Te Araroa: The Whanganui River Journey

I wake up as first light stretches over the Remutakas. I’m a long way from the start, and still will be when I begin. I condense my life into a backpack again. Everything I own on my back. If you discount the box in my parents roofspace, the rucksack and box I’ve left at the Kerr residence. Other bits and pieces scattered around. Iain and I fill the car with our bags. The bus waits at Wellington Train Station. Commuters flood the platforms. A Cook Straight ferry bobs in the harbour. Life goes on. The bus departs, leaving Wellington’s wind and sunshine behind. We travel up the coast, passing the places I have known the most. Inland the Tararua rise. Out to see, Kapiti tries to join them. Ahead, the thick grey soup of sky welcomes us to the Central North Island. The road we travel follows my route. What takes a bus 7 hours, will take me close to four weeks.

The coach driver dropped Iain and I outside the Alexander Motel in Taumarunui. There were only three of us left on the coach by the time we arrived. We checked in to our home for the night, purchased some fresh produce, and jogged along the high street back to the motel in steadily falling rain. Then the waiting began. We were already a day early, not due on the river until the morning. Time stretched out, like It does on arriving at an airport four hours before your flight. At least we still have to go out for dinner. When evening arrives I offer Iain a verbal coin toss; the Indian or the Returned Services Association. I can always eat a chicken parmigiana. A curry will likely be equal parts quality and quantity. Iain decides on the three minute walk to Monsoon. Over a selection of meat, rice and bread we talk of travel. Iain has a preference for water. “One day I’d like to sail out of sight of land,” he tells me. “There’s a thrill in water, and rock too. If I want to get from A to B I have to respond to the elements. It feels real.” I take his point. Every time I get on or in the water I wish I did it more. For me though walking is good because it is easy. You can go directly from your front door. The most natural thing you can do. We settle up and retire to our room. Hopeful of a good night’s rest.

I wake up moments before Iain gets up. Our schedules pick up time is 9am. Most of the Taumarunui cafes don’t open until then. The Bakehouse Cafe is open from 7am. They offer a greasy spoon kind of breakfast. I’m keen. Iain decides it’s too greasy for him and goes without, which leads to an unresolved debate around the importance of The Most Important Meal of the Day. We’re back in the motel packing our bags when I see I’ve missed a call. “Must be the canoe guys, they’re probably on their way.” There’s a voicemail too. It’s Ben from Whanganui River Canoes. I call him back. “Bad news mate, the river is too high. We’ve got more rain coming today. We can’t put you on the water.” Iain’s face drops when I relay the news. We have options at least, try again in the morning and skip the first campsite. A whooping 57km. “At least the rest of the days will feel short.” I say to Iain, reassuring myself. Alternatively, we could get dropped off down river at Ohinepane. We’ve been led to believe the first day is the most exciting in terms of water. No contest. We’ll see what tomorrow brings. What was supposed to be Day One ends up being a repeat of Day Zero. The worst part of the news is having to spend another day in Taumarunui. We walk down to the river in the morning sun. The water is flowing high, fast and brown. Will it be any better tomorrow? In the rising heat I demand the weather to break. The forecast threatens thunderstorms and hail. If we have to wait because of this, then I want it all. Back in the motel I’m forced to settle for a few hours of heavy rain.

It rains. It pours. Iain, while plugged into to a version of Herbert’s Dune, snores. Charlotte sent us off with two trays of refrigerator cake. The real world equivalent of Tolkien’s Elvish lambas bread. One tray is gone before we’ve dipped a paddle below the surface of the Whanganui River. Motels are boring. Perhaps this is why in stories they’re always the centre of attention. A place for a love affair. Somewhere to hide out from a crime syndicate, or from the police. The scenery doesn’t detract from the action. For us there is no action. We escape to a cafe for lunch. Our visit to the Copper Tree meaning I’ve been to more establishments in 24 hours in Taumarunui than I did in 4 months in Napier. Iain and I take turns to go on walks in the distressingly pleasant afternoon. Our hope is that tomorrow will be different. Iain worries about being under the influence of a curse. This is his second attempt at the Whanganui River Journey. He’s closer than last time, he’s at least seen the river. I offer to baptise him in the waters to see if that breaks the hex. For some reason he declines. Alan, the motel owner, gives us cause for hope. The river levels are beginning to drop. In response, our hopes rise.

