Jess is a Wanderer set sail down the Whanganui River on a five-day, unguided adventure. We hired the kayaks from Whanganui River Canoes and can’t recommend them enough. Here’s what happened…
If you’re short on time and don’t want to read the whole post, scroll down for the video! It’s a cracker!
*WARNING* this is rather a long post but I really have to set the scene for you to get an insight into our five day adventure on the great Whanganui River!! For those who know me, you know that somewhere in this post is going to be a drama, disaster or general idiotic moment. You’ll be pleased to hear that you won’t be disappointed This was absolutely by far one of the most adventurous things I’ve done. I mean, hiking around Mount Everest, driving overland from West Africa to England, jumping out of a plane or abseiling off the top of Table Mountain are all pretty crazy things but all were under the instruction of qualified professionals. People who were responsible for my safety and well-being. People were paid to ensure that the aforementioned activities went without problems. Kayaking down the Whanganui River was a whole different ball game. It was just me. Well, and Vincent. (The Belgian chap I teamed up with.) Together, the two of us would be drifting downstream, navigating rapids and setting up camp for four nights in an electricity-free, shower-free, mobile network-free wilderness on the north island of New Zealand. Oh and it was also mid-autumn and therefore freezing cold. Within an hour of setting off, I’d capsized my kayak. That’s one way to learn that you never try to stop whilst in a rapid. Even if you are checking to see that the Belgian, who five minutes ago was stuck on a rock, is safe and well. I was so mad! Soon enough I’d calmed down and resigned myself over to the fact that I’d have cold and wet feet for the remainder of the trip. I mean, the sun was out but there wasn’t much heat pouring down. Even after arriving at the evening’s campsite, there was too much cloud cover to have any real effect upon any of my wet clothes. Sadly to say. Nonetheless the afternoon at the site was passed pitching the tent, squatting sandflies, itching the bites from the sandflies and ultimately heating last night’s dinner for tonight’s dinner. We were in the tent by 7:30pm but after our first day of paddling a whole 21.5km an early night was much needed. Of course we slept terribly – rolling into each other because some idiot had chosen to pitch the tent on a slope. Isn’t that always the way?! Fortunately it wasn’t too cold but the $10 we’d paid to have an extra sleeping bag was an incredible investment as the extra layer really went from Arctic to perhaps the bottom of Greenland by way of ‘feels like temperature’ at least. We’d been promised a week of sunshine from the wonderful folks at New Zealand’s MetService. Sadly, we woke on day two to grey skies. Despite the mild temperature and a hearty breakfast of rice cakes and peanut butter (bread is out since we decided to go gluten free about ten days ago but that’s another story…) it wasn’t enough to give me the strength to face my wet boots from yesterday. My socks were lovely and dry but as soon as my feet squelched into the soles of my dripping wet boots a shudder went through me and I knew that was it, I’d be cold for the day. And wow was I cold for the day! Some of the rapids came up quite high and a whole wave came crashing over the front of the kayak. My toes, already numb, didn’t feel the chill but the rest of me sure did. And wow what a chill that was!! My butt remained wet for the entire day as the little seat was just pooled with water. And with no showers – hot or otherwise – along the way, there’s little that can be done to warm a cold and wet butt!! Fortunately I had my bright yellow sweatpants to help once we bedded down for the evening – in a hut tonight. What a treat! By some crazy turn of events, it was actually cheaper to sleep in an eight-bed bunkhouse with electric lights and a heater than to pay for a tent pitch. Yep… I’m not sure how that works either! But I’m sure not going to ask. The next two nights it’s back to tent-city so for tonight, I shall sleep easy in my bottom bunk, next to the heater where all my lovely soggy clothes and footwear are drying nicely ready for a good soaking tomorrow. Day three and it’s raining. Today’s a big day of paddling. 37km ahead before we arrive at John Coull campsite. Due to an early-morning argument between the two of us, we mostly paddled solo and decided to skip lunch as neither of us wanted to see the other. After arriving at the campsite and pitching the tent, we joined a family of five with their gourmet dinner and cooked our 2-minute noodles and vegetable soup. Very exotic after a late-lunch of rice crackers. Day four. Another freezing night but we were well-rested enough for our 29km paddle today. Off we go. There are 199 rapids in total along our 145km route. That’s almost one rapid per kilometre so when I arrived at rapid 169 and a canoe came up on the inside of me, it was no wonder that I bashed into it, bounced off it, got pushed the other way by the water and the kayak – all in a panic about which direction to go – tipped me out once again. As you can imagine, I was not happy. This time, I was unable to get to the riverbank – despite a rescue attempt from a neighbouring canoe – so had to swim through the next rapid whilst holding onto my kayak and paddle. Vince tried to tip my boat over but didn’t realise I was between the two craft so instead of breaking my neck, he paddled on downstream where I nestled myself into a cave and promptly tipped the kayak over the right way… little did we know this was just the beginning of our problems but more of that later. Today we also got to do some sightseeing. The Bridge to Nowhere is a little highlight that pops up on day four. You land the boat then follow the track through the bush until you get to a bridge that literally goes nowhere. It was built with the intent of building a civilisation before the people realised the land was unsuitable and pretty inaccessible. I appreciated the walk as it gave me a chance to dry off from my early-morning soaking at rapid 169. What I didn’t appreciate was finding that the shoes I’d so preciously kept dry (by paddling barefoot and being freezing cold) over the last two days had actually become soaking wet during the earlier capsizing. They were in a bag with Vince’s spare shoes. They were also in a bag with our tent. That’s right. Our tent was now soaking wet. Let’s worry about that later… That night we arrived at the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge. The only place in the entire national park with flushing toilets, bedrooms, showers and a bar. But we weren’t staying there. We were at the campsite next door. In the field. With the cows. And their poo. Trying to find a patch to pitch our tent in between piles of poop. What a great evening this was going to be! After pitching the wet tent and deciding we could use our towels to dry it off, we agreed it would be tolerable for just one night. It was only 5pm but being freezing cold (or at least I was, because did I mention I capsized earlier in the day) we decided to have our soupy deliciousness for dinner and then go to sleep in the tent huddled in our sleeping bags. The plan was all falling into place until it came time to get into said sleeping bags. We opened the barrel. The supposedly watertight barrel. The supposedly watertight barrel containing all three of our sleeping bags. That’s when disaster struck. The sleeping bags were swimming in a river of water. Literally. If water levels were low on this particular day it was because the water from the river was all in our barrel. I must have had the boat upside down for a little too long during the capsizing and the seal was unable to keep the water out. Oops. Fortunately, the lodge with the bar and the hot showers and the lovely bedrooms was just along the riverbank so I moseyed on over to grovel for some blankets and a place to sleep. It turned out the owner was a lovely chap with some fabulous cabins which we were able to stay in. He also invited us into the lodge to sit in front of the fire, dry our wet stuff and enjoy a beer and a game of Monopoly. If you haven’t played Monopoly for a while, I highly recommend it – it was really enjoyable!! Day five began with all the excitement of a child on Christmas Morning – I couldn’t wait to smash the last 21km as my shoes hadn’t dried overnight and I was terrified of falling in again. Fortunately, they passed without incident and it was only a matter of hours before we were loaded onto the minibus heading back towards civilisation. What an adventure indeed!! Did we need a guide? Absolutely not. Did I need some more practice on the river? Probably. Would I advise taking water shoes? Absolutely. Am I going to do it again? In summer, definitely. Should you do it? Without a doubt, yes!!!!
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