Christmas was drawing closer and despite my friend Nai and I promising to spend it together what with being “orphans” over here in New Zealand (Mum, you know what I mean, calm down) we had yet to decide on a fun plan. It wasn’t until December hit that we finally got around to sitting down and making plans. We decided to do something that had been on my bucket list since arriving in Zealand two years ago – the Whanganui River “Great Walk”. I’ve put that in inverted commas as the only walking involved was between the canoe and campsites. This was a three day canoe trip!
We booked a kayak rental company and a few campsites along the river and we were all set! A few days later Nai’s friend Amin asked whether he could also join us, and how could we say no? Seriously – how could we say no? We discussed this in depth.
(Also, just so you’re getting it right as you read this in your head, his name is pronounced aMEAN).
So on Christmas Eve eve the three of us set off on a four hour road trip south to the tiny village of Owhango, where our kayak company (Owhango Adventures) had offered us free accommodation for the night before our trip. The accommodation was sweet. Our own little apartment!
The tour operator was a friendly guy in his sixties, accompanied by his ten year old Australian granddaughter, over for Christmas. She helpfully went round the apartment pointing out all the flaws until he shooed her back to the car. He also left us each one barrel to squeeze all our belongings for the trip into. And if it weren’t for our tents, sleeping bags and sleeping mats this would have been achievable! (Cue a slightly panicked phone call where we were assured he would bring along a large dry bag the next morning and it would all be fine).
We headed out for dinner at a nice little pub and then returned to open our Christmas presents. Mine and Nai’s friends from back home had created the most amazing pass-the-parcel style package for us which involved layers and layers of challenges, presents and activities and kept us in stitches for most of the evening. We had to make tiny puzzles, apply temporary tattoos to our bums, send them videos of silly dances, and eat Russian-roulette style jelly beans where you could end up with “dead fish” or “rotten egg” flavours.
The next morning we were picked up at 8am and down by the water front at 9am ready to go. Nai and I were sharing a double canoe while Amin had a single. We jealously eyed up his back rest, doubled-ended paddle and generally superior vessel. This jealousy continued for the next three days. And we were off without another boat in site!
Our first day involved a 37.5km stretch of the river from Whakahoro to the John Coull campsite and took us six hours. During this time we didn’t see a single other person or object on the water.The banks on either side stretched out high above us as we paddled along at a leisurely-to-fast pace, taking in our beautiful surroundings: waterfalls, caves, sand banks, lush forest, the occasional goat.. I’d been worried about how my arms and back would fare with all the continuous rowing but actually what started out as a strong ache in my shoulders gradually dulled to what Nai and I decided was a “feels like we’re working out in a good way” kind of an ache.
We had a brief stop for lunch on a little sand bank, where I tucked into my cheese, avocado and crisp sandwich, and then slathered on the sun lotion as -much to our delight – the sun had decided to emerge from behind the clouds. I discovered that I could canoe with my legs stretched out in front of me on the canoe rim while I rested back on the dry bag sunbathing. This made for a pretty chilled out final stretch.
We spent the last few kilometers avidly trying to spot signs for the campsite as we were worried we would accidentally canoe right past it and that would be that (the current was fairly strong at times). Luckily it was well signposted and we were able to clamber up onto the shore fairly easily. We were the first to arrive! This meant we got our pick of camp spot, which after a lot of deliberation meant we somehow managed to choose the darkest corner which was first to plunge into the shade as the sun started going down. We spent the afternoon lazing in the sun watching all the canoes gradually arrive.
A few hours later:
I then made myself dinner of chinese noodles which I proceeded to knock all over the counter and ground once it was ready. We were feeling pretty pooped by this point and Nai and I felt like particularly hardcore campers heading to bed before we even needed to use the lantern. There’s a brag… right?
We were up at 8am the next morning for a bowl of porridge. Someone had put down a Christmas tablecloth which momentarily reminded us it was Christmas Day.
And then we were off for day two: 29km to Tieke Kainga. I had opted to go at the back of the canoe this day and take charge of steering, just to stir things up a bit (pun intended). Unfortunately we headed out onto small rapids almost immediately after leaving the campsite and I hadn’t yet had a chance to practice, so we spent a fair bit of time spinning around, shouting “AHHHH” and trying not to capsize. During one rapid I also managed to tweak something in my right wrist which *spoiler alert* would later lead to a painful tendon injury. However, the rapids soon settled which made for another lovely morning on the water.
We decided to stop for lunch at the Bridge to Nowhere scenic walk. It was actually pretty hard work trying to moor up against the steep rock, and definitely not something Nai and I would have managed without Amin’s help.