I begin to operate on no news is good news. We repack again, expectant. Today will be the day. No news is no news. My phone rings at 8:30. Ben from Whanganui River Canoes delivers another round of bad news. The river remains too high. “I’m going to get in touch with Taumarunui River Canoes, they’ve got a group hoping to put in at Whakahoro tomorrow.” Another day. More lost water. Iain and I swap. He seems calm, I’m frustrated. “What’s the point in planning things in advance?” I demand. He laughs. I’m anxious too. This is the last day we can get away with not going. After this, the whole plan will have to change. Alan from the motel allows us to stay as long as we need to sort out a plan. I eventually speak to Karen from Taumarunui Canoe Hire, who offers to take us on. They’ve not put anyone on the river for three days. We can camp for free at their base tonight. All we can do is keep waiting, keep hoping that tomorrow will be different. Alan’s partner comes knocking. “The man’s called, he’s on his way.” Odd, that they didn’t call me but at least we’re finally moving. Even if it is only 2km downstream. The minivan arrives, we transfer from the white walls of the motel and are dropped outside a green container. Inside are a handful of bunks. This is going to be interesting. Iain and I go up to the office to meet with Karen and sign our lives away. She runs through what remains of our itinerary. “We’re going to Whanganui from the Flying Fox,” I tell her. “You think you are, let’s check the tides.” Out comes a tide table. The ocean pushes some 5 hours upstream. After a quick calculation it appears my planning has been accidentally on the nose. We should arrive in time for the tide to carry us out. We talk a bit about the river levels. “Can I start getting my hopes up?” Karen intimates I can. We get given barrels to transfer our kit too, heading off to repack again. Our rising hopes crash back down a few hours later when Iain and I hurriedly move things inside the container as a fierce shower passes through. Karen’s husband comes down later to let us know some walkers are coming through about 10pm. “You might want to move into the shed.” A single set of bunks awaits. We finally cook up a meal from ingredients we’d travelled with. Finally free of the temptations on Taumarunui’a high street.

I wake once in the night to the sound of rain. I don’t think it amounts to much but it puts me on edge. I emerge from the shed, thick mist hangs low. Iain gets up. We pack away, eat some breakfast. At 7:15am we climb up to the base for our briefing. Karen makes fresh coffee. The late arrivals are already seated in the briefing room. I never heard them come in. “Sorry for shining the torch in on you last night,” one of them says to me. “No worries,” I reply, “you didn’t disturb me at all.” The briefing is delivered by Jono, the eldest son of the Taumarunui Canoe Hire operation. He and Ron, his father, sport matching moustaches. I stroke my absent beard. “When approaching a set of rapids, aim for the V,” Jono instructs. He plays a high angle video demonstrating both how to, and how not to. This, and the fact that in heavy rain the river can rise half a meter an hour are my main takeaways. Nervous, excited, I just want to get going. We load up a minivan and get going. On the way I spot empty tree boxes beside a barn and scan the hillside for the signs of planters. “Are we there yet?” Iain asks. “Yep, you can get out here,” I tell him. Still some 13km from Whakahoro. We pass the sign for the township. Population: 8. We pause to pick up four more Te Araroa walkers at the campsite. The population near doubled. I grab fresh info. “Where did you guys start?” I ask. The pair of ladies set off from Cape Reinga, skipping Auckland. The other two left Hamilton independently. “What about you?” they ask. “This is it, day one at last!”

