Tuesday, November 9, 2021

The Chicken Run to Whanganui

With the ski season over and no chance in Hades of getting back to WA any time soon, I began planning for a summer of tramping and packrafting. My initial plan was to head south from Wanaka, and take advantage of some of the great deals I get as an employee of Real Journeys. Free cruises on Milford and Doubtful Sound, free Stuart Island ferry and some heavily discounted overnight cruises as well. And then Stu walked out of the bush and put out a call for travelling companions.

Stu, who joined me for my Hollyford Pyke trip in late May, is trying to walk and paddle the length of NZ. He paddled his way to the south coast of the South Island a few years ago, now he's trying to do the North Island.

COVID lockdowns have put quite a spanner in the works but Stu had managed to knock off a decent section south of Auckland before pulling out from the river he was following as it got just a bit too hairy. Especially as by then he was travelling solo. He wanted company to continue down this river, the Tangarakau, to join the Whanganui and paddle down to the ocean. From Whanganui he would walk down the beach for a few days to Levin, then cross the Tararuas to paddle a couple more rivers to the south coast. From Lake Ferry he would walk out to Cape Palliser, the southern most tip of the North Island.

So I decided to join the adventure. Which meant driving north instead, and crossing Cook Strait on the Interislander Ferry. Then driving to Rotorua where Stu lives.

Once in Rotorua I questioned Stu for more details. It would be an 8 day paddle down the rivers to Whanganui, and another 3 days walk to Levin. Since we could pick up more food in Whanganui we didn't need to take any more than an 8 days' supply.

The Tangarakau means "river of sticks" and is renowned for having lots of logs. Stu hadn't ever paddled it, but knew a couple of guys who had. Aside from a 2 metre waterfall which they had portaged, they said it had been fine. But lots of logs…

Now I'm terrified of logs. Much more than rapids. Stu seemed to think the logs wouldn't be an issue. We'd be able to steer around them, or get out and haul our boats over them. I wasn't so sure, but was willing to give it a go.

We caught up with friends over pizza, and the next day drove to Bushlands, where we stayed in cabins overnight before heading off down river the next morning. To get there we took The Forgotten Highway, through Tangarakau Gorge and through a really cool hand hewn tunnel.

Bushlands was a railway worker's camp, now abandoned, and a lovely spot by the river, which was flowing fairly high and brown. Stu felt that the higher water would make negotiating the logs easier. But the camp manager, Jo, whose family have lived there for 5 generations, was concerned, particularly that the water wasn't clear, making visibility difficult. She told us the river had a bad reputation in the district and told a story about her brother going paddling and having a near miss where his son almost drowned after running into a log and capsizing. She offered to ring a local chap, who knew the river well, to give us some intel.

That evening I packed my bags and went to bed. I didn't sleep well, feeling far too anxious about the next day's adventure. My guts reacted as well, with at least 3 trips to the loo. I knew by morning I would have to pull out. I just didn't feel competent enough to tackle a log infested river in flood. Perhaps if there had been more than the two of us I might have felt more confident, but frankly, the thought of running into a log and potentially drowning was a bit outside my comfort zone.

I informed Stu of my decision in the morning and he took it well. We still spoke to the local chap, and he was also somewhat concerned for our safety. At lower flows it was easier to avoid the logs, and with the river up and brown, more likely to be pushed into them. Stu still seemed nonplussed, but with no track to retreat to should the river be impossible, I wasn't ready to risk it.

So we drove back to Taumarunui, had a late breakfast and coffee, then set off paddling down the Whanganui instead.

The Whanganui is one of NZ's Great Walks, although since it's a river, it's usually a 5 day paddle by Canadian canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki. There are numerous campsites and huts alongside the river, so we booked a few of them before heading off.

The river in a packraft is pretty easy paddling, since the rapids are all pretty mellow. Stu had done it, in both canoes and a packraft, many times, but it was my first. The river has a lot of history, particularly relating to the Maori wars, and has the unique position of being a legal entity as a person.

We left the car at a canoe hire place a few kms out of town and headed down river. The river was flowing quite fast due to lots of recent rain, so we didn't have to paddle hard at all. We passed through farmland all afternoon, arriving at Poukaria campsite at 6pm. We'd stopped for a cuppa at another campsite along the way, so we'd made pretty good time, taking only 5 hours to paddle 30kms downriver.

The next morning we were packed and on the river early, continuing down river in good flows, passing more farmland with the occasional forested area. We passed a few jet boats, all of whom gave way to us, a far more pleasant experience than dealing with jet boaters on the South Island, where you need to get out of their way!!

