Day 46 to 51 – Rapids, a bridge to nowhere and unexpected swims

Saturday 1 December – Thursday 6 December
Taumarunui to Wanganui
Day: 46 – 51
Km’s: 227km
Cumulative km’s: 1,355km / 3,000km

As mentioned in our last post, with the weather looking less than favourable for the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, we decided to hit the Whanganui River earlier than originally intended and circle back to Tongariro once the weather had improved.

The Whanganui River paddle is pretty consistently talked about as one of the highlights of the Te Araroa trail and is also one of the official Great Walks of New Zealand, so it’s fair to say that it comes with a certain level of expectation. With over 200 rapids to contend with, it also comes with some challenges, although importantly, none of the rapids are above a Class II grading (with Class I being the lowest level of difficulty possible on this scale).

The thought of paddling a canoe down rapids for a week was something that I had really been looking forward to, even before we started this adventure. I’ve only had the opportunity to do a few whitewater paddles previously, but they’ve all been a lot of fun.

The Whanganui River was the first time either Leigh or myself had paddled on any type of rapids without an experienced guide, but luckily for Leigh she had me at the back of the canoe in charge of steering, so everything turned out alright… mostly 🤣.

There probably ended up being more flat water sections than I had anticipated beforehand, but overall, paddling the Whanganui River was an amazing experience that more than lived up to any expectations I personally had coming in.

Day 46 – Saturday 1 December, 32.5km
Taumarunui to Poukaria campsite

It was a disgusting 5:30am start today as we got ourselves sorted for the 7am shuttle to Taumarunui Canoe Hire headquarters, which overlooks the Whanganui River.

After meeting the family pets and enjoying some complimentary coffee and toast, we dove straight into the safety briefing, going through the main things we needed to know to keep us safe on the river. It was then time to unpack our backpacks and repack the contents into the potentially waterproof (but not guaranteed) barrels that we would be taking with us in our canoe.

Before long we were ready to start paddling, but there was one final test… we had to paddle upstream and perform a graceful turn in front of the canoe hire staff to demonstrate that we were competent paddlers. Luckily for Leigh, the owner of the hire place commended me on my paddling ‘natural’ technique and was happy to send us on our way 😂.

It wasn’t too long before we hit our first set of rapids and things went fairly smoothly to start with. After getting through a few rapids cleanly though, I made the mistake of getting slightly sideways mid-rapid and bumped the side of the canoe into an underwater rock which was enough to throw our balance to one side and tip the canoe over in the blink of an eye.

As we floated down the rapids next to our upside down canoe, we remembered the advice of the canoe hire company in the event of a capsize… hold onto your paddle and hold onto your canoe. The only problem with this is that it is decidedly difficult to swim a canoe to shore through moving water when you can’t use your hands. After a few failed attempts to grab onto the bank of the river, we eventually reached a spot of calm water where we were able to get out of the river and empty the water from the canoe.

Looking for something to warm us up after our unexpected swim, we stopped off at a lavender farm and cafe a few kms down river. A hot chocolate and muffin was just what the doctor ordered to get us through to our campsite for the night.

Being the last pair of paddlers to set off from the hire place that morning, we ended up arriving at the campsite after most of the other people who were also paddling the river the same day. The campsites on the Whanganui River generally aren’t the biggest spaces, so it was not that pleasant to be camping tent to tent with about 20 other people, even though being able to camp right by the river was a really cool experience in its own right.

A quick check of our barrels after unloading at the end of the day revealed that the waterproofing had worked and our gear remained dry, despite our ealier capsize. All in all, it was a good first day on the river.

Day 47 – Sunday 2 December, 48km
Poukaria campsite to Ohauora campsite

Knowing that we would likely be on the same paddling schedule as the 20 other people that we camped with last night, we decided to get up early to allow for a bigger day of paddling which would get us to a campsite that was further along the river than the campsite that everyone else would be using.

Yesterday still felt like we were close to civilisation as we occasionally spotted sheep on the banks and could hear the distinctive sounds of road traffic nearby, but today was totally different. The river now had a real lost world feel about it. We felt like we were in the middle of nowhere and it was amazing. The farms on the river bank disappeared and were replaced by steep mountains. As we moved down the river, we stopped from time to time to look at huge landslips in the mountains above us, the occasional goat foraging on the steep banks, and enjoy the sight or sounds of a nearby waterfall.

The challenge of navigating the rapids continues throughout the day, but we successful avoid repeating our mistake from the day before and we stay dry in our trusty canoe.

I did, however, forget that my ghostly white thighs would be exposed to the full power of the sun while sitting in the canoe, and paid the price with a burn that I’d spend the next few days keeping well protected.

After morning tea at a riverside cafe in Whakahoro, we stopped for lunch at our originally planned campsite, we felt good enough to continue paddling downstream to the next campsite which was estimated to be about 3 hours away.

