Date: 26 November
Trail covered: 48.1kms kayaked via alternate route – kms 1202.9 to 1234-ish
Whanganui River Journey – Day 1
First off, let me say it feels a bit strange to be on the water given Te Araroa is supposed to be a walk. Although actually, the section of the Whanganui River journey from Taumarunui to Pipiriki is classed as one of New Zealand’s “great walks” so perhaps other people have a different definition of the word “walk” than I do. But then if you start redefining English words like that, then you might start saying crazy things like the Whanganui River is a legal person, with all the associated rights and responsibilities that are implied by that. Oh wait… that also, already, has happened.
We went to the Blue Duck Cafe where everybody had two breakfasts. That’s what walking 42km does to you, well to me anyway… makes me super hungry the next day. And apparently everyone else too. I’ve noticed that they like to really smother the bread with butter in this part of the country. Here, every time I even touched the bread, butter oozed out of it. But the eggs were big and the bacon was high quality so it was much better than the awful bacon and eggs I got in Taumarunui.
We went back to the hut to wait for Taumarunui Canoe Hire to turn up with the two canoes and the kayak. I am going to go in the kayak at first, and Alex and Ethan in one canoe and Peter and Charlie in the other. Then we might look at switching around.
Once the canoe hire van turned up, then the moment was officially here. The moment I have been dreading since I first thought about doing the trail back in February. Yep – getting on the water for five days. While there is part of me that has been looking a little bit forward to it because it’s something different, I’m mainly very anxious. Not because I can’t swim – I can a bit – but because I’m not very good in the water generally, and I’ve read stories like if you flip a canoe, it may be 45 minutes before you’re able to find a spot where you’re able to get back in. And also the rapids – mainly the infamous rapid called “50-50” on Day 3 just before Pipiriki – so named because 50% of people either fall out or sink the boat when going through it. Oh what fun.
Another thing worth mentioning is that the official TA route has the river journey starting at Mangapurua Landing – some 37km south of Whakahoro. Launching the boats from Whakahoro is an “accepted alternative” in the trail notes and it seems to be the route almost everyone takes. I think because it’s cheaper but also for some crazy reason everyone else seems to be looking forward to this bit so they actually want to spend more time in their canoes! I’m not sure I would have chosen to go from here but as a solo hiker I have to join a group as no hire company will let you hire a kayak as a solo hiker. That’s why I’m so glad to have Alex, Ethan, Charlie and Peter who are very cool guys and don’t mind me tagging along. So I told them I will do whatever itinerary they want to do.
Oh yes, right, the whole point of me describing all that was to point out that I can’t accurately determine the km end marker today because we are officially off the trail. That’s why it is “1234-ish”. And it’s also why the red line on the map at the end of the post doesn’t follow the blue line.
The first challenge was even getting to the boat ramp. Turns out one of the big school groups from last night are all on canoes today too. So we had to wait for them to hurry the hell up.
In the meantime we put all our stuff into the waterproof barrels. The hire guy had brought 14 barrels but we only needed 11 – yay for us. There was also one bigger barrel and a couple of yellow “dry sacks” to put our packs and poles in, and anything else we won’t actually need to get our hands on for the next five days like hiking boots.
In theory these barrels are completely waterproof. So if you submerge the canoe or flip the kayak then your stuff will be fine. Assuming that 1. you actually put your stuff in the barrels, 2. you attach them to the canoe properly and 3. you seal them properly. For some reason I have a feeling that we will be testing the waterproof-ness of these barrels on more than one occasion.
I also have my phone in a waterproof case – Lifeproof brand. That is tied to me with a piece of rope. So even if I end up out of the kayak then the phone should not sink to the bottom of the river and should also keep working in theory.
On the kayak I can fit one barrel but since my stuff is in three barrels that means I’m separated from a lot of my stuff as the guys in the canoes have my barrels on their canoes. I’m sure I will get better at working out what stuff needs to go into which barrel but for now Ive just shoved everything in wherever so that we can get underway.
