Paddling the Whanganui

Support group member, Yvonne, doesn’t let scleroderma tie her down. Previously, she has reported from the back of a pushbike in the wilds of Otago. This time, it’s from the river rapids.

Eight people, four canoes. One unforgettable journey. We put our canoes into the Whanganui River at Taumarunui, and pulled them out for the final time at Pipiriki, 5 days and 145km later.

The Whanganui is a small river where our trip began, passing through farmland and gradually into native bush. That first day was a mixture of fear, exhilaration and laughter, as we learnt to control our canoes and paddle them through many rapids; some members grounded in the shallows, or slid backwards through rapids.

As days passed, we left farmland and road access behind, entering stunning gorges sculpted by the river, trees in every shade of green cloaking and clinging to soaring cliffs. Here were long tranquil stretches of water mirroring perfect images, cascading streams cutting deep slots through soft rock, and swirling eddy currents boiling up from the base of cliffs. At times we glided quietly, watching early morning mist rise through trees, kereru swooping on air currents, and listening to occasional birdsong.

Most days we paddled for 5-6 hours, stopping every few hours for food and rest; the first and last days were shorter.

Day four we tied up at Mangapurua Landing and walked in to the famous Bridge to Nowhere for lunch. Along with canoes, lifejackets, transport etc, the hire company provided waterproof barrels to stow our gear in. These were strapped into the canoes, and on arrival at our destination had to be carried up to the campsite – always high above river level! We soon developed a team approach to accomplish this, along with pitching the tents and cooking meals. Each incoming stream adds to the Whanganui, until the river is deep and wide, and rapids on the last day are challenging.

Did I have misgivings about doing this trip? Of course. Could I stay warm enough? Layers of merino were the answer; warm even when wet, light enough for an unscheduled swim, easy to peel off as exercise warms the muscles. Would aching shoulders and upper arms be up to it? “Get fit first”, I said, and swam weekly in the local pool. Could I last the distance? No question; this was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I wasn’t going to miss any of it.

Our journey down the Whanganui River was a truly unforgettable mix of magnificent scenery, teamwork, and discovering just how much you can do.