Iain pulls on all his own boat gear. He wafts around the beautiful wooden paddle he’s crafted himself over the past few months. I can’t help but laugh. “Ready to go then, boat wanker?” He laughs back. He has lent me a purple spray jacket and a pair of boat shoes. Interestingly the boat shoes come with a warning; not suitable for use in wet conditions. We’re given a river map, a final check off of our canoe gear. “Do you guys want to wait or do you want to go?” we’re asked. Iain’s gear makes us look like we know what we’re doing. He might, at least. “Let’s go,” he says. We push off in to the Retaruke River. Iain in the rear, in charge of steering and me. I’m in the front, the so-called engine room. We christen our red Canadian canoe Bucket, in honour of our not quite matching bucket hats. We are Team Bucket Hat. This is the first time I’ve accepted Iain’s push for a name. I hope our Bucket doesn’t fill with water. Ahead the thick, fast flow of the Whanganui River beckons. We’ve arrived! At last! Finally moving, the journey underway. “Have you started your GPS?” Iain checks. I haven’t, I was too excited to start. I set the tracker, allowing people to follow along at home. It might be a kilometre short, I’m sure it won’t be the last I lose. The first rapids feel like hard work. Half a life time has been lived since I last sat in a canoe. It already feels the same has passed again since I last picked up the spade. A few waves ride over our bow but we stay up right and come out the other side. We drift in the calm waters of the now receding flood. “A bit of this, a bit of that, I’ll be happy,” I tell Iain.

We paddle around another bend. The first gust of wind lifts my hat off my head. I panic, I stop paddling, turning around. I watch my hat bounce past Iain and drop into the water ahead of his paddle. It swirls, filling with water. I’m sure it sinks. Iain snaps me back. We’re at the mercy of the river now. “Paddle! Hard right,” he shouts. “RIGHT!” I swap sides. We turn to face the current. Eyes on the water. Neither of us see it. “Aren’t they supposed to float?” Iain asks. “Doesn’t look like it.” We turn again and both see it spinning along in the flow. We paddle forward but it’s already lost. I tell myself its gone. Iain gets us in to the bank so I can smother sunscreen on my head. I’ve my Buff packed in one of the barrels. At the first beach we pull in and I fashion a new hat to protect my skin. Glad to be somewhat sheltered. Sad to have already lost a hat I’ve barely used. In these unprecedented times I’m sure I’ve now bought more hats than rolls of toilet paper. The first casualty of Te Araroa, it won’t be the last. I let it go, I can buy a new one when I get to Whanganui. Then I see it again, in every dark shadow, reflect rock, floating log. Even a large froth of bubbles draws me in. The next time I see it, it’s in my head. I picture plucking it out of the river, soaking wet and putting it straight on. Someone else, arriving at the campsite asking if anyone has lost a hat. Again I try to let it go. Just a hat. The river, Iain’s instructions require more attention.

“I’m feeling peckish,” Iain advises from the stern. For the first time I look at the map we’ve been given. I haven’t been counting the corners we’ve taken. “There might be a campsite coming up we can stop at.” There’s a sign high on the bank. 200 meters. Past the first rapids. We shoot around the corner. I spot the beach. Iain guides us away. Too late I ask, “you didn’t want to stop there then?” “Where?” He hadn’t seen the beach. This is our first reminder; talk to each other. It’s also an indication of how challenging it will be to find the appropriate landings at our planned stops. We stop paddling, spinning in the flow of a long straight. The steep green walls of the river gorge rise on either side. Thin white threads crash back down. Knife cut canyons roar away, deep into the bush. White bergs of cloud glacially creep across an ice blue sky. The hat now long forgotten. The river wall rises ahead. The straight has to bend. “I think we’re nearly there.” I spot the sign first, until I realise it’s the yellow of a sunlit fern. Not the sign at all. It comes shortly after, tucked away, half submerged in the bush. 250 meters. Iain draws us in, close to the bank. We don’t want to miss this one. Were it not for the gold and green branding on the silver Department of Conservation jetboat we could have slipped straight past. John Coull Campsite is a short climb up hill. Of course, we’re first in.

Our tents go up in the afternoon sun. We have a late lunch, the tramping classic; cheese and crackers, salami and olives. We finish up with a piece of refrigerator cake. The foil tray well crushed following a few hours in the barrel. Nothing the bright orange Do Not Crush sign could do. The cakes goes in the shade, and I quickly follow. A group of four paddlers arrive, they unload several more barrels than us and two cool boxes. A lot of stuff to carry up and down from the canoes every day. A couple come in and claim the hut all to themselves. The river is quiet. I start rustling up some dinner. Iain looks at our burrito mix with a combination of fear and disgust. “Do you know what a burrito is?” When I watch his first attempt to roll it, the suggestion is not. Iain has rules about food. You shouldn’t have to fight it. I suspect he feels there’s an element of fighting here. Toppings should remain on toast when you pick it up. Burritos are notoriously messy. After dinner the cards come out. I first taught Iain the rules of college classic Shithead almost a year ago now. I’m still reminding him of what the magic cards do. When he starts racking up a series of wins I realise he’s got it. I can no longer play without thinking. After I finally win one back I decide that’s enough and it’s time for bed. In the rising gloom, a Ruru calls for more pork. Koramiko slow their chime. Tui whistle to one another across trees. The rush of the river keeps the silence at bay.

