Whanganui River canoe adventure

On how many thru-hikes can you canoe a section of trail?

The Whanganui River is officially part of the Te Araroa trail, and many hikers canoe all the way to Whanganui (the city), however we decided to canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki, which is a standard 5-day canoe trip offered by many canoe outfitters. The Whanganui River is also a “Great Walk”, or rather a “Great Journey”, so you have to pay for campsites and/or Huts along the way.

For this adventure, we teamed up with our friend Martin from the Czech Republic, and our friend Greg, from the UK. The four of us hired two canoes.

The canoe company gave us a bunch of waterproof plastic barrels to store all our food and gear, and these were roped in to the middle section of the canoe between where the two people sit so that they don’t go floating down the river if we tipped over.

The person in the back is the captain of the vessel, and uses his or her paddle as a rudder to steer the boat, while the person in the front is the engine – paddling forward, providing propulsion.

The Whanganui has grade 1 and grade 2 rapids, which means that we get some white water to navigate through on occasion, making some sections quite fun and/or hair raising.

Since we don’t need to carry everything on our backs for this section, we had the luxury of being able to take heavier food items and drinks.

Since the first day of our trip coincided with John’s birthday, we brought with us a cheese cake and ingredients for cocktails. We had good weather to enjoy an evening at our campsite eating cake and making friends with two girls from Canada who were also canoeing the five day section.

The river had more rapids than I was expecting on the first day, which kept us busy and alert. By day two, we felt like pros, and to be social, John and I would often canoe next to Greg and Martin. We would hold on to each others boats, letting the current do much of the work. We called this configuration “Canoe-maran” (like catamaran).

We also decided to name our vessels- our canoe became The Lucky Clover while Greg and Martin’s canoe became Maria.

We spent many hours singing songs and playing word games while watching the amazing scenery go by.

The river is really beautiful- much of the time the river forms a deep canyon with interesting rock cliffs on either side. Sometimes there are small caves or side canyons to explore. Often there are beautiful waterfalls into the river- most with small amounts of water, but often the water carved interesting channels into the rock.

On day two there was a waterfall up a small side stream that seemed worth trying to get to, but here were some small rapids/ fast current in the way. Martin and Greg made it up into the side stream without much incident, but John and I got pushed over by the current. Instead of leaning away from the current, we leaned into it, which flipped our boat over. Luckily there was a little beach that we could easily get to and tip the canoe over to drain the water out. Of course we were soaked to the bone.

Luckily it was a nice sunny day and we took a long lunch break to dry ourselves off and have a hot cup of tea.

On day three we got up early since we had a somewhat longer day mileage wise – but the miles went by quite quickly because we paddled a bit more than the previous day – not just relying on the river to carry us along most of the time. We played 20 questions, thought of riddles and stopped several times to make tea and coffee and to have second breakfast, first and second lunch, etc.

We took a break at John Coull Hut where the wardens told us the weather would be bad for the last two days of our trip. There was supposed to be heavy rain for the following few days.

We secured our canoes for the night knowing that the river could rise quite a bit over night.

It didn’t rain much overnight, but in the morning, as we woke up,we heard thunder in the distance.

We packed up quickly, but soon the storm was upon us and it was absolutely pouring rain. Lighting lit the dark sky, and thunder boomed often and loudly. We spent a good 20 minutes debating whether to leave or not. We were told the day before that the weather would be steady for the next 2 days – storms and heavy rain, with no indication of if it would make sense to delay getting in the canoe for a couple or hours or not.

We decided the huddle under the small shelter in our campground for another 30 minutes or so to wait out the immediate lighting storm. It didn’t seem smart to be on the water in a storm, but at the same time the river valley was very very deep, and the likelihood of actually getting struck by lightning seemed slim.

As we stood under the shelter it started to hail.

I was already starting to get quite cold because I was already wet from packing up in the rain, and I only had a long sleeved thin wool shirt and my rain jacket along with already wet pants and my rain pants. It was quite cold out, colder than I was expecting.

Finally, when the lighting and thunder seemed to ease up, we made a move and headed down to the water.

I was shocked when I saw the river. In the thirty minutes we were waiting, the river completely changed color to bright brown, and had risen slightly, the current pulling a few little bits of debris along in the middle of the water.

We got in the water and started paddling vigorously to warm up.

The next section of river was supposed to take us about 4 hours to complete to arrive at Tieke Kainga Hut, where we had planned on taking a side trail to another hut (not directly on the Great Walk) to save some money. The river was flowing so quickly that we got there in around two and a half hours.

We pulled up to Tieke Kainga Hut, and the warden there told us that the trail we were meant to take was across the river. It would be quite hard to paddle over there with the current so strong. He offered us a cup of tea.