Ok next, we go down to the boat ramp and muscle our way in – it’s a small boat ramp. And then the hire guy brings out five chocolate muffins to say thanks. They’re cool guys at Taumarunui Canoe Hire, and their premises is right on the trail. I wish I got their names. The reviews for this hire company on Guthook are overwhelmingly positive.
We put our lifejackets on and get the canoes and kayak in the water and we have to do a demo. And this is where I learn that canoes only have a one-ended paddle. Oh boy, I’m way out of my depth here. It just occurred to me right now that I’ve never even seen a canoe before!
I was in the kayak though and I’ve kayaked a bit before. So I could demo my paddling skills just fine. Interestingly, Peter and Charlie had also not been in a canoe before today. But they managed to convince the hire guy that they knew what they were doing. I think that this whole exercise of demoing our paddling skills is just a health & safety box-ticking exercise.
And then Ethan signed something on everybody’s behalf and we were off. Oh boy, it starts now. Approximately 160 kilometers down the river over five days. I loved the Puhoi Kayak last month. That was just two hours long and had no rapids to speak of. This is going to be a whole different beast.
It was nice for the first hour or two. The paddling was easy – we were making 8 km/hr which is quite fast. It is good too – our first day is by far the longest, we have 48km to travel today and didn’t start out until just before 11am.
The rapids didn’t even seem that bad. You aim for the V which is the point where the fast-moving water converges on, then the water gets a bit rough and you bounce around a bit but it’s fine. You balance and don’t fall out and everything is peachy. Let’s hope it stays that way.
And here’s my 11am picture on the water!
We were making good progress.
It didn’t take us long to catch up to the schoolkids. I had a chat with the teachers. Apparently each class is allowed to choose what they want to do for school camp and this river journey is the most expensive option.
We had to stop chatting however, when we saw that one of the pairs of schoolkids had already flipped their canoe. I didn’t see how it happened but I was surprised to see it happen so early on.
We stopped for lunch after a bit more paddling. All was still going good. I opened up my food barrel which I packed at Taumarunui. Because we had stopped on a less than ideal spot for lunch, I had to have whatever happened to be on the top of the barrel for lunch, because there was no room to unload it. That turned out to be chicken-flavoured potato chips and biscuits called “Shapes” – I just couldn’t remember what flavour they were because I had thrown away the box to keep the volume of food inside the barrels down.
Deep mud on the shore of where we stopped made it an unpleasant place to stop – we need to pick our lunch spots more carefully next time. But when we got back in the water, we realised that the next campsite we passed was where all the kids had pulled up and were making lots of noise and that would not have been a good place to stop.
Further on was a second group of schoolkids. They were making a lot of noise and were also all swimming in the river at a narrow point. This put me off a bit because it was hard to go around them. Once I was past them I turned around to take this photo.
And that’s where my first mistake happened. I was so busy concentrating on avoiding the kids who were all swimming downstream that I wasn’t paying attention to the upcoming rapid and I fell out at the end of it. And I did the one thing that they say not to do in the safety briefing – I let go of the paddle. Uh oh – now what.
Well, luckily the water was calm after that bit. It was surprisingly easy to hold onto the kayak but also kick in the water to steer myself towards the paddle. So it only took a minute or two to catch up to the paddle in the water. Then I floated gently into a tree that was sticking up in the water. I used the tree to get back into the kayak, I make it sound easy and relaxing here but actually I was breathing heavily in the water and was quite scared. At least I knew I wouldn’t sink with the lifejacket on. My big fear was the kayak or paddle or my stuff floating away, never to be seen again. Fortunately in the kayak, as I now know, that doesn’t seem too likely to happen.
The others weren’t too far behind and they saw me out of the kayak in the water and came over to offer assistance. Fortunately I didn’t need any help.
Ok let’s do a damange report. My GPS watch is still going. The phone didn’t get away and still works but water definitely got inside the “waterproof” case. That made me unhappy. And the one barrel I was carrying in the kayak was still secured. Hooray.