I must have had too much sleep. I wake up at 2am and I could easily get up and going. I toss and turn, trying to get comfortable. Eventually I rotate 180 degrees. The slope I’d decided was negligible, wasn’t. I fall back asleep, waking again at a more reasonable hour. Iain gets up groggy. “You are so loud,” he whispers. The essential bin liner nature of my sleeping pad rustles with every move. Iain claims it’s not so much a rustling as some kind of industrial crusher. I didn’t notice. “Would you like a pair of ear plugs?” He claims he already has some. We’re in no rush to get going but we’re still first on the river and away. Are we going too fast? Not taking in all the Whanganui River has to offer? In response to this, Iain suggests exploring the mouth of a side stream, or is it another river? What are the rules? Nobody knows. We allow the tributary to carry us back, the speed of the main river rushing past the mouth. We slide in, returning to follow the flow downstream. We attempt to relax, to allow the river to do more work. To be in control, you have to be movig after than the river. We obviously aren’t when an eddy catches us, sending us into a spin. The backflowing water requires a little effort to escape. Iain guides us back into the main channel. We follow the stream of white bubbles as they guide us along the course of least resistance down the brown river.

The river remains deep in a gorge. Ferns climb the cliffs, trees loom over the water. The sun shimmers white on the crest of ripples. A broken blue sky is reflected in the troughs. We are still blasting downstream. The canoe is heading straight for the gorge wall. I keep paddling. Iain hasn’t given different instructions. He knows what he’s doing. He must have seen the wall. We’re still heading straight for it. I’m sure he’ll bring us around. I keep paddling. We finally turn and I can almost touch the wall. I knew he had it under control. Iain’s skill keeps up straight, his strength in each stroke powering us forward. I suspect the extra length in the blade of his home made paddle is giving us some additional thrust. I feel at ease having someone behind me who I know, who knows what they’re doing. Tackling this with a stranger, competent as I am would make for a very different experience. As would lower waters. We’re gliding over the top of the majority of rapids. Ploughing into the V and pulling ourselves through the mess on the other side, barely causing a splash. Nothing we’ve come across so far has served any sense of peril. Rain would also change things. I begin to think we may have been lucky to have been stopped by the flood.

We come up fast on Mangapurua Landing. A chance to stretch our legs on a short walk. At the end comes a tick in the Travel and Tourism 101 Guidebook to New Zealand: The Bridge to Nowhere. After one of the wars, soldiers tried to tame the bush surrounding the Whanganui River. The bridge was built to allow access to some of the farms. Getting here was presumably too hard, the land too much of a challenge. Most people had left before the bridge was finished. In their absence the bush has regenerated, taking back all but the concrete. A jetboat tour party are already at the bridge, a scattering of thermos flasks and hot drinks suggest we wait a while. We break for lunch, wondering if anyone is going to come up the river. I wish for the other tourists to hurry along so I can take a postcard perfect photo. “You could just buy a postcard,” Iain suggests. They do move on before us, disappearing in to the bush. When we return to the landing our fellow campers have landed. Up river two more boats are heading our way. The TA walkers have caught up with us. They look less in control, a lot more all over the river. Our straighter lines are speeding us along.

