“Ko au te awa Ko te awa ko au” … “I am the River – the river is me”
By Kevin Moore and Margreet Simpson
It all started with a Jamison’s at a BBQ back in February when Neil poured me a spot of his favourite tipple. He asked if we would be interested in joining him and Margreet on a canoe trip down the Whanganui River. It so happened I had just finished reading Jenny Patrick’s book ‘Landings’ and although a work of fiction it had sparked an interest in the rich history of the river. So the answer was a definite if slightly apprehensive yes. By the time the middle of November had rolled around we had cobbled together a rather rag tag group of 10, some you may know others perhaps best not too! The group consisted of from Twizel, Peter Thompson, Helen Bruce, Glenys and me, as well as Marg and Neil Simpson, Outram/Twizel, and Hanna and Alan Mason, Lowburn. Lois and Brian Trevathan from Christchurch/ Lake Ohau joined us for the last 2 days of the 4-day journey on the river.
I mentioned we were a little apprehensive and this was because apart from Alan and Brian none of us had any canoeing experience to draw on. Anyway, what could be so hard about cruising down a flat river, after all, it is all downhill and we figured the likely hood of lack of sleep and getting upright again in the morning would be our biggest worry.
We made our way to Whanganui where we were met our transport for the morning trip to Whakahora our start point and this is when we received our first shock. Each of us was issued 2 x 20 Ltr sealed drums “all your gear must fit in” haha it wasn’t too bad. Not only did these drums keep our gear dry but they provided extra buoyancy. “I will pick you up at 0.600 in the morning, be ready!” If you think Twizel is a little isolated then believe me you have never been to Whakahoro! We were ready for the pickup and after 3 hours we rocked into Ohakune. We were met by the owner/operator who shouted us a welcome coffee and cake while our barrels and kayaks were loaded for the next stage of the road trip up to Whakahora. Then we met our guides – Tanea Tangaroa and her son-in-law Neihana. Tanea with her full moko and cropped hair, wearing gum boots and a Swandri, was a little intimidating at first with her no-nonsense approach and commanding presence.
With the excellent coffee and carrot cake settling the nerves we set sail again for the elusive Whakahora still an hour’s drive away. While Tanea imparted her local knowledge to those at the rear of the bus I was fascinated by the snippets of conversation I overheard between our excellent Maori driver (he needed to be) and our young Maori guide Neihana that went like this; “I set my Tuna (eel) net the other night and caught a couple of tuna. I went back the next day and there were no tuna in the net and there were no holes either, some bloody Maori must have come and stolen them,” brilliant! This was to set the standard for Neihana’s humour for the rest of the trip. Both he and Tanea are fluent speakers of the Maori language and fully immersed in Maori culture.
Finally arriving at Whakahora where our canoe/waka journey was to begin – in a minor tributary that quickly leads into the Whanganui proper. Although a mere shadow of its former self the upper reaches having been diverted much to the Whanganui Maori’s disgust. We were given a safety briefing and it was made quite clear to us that the trip ahead was to be ‘Our Journey’ with plenty of challenges ahead. Occupants of each canoe would have to work together and communicate clearly as a team to read the water so we could negotiate the river safely. We had four barrels to load and tie down in each canoe, plus our tent, snacks and dry bag for cameras etc. it was after 11.00 before we disturbed the first water with a paddle but not before Neihana offered a Karakia to ask the Gods for safe travel down the river for our team. As we entered the Whanganui proper the sound of Tanea’s waiata drifted down to us and we knew we were in for something special. When I asked what she had sung expecting it had been a prayer to God she was a little evasive saying it was personal but then said “I was just acknowledging the mountains, the river ,t he environment knowing that if we acknowledge their importance then they will look after us,” I was warming to this impressive lady.
The first rapid wasn’t long in appearing a mere rifle in actual fact but never the less a good teaser for the uninitiated. Team Twizel 1 being Glenys and Helen seemed to think that the 100 km’s that lay before us wasn’t far enough and proceeded to do 360 turns all the way down. Unlike most people, Bruice appears to have two left hands and Glenys hadn’t quite grasped the concept that if you wish to go right then you need to paddle left. I have to say they are quick learners though and the rest of the day went without incident. After a couple of hours of paddling and negotiating our way through gentle rapids, we stopped for a delicious picnic lunch at Mangapapa and then carried on to Ohauoro – 30 km’s canoeing in total it had been a very long day and was after 1900 hrs before we exited the river. 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 which Tanea prepared. This is a beautiful camping spot situated close to a land mark on the River called Tamatea Cave. In the course of the evening, Tanea introduced us to some of the concepts of Maori Culture – specifically Wairua (Maori Spirituality) and Whakapapa (genealogy/ancestral ties). She is well versed in the old way of the Maori and has a good understanding of the need to transition to a new way. She also described how she was the first wahine in her family for a couple of generations to have To Moko tattooed on her chin. She explained that the tattoo had been carved with a bone chisel and the dye was plant-based. She is a traditional Maori healer well versed in concocting Maori medicines from plants. This knowledge has been handed down to her by her ancestors but she was she is very much her own person.
Tues 19 Nov: We set out at 0900 with only 22 km to canoe today. This would be a much more leisurely day. However, it did not start out that way for the two Twizel combinations. The team captains and there were 4 of them decide if it was good enough for the All Blacks to have a revolving selection policy it was good enough for us. Pete and Bruice teamed up with Bruice in command having by now discovered she did have a right hand but was as yet unsure which one it was! As for her crew apparently, he just would not listen and didn’t believe he needed to paddle when the river was perfectly capable of doing the work! As for Team Twizel 2 I can honestly say in 42 years of marriage there has barely been one cross word between us (mainly because I won’t argue). I can tell you with in the first minute of stepping into that waka together and a gleeful little rapid threatening to devour us, mutiny came very close to occurring. This of course to the amusement of the other crews especially sisters Hannah and Marg who seemed to be well versed in blissfully ignoring instructions coming from the rear of their wakas with complete impunity. Again the weather was very hot and muggy but it was a pleasant trip down the river to Mangapapapa where we stopped for lunch. This is Tanea’s family land and while she was not raised here, she lived here from 1996-2002 during negotiations with the crown to secure their land and her brother is buried there. The dwelling was very basic with no power and a long drop toilet. While there we were grateful for the shelter though, as we experienced quite a violent thunder storm with heavy rain.
We reached our destination – Mangawaiiti – late afternoon and set up camp. During the evening we felt an earthquake and several aftershocks. Again a beautiful DoC camp site, but like all the sites they are high up on the tops and it was quite a mission ferrying all our gear and food to safe ground at the end of each day. So ended day two on the river, we were all now feeling a lot more confident and learning to read the river to our advantage but this river gives you nothing, you have to earn your passage, sleep came easy at days end. Our Whanganui River Trip Continued…. A Marae welcome and carnage in the rapids!