe with me as a sort of self-imposed punishment. (Another vestigial Catholic school reflex?)

Proof that I’m never not eating

Since camping at John Coull means that as you pull in for the night, you get a sneak peek of the rapids that will await you immediately after you take off the following morning, we knew what to expect and braced ourselves as we paddled out. The following stretch of the river meanders through bush-covered hills, passing the mouths of the Tāngārākau and Whangamōmona rivers where they join the Whanganui. Perched high above the river, the Mangawaiiti campsite.

Just before reaching the Mangawaiiti river, we pulled onto the Mangapurua Landing to start our planned 5.6 km walk up to the aptly named Bridge to Nowhere. During WW1, as part of a government land grant, returned servicemen settled into the remote, dense hills of the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys. A wooden swing bridge built in 1919 connected the isolated valley with the riverboats that transported goods on the Whanganui. Over time, as the bridge started to rot, the settlers hoped to replace it with a steel-reinforced concrete bridge. However, between the physical labor needed to tame the harsh landscape, the natural disasters (erosion and flooding), and the devastating effects of the Depression, many of the families had abandoned their settlements by the time construction was finished and by 1944, everyone had gone [3].

When I’d reserved my trip months before, the river company suggested we book our last night at the Bridge to Nowhere campsite which had hot showers. Since my menstrual cycle was supposed to line up with our trip and since it was our last night on the river before heading to the bush to do some volunteer work, I booked it figuring I’d appreciate the extra comfort. It was only as I was reading the map that I learned that the Tīeke Kāinga campsite which was just across the river from our campsite had a marae onsite featuring intricately carved pou whenua which tells the story of the iwi. “The site was presumed to be owned by the crown until the early 1990s when local Maori proved they had land rights at Tieke Kainga. This has led to dual management of the hut and often a powhiri to welcome guests” during the busier summer months. I was so bummed to learn we’d be missing out on the special ceremony which starts with a karanga (call) during which the tangata whenua sing and welcome you by name into the marae.

A few seconds after we moored, the owner of our campsite pulled up with a 4-wheeler and offered to tow our barrels up to the campsite. It was a much-welcomed luxury as I’d started to get blisters on my hands from pulling the heavy barrels uphill at the end of our already tiring afternoons. The man warned us that the people who’d previously slept in the spot we picked reported that there was a possum living in the old outhouses near our spot. I made a mental note to avoid those toilets and secretly hoped we’d get to hear them at night since the possums here are known to make a noise that sounds uncannily like a screaming man. After unpacking, as we walked to the main building, I caught my reflection in a mirror and recoiled, not because of my appearance, but because it seemed like such an out-of-place thing in an otherwise natural milieu. I purposefully seek out nature to escape reality and I felt a bit saddened that something as small as a hand mirror brought me right back.

Once we got to the bar we bought two big bags of chips and got a glass of wine each to enjoy the view from the holiday site which sat atop a big bluff overlooking the river to the left and some farmland to the right. We hadn’t eaten lunch yet so I was starving. I couldn’t help myself but wolf down the chips and chug the wine. Such unnatural tastes felt so bizarre compared to our otherwise modest and basic meals the previous four days. We finished our drinks and walked back to camp to make dinner (I was still starving). We were down to our last 1,5 bunch of ramen noodles and our last can of tuna and I asked (if not politely insisted) that Robin let me finish his portion as well.

Robin on his throne at the Bridge to Nowhere campsite

As I was finishing up, I saw the group of 18 that we had encountered the night before had arrived to camp and realized that I was going to have to shag ass if I wanted my hot shower before the water ran out. I was annoyed to see that the line was already four people long and rapidly growing behind us which the group seemed not to take notice of as everyone took long 10-minute showers despite the queue. We took advantage of the hot water to wash our hair as well as our sandals. I think I was just annoyed to have to be back around so many people, especially ones that seemed to not be respectful of the natural environment. As the night grew and I made our tea and last bowls of soup, I realized that I just couldn’t get warm. I think I ended up putting on every article of clothing that we had between us and I was still freezing. Because of that, we decided to turn in early and play a quick game of cards before calling it a night. Before closing our eyes, we both talked about how we regretted booking the fancier campsite, as having wet hair made us cold and it just seemed like a too-soon return to normal life when we had both been enjoying the rare break from modernity. 