As we journey closer to Tieke Kainga, our stop for the night, the gorge walls begin to soften. The shores lower. A fence line appears. Iain spots a cow tucked up in the bush edge. I moo at it, which makes a change from my bleating at every pair and trio of feral goats we’ve seen along the way. Iain invites on my full range of farm animal impressions, I even throw in the classic blue whale noise for an encore. It’s a good thing there’s aren’t many people around. Already we come up on the sign. 200 meters to go. We prepare to dock on any bank that appears to be suitable for a canoe. There are a couple of green and yellow poles way above the waterline. We consider this and pull in. Iain gets out and scouts the shore for a better spot, which he finds just downstream. This time I jump out and tie us up. A clove hitch about the only knot I remember from my time in the Scouts. It does the job. We’ve arrived with plenty of time, and plenty of sun to dry out our dew damp tents. Then there’s the same old challenge, seeking shelter from the heat. A row of flax provides the only cover around the campground, and I lie in its shadow for a while. The deck of the hut provides a more comfortable escape. With nobody else around, the warden is happy for us to take advantage and use the facilities too.

Another misty morning. I make the first move, slowly. The hut warden is up too. “Kettle’s just boiled if you want to make a tea or coffee.” You can’t say no to that kind of offer. I whisper beside Iain’s tent where he can find me and more importantly, coffee. I chat with the warden, turns out he finished walking the TA just before the launch of the pandemic. He tells me two important things. “Hire a bike from Tekapo to Twizel.” I had already come across this almost 60km in a day section and has considered having a crack at walking it. “Took me 24 hours,” the warden says, “I sat down at 3am, woke up at 6am and kept going.” The next thing he says is “if the weather has been good you can cross the Rangiata River.” This is one of two south Island rivers where a shuttle or hitching is recommended. If I’m with a group by then, and someone else is confident I’d probably give it a shot. Iain comes along and we do our absolute best not to get up and go.

At around 9:30am we’re still the first ones ready and on the river. I’m not sure it’s possible to go any slower. As we pass yet another canyon cut out of the valley Iain asks “should we go and have a closer look?” A fast turn and a hard drive has us out of the main current paddling up the shoreline. I step out of the boat and wade through the shallows. Iain keeps paddling, getting into a narrow gap between rocks at the foot of a waterfall. Is this what everyone else is doing? Is this how you’re supposed to get the most out of your experience? Iain and I are in agreement. Half the fun of any outdoor activity is the effort required. We didn’t come on a canoeing trip to float down the river. We remain between steep cliff banks. Ferns cling to anything they can. Shades of green remain infinite. Streams pour in. Water trickles over hanging rocks, still. After two days without rain.

We stop paddling for a minute to watch a harrier float over the river. The sun peering through red wing feathers. That’s the way to travel. The raptor lands in a tree, disappearing completely. The same bird appears later as a swooping black shadow on the white cliffs opposite the Ngaporo campsite. The map has this down as three hours of paddling. We’re there in two. With only a short distance to go to Pipiriki I suggest stopping for a cup of tea and a snack, a chance to reapply sunscreen. Closing in on midday, the temperature is rising. We bump along the rapids on the wrong side of the river. Up on the bank a string of boats are hauled up high. People. We power across the river, beaching on the round grey pebble beach. The climb up takes us past the boats, each with a pond of rain water in. Nobody’s here. The views from the tent terraces are spectacular. The brown Whanganui races in, slapping hard against the base off tall white cliffs. A mysterious arch cuts a window out of the rock’s wall. Below, the water whirls and spins. The outside current cuts across, past a shingle beach. The deep V ahead of the rapid is obvious from on high. The river spills away down the gorge.

Another canoe comes paddling past. It’s the couple who’ve had the huts to themselves. They look too relaxed for Iain’s liking. “Totally at the whim of the river,” he scoffs. They survive the rapids with apparent ease. I start to wonder if we might be working too hard. Briefly, someone else is ahead of us. A canoe adding something that isn’t Iain for scale to the broad river, the deep valley. They slow and pull out on a beach, raising the suspicion they were going to stop at Ngaporo but overshot. We race past only to slow again to investigate an overhang. Then we paddle back across the river to get a closer look at the roar of white water spewing out from the depths of the Puraroto Cave.

