Up a Kiwi Creek

May 3, 2012 8:39 pm

I really should have known that canoeing down a river through rapids and eddies wasn’t going to be a doddle. Especially down the Whanganui River (North Island, New Zealand), and when my only company for the next three days was to be a bunch of Kiwis, a few ducks, goats and the odd dead or alive eel; and my only mode of transport, which carried everything from food and bedding to a lot of river water and myself, was, to put it bluntly, a large piece of orange plastic.


Whanganui is a Maori word, and all Maori words starting ‘wh’ are pronounced with an ‘f’ sound. Also ‘-nui’ as I was told several times means ‘big’. Other lingo I picked up was that: ‘togs’ are swimming costumes, ‘jandals’ – flip flops and that Kiwi thermals are not the British thermals that Grannies are stereotyped to wear. The Kiwi’s idea of a thermal vest is a really comfortable, fairly fashionable and ‘I wouldn’t mind being seen dead in this’, top, commonly referred to as a polyprop. Boy, did I receive peals of laughter from each local who discovered my British naivety of New Zealand!


Encountering rapids resulted in a lot of agitated cries of “turn left – no right – turn quicker” and frustrated “I’m trying!”s, from canoeing partners. It is understandable why couples are recommended not to paddle in the same canoe.


On my first day of canoeing we were to complete 39 kilometres, which didn’t leave us much time for pleasure cruising. However Fate, being Fate, wouldn’t let this aim be achieved that easily. Five minutes after lunch the crew hit a rapid. Nothing to worry about, we had completed a fair few of the deceiving devils by now, and as I had predicted, the team completed it without too much water welcoming itself into the canoes. Yet it was after the rapid when the first, most ridiculously impressive but biggest bummer of a disaster occurred.


The Whanganui is well known for the tree trunks, branches and rocks that spend each day wallowing just beneath the water’s surface waiting for their next victim to come along. In my relief at surviving another rapid, my mind had drifted, resulting in my unfortunate ignorance of a looming trunk. The canoe hit the trunk with quite a bit of flowing force and was promptly hit from the side by the power of another current-driven canoe. To the rest of the team it was like a slow motion scene from an action film. Both canoes tipped towards each other, unceremoniously ridding themselves of their four paddlers and other loose items on board. Soon empty sunscreen bottles and such were casually drifting past the crew which had assembled 100 metres downstream on a strip of pebbly land; waiting in anticipation. The guides with their unbelievable strength paddled upstream, despite the current, to release our belongings from the canoes. The second canoe was still in good condition and so floated down to the Strip. However, my canoe, it is fair to say, was a wreck, although unlike the sunken Titanic, it was still just about in one piece and above water. Yet it was not fit to float again. The force of the current and blow from the other canoe had caused my canoe to bend round the trunk stubbornly refusing to release itself. In fact, it was so stuck that when the jet (jet-boat) came to ‘unstick’ it the next day, it didn’t budge! The two barrels it contained were eventually cut free and they too joined the belongings’ procession downstream. And that was that: my barrels were shared amongst the other canoes, and two canoes ended up with an extra passenger each!


To a stranger, Kiwis are incredibly competitive and in my five year separation from this spectacular country, it was something I had almost forgotten. If one person was skimming stones, everyone else would attempt to do the same, monitoring their successes. So mud fights, swimming and splashing were also favourites for the Kiwis as they showed the Brits just how good they are in everything competitive. However, the most noticeable thing about these barefooted people with their bizarre accent and traditions is the sense of community. Despite the age differences, (with our crew ranging from 11 to late 40s) everyone soon became great friends. The Kiwis were willing to lend a hand, and were surprised to hear that it doesn’t rain in England all the time and that not all English people drink tea and go fox-hunting!


Sleep was very appealing that night, and in fact all nights after that on the trip. The hard ground, tent and silently stealing, bugging beasties of sand flies, who had taken a particular fancy to my blood, were not. I had no watch, no mobile, no iPod – nothing, except for the tent, waterproof barrel and the sounds of the Whanganui bush. It was to be one of the strangest but most definitely best experiences of my life. Where else will you be able to go camping and still get pancakes with golden syrup made on a make-shift cooker in the morning? Or randomly stop for lunch only to stumble across an area untouched by human civilisation since World War II? The country is beautiful, the weather dramatic, the people incredible and the experiences unforgettable. Canoeing down the Whanganui really was a true trip back to nature, capsizes and all – and I also realised that sometimes it is so nice not to have any funky-dory technology around; instead having the ability to just relax, be yourself and have fun, the old fashioned and sociable way!

%d bloggers like this: