The Road to Taumarunui
It was a two hour drive from Rotorua to Taumarunui Canoe Hire, where we would be freedom camping for the night. On the road, we were met by confused horses which had seemingly escaped their home. We slowed down and waited for them to pass and, seeing as we didn’t know what to do about escaped horses, continued on our way.
The plan was to camp for five nights, with the first night being at Taumarunui Canoe Hire, where we would rent our canoe and begin the five day Whanganui Journey down the Whanganui River. We rolled in later in the evening and the canoe hire place was empty, but there was a sign directing us to a grassy area where we could freedom camp for the night. Another couple was camping there, as well.
What IS freedom camping? Well, it’s camping, for free. This family-run canoe company is really awesome, and lets their customers freedom camp at the canoe hire site the night before and after their journeys. There was a flushing toilet with toilet paper and a sink AND there was potable water, making the site an extremely luxurious freedom camp. In addition, the place was very beautiful. I felt like I was making money.
Later, as we were setting up camp, the canoe hire owner came down to greet us and give us our dry barrels and instructions to meet at 8 AM for a briefing.
Though Taumarunui is a town and has restaurants, we chose to make dinner with the Jetboil camp stove just to make sure we remembered how to use it. We successfully boiled water and poured it into our instant noodle cups. Hayden remarked that his instant noodles were “Mmm! Five Stars!”
Even though I am no longer a student, I realized right after dinner that course enrollment had opened and jumped to immediately enroll Hayden in all his upcoming winter quarter courses. As usual, it was a painful, painful struggle as many students all overload Axess trying to get into the popular PE classes, but after only an hour of trying, I did it. I felt extremely proud of myself, so proud that I deemed this worth blogging about.
We were in bed around 10 PM, mostly packed and ready to start our journey.
Day 1: Rocking the Boat
It was just us and the other couple starting on the river today. The other couple was doing a shortened three day journey, so they would need to bus down to Whakahoro to start. Since we were doing the five day, we would be starting at the river right next to the canoe place and had a pretty relaxed schedule.
The briefing went over how to spot obstructions in the river and a general overview of the course that the river takes. We received bread and jam from the family. The five day Whanganui Journey was 145 kilometers in grand total, with about five hours of paddling each day. I felt a false sense of calm about our journey that was soon to be short-lived. During the briefing, two calves wandered up to the door and stared docilely in. “Hey Calfy,” the canoe guy said to them. I have never heard of calves referred to as calfy, but I thought it was adorable.
Everyone went outside afterwards to feed the calves. There were four of them. I fed one who was supposedly named Bully, because he is a bully.
Promising that we would have a better time, the canoe owners really recommended that we change our first two campsites to even out our journey. We agreed and the canoe lady called Department of Conservation and changed our booking right away. While this was happening, we went down to the car and finished packing up our dry barrels. Then the canoe guy took us to our canoe down by the river, helped us strap in our dry barrels, and made sure that we vaguely knew how to paddle and steer. He also mentioned that “usually people tip out in the first 20 minutes and then not again,” and then perhaps ominously, “except for maybe the last day.”
Poor Mr. Tangerine
With that, we were off. After our kayaking and rafting adventures, I felt pretty good about our abilities to not tip the canoe. However, I soon realized that the canoe was not as stable as our raft had been and even small rapids felt very big. I got really splashed by a medium sized wave and my fear of water began to set in. I was sensing an element of danger!!
We caught up to a couple canoeing using a different canoe company, and followed them as the river came to a fork. There were rapids on both sides of the fork, with the rapids on the right looking rather turbulent, but the water on the left looking a little shallow. The other couple went left, so we went left as well. They made it through okay, but we had a bit of a spill. We hit a rock on the side of our canoe, immediately dumping me out of the boat. Panicking, I hurled myself back in the canoe, to which Hayden replied, “good job.” However, it was too late to recover, as the boat had accumulated a lot of water in the tip. Our canoe sunk and we were dead in the water.
I think now is the time to mention my poor tangerine, which I had retrieved from its dry barrel just a little while before the rapid. I gingerly placed the tangerine on my seat beside me and, as the canoe filled with water, the tangerine floated around at the top. The river was shallow enough and the rapids calm enough that we could more or less stand and try to get the canoe to shore to get all the water out. It was then that I noticed my tangerine floating forlorn in the submerged canoe and, knowing my priorities, hastily grabbed it.
Unfortunately, as I attempted to rush my tangerine to shore, I slipped on a rock and landed right on my tangerine. Determined still to save my tangerine, I demanded that Hayden find a safe place for it, as I had no pockets in which to store it. Hayden placed it in a little patch of dirt, where it rested — bruised, beaten, waterlogged.
In the meantime, Hayden and I managed to get the canoe to a safe place where the rapids weren’t pushing too hard on it, so we could use our bailers to get all the water out. Eventually all the water was out, and we started guiding the canoe back upstream to start down the river yet again. I reminded Hayden to get my tangerine from the dirt patch where it was resting.
Mr. Tangerine Finds Peace
I ate my bruised tangerine while grumbling in the boat.
RIP my hair rubber band, which fell out of my hair and floated away in the chaos.
Now, I was scared. How could we do this for five days?? How were we going to make it through just today??? Hayden kept saying he was sorry, and I kept telling him that it wasn’t his fault but that I was scared now.
Here commemorates my mood after tipping the canoe, and Hayden’s efforts to get a fun photo of me on our canoe journey.
I recalled that the Department of Conservation brochure had mentioned that “you’ll be in for some excitement as you shoot down the rapids” on day 1 of the journey, and realized that this may have been New Zealand’s way of saying “if you’re a noob this may be a rough one for you.” At least now I understood that the rapids were supposed to lessen towards the end of the first day.
But it wasn’t over yet!
We came to a river narrowing where the rapids got quite big, relative to our canoe and my experience level. Hayden and I shouted at one another in an attempt to correctly maneuver through the rapid, but Hayden miscalculated our trajectory and we ended up hitting a big wave sideways. All I remember is getting tossed, thinking in that split second that we were going down and being TERRIFIED, and then violently slamming my body into the wave to keep the canoe upright. The rapid wasn’t over yet, and I tried to reorient myself and keep paddling all the way through. Hayden shouted, “I lost my paddle,” and I felt this sinking feeling and forced myself to quickly come to terms with his paddle being gone forever.
He pulled the backup paddle out of the canoe and we made it through the rougher waters. We turned the boat around once it was calmer and hopefully waited for Hayden’s paddle to come back to us. Luckily, it did, and we paddled up and retrieved it.
Back on our way again, we reached another fork in the river, where we saw the couple from before pulled over in the middle of the fork. They were on the side with the bigger rapids, and pointed for us to go to the other side. That was appreciated.
Shortly thereafter, we made it to Ohinepane, where we were originally supposed to camp for the first night. It had only been 3 hours, so it was a good thing we were continuing on a bit more. We had a salami and cheese sandwich lunch and I stared long and hard at the rapid following the Ohinepane campsite. Another couple was already having lunch there, and we watched them as they navigated the rapid. For simplicity’s sake, from now on I will refer to them as Vaguely Eastern European Couple.
After Vaguely Eastern European Couple departed, we packed up our lunch supplies and prepared to depart. The couple from before, which I will refer to now as Probably American Couple, rolled in around then. We talked to them and it turned out they had entered some sort of eddy or whirlpool at the fork we’d seen them stopped at, and had lost a chair in the madness.
Like Your Life Depends On It
Hayden, surely jinxing us: At least we didn’t lose anything. 🙂
The rapids from Ohinepane onwards weren’t as bad, but I was still nervous. We started paddling and steering more like our lives depended on it, and we seemed to fare a lot better through the rapids that way. Though I realize my life probably didn’t depend on it, more than anything I did not want to get dunked in the deeper greenish water and have to swim my canoe to safety. In retrospect, it had been lucky that we’d tipped in a really shallow, narrow, clear area. I was determined that it would NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN.
The Poukaria campsite was about two and a half hours from Ohinepane, and marked by a random car in the river about 5 km upstream. Pou-CAR-ia, the canoe guy had told us. That way we wouldn’t miss it.
It was about 3:30 PM when we got there. The only other people there were the Vaguely Eastern European Couple. The campsite was very quiet and beautiful. I was happy to rest.
We sat around thinking about stuff.
An hour after we arrived, three kayakers arrived at the campsite too. And that was it for the whole campsite. The kayakers said that they had tipped their kayaks too and that in the kayaks you pretty much just stay wet the whole time. Overall, it seemed like canoes were a much more popular choice for Whanganui. Hayden complained that he liked kayaks better.
I furiously read through the Whanganui River maps to see exactly where EACH AND EVERY rapid was and if I should be scared of it. It seemed like the water would be much calmer for the next three days, and then the biggest rapids of the journey would be on the last day. Meanwhile, Hayden wandered around and took photos.
For dinner, we had our first freeze dried meal of the trip. We’d brought five different meals, and I had Hayden randomly select one each night. That night, we had… Classic Beef Curry!!!
It was fine.
We also invented our own idea of “rapid grades,” where instead of us grading the rapids, the rapids grade us.
Day 1 Final Rapid Grade: D
You can only do worse if you capsize the canoe.
Day 2: Braving It
For breakfast every morning of this journey, we would be having oatmeal. That morning, Hayden had 2 packets of triple berry and I had one packet of creamy honey.
RAB the Trooper
Though I really don’t like large bodies of water and this one kept booping my boat, I was determined to be a trooper. We set out shortly after Vaguely Eastern European Couple but before European Kayaker Bros.
Hayden remarked that I was getting really good at paddling, and that he could feel the canoe go forward when I paddled. He also said that he had been worried on the first day when I paddled.
Rab Paddling School.
Ohura Falls is a side trip on day 2 which requires you to portage your canoe around a smaller waterfall and then paddle upstream. We only saw the small waterfall and I declared proudly that we had seen Ohura Falls. This was all beginning to remind me of a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
European Kayaker Bros passed us at the falls. A little later, we passed them again while they were stopped eating lunch at a waterfall.
The Lost Campsite of Maharanui
We had intended to eat lunch at the Maharanui campsite, but we never found it. Hayden concluded that it must be gone.
Whakahoro was shortly after where Maharanui was supposed to be, so we stopped for lunch there. The actual Whakahoro campsite was down a short side river, so we didn’t paddle down there, and just stayed at a small dock called Lacy’s Landing. We had salami and cheese sandwiches again.
Hayden spotted Vaguely Eastern European Couple down at the Whakahoro campsite, probably for lunch. While we were eating, European Kayaker Bros passed us again.
Following Whakahoro, there were some rapids that freaked me out but it was mostly calm and there were no incidents. There was a succession of two medium-sized rapids where we oopsie-daisy scraped the bottom of our canoe over a flattish rock. It wasn’t so bad, but we did see European Kayaker Bros stopped after that first rapid. Hayden thought he saw one of them pouring water out of his kayak. Hayden argued for a final rapid grade of a B+ since we had scraped a rock but hadn’t done any sloshing around, but I felt like we were more at a B. He urged me to consider it further.
By this time I had started using the maps to see exactly where we were on the river, which made locating campsites much easier. Coming into Mangapapa:
We got into Mangapapa Campsite around 3. Vaguely Eastern European Couple arrived shortly after us, and then European Kayaker Bros came in just awhile after. No one else came to the campsite that night, and it was like we were all in this journey together.
For dinner, Hayden randomly selected Chicken Tomato Alfredo. It was pretty good.
I studied the maps again and I asked Hayden if he wanted to do the side walk to Bridge to Nowhere on day 4. Bridge to Nowhere is a bridge that was built right as New Zealand was going into an economic depression. As the bridge was being built, all the families were leaving the area because they weren’t making any money off of their sheep wool. Right as the bridge was finished, there was only one family left and the government of New Zealand ordered them to leave. Over time, the little settlement was overgrown and now the bridge serves no purpose except to go from one side of the random trail to the other. It’s not really that cool, but for some reason a lot of people pay money to go see it. Hayden said he didn’t want to see it.
Hayden, on Bridge to Nowhere: I don’t wanna go there. I don’t get it.
At night, it started raining pretty hard, and I got worried that the water level would get really high overnight and our trip would be delayed, or that our canoe would get filled with water and then slide down the bank. It made it hard to sleep, but I tried to think of the rain as peaceful and hope that all would be well come morning tomorrow.