Even now, with stops and breaks we’re nearly there. There’s one final twist in the river. The rapids here the most fun yet. Iain pulls us out of the current, he wants to watch the other canoe come through. “I want to have someone else to compare us to, to see how good we are.” We draw in to the bank and wait. To our disappointment they skip the sweet curve of white water and bump over the rippling shallows. We launch jeers and boos before heading off again. The concrete slope of Pipiriki boat ramp comes in view. There’s one last course to run. We shoot through the V no trouble. Out the other side the mess of currents plays havoc. I’m still paddling as we’re either slapped on the right, or sucked on the left. Pulled into an eddy we start to spin. Still upright, facing the wrong way. “Aren’t you supposed to be steering?” I challenge Iain. “There was a loss of power from the front.” My turn to scoff. At least we haven’t got wet. We get right way around and let the current pull us towards the boat ramp. We’re slowing still, waiting again to see how the others fair. “Too casual, not fast enough,” Iain condemns their approach. They take the V cleanly and hit the mixer. At first they look like they’re going to spin but the man at the back keeps them straight. “Makes me wonder Iain,” “Wonder what?” “If you’re all talk.” No idea if they got lucky, or if they were more experienced than us. For them that might have just been a ripple in the stream for all we know. We beach on the ramp. There’s another canoe operator on hand with a minivan and he offers us a lift up to the campsite. It turns out to be a fair way off and uphill all the way so we’re extremely grateful to be dropped off outside the reception.

At the Pipiriki Campground we find the comfort of a hot shower. A shower so hot in fact, it isn’t comfortable at all. But we are clean. The only other guests are a couple of Americans. He’s cycling the length of the country. What I’m aiming to do in 4 to 5 months, he’ll do in 25-30 days. She’s along for the ride. Joining in where she wants or bringing the car around to pick him up and deliver him to the nights accommodation. They use our food barrel as a bin, forgivable because it is literally a barrel lined with a bin bag next to the actual bin. What we don’t get is an apology when I point it out.

Pipiriki marks the end of the Whanganui River Journey. After just over a year I have completed New Zealand’s Great Walks, and started the greatest walk of my life. Not that I’ve yet had to put one foot in front of the other. From here we’re in true Te Araroa country. The route obvious but the way less clear. I hashed the plan together on best guessed and available accommodation. I’d avoided one major cock up with the tide times by sheer luck alone. There was the chance I still had one more mistake in me. My original estimate of a 40km day to finish out to Whanganui turns out to be about 10km short. I’m not worried. We did 40km upstream in about 4 hours. Iain points out we had the fast flow of a river in flood pushing us along. He reminds me the river will be wider and slower the closer we get to the sea. If there’s a wind coming up from the south that will slow us down too. I’m still thinking we’ve got all day. We also don’t have a choice. We’ve got another day to go before that. We can figure out our average speed from the GPS and get a better reading on how long we’re going to be paddling for.

I’m awake too early. I try to get up quietly but I’m sure any movement on my sleeping pad will be too loud for Iain’s sensitive ears. After a quick trip to the toilet I get back into my sleeping bag and listen to the rising tide of the dawn chorus. The ruru disappears as the noise increases. The chiming of bell birds swallowed by a more general chirping and whistling. An orchestra of birds. We’ve had three days of sunshine. The threat of rain draws near. Grey clouds bubble in the sky. Our tents are wet with dew. I’m packing early, making coffee before I’ve seen Iain. There’s a long trip down to the river this morning and one of us is going to have to do it twice. I’m ready first, so I make the first trip down. The gravel track pinching through the soles of my boat shoes that are seemingly appropriate for nowhere. I pass Iain on my way back, one more trip is enough. By the time we’re finished loading the boat I already feel like I’ve been working hard.

There’s some fun to be had on the river today. The waters have continued to drop. The rapids aren’t exactly bigger but more obvious. Obstacles have become more exposed. Pressure waves have grown larger. We bounce over. Sometimes my paddle doesn’t reach the water, sometimes I’m elbow deep in the river. The biggest of bounces gets a “woohoo!’ from me. We come out the far side in to a long straight stretch. I keep an eye on the distance, the time. In the first hour we covered 8km. Pumping, despite being in agreement neither of us feel like we’re working that hard. There’s a rickety old swing bridge up ahead. Sections of the side netting are missing. As we pass beneath, we can see planks are missing too. Iain and I hope the roar of an engine is a quad. A farmer perhaps who might come racing over but the motor fades. As we spin and drift, still taking it easy, I watch a duck swim out from the left bank. Only, it isn’t a duck. “Is that a goat?” I point with my paddle towards the head punting across the river. “Actually, that might be a deer.” It hauls out and prances up the right bank. Definitely a deer.

