Canoeing down the Whanganui River with its breath-taking scenery and rich Maori and early European history is a great adventure. My sister Margreet did it recently with a group of friends and family. She shares some excerpts from her trip diary:
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Monday: 18 November
Our canoe journey began at Whakahora. Our guides Tanea Tangaroa and her son-in-law Neihana were there to greet us. Fortunately the weather was fine and hot. Before we set out Tanea called to the river and Neihana offered a Karakia to ask the Gods for safe travel down the river for our team. We were all feeling excited but a few of us also had some feelings of trepidation about what lay ahead!
After a couple of hours of paddling and negotiating our way through gentle rapids we stopped for a picnic lunch at Mangapapa and then carried on to Ohauoro – 30 kms canoeing in total. This is a beautiful camping spot situated close to a land mark on the River called Tamatea Cave. By this time we were all exhausted but after setting up camp and having drinks and nibbles we all felt revived. A few of us enjoyed a swim in the river before dinner prepared by Tanea, a Moroccan style stew with couscous and cheesecake for dessert.
Tuesday: 19 November
We set out at 0900 for 22 km of canoeing today. Again the weather was very hot and it was a pleasant trip down the river to Mangapapapa where we stopped for lunch.
We reached our destination – Mangawaiiti – late afternoon and set up camp. Dinner was delicious – sweet and sour pork followed by chocolate brownie and strawberries. During the evening we felt an earthquake and several aftershocks. Again a beautiful camp site, though our sleep was disturbed by opossums fighting outside our tent.
Wednesday: 20 November
19 km paddling today. Our lunch break was at Mangapurua Landing. Before eating we did the 1.5 hour return walk to the iconic "Bridge to Nowhere". This is a concrete road bridge that was completed in 1936 and spans the Mangapurua Stream. It was built to provide access to an area where the government of the day was opening up land for pioneering families, mainly soldiers who had returned from WW1. However the area proved to be too remote and unsuitable for farming. Consequently the venture failed and the area was abandoned.
Onwards to our destination Tieke Kainga which is the home of the four Iwi on the Whanganui River. We were very privileged to experience a traditional Maori welcome (Powhiri). This started with a Karanga (welcome call) by Tanea followed by a Whaikorero (formal speech) by Neihana. One of our group then replied, and the five ladies of our group sang a Waiata.
After this we all stood in line to hongi with Tanea and Neihana. We were now part of their Whanau and could have the option of sleeping on mattresses in the Whare with them. Hanna and Alan and Neil and I did this while the others set up their tents in this very picturesque setting.
This Marae has a quite a history of conflict attached to it. While Maori remain the Kaitiaki (guardians) of this area, DOC has built a large building here as well and there is still quite a sense of rivalry for ownership and occupation.
We enjoyed another lovely meal – spaghetti bolognaise and pavlova. We were all feeling pretty exhausted after a long day and did not stay up late.
Thursday: 21 November
Our trip today was 21.5 km to Pipiriki and then a further 13 km to Jerusalem. We continued to paddle down the scenic gorge to where the Manganui o te au river enters the Whanganui (it comes down from the slopes of Mount Ruapehu). Now it was time to face the serious stuff – we had a pep talk from Tanea about negotiating the standing waves of the large rapids ahead (Ngaporo and Autapu). In the event they certainly did provide plenty of excitement for our crew – three canoes were swamped by the backwash and overturned as we negotiated the first rapid. We stopped for lunch after that to recover, and then carried on more successfully through the fast flowing water.
We were all feeling quite good when we got to Pipiriki but the final 13 km to Jerusalem was a real challenge. The water seemed to be like treacle and we were so tired we thought we would never get there. After 6 ¼ hours on the river today we hardly had the energy left to help with loading the canoes back onto the trailer for our trip up to the convent at Jerusalem (Hiruharama).
This was once the largest village on the Whanganui River. The Catholic Mission was first established in the area in 1854 but the Sisters have been present at Jerusalem since 1883 when Suzanne Aubert established a convent school there. The sisters are the Kaitiaki of the church, old convent and grounds, and have always worked in partnership with the local tangata whenua.
In the 1970s the New Zealand poet James K Baxter lived in Jerusalem as well. Many of his followers joined him, also forming a community. Baxter (Hemi) is buried at Jerusalem. There are still a few trees left from the big cherry orchard that was established here during that time.
Today Jerusalem is a small settlement in a beautiful and tranquil setting. We stayed in the convent dormitory at a cost of $25 per night. Hot showers were a real treat and Yeti Tours provided a delicious dinner – venison pies, potato bake, fresh salad followed by homemade apple pie.
Friday: 22 November
We enjoyed a morning stroll around the well nurtured gardens surrounding the convent and the church and visited James K Baxter's grave. At 1100 we were picked up by the mailman and ferried back to Wanganui on the scenic winding river road. It was interesting to stop at a few historic sites including an old restored flour mill.
Weather was beautiful and we had a restful afternoon at the Top Ten camp and enjoyed a final meal together at the historic Rutland Arms Hotel in Wanganui.
Saturday: 23 November
We were shuttled back to Wanganui in time to catch the InterCity bus at 0830 back to Wellington Airport
Although we hadn't anticipated quite how challenging the journey would be at times it was an amazing experience.