Day 2 Final Rapid Grade: B
Day 3: Easy A
Hayden had two packets of strawberry and I had creamy honey again.
The Lost Campsite of Ohauora
Even though everything was all wet, the water looked okay after the rain, and the canoe was still there with only a little water in it. We rolled out around 9:30 AM, and it was an easy day overall with intermittent sun.
Once again we missed our lunch campsite, Ohauora, which neither of us spotted at all. There had been one longish rapid that we’d been focused on, and I think the campsite had been near there. We ate at a random spot, and finished the last of the salami. The cheese was starting to get weird so we stopped eating it after that.
Apparently there was supposed to be a whirlpool rapid at some point, but we never saw anything of the sort (and were very happy about that.) Our notes said something about blasting improving it greatly, so I guess it’s only apparent in high flows.
It was a straight paddle to John Coull, and got in around 2 PM, making us the first ones there. We’d only been paddling for a little over 4 hours!
John Coull has both a hut and campsites and is a popular stop on the three day journey, and we were notified by the resident wardens there that a group of 30 school teens would be staying there that night. We chose the most secluded campsite we could find and hoped for the best.
We didn’t see European Kayaker Bros or Vaguely Eastern European Couple that night, and figured they had paddled forward one campsite. (We probably should have done the same.) The 30 teens were pretty loud, but at least they camped in a separate section of the site.
For dinner, Hayden’s random selection was Beef and Pasta Hotpot, which neither of us were super happy with. Freeze dried meals were ruining pasta for me.
Day 3 Final Rapid Grade: Easy A
Day 4: You Can’t Direct the Wind…
Hayden had two packets of blueberry, and I had one packet of golden syrup.
We left earlier, around 8, in an effort to beat the kids out of there and have a peaceful paddle on the river. Though our planned destination had been Tieke Kainga, another popular hut + campsite, we decided we’d try to paddle to Ngaporo 2.5 hours past Tieke to camp away from the kids.
The day was overcast and the water was all murky. The river was easygoing but it was very windy at times, making it difficult with all the paddling against the wind. At one point, Hayden announced, “We’re going to hit the rock,” as the wind pushed us towards one of the canyon walls. We panic paddled away from the walls and it was okay. The wind made it kind of scary, since I really couldn’t be sure if I would always be strong enough to overcome it.
When we reached Tieke, it must have been around noon. I was very tired after 5 hours of paddling into a headwind. We were only planning on stopping at Tieke for lunch, but the resident warden convinced us to stay by upgrading us to the hut to be isolated from the kids.
Tieke Kainga also acts as a Maori marae, and all visitors to the marae are asked to participate in a Powhiri (welcome) ceremony. I wolfed down a tuna sandwich lunch along with some snacks, and then the resident warden Powhiri’d us onto the marae. There was more of the Women Sit At The Back stuff (I could not see while seated behind Hayden) and only Hayden was allowed to speak for the both of us (WTF). I AM AN INDIVIDUAL PERSON. Whatever.
It was a Unique Cultural Experience and I kept trying to convince myself that that was worth all the trouble of being here. The warden kept emphasizing that Tieke is a place of spiritual restoration, but I felt really stressed the whole time with all the ceremony requirements and also the warden just kept checking in with us a lot. Eventually we were free to do whatever we wanted and just relax, but it took awhile.
We took an afternoon nap and I remember hearing two Powhiris happen while we were sleeping. A big group of Belgians, which would be staying in the hut with us, had arrived shortly before the children. After we woke up, the children had arrived. Everyone was loud. I missed our old companions.
Dinner was Beef Teriyaki, and free bread that we received from another group.
Hayden and I just hung out in the grass on the marae for a long while. No kids came there, though we could hear them making guttral animal noises just a little ways away.
The warden had made a big deal about keeping the children in line, but the kids were literally screaming that night and no one said anything to them. The Belgians weren’t super quiet in the huts, but it was at least better than being right next to the screaming kids. Tieke was a very beautiful but moderately stressful experience.
That night, I had a little trouble sleeping as I thought about tomorrow’s rapids — “the swiftest rapids of the journey.”
