The Te Araroa starts to get wet as we canoe down the Whanganui River for some aquatic adventures!
Check out the video of our river adventure. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the trail!
DAY 38 – Whakahoro to John Coull Hut
Fog quickly burned off at dawn and I could see the light of a clear blue morning. Tom and I hung our tents out to dry after a brief sleep in. There was no rush today; our canoe rental wouldn’t be dropped off until 9am. And so we walked on over to the Blue Duck Cafe for breakfast of eggs Benedict.
There were seven of us TA hikers eager to tackle the Whanganui River when the canoe rental arrived. Normally the TA follows a trail for another 40km but because of a rock slip, that trail is closed. And so we enter the river earlier than normal at Whakahoro and have an extra two days on the river. So the normal three-day river adventure becomes five (on average).
We walked down to the river and helped unload the canoes from the trailer. The rain from two days ago had raised the river quite high and there were heaps of mud on the boat ramp. As I carried a canoe to the shore, I lost a sandal in the ankle-high mud. After a lengthy search I found it buried in muck.
Next we transferred all of our belongings into these plastic waterproof barrels and loaded them into the canoe. The rental company provided cupcakes and ran us through a brief safety tutorial. And then we were off.
Tom and I took to the river ahead of the rest and we immediately encountered some rapids. Tom has canoed down the Shenandoah River when hiking the Appalachian Trail so he was experienced with rapids. I was anxious since I’d heard it’s very easy to go in the drink on the river.
We headed straight on through the rapids, bouncing over a few waves that immediately soaked me. It was like the log ride at an amusement park. And just like that it was over and we’d made it through. But the next obstacle was the eddy after the rapids. An eddy is when the current whirlpools or doubles back on itself and can turn your boat around quickly. We paddled hard and steered straight through with the current, careful to avoid the eddy or at least overpower it.
Once through, I was at ease. Tom said this river is nothing compared to his Shenandoah shenanigans. Because of all the rain two days prior, the Whanganui water level was quite high which made the rapids much less severe. But it also made it harder to spot underwater obstacles like trees and rocks.
Most of the day was a nice meander through beautiful virgin forest. The river had carved a deep channel through the hills. There were small waterfalls here and there and lots of big trees and debris in the river from the recent storm.
Now and again we’d encounter rapids and eddies. We were either quite skilled on the water or lucky; we never tipped the canoe. When we stopped for lunch at a riverside campsite, we watched a canoe flip over and swamp after leaving the rapids too early into an eddy.
With the river levels so high and the general ease of paddling, we made fast time. We cruised along the river to our campground at the John Coull Hut by 3pm. This was definitely faster than walking and our feet got a much needed break.
I set up my tent perched above the river with an amazing view. The evening was spent relaxing and talking with other hikers.
Because I knew we’d be canoeing for several days, I had brought an insane amount of food. The rental company actually stores food for canoeist and delivers it to you when you start the journey. So not only was I carrying my remaining food I bought in National Park two days ago but also had the food I’d left with the canoe company ahead of time. I overpacked and had over 15 packages of ramen and 36 tortillas! Dinner consisted of two ramen noodle dishes and instant potatoes followed by chocolate.
It had been a gorgeous day and a welcome change from the normal trail. New Zealand pigeons noisily fluttered about at dusk; they are notorious for their loud wing flapping.
Day’s Distance: 37.5km (23.3mi)
Total Distance: 1,240.5km (771mi)
Distance Remaining: 1,759.5km (1,093.5mi)
DAY 39 – John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga
My back was sore when I awoke. I suppose I’m not used to paddling for five hours. The group of five canoeists that started with us yesterday set off early; we were in no rush. It was almost 9am when we finally got back on the water.
The day was easy. We paddled along in beautiful weather with not a cloud in sight. There were very few rapids and they were all easy. It was actually slow for much of the river. The mountains towered around us as the river carved a deeper path.
At our halfway point for the day we stopped at Mangapurua. This is the normal entry point for TA walkers to begin their river journey. However, the track to this point was closed due to a rock slip so we had to get on the river farther upstream yesterday. So basically our first day and a half on the river have been bonus! Or at least in lieu of hiking 40km!
At Mangapurua we stopped for lunch and then I walked up the track (the TA track that is closed farther back from the rock slip) about 30 minutes to the Bridge to Nowhere. It’s a large concrete bridge built in 1936 to cross a deep gorge. However by the time it was built, river traffic was waning and the settlers in the area were leaving. So now it only serves tourist and TA walkers on their way to the Whanganui River (when the track is open). It was a neat sight and slice of New Zealand history.
Back on the water we continued along as the river widened. It was slow going without the fast current pushing us along. Every now and again a jet boat would whizz past full of tourists. Their wakes never tipped us over but they did ricochet off the steep river banks and churn the water up making for difficult paddling.
At last we reached our camp for the night. We nearly missed the landing and had to quickly cross the river before we passed it! We were camping at the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, just across the river from the DOC campsite of Tieke Kainga.
It was hot as we set up our tents. Tom and I headed up to the lodge for several beers on the deck. It was blissful, falling asleep on beanbag chairs overlooking the river.
Then of course it was dinner of ramen noodles and instant potatoes followed by chocolate. There was a large group of Australian canoeists who were staying in cabins who had a guide that carried there food in her canoe. We watched as she prepared them a multi-course dinner. The smells of their food made my dinner seem like cafeteria slop!
