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Whanganui River Trip
History Residents Committee Forest Tradition
The River: notes on a flow

Four mountains

Four mountains, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Taranaki lived in the centre of the North Island, all in love with the nearby maid-mountain Pihanga. Taranaki approached Pihanga, who was inclined to respond, but Tongariro objected and a mighty battle ensued. The earth shook and the sky became dark as the mountains belched forth their fiery anger. Tongariro bested Taranaki who, wild with grief and jealously, wrenched his roots from the ground and lunged west gouging out a wide trench. Reaching the sea he turned north and stumbled up the coast. Pihanga was much saddened and tears rolled down her side flowing into the deep scar Taranaki had left thus forming the great river. Centuries later a warrior set off following an erring wife. He met the river flowing west and sat down thinking: "Too wide to swim, too deep to wade, I will wait for the tide to turn" and so named the river Whanganui: The Big Wait.

In my office chatting

In my office chatting, exchanging a few emails, reading a few web blogs and lovely stories like the one above, paddling down the Whanganui river in a canoe seemed easily doable. Certainly the combination of elements: river, water, canoe, paddle, start-end, all flowed together well enough. The practical realities took a while to converge. Maps, internet videos and reviews were consulted and guesses made at... could we do it? who would do it? who would provide boats, how long would it take? how much Marmite, rice, gas, toilet paper, bandaids, sugar, etc. would we need? Five men for 13 days... that's 65 man-days. That's a lot of variables, a lot of YumYum noodles and chocolate! To say nothing of the weather. The underlying principle was 'immersion in nature.' Relative silence, simplicity and solitude. Looking at sattelite and topographic images it was clear that once on the river there were few points of exit (escape?). Despite being NZ's longest navigable river only two bridges cross it between Whanganui and Taumarunui. And, cutting the preamble, and the doubt, off we went.

Leaving the monastery

Leaving the monastery at 5:58am on Friday the 13th of March we headed up the west coast, stopping for a roadside breakfast and later for a coffee arriving at the outfitters in Oakhune about 11:00. Time was tight as we still had to pack all our stuff into waterproof plastic barrels, load them with the boats onto the trailer, stow our bags in the van, make the trip to Taumarunui (bag lunch on the way), prepare the boats, get some guidance from our driver on river craft AND get to our first camp before dark. It was somewhat a leap of faith as we eventually pushed off and headed downstream. Barely half an hour later turbulent cross-currents swirling around rocks on a left-hand bend in the river got the better of the lead boat and inversion and submersion were instantaneous and, fortunately, painless - if a little embarassing. The first of several water blessings to come.

The rhythm of our days

The rhythm of our days gradually paralleled that of the river. Day break, wrapped in a sluggish mist with tents and everything outside wet with dew. The mind awake enough but communication with a tired body slow and slightly reluctant. "Is there anybody out there?" I thought as I listened for sounds of other bodies. Our first morning was chaotic as we rummaged through numbered barrels trying to find... just about anything. By the end of the trip we had it sorted. #7: pots and knives, #4: nuts, dried fruit, biscuits - and so forth. Porridge was usually ready by about 7:00 but it was rare that we had eaten, washed, packed tents and barrels and hauled it all down to the river and loaded boats and pushed off before 9:30 which left not much more than an hour before we were looking out for a landing spot for lunch. These varied from grassy meadow to sunny little sandy beaches to cramped rocky indents to driftwood strewn tangles huddled under a rain-soaked plastic tarp to a homely old wood cabin with crackling fire. A chance to stop, stretch, walk about and generally employ otherwise unused muscles and body parts. Dry wet clothing - and body parts. The body... the earth, the water, the pervasive basic elements of our life. Camp food... simple but nourishing. While the thought of 'a nice cup of tea' came to us all at regular intervals each such stop along the way involved lots of barrel rumaging and setting up so the eventual collective conclusion was that water is easiest.

Our time

Our time, like the water, flowed gracefully. A journey down the Whanganui River is also a journey through geological history with the planet's most complete shallow-marine archive of the past five million years easily visible. The rock is mostly sedimentary; soft sandstone and mudstone with occasional limestone and volcanic layers formed about 30 million years ago and only rising about a million years ago - give or take a tea break or two. Pihanga's tears have worked the varied hardness and permeability to form sharp ridges, deep gorges, sheer papa cliffs, caves and art worthy formations. The catchment area of the river is huge and water pours in from everywhere. Sitting in a tiny boat floating between soaring cliffs felt at times like passing through the attenuated nave of an ancient, roofless cathedral with damp, fern clad walls dripping moisture and broken window fissures cascading waterfalls.

And the paddles

And the paddles rose and fell - about 10,000 times every day. Flesh biting sandflies were persistant both on land and river. Feet and hands and other body parts were almost always wet. There was a sandy-muddy grit that clung to anything wet and abraded. Each of our skin reacted differently and the best general medical response was duck tape. Fingers, feet, elbows, sandals, a broken stove leg, sleeping bags... all sporting the shiny cyborg silver binding. "Resistance is futile!" While we had mostly bright sunny days, the large catchment area meant that rain elsewhere could raise the river level up to ten meters, with the flood of 1940 raising the Pipiriki gorge level twenty. I tried to imagine such a tube of water 50m wide by 20 high surging through our calm, idyllic waterway. Despite the evidence of debris dangling high overhead it was hard to visualise. Nevertheless boats were best pulled up and secured. It also meant that campsites were set a demanding climb above these levels. A joyous site at end of day was to see a DOC sign "Campsite: 500 meters ahead" as that gave respite, tea, meditation, sleep. But not before barrels had been hauled and sorted and tents erected and our 'kitchen' set up. Arms, shoulders and backs were the hardest worked and the campsite sometimes looked a bit like a yoga, tai chi studio as torsos were limbered and joints were stretched and loosened. Breathe through the tension... ease into the pain... relax... open... soften. Enjoy.

Two hundred and fifty kilometers

Two hundred and fifty kilometers at roughly 5km an hour required an average of about four hours a day. Each day was smoother, more balanced, as confidence that 'we can do this' increased as the river, equipment and stores became more familiar. The meditators mantra 'keep on with the practice' is no empty cliche. The ever-present backdrop of beauty induced a natural, reflective calm. The flow of the river, the elegant, gracious curves of... the river bank, sculpted rocks, the arc of the sun, trunks of overhanging trees, concentric rings of water drops. Plop, plop, drip, plop, plunk... an aquatic orchestra. Rapids surging through shallows, the sweep and crash of waterfalls, guttural gurgles around obstructing trees and rocks, the dip and splash of the paddle, the gentle murmur of the canoe prow cutting through. Water. Life. The Whanganui River in 2012 was first in the world to be given a legal identity: "to be recognized as a person when it comes to the law." It is alive.

A holiday, a healing

A holiday, a healing, a work-out, an adventure, a challenge, meditation, a pigrimage? Life... is all of those. A bit of pain, pleasure, doubt, frustration, joy... and the potential for harmony, for peace; with the environment, ones companions, the weather, the food, the body. To be content, patient. Mostly it was good enough. Many times it was beatifically sublime. The next trip? This is it. With some uncertainty about what lays ahead I push off into a seemingly benign Thursday.