Day 4 Final Rapid Grade: B+
Because we didn’t do great with the wind.
Day 5: RABids
Hayden had two packets of triple berry, and I had one packet of brown sugar and cinnamon. My final assessment is that all of Hayden’s berry blends are disgusting, and that creamy honey is much superior to the other two flavors I had.
We once again left at 8 and ran away from the giant group of awkward teens. The idea of Ngaporo, the first of the larger rapids, hovered over me like a storm cloud. Also, an actual rain cloud hovered over us and rained for quite awhile. We were bundled in our rain coats and rain pants so the rain was mostly just annoying, but we did get very damp.
It wasn’t too windy, at least, and the river was very calm between Tieke and Ngaporo. I kept thinking that at some point we’d start encountering more rapids like we had on the first day, but the water remained calm for quite awhile.
There were only a couple small rapids before Ngaporo, and even as we went into Ngaporo, we weren’t sure that that was it. Only after we saw the sign marking the Ngaporo campsite did we confirm that we had successfully gone through the first big rapid. I felt a lot better about big rapid day after that, though I still didn’t like the rapids.
There was a rapid after Ngaporo that had a big rock sticking out of it, but we successfully did not hit the big rock. Around this time, we saw that Vaguely Eastern European Couple had caught up with us and that European Kayaker Bros were joining us from the Ngaporo campsite.
The Aotapu rapid is the next big rapid that the Whanganui brochure thought worthy of mention. Aotapu had lots of snags as it curved for a long while, but it was overall okay. There were just a handful of bends left!
The second to last rapid was the hardest, with huge waves for an extended period of time. We got splashed a lot and Hayden had a particularly hard job trying to steer us out of the biggest waves, but the canoe didn’t threaten to tip and we didn’t hit anything so I’d call that a win.
The last rapid ended in a whirlpool that pulled us in. I hate that feeling, but it’s not really a dangerous situation. That rapid pretty much marks the end of the journey, with all the biggest rapids saved for the last two hours.
We paddled to the Pipiriki boat ramp, where we were scheduled to be picked up at 1:30 PM. We’d done it!
Day 5 Final Rapid Grade: A-
Surely we don’t deserve a full A.
The Hot Shower
As it turned out, we arrived two hours before pickup time, but as luck would have it so did our ride! It was a 1.5 hour ride back to Taumaranui, and the canoe hire gave us chocolate muffins and juice to eat and drink during the ride. Yum.
I felt so happy to have completed the journey. It was lucky that we hadn’t started today, seeing as the weather had gotten bad all of a sudden. Hayden said that Whanganui Journey was his favorite Great Walk, of all two that we have been on so far. He liked the challenge of canoeing.
I had booked the “backpacker room,” a room with a bed and bathroom, at Taumarunui Canoe Hire for the night we returned. It was an excellent choice. When we arrived, we immediately took our things into the room, which I think was just one of the family’s guest rooms contained in its own unit.
As much as I wanted a shower, I wanted pizza more. We retrieved our car and drove into town to get pizza, then returned to eat it in our backpacker room. Then, finally, I got my shower. Soooo clean. Hayden and I both needed to do laundry soon, but we had just enough clean clothes for one more outfit.
Hayden called his parents, I blogged, and we played Sim City. Also, the calves hung out outside in the rain right outside our window. It was magical.
My dad remarked, upon seeing the photo of the calf wearing a vest, “That’s a human jacket…. New Zealand is full of wonders.”
Bye Bye Taumarunui
We left Taumarunui Canoe Hire fairly early and went to McDonald’s primarily for the free WiFi but also for breakfast. Hayden needed to apply for an internship online, so he needed the internet. We hung out there for a couple hours while he did that.
Our next destination was Ohakune, a small town only an hour away from Taumarunui. I had booked us an Airbnb there, and check in wasn’t until 4 PM, so we had lots of time to kill. We went to the market and got new dinner supplies, then wandered around Taumarunui playing Pokemon Go. Eventually we decided we might as well just head on down to Ohakune and check out the town there.
Ohakune was meant to be a place to relax in between Whanganui Journey and Tongariro Northern Circuit, our next Great Walk. We were off to do a few days of nothing! Adventure awaits.