It was a beautiful clear night as the stars came out and the moon nearly full. Tomorrow would be a big day as we try to push ahead 50km down the river. Because of the track closure and our subsequent earlier start on the river yesterday, we actually have done 19km extra on the river than if we had taken the closed track. However, this isn’t reflected on the official TA route mile markers. So, even though we should be at 1,269.5km, my guidebook says we are at 1,250.5km. Oh, well.
Day’s Distance: 29km (18mi)
Total Distance: 1,250.5km (777.2mi)
Distance Remaining: 1,749.5km (1,087.3mi)
DAY 40 – Tieke Kainga to Flying Fox Lodge
At 6am we were up and started packing. It was another cool morning and I wore my long sleeves and pants. This was also to keep the sun off later in the day. Before 7am the canoe was loaded and we were on the water.
The day was easy as we meandered through deep gorges. The river seemed slow and there were no rapids. It was a beautiful morning.
Now and again there were hidden waterfalls and little crevices we passed. We had to keep paddling to get anywhere it seemed.
After we stopped for a quick lunch, the river became very boring. The mountains widened out into some farmland. A road followed the river and we heard the occasional vehicle. The last two days the only sounds were the birds and the river.
The river had long straight sections where the current barely moved. It was a slog to paddle in the hot sun. And then the river would change with rapids. One section of rapids was an island and we had to pick a side to go around. The easier side was shallow and we scraped over rocks.
Another time we were in deeper water but a giant rock came out of nowhere and it bumped our side, nearly tipping us over. Tom was steering from the back and managed to keep us upright.
The next rapids weren’t as easy and we were thrust to the far left of the river with barely any control. The rapids created huge waves. Me being at the front of the canoe crashed straight into the wave as the front of the canoe dipped underwater tossing a bucket of water onto me. Then the bow of the canoe rose out of the water into the air, me included. Tom yelled, “keep paddling” as he struggled to steer our craft. But my paddle met only air as I was swung at nothing, being so high above the water. But an instant later I crashed down into another wave, filling the canoe with more water. It was a wicked seesaw that it all happened so fast. Then just as it seemed we had passed the worst of the rapids, the current had us hugging the bank tightly as giant willow tree branches threatened to behead us. By some miracle or Tom’s steering ability we just barely made it out alive and without tipping the canoe. After bailing out all the water we’d taken on, the river became calm and boring once more. Later we were told that most canoeists flipped their canoes here.
Overall our time on the river was mostly boring today with a few exciting moments. At last, after paddling for nearly eight hours we reached the Flying Fox Lodge.
Here we set up camp for the night and indulged in their homemade ice cream and had some beers. Tom even rode their cable car across the river (their only means of reaching the road on the other side) to take out their recycling. I relaxed in a hammock and then took a nice hot shower. They had WiFi so I could get back on the grid after five days without cell service. It was then I learned of the tragic volcano eruption on White Island.
Our total distance was over 50km, the longest we’ve ever gone on the TA. I wonder if we could replicate this huge distance on land.
Day’s Distance: 51.5km (32mi)
Total Distance: 1,302km (809.2mi)
Distance Remaining: 1,698km (1,055.3mi)
DAY 41 – Flying Fox Lodge to Whanganui
We had a nice sleep-in at the Flying Fox Lodge…until their rooster crowed at 3:30am. Apparently he was rescued from a shelter as a favor. Later, the owners made it clear his morning antics might spell the end of his rescue. A little after 8am we got into the canoe for our last day on the Whanganui River. We had a huge day ahead of us to get into the town of Whanganui. Instead of the recommended five days in the river, we’d decided to canoe it in four.
The day proved to be very boring. The river was wide and slow. There were very few rapids and they were hardly anything to worry about.
It was hot in the sun and it felt like we barely moved. The wide river meant a slow current; it was more like canoeing on a lake.
Closer to town, the tide from the Tasman Sea affects the river. We had timed it so that the tide would be going out and hopefully pull us with it. This didn’t seem the case.
We sat there paddling in what felt like stagnant water. And then the wind picked up and blew against us, no matter which way the river turned.
Eventually it felt like we caught the outgoing tide but it didn’t seem like much. The wind was so strong it formed whitecaps on the river going against the current! Though there were no rapids we bounced over waves created by the wind.
At long last we reached the Whanganui Top 10 Holiday Park. We hauled the canoe onto land and emptied our watertight barrels and repacked our backpacks. We were happy to be back on terra firma.
We splurged on a cabin for an extra $7 at the holiday park rather than tent. The staff then shuttled us into town and I spent $25 at McDonald’s for dinner! Back at the holiday park I did laundry for the first time since Hamilton, 16 days ago! I’ve been wearing the same outfit for over two weeks, besting my record of 12 days on the Appalachian Trail!
Overall I really enjoyed the river. It was a nice break from walking and it presented its own challenges. I think we pushed ourselves but got off the river at the right time. I could feel soreness in new places by the end of it from using different muscles. We’re ready to hit the ground again!
I think Tom and I were also ready to give each other some space. Sharing a canoe with someone for four days meant making every decision together and spending every minute of every hour together. We were turning into a bickering old married couple and were both happy to return to some form of independence!
Day’s Distance: 53km (32.9mi)
Total Distance: 1,355km (842.1mi)
Distance Remaining: 1,645km (1,022.4mi)
Tom and I sang this tune many times whilst paddling along:
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