We went for a little explore to visit a hut marked on the map ( my hutbagging obsession) but it turned out to be an old homestead, in fairly poor condition, though still being used intermittently judging from the stuff in the place.

We stopped in at The Blue Duck Café at Whakaporo for lunch. We had to paddle up a side stream to a spot where we could pull our rafts ashore, and then walk up a road to the campsite, hut, and nearby cafe. A pretty cool place in the middle of nowhere, with really nice people.

After lunch we continued our downriver paddle. From Whakahoro there are no more roads for a couple of days and we were surrounded by forest. We arrived at Mangapapa campsite around 4pm and setup our tents on a terrace above the river and enjoyed listening to the birdsong all evening. If there's one thing I've noticed since arriving on the North Island, the bird life is much more prolific. Every evening and morning I've heard birds since I've been here. Not so in the South Island!

Another early night, with the only sounds being the river, the sound of wind against our tents, and Stu snoring. Nothing some earplugs can't mitigate.

The wind blew most of the night, but not enough to be a worry for our tents. We were on the water around 8:30, passing through glorious fern covered gorges all day. The wind wasn't letting up though, and there were times when the padding got quite strenuous. The current was stronger than the headwind and we could find the faster water to make the going not so hard. We stopped in at John Coull Hut for a late lunch, chilling there for an hour or so before the final stretch to Mangawaiti campsite. We passed a school group in canoes who had been defeated by the wind and were getting a jet boat out instead. Considering the packrafts are pretty susceptible to wind, we actually didn't have that hard a time.

Mangawaiti campsite was up a steep set of steps well above the river, and sheltered amongst trees out of the wind. We hauled our rafts up to the campsite before deflating and unpacking them. It's much safer having them up in the campsite, where they can't blow away….

Another early night and back onto the water for a lovely paddle through gorges to Mangapura Landing where we hauled the rafts up to a safe spot and tied them up before walking the 2.7km to the Bridge to Nowhere. This bridge was built as part of a failed attempt to create farming opportunities for returning service men from WW1 and has in recent years become a tourist attraction. A tour group who had arrived by jet boat joined us at the bridge and we listened to the guide, John, giving the history of the area.

Once back on the river we encountered dreadful head winds, much worse than yesterday, making our progress really slow. We knew we wouldn't make our intended campsite that night so instead stopped at Rananui, where we treated ourselves to a few beverages before setting up our tents, having dinner and hitting the sack. More facilities than the DOC campsites, yet the same price.

Day 5 started off great, as we paddled in sunshine through more gorges and running the occasional rapid. We stopped at Ngapora campsite for lunch (our intended destination for yesterday) and continued on, hoping to get a few kilometres further down river than Pipiriki, where the canoe trips end, but the headwinds kicked in again and the paddling again became hard work. Not as hard as yesterday, but still strenuous, and not so enjoyable after a few hours. Stu suggested we stop at Pipiriki, and book a cabin and a hot shower. I wasn't hard to convince.

At one point I got confused and began paddling upstream. Stu didn't bother to call out to me so it took me a little while before I realised and turned around.

At Pipiriki we booked in to a cabin for the night. We took advantage of their burger menu for an early dinner as we were both cognisant that we'd only catered for 8 days of food. The wind was slowing our progress so buying food as we went conserves the food we have.

We also took advantage of the laundry, to wash our rather stinky paddling clothes. Five days sweating inside a Drysuit can get pretty funky!!

After a good night's sleep we both decided a rest day was in order, especially as that bloody wind was still blowing. We read, we slept, and gorged on more river burgers. Perfect!

Day 7 was sunny and we were ready to head on. Back down to the boat ramp, where I had hidden my raft behind some bushes, and back on the river. There was still a good current, and the breeze coming back up the river was gentle, or non existent. We made good time. There were still lots of forest and rocky cliffs most of the day, even though we were now passing through farmland. We stopped at Jerusalem to check out the church, but otherwise stayed on the river all day, stopping for lunch on a beach somewhere. We ended up paddling all the way to Downes Hut, a super cute spot above the river.

Day 8 was another warm day, and we got wonderful calm conditions with great reflections for most of the morning. We stopped for cups of tea, and a later lunch, before catching the outgoing tide for the final paddle into Whanganui. In the afternoon we encountered more headwinds, but with the tide going with us it was a pain, and tiring, but not impossible. At last we arrived at the Top 10 holiday park, which is a little out of town, but we had done enough paddling by then.

Now it's time to rest, restock, and prepare for the next section of this adventure.

That's next...

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