Taumarunui – Whanganui River (Whakahoro to Whanganui)

Sat 09 – Thu 14 January – Day 56 – 62

153 km canoeing

On Saturday I restock in Taumarunui for the river trip and in the afternoon help Taumarunui Canoe Hire with cleaning and preparing barrels. A new TA hiker Tash arrives today plus an Irish couple Breem and Maeve who are joining our Whanganui canoeing group tomorrow.

Sunday starts bright and early with 6:20am coffee followed by a safety briefing. I learn that I am teamed with a guy called Tyson who has joined our group and we will be sharing a canoe. We are fitted with our life jackets and board the bus that will take us through to Whakahoro where we rendezvous with the larger group (Hollys group) for the five day canoeing trip down the river to Whanganui. There will be 17 of us in eight canoes and a kayak. The drive takes 90 minutes on winding back roads to reach Whakahoro. We pass the noteworthy Blue Duck Station with its cafe and accommodation plus the campsite where the rest of our group stayed last night. Enroute we had also passed Slane Mandy Max and Dean who were all walking into Whakahoro and would be getting on the river tomorrow. At the drop in point we help unload the canoes and gear. Tyson and I select a canoe and starting packing the barrels with our packs and provisions. The barrels come in two sizes. Small for food and smaller items and a large barrel for packs. My 65L pack is too wide for a barrel so goes into a dry bag. Unfortunately the dry bag is 55L so it doesn’t secure properly but I can’t find a larger bag so it’ll have to suffice. We’re given a bow line, bailer, waterproof folder of maps, paddles, ropes for securing our gear and instruction from Ben before we push off one by one into the river. The canoe dips side to side as we find our balance. The ideal posture is to balance your upper body straight up and down whilst bending at your hips. This should keep the canoe upright. Tyson sits at the front. He’s the engine providing the power to keep the canoe moving with steady string strokes of the paddle. I sit at the back, being slightly heavier, as the captain directing the canoe and providing additional paddling power. Unlike a kayak which will remain on a straight course, the canoe tends to swing to the side and needs almost constant correction in direction to remain on track. This is achieved by the person in the back who acts like a rudder by using appropriate paddle strokes or holding the paddle in the water against the side of the kayak and pushing out or pulling in the handle of the paddle to affect direction. The canoe sits low in the water due to combined weight and a flat bum. In slack water it requires robust paddling to get enough momentum for a decent pace. Rapids however are our friends giving the canoe speed. Also if the river is high, it is swifter with less rapids. It takes less time to travel down the river when its in flood. There was rain two days ago and so the river is still brown flowing at a higher rate however t will diminish during the five day journey if there is no further rain in the catchment area. The Whanganui River catchment is indeed large; taking water from as far away as Te Kuiti Benneydale and the central plateau. Even if it not raining locally the river can suddenly rise quickly from rain in the catchment area. We are instructed to get off the river as quickly as possible if this happens. The 2015 flood had the river up 13 metres! A sure giveaway is logs floating down the river. If the river reaches the tree line then you’re in real trouble as there are no exits from the river. Fortunately for our trip none of his occurs.

Loaded bus enroute to Whakahoro
Campsite at Whakahoro
Our canoes and gear
My canoeing companion Tyson
Everyone loading up
Our canoe and gear

Our river journey is five days, four nights. The first overnight is at the John Coull hut/campsite, then onto the private Ramanui campsite at the Bridge to Nowhere lodge. The third night is at the Flying Fox after a 50+km paddle via Pipiriki and Jerusalem leading to the final night at the Hipango Park campsite. The final half day paddle takes us to Whanganui where we exit the river at the Whanganui Holiday Park adjacent to the river.

Shortly into the journey we travel over the first large set of rapids. We look for the ‘V’ which indicates where to enter the rapid. This is where the water has the greatest flow. The water gushes and tumbles over the rocks submerged beneath the water creating waves five feet high that we paddle through. Water pours over the bow into the canoe drenching Tyson and myself. The current trys to sweep the canoe off course and it takes furious paddling to keep the ling down the rapids. Suddenly a rock appears mid-flow in the rapid and we are pushed onto it by the current. We rock and roll but the force of the water tips us over and we capsize into the fast flowing water. The water is not at all unpleasant; actually it is a welcoming respite from the hot day. I see that Tyson is up and floating alongside the canoe. We put our legs out in front and float on our backs carried along by the current. The river is flowing too fast to maneuver to the side so we float with it looking for somewhere to get ashore. The river banks mostly dip straight into the river with nowhere to land or there is tree debris caught on the sides which is unsafe to land in. Fortunately the river widens and slows so we can pull onto the shore amongst some submerged logs. We clamber about the slippery mud and branches and eventually can use a log as a fulcrum to tip the canoe on its side to empty the water out and re-secure the barrels. A five metre long canoe is blim’n heavy when filled with water – there is still much water to be bailed out before we can get back in and resume our trip. All up it takes us about 20 minutes to get back on the river. The rest of the group have long since passed us by except JoJo who remains on his kayak slightly downriver to ensure we are okay. This lack of reasonable care from the rest of the group is not the last time we will experience in the days canoeing with them, and gives me the feeling that we considered slight outsiders to their closer knit TA companions who have hiked together and formed this posse. However what really makes me steaming mad is when I discover that the waterproof barrel containing my phone has leaked and my new phone, purchased only days prior, is wet and showing signs of being unresponsive. Despite being in a supposedly waterproof plastic bag and in a waterproof barrel it has gotten wet. later inspection of the other barrels reveals dry contents. It is rotten luck for me. Hence the lack of photos from the river journey for my blog. I have had to borrow photos from JoJo, who sensibly has a waterproof phone and generously sent me some pics.