It was a picturesque but otherwise uneventful paddle to our destination for the night at Ohauora campsite. This spot had a large flat sandy bank but no trees to tie the canoe up to and a 20m incline to the campsite which we didn’t particularly want to have to drag the canoe up in order to secure it for the evening.

Eventually we decided to compromise and pull the canoe entirely out of the water and halfway up the bank before using a large log as the tie in point. The downside of this plan being that if the river rose high enough during the night, we would likely need to re-adjust our plan otherwise our canoe could go floating down the river with the log.

Not long after arriving at the campsite, the heavens opened up. The canoe hire place had warned us that the river could rise a number of metres rapidly in heavy rain and it could even become too dangerous to paddle for short periods of time if a lot of debris was flushed down river. We watched for signs of water level rise but it probably only rose by 30cm over the course of the afternoon, which was immaterial in the scheme of things.

Just when we thought that we would have the campsite to ourselves, another couple turned up. They appeared to be pretty inexperienced paddlers and were asking us about what could be causing their canoe to lean to one side all the time. We assumed that they had not loaded their barrels evenly in the canoe, but when they eventually opened their barrels to unpack their gear for the night, it turned out that one was full with water from an earlier capsize. This particular barrel alsi happened to contain their tent and all of their sleeping gear.

Luckily the sun had come out again by this point, so we gave them a hand with drying out their wet gear to make sure they wouldn’t be too uncomfortable overnight. Could have been a really bad situation for them in different conditions.

Day 48 – Monday 3 December, 31.5km
Ohauora campsite to Mangapurua campsite

I woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of rain falling heavily on the tent as well as something which sounded like a canoe banging against a rock. Deciding it was better to check it out than to wake up in the morning to find our canoe gone, I left the warmth of the tent to venture down to the shoreline. The air was misty which made it hard to see anything in the dark even with a torch, but I was relieved to find that the river had not risen and our canoe was still where we left it. The noise must have been from some kind of debris in the river itself instead.

Once the sun rose and we packed up the campsite, we decided to make the most of the rapids immediately opposite our campsite, taking some photos and videos paddling through them.

We continued to admire the spectacular scenery once we were on the river. As we passed each DOC campsite on the river, we would stop and stretch our legs and have a look around.

Mangawaiiti campsite in particular was pretty epic with its steep rocky banks which required a lot of balance and coordination to pull up next to and secure the canoe without the option of being able to step onto a sandy bottom. It was a good thing we weren’t staying there for the night though as the thought of having to lug our barrels of gear up the bug incline to the campsite was the stuff of nightmares.

From Mangawaiiti, we headed on to Mangapurua campsite which was opposite the starting point for the Bridge to Nowhere track. As the track gets quite busy throughout the day with canoes, kayaks and jet boats, our plan was to get across first thing in the morning and beat the crowds.

The Mangapurua campsite only had a fairly narrow sandy bank so we decided not to take any risks, dragging our canoe up the step bank to get it well and truly out of the path of the river.

For the second time on the trip, literally 10 minutes after we reached our campsite for the evening, it poured with rain as a thunderstorm rolled through nearby. Thankfully our campsite had a nice shelter with a picnic table that we were able to use to get out of the rain. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching jet boats pass on the river below us.

Day 49 – Tuesday 4 December, 10.5km
Mangapurua campsite to Ramanui

We rose with the sun this morning, keen to get across to the Bridge to Nowhere before it got too busy.

Without going into too much detail, the Bridge to Nowhere is an abandoned bridge that was built in the 1930s to provide road access to farms in the area. By the time the bridge was completed though, the farms had been deserted and the construction of the road leading up to the bridge was also abandoned. As a result, the bridge is the last standing structure in the area. It makes for a pretty cool photo now though!

Before we would reach the landing point to moor our canoe and start the walk, we would have to paddle upstream about 100m against the flow of water. Even though the river level was stable overnight despite any rain, it was still a decent workout to paddle upstream. Using every possible eddy and flat spot we could see, we inched our way up and across to the other side of the river and tied our canoe to the metal mooring peg in the rock.

Setting off on foot along the Bridge to Nowhere track, we had to watch our footing on the slippery ground. The track climbed through the forest gradually and before we knew it we had reached the turn off point for the lookout. We made the most of the early start to get some photos from the lookout before following the track down to the bridge itself. Walking across the bridge was a really cool experience, and a nice change from spending our days on the river.

We headed back to our campsite to pack up before starting the paddle down river. Even though today would be a short day to our pre-arranged campsite at Ramanui, there were still plenty of small rapids to negotiate. As we became more confident in the rapids, I started to get more worried about the risk of capsizing when paddling into an eddy, which is an area of swirling water that you typically find at the end of a rapid. If you are not properly balanced in the canoe, when you hit an eddy the front of the canoe slows down while the back if the canoe continues at normal speed which causes the canoe to spin if you aren’t on top of steering. Thankfully though we managed to get through some of the more tricky spots unscathed, even though I was convinced that we could capsize at any moment.