We float past the church spire of Jerusalem. Beyond, the river makes a hard right. There appears to be a shingle island splitting the channel. “What does the map say?” Iain asks. I look at the pictures. The next one isn’t until around the next corner. Iain spent some time with the maps last night. “Nothing.” I tell him. “It doesn’t say?” “Nope.” We take the right channel, scraping the tops of the shallowest rocks. Looking back, over to the left the channel looks fast and deep. “The text really doesn’t say?” Iain checks again. Next to the map is half a page of text I’d written off as historical context. I haven’t read any of it. Now I see a number on the map correlates to a note. For our corner it reads small swift rapid channel. Left. “Sorry Iain.” I try to catch up on the notes before the next significant rapid. A long wall with a strong current. Gaps at high water. The alternative risks us getting stuck in the trees so we pick a spot and shoot over the wall. Next us is Moutoa Island. The first island I can remember. Again, the instructions are clear and we speed on past. We shoot over another rock wall, closing in on the end of the map. I turn the page and start wondering out loud if we might have passed Moutere Island without noticing. Iain thinks not. Soon after it appears. Our route is towards the left, sticking close to the island. The notes suggest it is possible to turn up the right channel from the far end and paddle up, over the wreck of a steamer. We make two attempts on the rock ledges. We haven’t enough power to over come the river. We slip into an eddy behind a boulder and stop moving. We remain in position, held by the backwards moving current until the wind pushes us free.

We hit our first sequence of rapids, one after the other with no room to pause. The first time the river has demanded a serious amount of work. We leap over the crashing waves. The currents try to pull us in every direction but we hold firm. Once we come out, it’s plain sailing. Literally. The canoe comes sideways, catching the wind. We raise our paddles as tiny sails to gain a little more speed. Even doing nothing for periods we’ve still managed to clock an average of 7km an hour. Plenty fast enough for a big, but not as big as it might have been day tomorrow. Signs of civilization appear downstream. A pontoon, telegraph poles, a cableway for the Flying Fox. A sign for the Flying Fox. We dock alongside a piece of driftwood which makes for an excellent jetty. Our hosts Kelly and Jane assist in bringing our gear up to our home for the night. Iain has booked us into one of the cottages. It answered my long held question of how much room do you need to live? About this much. An open plan kitchen, diner, living area. There’s two beds on a raised platform behind. The bathroom is in a separate room outside. There’s even a second bedroom upstairs, so slightly too much room then. But there is two of us. Iain and I both feel immediately at home among the exposed timber, pastel painted plaster walls. None of the furniture matches. If I ever get around to writing the Next Great American Novel, this is where I’d do it. There’s even time and sunshine to dry out our tents, put our feet up, post a few photos on the internet and enjoy a fridge cold beer.

We agree we need to be on the water no later than 8:30am. If we can continue to make 7km per hour we’ll reach Hiponga Park by 13:30. High tide is around then. We can have lunch, wait for the tide to turn and ride it out to Whanganui. I wake up to the sound of rain. After five days, this is to be expected. The TA walkers arrived some time in the afternoon. They’re moving barrels down to the river before us. We have to wait for Kelly and Jane to pack us a lunch. I say have to. Want to. The others are still loading up when Iain and I get down to our make-shift wharf. Iain, with all the balance of a teenage skateboarder, wobbles back and forth bailing the rain water from the canoe. I film him for a while hoping he’ll fall in. I finish filming him because I’m impressed he didn’t. TA canoes one and two push off and we follow shortly after. It’s nice to have a bit of company. We flick between boats, sharing a bit more story. Bryan and Lisa tell us they capsized just after Jerusalem. The same corner we go wrong, they tell us the waves came over the sides and flooded them. Maybe not reading the map worked out for us. They stick together, not planning on going all the way out today. Iain and I have a pace to maintain.

