Nobody told us we had to actually paddle (Whanganui River, North Island, New Zealand)

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Oceania » New Zealand
January 9th 2010
Published: January 12th 2010
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(Day 645 on the road)Great Walk after Great Walk - now the third in a row! This time it was time to hit the waters though, not a trail. Of the nine Great Walks in New Zealand, one is actually a river journey, namely the Whanganui River Journey Great Walk.

A mere one hour drive north-west of Tongariro, the main gateway to start the four to five day journey down the river is a small town called Taumarunui. At the very helpful visitor centre I ran into Herbert just after 0900h in the morning, a funky German guy with a long blond beard. We got chatting and about five minutes later decided to kayak down the river together for the next few days. Said and done. Ten minutes after that we were at a local operator that was to put us into the water, and some practise runs on the river with our sit-in kayaks and some paperwork later we were setting off just after 1600h.

The estimated paddling-time for the first day was five hours. Both Herbert and I had experienced the conservative hiking times always given to you here in New Zealand, so we were pretty confident to cut the time roughly in half. Consequently, we took it very easy to say the least, mostly floating and enjoying the scenery rather than using muscle-power to move us along. After about four hours and with the sun just about to set, we were starting to wonder if we had somehow missed the campsite. With nightfall approaching fast we started to use our paddles in earnest, and finally reached the campsite at about 2130h, in near complete darkness. As we found out over the next few days, the travel times they had given us proved to be pretty accurate. Which is great, if only somebody had told us that we had to actually paddle!

The next few days were, how shall I put this, kind of unspectacular really. Yes, it was very serene with pretty waterfalls and the remains of an abandoned settlement near the Bridge to Nowhere, but after two days of enjoying the same kind of scenery it got somewhat boring (though it did change a bit from mainly farmland to more canyon-like). With hiking, the landscape changes frequently, you are scaling mountains, traversing valleys and the like, whereas in a kayak, well, you are stuck to the river and there is very little to do except monotonous paddling for hours and hours at a time. It wasn't too exciting, and by day three I wished it was over and I could get my hiking boots on again.

Paddling along with nothing much else to do, I had ample time to think about the national symbol of New Zealand, the kiwi (the bird, not the fruit). Have you ever considered why certain animals are chosen as icons for countries, sports teams and the like and others not? Well, typically for their strength, endurance, elegance or nobility. Eagles, antelopes, lions, condors, dragons or tigers come to mind. So choosing a nearly extinct, rather plumb looking (borderline ugly in my humble opinion), flightless bird does seem a bid odd. Of course, a symbol (like a national flag, anthem or similar) also serves to unite the people of a country, and with the Kiwi being endemic to New Zealand, that could warrant the choice. At present, there are thought to be only 70.000 of these helpless creatures left in New Zealand, and the population is declining fast with extinction a very serious possibility. I wonder what will happen once it is extinct? If you are interested, Wikipedia features an extensive list of national animals.

The only other entertainment provided (apart from thinking about random stuff) were the frequent rapids along the way. Most were pretty tame, but some were fierce, and on the last day there was a truly massive one (by novice kayaker standards I should say). So violent in fact that nearly 50%!o(MISSING)f the boats I watched going through capsized. We had arrived just ahead of a big school group who was also doing the trip, and were immensely enjoying the spectacle of most of them going under, much to the cheering of the rest of their group as well. The water wasn't too cold and deep enough, so there was no danger here. And no, Herbert and I managed to go through OK; I think a sleek kayak is better suited for the rapids than the wider and heavier two-person canoes the others were using.

Scary however was the time when Herbert capsized, funnily only about 30 minutes are setting of on the very first day and not in an actual rapid. I was ahead of him and didn't even notice what had happened. On top of that, it was in many parts impossible to paddle upstream as the current was just too strong, so even if I had noticed I would most likely not have been able to come to his rescue.

Even more scary was when I managed to capsize myself on day three. As with Herbert, there was no rapid in sight for miles, which would have at least warranted a capsize. Instead I was leisurely floating along towards a rock in the middle of the river. I thought I would easily miss it, and by the time I came to understand that that was not the case it was too late to avoid it, despite frantic paddling. I hit the rock sideways (the worst position to hit anything in a narrow boat), and before I could even be surprised or realise what was going on, I was upside down underneath my kayak, trapped inside by the tight cover designed to prevent water from coming in.

Now, in theory it is super-easy to get out of the boat. In fact, I laughed when the guy at the rental shop explained it to us: Just pull the strap that holds the spraydeck (the cover on top) in place, bring your knees close together (as there are two things that lock your knees in at the side of the kayak for better support), and push out of the boat. It sounded so easy that we didn't even want to do a few practise runs. Now I was more than glad that I did. In the water, It took me a second or two to remember what I had to do. I panicked a little as I couldn't feel the strap at first (it is easy to push it under the cover, which would make it very difficult to release from the boat). After what seemed like a long time (and was probably only a few seconds) I finally located it, pushed my knees together and propelled myself out of the boat. Getting to shore to get the water out of the boat was another thing, as I was in a narrow canyon with no shore.

More experienced paddlers will probably laugh at the whole episode and I certainly don't mean to dramatise the whole thing. Maybe it was all less dangerous than I thought it was at the time, but I was pretty scared nevertheless and it took a few minutes to stop shaking afterwards. Travelling is all about new experiences, for sure, but this particular one I could really have done without.

So, in sum, paddling a boat down a river for four days just doesn't do it for me. Maybe a day-trip as an alternative to other outdoorsy stuff, yes, but nine out of ten times I certainly prefer hiking (much cheaper as well, the four days on the river cost me over 200 NZ$). And that is exactly what I will be doing next, this time around (and hopefully up weather permitting) Mt. Taranaki.

Next stop: Mt. Taranaki High Circuit trek (North Island, New Zealand).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


13th January 2010

Hija Ben! Sounds like an awsome trip to me! I love kayaking and have done so many times during my trip. Great pictures too! It really convinces me to (some day) go to New Zealand on a long holiday. How long in total are you spending in NZ? Have fun on your next hike!
13th January 2010

I enjoyed reading your blog again.
hey ben , I know this might be a rather kiwi thing especially as you don,t know me but I have a twin brother who lives in stratford , right by Mt Taranaki,hes a climber , we have climbed the mountain together , on the lower parts of the mountain are really dence sub tropical forest which becomes scrubby as you get higher. Beware weather conditions on the mountain can change verry rapidly. if you feel like contacting or meeting a friendly local from Taranaki feel free to contact me well happy travels

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