At the hut there was an adorable young deer hanging out with a collar on, obviously someone’s pet. We soon found out that its name was Dinky and it belonged to the people across the river, but it often came over to Tieke Kainga.

Drying a wet pack of cards

John went back down to the river to check on the canoes. He came back a few minutes later calling for help, saying that the canoes were already half way into the water again even though we had pulled them all the way out when we arrived. He pulled them out again, but we really needed to get them well above the river. We all ran down to the river again, and sure enough, in the 2 or 3 minutes it took us to walk down there, the canoes were already in the water again. The river was rising very quickly.

We dragged all our gear along with the canoes all the way up to where the shelter for campers was. As we were doing this, Dinky followed us up and down the banks of the river, offering his moral support. It was so weird to have a domesticated deer hanging about like a dog.

The warden then told us we could stay at Tieke Hut since it was safer than our original plan, and we really needed to get out of our wet clothes and warm up. I was shivering and really needed to get warm.

The warden’s name was Woody and he made us teas and coffees and cranked up the fire for us to sit next to. I was so thankful to be indoors out of the torrential downpours outside. The warden was living there with his wife, and 5 year old kid, and his 20-something year old nephew from the United States was visiting as well.

Another two girls who we had met earlier in our adventure showed up, and we spent the rest of the day next to the fire warming up, trying to dry things, drinking tea and singing songs while Martin played the ukulele.

The warden and his nephew had caught an eel in the river, and he fried it up and gave us each a taste. It was very oily and quite delicious – not very fishy.

We also got a Maori welcome, which apparently wasn’t a proper one because the wife wasn’t home, but it allowed us to enter the sacred area in front of and inside the Maori meeting house, which was a separate building with a totem pole in front of it. It was neat to be in a culturally significant place.

The next morning we were told by the warden to wait to get into the water until he got the OK via the radio from our canoe outfitters. Apparently the river level was borderline dangerous, and he didn’t feel comfortable just letting us go.

It took a few hours to get the word that we could leave. We weren’t sure if we would be stuck there, or if we would have to wait for a jet boat to rescue us or what.

Finally though, we got the OK. We were all to stick together for safety in numbers.

The river was huge. We were nervous, but somewhat confident after 4 days of canoeing. All the rapids were buried under the swollen river, but there were new obstacles to worry about: whirlpools and eddies and boils. Basically, the fast moving water, when it hits a curve can create huge swirling whirlpools that can suck you in, and sometimes the waves on the surface of the river were quite powerful as well.

We navigated the river without any issues until we were within sight of the van which was on the side of the river waiting to pick us up.

We aimed straight for the van, without doing a good job of reading the river between us and the van. Unfortunately there was a massive whirlpool that we were headed straight into. Suddenly our boat was being pulled to the left and John and I tried paddling hard to the right, but leaned into the whirlpool too hard, and the canoe tipped out right into the middle of the pool. It took us 30 seconds to stop panicking.

We were swirling around in the whirlpool with very little control over where we were headed. I’m quite a strong swimmer – I was a lifeguard for many years when I was younger, and a dive master (scubadiver), so generally, I’m not afraid of the water. But this time I was afraid. This water was unpredictable and fast.

We both held on to the canoe, which at this point was upside down. John still had his paddle, and I assumed mine was lost, but in fact I saw it spinning in the whirlpool with us. John managed to catch it.

“HELP!!” John shouted.

I told John we would need to just kick and hope that we could get the boat out of the whirlpool, and we kicked hard while holding onto the boat. Luckily we did slowly get closer to shore, and before I knew it, Martin was in the water with us.

“I’ve got the boat” said Martin.

I realized we were close to the shore, and I tried to stand up. There really wasn’t a surface to stand on at the bottom of the river, it was just deep, deep mud.

We clawed our way up the bank with the canoe with Martin’s help, and took a few deep breaths before assessing what to do next.

We wound up dragging the canoe along the banks of the river with me and Martin paddling it and John holding onto the rope from land over to a spot where we could start unloading it. The girls showed up and helped us unload. Greg also showed up and he and Martin paddled the empty canoe towards the van keeping as close to the shore as possible.

John and I felt a bit sheepish being the only ones to have fallen in the river (twice at this point), but I was so thankful that this time it happened just minutes before we had to get out of the water anyway. I would have been terrified and freezing if we had fallen in earlier.

Finally we got everything, everyone, and all the gear up safely to the landing where the van was, and we spent some time changing into dry clothes and having a snack before heading into town for warm showers, a hot dinner and a real bed.

One thought on “Whanganui River canoe adventure

  1. Dang!!! What is it with all these dramatic endings? Everything starts out really cool and peiceful and then you end up in a whirlpool. Could it get any better? You two be safe out there..
    Just Bruce


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