Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Paddling the Whanganui River

Several years ago we visited Gill in Alaska and we had some great adventures. One of them was sea kayaking in Prince William Sound paddling in the fjords and up to the glaciers. So when Gill told us she was coming to visit us over Easter we tried to think of an equally cool adventure to take her on in New Zealand. The Whanganui River trip is a classic New Zealand "great walk" - although it is a paddle. The river goes from the volcanoes in the centre of the north island to the sea at Wanganui. We decided to paddle the 87 km from Whakahoro to Pipiriki in 3 days. This is the section of the river that goes through the Whanganui National Park and there is no road access to any part of the river. We took our sea kayak - Betty and hired a canoe for Gill and Anne-Laure to paddle.

Helen and Aaron in the kayak

Quick nature stop at one of the few beaches

It turned out that it was a lot harder in the canoe than in the kayak - so we switched around. We took a little while to also get used to steering the canoe. There are a series of ripples/rapids along the river, up to a grade 1+. There were several flat sections that were quite hard work as the river level was low and the water flow rather slow so we looked forward to the next rapid. One particular rapid towards the end of the trip was a little more challenging and although we didn't swim, Aaron and I had a rather good bath in the canoe and it took about 20 minutes to bail out all the water.

Paddling the canoe was also made harder by the fact that you were trying to keep up with the faster kayak. As a result we were probably one of the fastest groups on the river. So occasionally we managed to get ahead of the crowds and get the river to ourselves. This allowed us to appreciate the peaceful, beautiful, deep gorges with the subtropical rain forest hanging down.

Paddling through the peaceful gorges

The weather was perfect - cloudy, a little sunshine, not too hot, and a little sprinkling of rain on the last day. This, along with the fact that it was Easter long weekend, had brought out the crowds. There was carnage at the drop in point at Whakahoro and almost every night the campsites were overflowing with tents. Fortunately we usually arrived at the campsites early enough that there were plenty of spaces left for us.

Dinner is served!

Our second campsite was at Tieke Kainga, which is a Maori Marae. We arrived and set up our tents, and shortly after several important and elderly members of the whanau (maori family) arrived. To greet the elders the rest of the family held a powhiri (maori greeting) to which we (a few campers) were all invited to join in. This particular marae is very traditional as you can only get to this location by boat and the whanau had travelled down the river in their waka's (canoes) and the older and younger members in the less traditional jet-boats.

The marae at Tieke Kainga

Unfortunately the peace and serenity in the gorges was occasionally broken by jet-boats transporting tourists and hunters up the river. There were quite a few goats around and the hunters are allowed in to the national park to kill these feral animals. The tourists go to visit some of the sites like the Bridge to Nowhere, a short walk up from the river. The bridge to nowhere is all that remains from the pakeha (white people's) attempts to farm the surrounding land. They gave up farming even before the bridge was finished.

Gill on the Bridge to Nowhere - leading to nowhere!

There are also many sites along the river that used to be maori and pakeha villages. You can usually tell where they were by the poplar trees and a levelled off area - or the odd remnant of a jetty. The river used to be a main transport route from the centre of the island to the coast and there were steam boats that travelled along it until the early 20th century.

We got down to Pipiriki and there was a little bit more chaos with various tour operators picking up the punters at the end. We had a very nice dinner that night in Ohakune, after several nights of camp food. The final day of the long weekend we went up onto the volcanoes, fortunately for Gill the clouds lifted (just) so she got some views, and we went for a short walk to see the lava flows and water falls.

Taranaki Falls on the volcanoes

It was a great trip. It is a very beautiful part of New Zealand. It was even quite relaxing, compared to our normal adventures!

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