The next morning, we were sad to start our final trip down the river to camp so we decided to take our time again and go slow. Not that we had to try much since it felt like we were paddling upstream. Each stroke was a struggle. Without the current we’d gotten used to, it felt like we were paddling through oatmeal.

Day Five : Tīeke Kāinga to Pīpīriki

Distance: 21.5 km

Once the barrels were locked and loaded, we paddled away from shore and immediately noticed how still the water was. It felt like paddling through oatmeal and I knew I’d have to prepare for a long day. It felt bizarre to be sharing the river with other groups and I didn’t feel ready to face people just yet so I tried to keep us far away enough from the others as possible. We had to be at the Pipiriki landing by 3 pm so we had plenty of time to make our way down.

The picturesque Aratira area, with its’ deep ravines and steep vertical cliffs covered in mosses and native ferns, consists of three caves: the two Puraroto caves and the Dress Circle cave. We moored at the entrance of the Puraroto Cave since we knew it would probably be the last chance to explore by foot before the end of our trip. A short distance around the corner, we passed by the Mangaio stream and continued past the Ngaporo to the Ngaporo rapids. After this section, the river meanders its path through the clay-padded bluffs, continuing upstairs through the steep Manganui o te Ao River gorge where it enters the Whanganui after its journey all the way from the sacred slopes of Mount Ruapehu.

As we paddled on, we started to see less gorge and more farmland so I knew we’d be reaching Pīpīriki soon. Just before the Paparoa rapid, we passed what used to be an eel weir. “Māori cultivated the sheltered terraces and built elaborate eel weirs along river channels to trap eels and lamprey on their migration up river. Every river bend had a kaitiaki (guardian) that controlled the mauri (life force) of that place. The mana (prestige) of a settlement depended upon the way food supplies and living areas were looked after for the benefit of the hapū (sub-tribe) and visitors“.

Even though the water was more still and there were fewer rapids, the Ngāporo and Autapu rapids kept us on our toes. The latter is the final rapid and is notoriously known as the 50/50 rapid because of its tip rate. It’s also conveniently placed right before the Pipiriki boat ramp so it provides entertainment for those waiting for you onshore. Though there were several ways to get through the rapids, Robin of course chose to take us through the bounciest parts. Even though I knew we were almost done, I did not want to tip by any means so I hunkered down in the canoe, pressing my knees against either side of the boat to counterbalance the jerky, lateral movement all while paddling as hard and fast as my little arms would allow. After each rapid, I spent 5 full minutes using the water jug to scoop out as much water as I could since at one point the canoe was filled almost halfway up.

We pulled up to the boat ramp, tied our boats onto the rack attached to canoe hire’s bus, and dug into the (glittery!) homemade chocolate cupcakes and orange juice set that had been out for us to enjoy while we waited for the other canoes to arrive. Once everything was loaded, we shuffled onto the bus and settled in for the hour-long drive back to our cars. Between the purr of the motor, the gentle sway of the van as we passed over dirt roads, and the damp warmth of our tired, sticky bodies, most of the people aboard were lulled to sleep and I was brought straight back to the comforting feeling of riding on the school bus after a field trip, satisfied and exhausted.

Upon arriving back at the canoe hire’s headquarters in Taumaranui, we threw the black trash bags that had been holding our things in the waterproof barrels into our van, quickly exchanged contact information with Alex and Caleb, and drove straight to the nearest burger joint. When the waitress brought over our orders and saw me switch Robin’s plate with my own, she blinked at us for a few seconds, confused that it had in fact been me who had ordered the double burger. With full bellies and sore arms, we slid our smelly bodies into the van and took off for our next adventure in the heart of the Tongariro River.

What I’d do differently next time

  • Pack our food as if I enjoyed eating instead of just bringing wartime rations.
  • Pack a thermal wool layer or a mattress pad so I don’t have to wear every single item of clothing I brought on cold nights.
  • Start my trip even earlier in the season to further avoid large groups.
  • Stay at the Tieke Kainga campsite!
  • Put sunscreen on my arms and legs from day one.

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