We arrived at Ramanui around lunchtime and had our pick if the camping spots. We ended up picking a spot with its own kitchen area and clothesline that we were able to use to dry out our wet gear from the night before. Leigh found a puzzle and crossword book in the camp kitchen area which kept her mentally stimulated for many hours. We also had great views looking back down on the river.

Day 50 – Wednesday 5 December, 51.5km
Ramanui to The Flying Fox

We had another big day ahead of us and some infamous rapids to get through. One of which, known as 50/50, where you apparently have a 50/50 chance of capsizing on.

Leaving the campsite just in time for the rain to start falling, we were glad that we didn’t have to deal with a wet tent, even though paddling in the pouring rain isn’t the most fun either.

The rain continued on and off for most of the day. We made sure to take in the scenery along the last of the official Great Walks section of the river.

We eventually reached the 50/50 rapids and managed to beat the odds, picking the right line through and keeping dry. After clearing the rapids, we reached Pipiriki where we stopped for a short break. It wasn’t until a jet boat came flying past unexpectedly that our canoe was hit by the backwash and half filled with water while being battered against the boat ramp. Luckily we were out of the canoe by that time, so no harm was done.

Almost immediately after leaving Pipiriki, we noticed a change in the landscape – the steep mountains were gone and the farmland returned.

Shortly after, we passed the most difficult rapid of the entire trip – a fast flowing rapid that swept past a bunch of willow trees with big waves. It was the sort of rapid that could be dangerous if you got pushed into the trees and got your canoe pinned.

Before we knew that it would be a difficult rapid, our trail friend Robert had already paddled ahead of us, as we had stopped for a quick break before tackling the rapid. When we eventually paddled through the rapid, we realised that there were actually two different channels that you could take.

When we weren’t able to see him ahead of us, we figured that he must have entered the other channel but perhaps stopped somewhere before passing through the actual rapid to wait for us to catch up. Once we got through the rapid though, the combination of the fast moving water and strong wind gusts made it impossible for us to paddle back upstream to check our theory and there was no phone reception in the area, so we decided to wait for awhile instead. Once some time had passed, and after much discussion of the likelihood of what could have happened with Rob, we decided to continue on in case he had somehow got through the rapid so quickly that we couldn’t see him ahead.

It wasn’t until we got closer to the campsite for the night that we spotted Robert in the distance. He was fine – we had been waiting for no reason as he had just gotten through the rapid quicker than expected.

After paddling against a headwind for the remainder of the day, we finally reached The Flying Fox Retreat by mid afternoon. We were glad to have arrived early enough to order some food from the kitchen and see the flying fox in action as the owners sent their weekly shopping run across the river from the road side to the accommodation side. In exchange for helping Jane and Kerry move everything inside, we were rewarded with beer and chocolate from their store. A great way to end the day!

Day 51 – Thursday 6 December, 53.5km
The Flying Fox to Wanganui

Today would be our last day on the river. We were able to check the weather forecast overnight for Tongariro and the weekend was looking perfect for us to attempt the crossing. This meant that we could bring our schedule forward by one day – we could get up to National Park on Friday afternoon and attempt the crossing on Sunday.

Ahead of us though was a punishing day of paddling. With sore arms and shoulders already, today we would be largely paddling on flat water as the rapids disappeared and the river became tidal as it approached the ocean. As luck would have it, the tides worked out in our favour and we would be doing most of our paddling on an outgoing tide. Phew!

While the morning paddle to Downes Hut was nice and fairly leisurely, the paddle to the next campground at Hiponga Park felt long. Regular headwinds and crosswinds didn’t help our cause.

We took a short break at Hiponga Park to freshen up for the last push to the end of the paddle at Wanganui Holiday Park. As more houses and logging trucks appeared near the banks, we could feel we were getting closer to the end but not quickly enough the beat the looming rain. After calling the canoe hire company to let them know we would be finishing a day earlier than planned, it bucketed down.

The going was as slow and as tough as it had been on any part of the river so far and we could see even more rain clouds forming ahead of us. Every time we checked our maps, it seemed as though we had not made any progress. Any thoughts that we might reach the Holiday Park soon disappeared as we were hammered again by the rain.

As we eventually approached the Holiday Park boat ramp, the rain got even heavier. With our rain jackets soaked through, we tried to untie the barrels with wet, numb fingers. For me, this was a front running contender for lowest point on the trip so far.

Like so many times before though, when you think you’ve hit a low point you bounce back quicker than you would have thought possible. Making our way over to reception at the Holiday Park (or Jucy campervan parking lot… the Holiday Park signage may have been wrong) looking like drowned rats, we hovered at the entrance, not sure whether we should go in dripping wet or not. The owner spotted us from inside and straight away invited us in to the warm office.

Offering us discounted rates on a cabin, complimentary 5gb wifi, access to a hit chip vending machine and a free shuttle into town whenever we needed it, all was right in the world again. We spent the afternoon planning our return to Tongariro to catch the good weather window that had appeared for the upcoming weekend.

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