The river is noticeably broader. The current definitely slower. The wind, Southerly. All of these things tick off Iain’s concerns but we’re still doing the distance, maintaining our speed. I’m asking questions about the water texture. “What are those ripples?” “That’s the wind.” “Why aren’t they like that everywhere.” “That’s not how wind works.” And like that I realise I picture wind wrong. There is no single blast. Gusts come and go, affected by the land, affected by the water. “See how these waves are bigger,” Iain points out, “that’s because the wind has further to travel without interruption.” The long open straight allows the wind to plow straight into our faces. When this happens our paddling is faster, harder but it isn’t constant. There’s time too for Iain to try and teach me some more paddling skills. “When you keep your arms straight you’re more efficient, it makes a difference to how much work I have to do.” I have half memories of this from learning how to kayak. I’ve been trying to keep my arms straight, aiming the paddle high, drawing it back the full length of the boat. Or, the full length of the paddle at least. Iain is looking for efficiencies. He wants to save us energy, to make sure we get there. If he could, he would have built a sail and raised it at the front to speed us along. He goes on “watch, I point my thumb down at the end of the stroke.” I start to think it’s a little late in the day to correct what I’ve been doing for four days but I do wonder if there’s any difference. I’ve been bringing my thumb away from the water if anything. I can’t easily shift my brain to do the other way. The movement is more or less the same but there’s a difference in technique. I settle for what I’ve been doing, it’s worked so far. I still think we’re going to be fine.

We come around a corner and there’s an obvious landing. A wooden jetty with moorings. We’re already at Hipango Park. There’s still half an hour before high tide. Time for lunch. We sit on the jetty. “See those big ripples,” Iain guides my eyes, “that’s the tide working against the current.” We watch the river lap higher around the edge of the platform. “Will it cover the bottom deck?” I say yes, but it doesn’t. “Come and get me when that spur is out of the water.” Iain says before he wonders of to find somewhere comfortable to lie down. I’ve got enough time to put on sunscreen and pack away my day bag before it’s time to go. I find Iain flat out on a bench. “Let’s go,” I say. I’m keen to get moving, I had us pegged for a 10 hour paddle and there’s plenty of time left for that. We hit the river, slow and breezy. For the first time since leaving the national park we hear a boat. A speed boat comes bumping up stream. It slows as soon as they see us. The man up top throws us a thumbs up which we return. We’re good. Not long after a man comes up on a hobby sized hovercraft. He gives us a wave. He doesn’t have to slow, there’s no wake from his bow. A while later the boat comes back and they come for a chat. “You guys want a beer?” One asks. “Absolutely!” I say. They throw a couple of tinnies to Iain. “You want a tow?” He offers. “No thanks, we’ve got to paddle.” There’s some back and forth about us being pommes, stealing the cricket and his beers. We wave them off and I ask Iain what we’ve got. Some kind of bourbon and cola. Not beers then. Part of me wants to crack the can but I need both hands on the paddle and we’re a long way from being able to take it easy.

At Mosquito Point we down paddles and let the unexpected tail wind nudge us around the corner. We raise our paddles to catch a little more. The first settlement with a shop since Taumarunui, Upokongaro, floats by. There’s a big arch bridge ahead. “I remember that from the bus,” Iain says. “We’re nearly there!” I’m looking at the map thinking otherwise. “I reckon it’s about 7k further on.” “As far as that?” It might only be four but I’m worried about a sprint finish before the finish. We come around a corner and Iain says “well that’s mentally demoralising” the concrete boat ramp isn’t there. We’ve got to keep going. It’s one more corner. “Concrete!” I yell as it appears. There are cabins up on the bank, and a rack of canoes. We’ve done it!

We’re on dry land. We’ve got to find reception and see if our packs arrived. It takes a while as neither of us are familiar with coming in to a holiday park from the water. The receptionist finds our packs and hands Iain a card for a taxi. “I had hoped to walk with you but I’ve got too many bags.” “It’s ok,” I tell him “you’ve done your bit. There’s no need for you to walk.” I on the other hand am pumped. The first actual bit of walking of Te Araroa! It might only be 6km in to town, my pack might be missing food and water weight but I am thrilled to be here doing it. By the time I reach the B&B Iain’s already showered and changed into his civilian clothes. “I’m definitely not jealous of those,” I say. It’s hiking gear until I return to Wellington for me. I run through the shower and we head to the Rutland Arms in town for what the locals would describe as a good feed. One beer later we both feel drunk and decide it’s time for bed. It’s an early start for Iain and I still have to decide if I’m going or staying.

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