In the second set of rapids after John Coull Hut I managed to get through okay… but then I saw a big tree and since the rapid was on a corner I just couldn’t get away from it. I sideswiped the tree and this time the whole kayak flipped. Here we go again! I held onto the paddle this time because I could see the tree coming and I knew I would be tipping out again. But this time I had to get the kayak upright. It was again surprisingly easy – one big push and it was upright, and I could just jump back into it in the middle of the water. I managed to do that before the others came around the corner to the same rapid so they didn’t even know it happened – but I told them anyway. They haven’t had any troubles yet. Canoes are a lot more stable in the water than a kayak it seems. But apparently when you make a mistake in a canoe, the mistakes are harder to recover from.
Ok damage report again. GPS watch still works. Phone still there. Phone still works. Barrel still there. It’s been completely submerged in the water so when I stop next it will be interesting to see the condition of what’s inside.
After falling out twice, I was more nervous than when I started because it seems like something that will happen often… but I’m also more confident of my ability to get back in when I fall out. There are definitely more rapids coming up and I feel sure I’m going to fall out again.
Alex and Ethan were “trash-talking” Charlie and Peter and splashing each other and pushing each other’s canoes around. That would have made me nervous if I was in either of those canoes. It really was Belgium vs USA.
The long day really started to take its toll on my arms, and 40km in, I really started to fatigue and make mistakes. Every corner suddenly seemed hard. I was worried if I flipped again then I wouldn’t have the strength to get it upright a second time and to get back into the kayak. Because I was so tired, I had to keep saying “calm, calm, calm” out loud whenever I went through any rapids.
I think everyone was starting to get tired and making mistakes by the end. At the 44km mark Charlie and Peter were right behind me in a rapid. I slowed down but they sped up and ended up hitting my kayak which spun me sideways near the end of the rapid. I managed to keep my balance though, and the kayak didn’t tip, so everything was okay. It was honest mistake, I didn’t feel angry at them. Charlie was really apologetic because he knew how nervous I was all day.
I felt relieved to get to Mangawaiiti Campsite, although I was surprised how many stairs we had to lift up our barrels. It was up quite a lot of stairs! I checked in my barrel. Yep – all good. Everything is dry, no water inside. Wonderful!
We did the usual setting up of our tents and then for the first time since buying my “food for the river” back in Taumarunui I got to pull everything right out and see it all again. Ooh I forgot how much cool stuff I bought. The first thing I had was a can of Jack Daniels and Cola. Everybody had brought alcohol of some description so we had a few drinks. It was excellent.
And then I had a very big pasta dinner, followed by chocolate and sweets and a few pieces of the blackberry pie I brought. It was so nice!
There were others at the campsite – maybe about ten or so others. I didn’t recognise anyone but the rest of my group did. They went and socialised with them for a while but I didn’t join as I was uncomfortably sunburnt and also a bit drunk. I had really sunburnt upper thighs and tops of my feet – because these parts of my body were only seeing the sun for the first time because of the way I sit on the kayak.
Time to sleep at last. I go to plug my phone into the battery pack like I do every night… but where’s my charging cable? It’s not where it usually is. I pull out every single thing in every barrel. Wow it is not there. Oh no. I must have left it in the bunkroom at Whakahoro. This is the first thing I have lost on the trail. Well that sucks. My phone is fortunately still at 60% and that 60% is going to have to last the next four days. I guess it’s not terrible though because I don’t need to look at the map to see where we’re going – just follow the river.
And another thing… my phone is displaying the “moisture in charging port” warning. Eek. I have a feeling this is the universe trying to tell me not to take my phone on the kayak any more, and to seal it in a barrel from now on. That’s what I’m going to do. Moisture is obviously getting into the phone each time I end up in the water and the view from the kayak doesn’t really change often. So no photos on the water from now on, sadly.
It’s been an eventful first day on the river. I wonder what the next four days on the river hold for us.
It’s worth reading Alex and Ethan’s blog entry for today as well. They have a waterproof camera!
Today's walk on the map (blue = Te Araroa, red = today's walk):