Rowin down the River
Before the end of days, we have one more thing scheduled after WOMAD. 7 of us are going to take one last breath of natures beauty with a 3 day paddle down the Whanganui River. All the awareness of social distancing is coming into the civic psyche so some time away from all the people and reception sounds like just what the Dr. ordered. It would be a mystery how much different the world be on the other side of 3 days but that is not the purpose of today. Today is the beginning of our documentary: ‘What not to do on the Whanganui River’
Step one. Know how many days you’re going. Until the night before we left I had convinced the group that we booked the 3 day version. Truth be told, I booked for 4 and didn’t even realise. “Every one pack an extra pair of underwear!” — said the blonde one with a cheeky smile. Oops.
Step two — invite a new person last minute but only check for availability on one of the two required reservations.
Step three — Go right in the middle of two school groups of 50 school kids. So we get the bottom of the barrel when it comes to gear and not a back rest to spare.
Step four — buy 4 days of food, then switch to 3 but add the extra person.
Step 5 — our driver forgets to fasten some latch on the trailer so it falls off the truck and drags all the boats behind us in a terrible screech until we escape to the side of the road. Can we get a collective “aww neuoo” from the Kiwi peanut gallery? A little bit of ingenuity and a some team work and we manage to hoist the trailer back onto the tow bar.
We find our way down to to the water and get a quick paddling lesson and off we go. Turn the corner and were on the open river. Oh look our first sign! “Do you hear the banjos? Paddle Faster.”
Or we just futz around, sing songs to each other and wander into the little crevasses on the rock walls. “I dare you to close your eyes through the rapid.” “I dare you to close your eyes and go standing through a rapid.” “Shall we try backwards?” “Lets both do it.” I try out the single kayak in the afternoon and discover that it’s actually a much better water avatar than the canoes. I’m nimble but the canoe crew lassos me and I chariot them down river for a time. Then we switch.
The water level is very low so the current is almost nonexistent and we have to paddle quite diligently to get to our first doc hut. John Coull hut is monitored by a splendidly petite and pleasant little old lady named Liz. Shes been coming out here for a couple of weeks each summer to warden the huts for the last 25 years. Somehow we manage to fill ourselves with almost a kilo of Risotto and all turn into jello. Day 1, game over.
Day 2 promises to be an easier paddle, we think. But no one bothers to look at the map. Heck we don’t even have a map for every boat. Somewhere on there there are two stops the Bridge to Nowhere and Tieke Hut. Basically the plan is to make it when we make it. Look left. Was that a campsite on the right? No one can confirm. We have no idea how far along we are. Should we paddle faster? No, lets go park on the side of the river over here and put the great back into the great walks.
Cement the greatness and we become a fleet! All together now! Can we paddle together as a single unit? Chitty takes the lead but its like herding cats. No one is ready to take direction or sync up padding with a lateral crew member. So on a river of at least six lanes worth of width, we manage a head on collision with the one and only street-pole-sized log in sight. The whole thing falls apart.
Chaos ensues. Battleships! Splash wars! Stealth attacks! Everything you would punish on the children’s tour. There a desperate calls for peace but its of no use. We’re having too much fun reeking mayhem. But big fights give way to the best make ups we all come together into a orgy sized canoe cuddle puddle. Come on number three, slip right into our V space. Well take you in and you can drive us all forward from behind. The innuendo is unavoidable. Songs are made and the moanings are loud and persistent.
After at least a good hour of celasous rendezvousing, it’s getting pretty late and we haven’t hit the Bridge to Nowhere yet. Should we paddle faster? Yeah nah, lets take this detour into the crevasse in the river walls and take a lunch break. Oh yeah, definitely lets do that.
We we finally reach the Bridge to Nowhere we are pretty relieved to have actually reached somewhere. For those who don’t know the Bridge to Nowhere was expertly designed by a bundle of enthusiastic engineers who forgot to ask if it was even necessary. Spoiler alert, it wasn’t. But its a nice opportunity to stretch our legs.
When we reach Tieke Hut that evening our suspicions are confirmed. Even though we rearranged our days to avoid the two groups of 50 children, we land at camp to find a gaggle of children setting up tents and running around the marae. Luckily it wasn’t the school group that would later be contact traced for Covid but it was the same school. Our hosts set us up with our own room and we manage to set up our mats in single file, like our own adult sleep over. While the kids occupy the kitchen space we cocoon away in our private room and let our aged whimpers of soreness spill out. Stretch, exhale, wrap your body into a pretzel around a broom. Sorted.
One good thing about the student invasion though was the teachers and guides. They share diabetes inducing chocolate chip caramel cookie cakes and unload bags of apples on us that will later transform into apple pie. We share safety check chats and make some momentary friendships.
On the final day, our documentary of how not to do the Whanganui is almost complete. One barrel lid is lost to the children so gear is redistributed and we hope for the best. There is only one real rapid on this river and it’s notorious for its 50/50 capsize rate. The children ahead of us manage to go 24/25 boats with only one boat flip. But our group delivers the 50/50 rate. We aim for the harder route but hit the wall head on. Add a little lean in the wrong direction and the boat capsizes right on top of us. The overturned canoe stalls in the middle of the water but our previous battleship rival tows us to shore. Excellent way to top off the story folks. Refreshing but worth a burrow to the bottom of the barrel for my last pair of dry clothes.
We celebrate our accomplishment at the Cypress Tree, just like the professionals, and treat ourselves to as many of the finest appetizers that we can get delivered. After our big ole pizza pies we danced down the street with a cloud at our feets to the grocery store for a gluttony run to stock up on beer, chocolate and chips. I do what I can to avoid the news while we have each others company and a cabin to ourselves for one more night.
There is a news hungry bunk bed and a news avoident bunk bed. On the avoiders side, the world still seemed to shine like we had had too much wine. It was amore. As though we were walking in a dream but signore we can still serenade each other which quality Corona Rhapsodies. We’re beached bro but the amore was still in our eyes. The other side, dropped headline bombs and the shock factor was both effective and obnoxious in its content. The number of cases spiked. Wellington has multiple cases now. We speculate that the social distancing period we are about to enter into will easily endure for another 3–6 months even if New Zealand takes all the right steps to reduce risk and support civil cohesion.
But lucky for us we will have these memories to cherish. Even though the outlook is dismal I am both relieved and thankful because I can’t imagine a better group of people to be well and truly stuck with.