After a pleasant hour-return stroll to the bridge and back (we could confirm – it did indeed lead nowhere) we returned to find the mooring rock bustling with canoe and kayakers. We actually had to wobbily step across a few canoes to reach our own. Once we were safely in our canoe we realised with horror that the kayak next to us hadn’t been tied up and when we bumped it, it promptly started floating away down the river. This resulted in a flurry of activity and panic, during which Nai and I (as the only ones actually in a canoe) were instructed to chase the kayak. We busied ourselves with our first task: turning the canoe round (this required tongue-sticking-out effort), while everyone yelled out such helpful comments as “Go quickly!” and”Don’t let it reach the rapids!”.
We managed to catch up with the kayak about 50m downstream, and one of us grabbed the kayak while the other grabbed onto a rock. And then it quickly dawned on us that we didn’t know what to do next. The current was strong at this point and we would never make it back up to the mooring point. So we decided to stay put and hope that eventually Amin would come and rescue us. After a fairly long wait (was he actually standing about making small talk, surely not?) he casually paddled up to us and told us there was a plan: we should take the kayak with us and push it onto the next sandy bank we came across. The silly girl who somehow forgot to tie up her kayak would hitch a lift in her friend’s canoe.
Our next camp site was not so easy to spot and we were very nearly swept right past it as there was a bit of rapid action going on. Luckily by this point my steering was on point and we managed to drag our canoe onto the rocks to moor it.
Now, everyone should remember this name: Bridge to Nowhere Campground. Why? Because it was the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at. There was only one member of staff (it being Christmas Day and all, and basically empty) who met us with his quad bike and drove our barrels up to the camp spot. It was incredibly beautiful, overlooking the river.
There were hot showers, an undercover kitchen, and lots of little quirky bits like this cool seat that offered a pretty sweet view:
I treated myself to a Christmas afternoon snack of brie, crackers and a cider before Nai and I headed up a track towards the main lodge.
View from the lodge:
The guy in charge was a friendly man in his fifties (maybe) who opened up the lodge just for us and took us on a tour “behind the scenes” which involved exploring the farm and meeting the five crazy dogs. We also met a very cute domesticated lamb.
W arrived back at the campground to find playmates! A couple from the UK who had just moved to New Zealand. And that was our happy lot for the night. We pulled Christmas crackers, shared ginger cake with warm custard, lit a bonfire (with permission of course) and played naff games. On of the games was the classic “Who am I?” where each person has a card stuck to their head. I mention this as Nai’s was “Fairy” and it went something like this:
Nai: “Am I a fictional character?”
Nai: “Am I the tooth fairy?”
All: *stunned amazement* “Well, maybe a distant relative.. you’re half right”
Nai: “Ah I’ve got it! Am I… a tooth?”
This time we actually made it to night time before retiring to our tent. It was a fun night. Also I should mention that our campsite was directly opposite a (more expensive) DOC hut and campsite which looked nowhere near as fun and most definitely didn’t have hot showers, permits for bonfires, hyper dogs or quirky little bits of furniture. We felt very smug on the other side of the river
The next person who visits me in New Zealand will be taken to The Bridge to Nowhere campsite (there are cabins and lodge rooms too and you can also get there by jet boat, so no excuses!). Seriously: Best.Campsite.Ever.
We were at at 6.30am on our final day and MAN my right arm hurt. I munched down painkillers with my porridge and tried to man up. The sun had emerged early and it was as we were pulling away into the river that I realised I hadn’t unpacked my water, sun lotion or hat which meant I wouldn’t have them for the whole journey. Whoops. The last day was by far the most picturesque and we decided to go at a more leisurely pace so we could take it all in (and also so I could rest my arm every few metres). As we left so early we saw hardly any other boats which made for a pretty tranquil journey.
We had been warned that if we were going to capsize it would happen on the last day so we were all braced for a plunge. However, the two main rapids were a piece of cake and even Amin – who eagerly launched himself straight into the heart of the rapid each time – remained safely upright (albeit flooded with water). We arrived at Pipiriki 21.5km later, where we were met by our man and taken back to our car.
We were all feeling pretty chuffed with ourselves and despite my painful wrist, dehydration headache and mild sunburn I was feeling okay! Which was lucky as Nai and I had just bought ourselves kayaks for Christmas while crossing our fingers that this experience wouldn’t put us off. Roll on the summer kayaking adventures!
I’m so glad I finally completed the Whanganui River Journey. It was an incredible experience and an awesome way to preoccupy ourselves over Christmas when so far away from our families *cue violin music*