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Fantastic Whanganui ('Wh' is pronounced like 'F' over here, by the way)

Nov 23-27

In the interest of brevity, we decided to lump a few days together for these posts. This one concerns our journey down the Whanganui river, where we are currently writing from the library here in town. Here goes...

Our epic river journey started from Whakahoro, a small, "end-of-the-road" kind of settlement, where we were awaiting the boats we had hired from the Yeti canoe company, along with our fellow TA hiker, a Frence girl named Audrey. We started the day with some amazing coffee compliments of Dante, the cook at the Blue Duck Cafe there, and settled in expecting our boats to arrive around 9:30. Unfortunately, our driver got stuck in a ditch (the road to Whakahoro was kind narrow), so we didn't get on the way until sometime around 1 p.m., Kate and I in our canoe, Audrey in a solo kayak. Our tour liason gave us some maps of the river, a quick lesson in safety, and helped us wrangle our gear into the provided waterproof barrels (actually not so waterproof, really), and sent us on our way.

The river winds its way down a breathtaking gorge with steep cliffs and lush vegetation almost every inch of the way. We'll try and post some pictures, but nothing we have does it justice at all; really, it would be better to find some professional pictures on-line. It has a pre-historic feel (Jesse, a young TA hiker we met, described it as Jurassic Park), and aside from the odd wild goat perched precariously on the walls, or the occasional jet boat ferrying tourist upstream, you feel like you could be paddling to the end of the Earth. There are countless small streams spouting waterfalls into the main river, each cutting it own unusual gorge into the soft sediment of the canyon around us. The rain we had experienced the prior week thankfully left the river fairly high, thus covering most of the 'rapids' (nothing too difficult even in bad conditions, we were told), so our trek was a smooth one. Despite our relative inexperience, we were able to push ourselves and get in a good number of kilometers every day, aided by the clear weather and fast current. Given that we had a box waiting in Wanganui (the town is spelled slightly differently than the river apparently? A possible holdover from the complicated and always simmering Maori and Western tensions here), we needed to arrive here before Saturday morning to get to the post office, so coasting slowly was not necessarily an option.

Our first day was a relatively short 37.5 km, due to our late start, and we just reveled in the new sensation of rowing. Our bodies were... confused as to what was going on, but gradually became used to their new rhythm of the next few days. After some trial and error, we found it best for Kate to steer while I paddled the front; one the pilot, the other the engine, so to speak, and eventually we began to work as one while switching sides and navigating the rougher water. Our first destination was the John Coull Hut, where a large group of schoolchildren had taken over, but we decided to stay anyway. The huts are placed about 10 km (about 2 hours) apart along the length of the more popular part of the river, so there are no shortage of places to stay, depending on how tired you are. We stuck with Audrey while she got used to her kayak for the first few days, but her faster pace and earlier wake-up time eventually made us drift apart.

We traveled together the next day to the Mangapurura Landing, where we hiked a short distance inland to see the historic "Bridge to Nowhere", a concrete bridge surreally placed in the middle of the jungle, originally meant to service some settlers, soldiers returning from WW!. They were given the land, but not the means to farm the harsh and remote area, and eventually the colony vanished when a much-anticipated road never made it to their village. The forest eventually took over, and now the bridge is left as a monument to their failed effots, ironically now much visited by tourist who are jet-boated upriver. We took off once again, stopping at the Tieke Kainga hut, also a Maori meeting place, which another schoolgroup had overtaken. We were treated to a cup of tea and a talk with Patuidi

(a self-described "big, black Maori man"), the caretaker, who imparted some of his peoples' worldview on us, before we shoved off once again, heading for the settlement of Pipiriki for the night.

In the morning, we parted ways with Audrey as she sped off in her vessle, and wound our way onwards in to increasingly pastured land, but with less jet boats to hassle our way. Most people don't paddle this far down the river, so we mostly had the place to ourselves. We thanked our luck for the good weather and slathered up with suncreen, now settled in to the pace of rowing and the anticipated pains associated with it, while passing several shallow and tricky areas as we followed the current downstream. As we got closer to the coast, we started to feel the ocean wind repelling us back, and after some strenuous paddling arrived at Hipango Park, where Audrey was camped for the night. We decided to soldier on, knowing that the tides would push this far inland in the morning, and wanting to get most of our excersise out of the way before then. We camped at dusk high up on a dirt bank, wary of the silt covering the trees around us, the remenants of a recent flood that partially destroyed the city we were heading to. Having covered 70 km on the river after paddling virtually all day, we were summarily exhausted.

Finally, we awoke the next morning to unexpectedly clear weather and put in the push to town, a full day ahead of where we though we would be. We fought the incoming tides as the whole of the Tasman Sea began to cram its way into the river, our little canoe pushing ahead against the force of the moon. Eventually we pulled up the the holiday park outside town, where we had booked a room, took some much needed showers, and luckily got a hitch from a local named Lindsey to retrieve our bounce box at the post office and get our errands done, sad to see the river go, but happy to give our bodies a rest after another beautiful but grueling section of this wierd and wild trail called the Te Araroa.

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