The river is stunning especially the two days from Whakahoro when we canoe through exciting rapids and laze through slower sections through virgin bush on vertical sided cliffs. Ducks frequent the waterline, tucking into little cavities. We don’t see Whio sadly. We do see rare native long-tailed bats at the John Coull campsite which is very cool. Many tributaries enter the river, gushing water heard well before seeing the source revealed in indentations in the cliffs. Carved out by centuries of water flow over the limestone. Waterfalls abound adding more water to the river. They range in size and capacity – my favourites being those that form a spout with a jet of water. When the group gets together on slow water we form into a canoe flotilla, eight canoes across with the kayak tucked in-between. Jason has a Bluetooth speaker and we chill to music and laughs as we float along joyously in the sunshine. I lament the loss of my phone as he passes around his GoPro for photos and video. On day two we form another flotilla and float down rapids which is enormous fun despite probably being a bit risky. There is a hui of six person waka travelling down the river and they egg us on from the shoreline. The hui are travelling to the Tieke Kainga camp – we are treated to the experience of having them singing and generally have a ball as they paddle towards their destination.

On day two we pull into Mangapurua Landing to visit the Bridge to Nowhere. The ‘landing’ is a steep muddy bank where all canoes kayaks and jet boats tie up to in order to see this famous landmark. Its the equivalent of a river carpark. The easy walk to the bridge officially takes 40 minutes (less for TA’s) and passes information boards and simple signs indicating the names of families who farmed those plots. It is steep and rugged. You cannot help but wonder just how they could carve out any existence in this inhospitable location. It was madness that the government allocated the land in the first place and after years of toil the government then forced any remaining farmers off the land. On day three we decide to separate from the group as they are going to remain on the river for an additional day. We have a big day of paddling. It will be over 50kms from campsite to campsite passing Pipiriki and Jerusalem enroute. So it is with relief that we see the rooftop and sign at the Flying Fox. Formerly a little hippy community the present owners Kelly and Jane bought it in 2015 and have restored the quirky cottages into accommodation for cyclists visitors and TA’ers. The grounds abound with chickens, avocado, figs and all manner of enticing trees and plants. There is no road access, so fortunately Kelly comes down on the quad bike to collect our gear. For cycling and driving visitors there is a flying fox across the river with a suspended cage for people and equipment. In the morning we are treated to bacon sandwiches and plunger coffee, a welcome start to the days canoeing. Today the scenery changes again as we emerge further from the park and into countryside of farms and exotic forest. The rapids become less frequent resulting in more paddling to keep faster than the river flow and make good time to our next overnight stop at Hipango Park. We moor the canoe at the terraced wooden pier and lug the barrels and gear up the long steep path to the elevated campsite. There is an adjacent pa site – the remains of Potakataka Pa which burnt down over 200 years ago. The deep fortification trenches are still visible and although the track and site do not appear to have had any attention recently, there is an excellent bush walk with many of the native species labeled. Hipango is located on the tidal part of the river and we have been advised to wait for the outgoing tide to make the trip to Whanganui easier. High tide today is 11:30am and at this location 12:30pm however we get bored of waiting so are on the river before 10:30am. The water is a little slack so we have to paddle the entire way. It is not so bad despite a little head wind and waves as we near Whanganui. Regardless, we are massively relieved after four hours when we spot the concrete ramp at the holiday park which is our exit from the river. We’ve done it, five days and 153km since Whakahoro. I would definitely do the river canoeing again although from Taumarunui to Pipiriki would be my choice for the number of rapids and the scenery. Our timing could not have been better as Mum and Dad arrive at the holiday park at the same time. After unloading the canoe we settle into the motel then travel into town to the Vodafone shop followed by the supermarket to purchase a bag of rice – the phone in a bag of uncooked rice absorbs moisture. Can only hope it works!

The river still brown from rain two days ago
Hidden tributaries revealed
Rapids are smaller when the river is high
Bridge to Nowhere
With JoJo
Exiting at Whanganui Holiday Park
Categories: 2020 Te Araroa

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