Today is the first day of our five day canoe trip down the Whanganui River.
CareFree and I “slept in”, with a 7 am alarm. Taumarunui Canoe Rentals wouldn’t be at Whakahoro until 9 am, so we weren’t in a big rush to get going. Especially since we had a space in the hut and didn’t have a tent to take down.
We had breakfast with Peter, Susana, and Hannah, and waited for the canoes to arrive. And they did, from two other companies. Ours didn’t get there until half an hour later than we expected.
Once they did, a ten minute walk down the gravel road brought us to a staging area above the boat ramp. We retrieved the two barrels of food we’d packed back in Taumarunui, and got two more small barrels for our gear, and one large barrel meant to hold our packs and anything that didn’t need to be waterproof. Packing everything was a bit more difficult than we anticipated it being, especially getting both of our packs into the large barrel: mine barely fit, even when empty.
It took us about half an hour to get our barrels packed, with a few extra things (like our poles and my sleeping pad) that just didn’t fit. Once we got our canoe, which took a while, we had to strap them down with ropes. In the meantime, there was a paddling demonstration, which was repeated later because not everyone was down by the boat ramp during the first demonstration.
All in all, the process felt a little disorganized, but, we finally got our canoe (the only green one in the group: the rest are red, which will make it very easy for us to identify ours tomorrow).
After getting maps of the river, and then showing that we could actually paddle and steer the canoe (which was not as easy as it seemed), we set off from the boat landing on the Retaruke River around 11:20.
CareFree was apprehensive about canoeing the river; she took a five day canoe trip in 2018 from Taumarunui to Pipiriki, and didn’t have a great time, capsizing every day. I, on the other hand, had no prior bad boating experience, so I was ready to have a good time.
After passing a small flock of ducks paddling past, we reached the Whanganui River a few minutes later.
It was fun to paddle down the river, at least at the start. It gave my feet a nice rest, but my arms and shoulders haven’t had to work this hard in a long time. Not surprisingly, by the end of the day, my arms and shoulders were sore.
Canoeing down a river is quite a different experience than hiking. When hiking, you can stop at any time you want, for any reason (whether to take pictures, or just relax). On the river though, that’s much harder to do. You can’t just stop, the river will always push you along, unless you get out of the river.
It also means it’s harder to take pictures, or reflect on the scenery. It’s always moving past, and sometimes, by the time you realize that you want to take a picture and get out your camera (or phone), the opportunity has passed.
And with rapids on the Whanganui, you can’t not pay attention. Otherwise, the river will pull you along, willing or not, and if you’re in the wrong place (or aimed in the wrong direction) at the wrong time, the river will capsize you.
Fortunately, that wasn’t really a problem for us. There were rapids, often enough to keep us on our toes, but with enough space between them that we had time to relax. (Well, I had time to relax. I’m not sure CareFree relaxed at all today until we go to the hut.)
Some people have described the forest along the Whanganui as being as though you were floating through Jurassic Park. I didn’t quite that get that feeling — the Whanganui’s forest was fairly similar to other North Island priests — but I could see where someone who hadn’t been through a lot of North Island forests would get that idea. Most of the day, the river traveled through a gorge between two steep cliff faces, with ferns everywhere and numerous waterfalls. It really was pretty amazing.
We didn’t see a whole lot of birds. There were ducks here and there, and we could hear other birds in the forest, but there were less water birds than I was expecting. Perhaps it was because the water was still somewhat murky following the recent heavy rains.
We did see (and hear) a few goats along the cliffs. I wasn’t expecting goats, but given we’ve seen them in many of the other forests recently, it’s hardly surprising to find them here.
We did have a number of rapids we had to navigate. Following the instructions from our safety course in Taumarunui last week, each time, we aimed for the “V”-shaped disturbance in the water where two currents were meeting, and didn’t stop paddling. Each time, we made it through, only occasionally getting splashes of water from the waves into the boat. I lost count of how many rapids there were today, but I didn’t think any of them were especially difficult. It was a good learning experience. CareFree was certain we were going to capsize today; I was sure we would not. And we did not — success!
Towards the end of the day, we got briefly rained on, a light rain that was almost not worth mention, except that Miriam, and her boatmate Tabea, being a bit further downstream than us, got poured on at the same time.
After about five and a half hours on the river (including one snack break), we reached the landing for John Coull Hut, and then the real hard part of the day began: after tying our boat up, we had to unstrap all of our barrels, get them out of the boat, up a steep and eroded path from the landing to a staging area, and then from there up to the campsites. (We did not stay in the hut; by the time we had booked our trip, the hut itself was full.) Our paddles, life jackets, and map also had to go up to our campsite. Fortunately, with several people trying to tie up their boats at the same time, the process went much smoother than it otherwise would have: from the boat, CareFree could hand me a barrel, and then I could hand it to someone standing higher up, who could set it down near where they were standing. It saved us having to make a lot of back-and-forth trips over somewhat difficult (and steep) terrain.
We had dinner with Miriam and Tabea, and Brigit and Marcel, a Swiss couple who were only canoeing as far as Pipiriki (two days from here), after which they’ll bike to Whanganui. Brigit and Marcel were quite generous: they’d packed a bottle of wine and a bottle of Bailey’s, which they shared with us.
There were a lot of people at the campsite today. We counted 32 canoes and four kayaks (implying 68 people). We didn’t see all of them; whomever was staying in the hut was here long before us (and were likely not TA hikers).
As we turned in to sleep, a goat somewhere fairly nearby bleated out once, and then was quiet.
Today, we canoed over 35 km, which is almost certainly further than all the distance I’ve ever spent in a boat under my own power before combined. Tomorrow, we’ll go over 44 km, in what will probably be our longest (by distance) day on the river, and definitely our longest day on the trail so far.