02/27/11 - Whanganui River
Many, many months ago I corresponded with a fellow by the name of Steve. He's the owner of Wade's Landing, a canoe and kayak rental company that organizes trips down the Whanganui River. I can’t recall why Katie and I had settled on Wade’s Landing, as there were other companies available to work with, but for whatever reason we had. Unlike my correspondences with other adventure companies, my communications with Steve had never ended with a definitive reservation.
I’d asked to book a three day kayaking trip (2 single kayaks) down the river with transportation to and from. He mentioned canoe and I reiterated kayaks. He then said that would be fine, never requesting a down payment or further information even though I offered. Now here we were, sitting in National Park Backpackers one day before the trip. I reviewed my emails with Steve to refresh my memory and then tried to call him. No answer. I moved on to other tasks before trying again. Nothing. Katie and I had no choice but to drive over to the rental facility to ensure everything was set.
We found Wade’s Landing on a tiny little side street in the middle of nowhere. It was also a lodge and appeared to be the place where the gigantic driftwood animals we’d seen around town were being made (very cool pieces of art, actually). Canoes were laying at the front of the building with barrels and other piles of whatnot. The place looked dodgy and disheveled and not a soul was around. On entering the lodge, the front door immediately slammed into a metal chair that semi-blocked the path. All signs outside had pointed this way to "The Office", which appeared to be locked up, and the only people inside were two young men sitting in the lounge playing Monopoly. “Hello?” I said in that confused “is anybody home?” tone of voice. One of the young men looked up and asked if he could help me. Yes, he could.
As it turned out, Steve was never around on the weekends (it was Saturday), and I realized it was a good thing we drove over because I never would’ve gotten anyone on the phone. The young man happened to be a WWOOFer from Maryland working at Wade’s Landing. He was wearing a red Boston University sweatshirt, so for the sake of anonymity I will call him B.U.
B.U. helped answer some questions. Yes, we could do our trip. In fact, he and his mute Monopoly playing friend would be joining us on the river. No, there weren’t any kayaks available, so we’d have to take a canoe. We should show up tomorrow before 7:30 A.M. to pack and leave for the river. I inquired about our “reservation” and he conveyed that this wasn’t a well run business (what a shocker!), but regardless, our trip was a go, so at least there was that.
(Wade’s Landing: Satisfaction Guaranteed)
Cut to the next morning where we dutifully arrive at 7:15 A.M. to find no one around. It's a ghost town. Once inside I hear rustling in the kitchen and find myself yet again calling out, “Hello?” B.U. appears. It’s obvious he’s frantically getting ready for the trip. He gives us some “water tight” barrels to pack our things in. They’re scratched up with bent, rusted rims. With a little elbow grease we make them functional. We'd pre-packed everything needed on the trip, so we were ready to hit the road in about five minutes. Since no one else was ready, we sat down and drank tea from our thermos. I watched B.U. and Mute Boy toss supplies into barrels willy-nilly. Another man appeared wearing glasses. “Are you Steve?” I asked. No. He was Jack and he was going to drive us to the river, he just needed to get some petrol first.
(Wade’s Landing: Prepared To Make Your Trip Memorable)
Then an awkward conversation took place between Mute Boy and Jack, where Jack tried to convey to Mute Boy that even though the river trip was free (because he was a WWOOFer) he still needed to pay for the camping pass. Mute Boy, as it turned out, was French and barely spoke English. B.U. was roped into the situation to “translate,” which for him meant repeating everything in English and adding gestures. I almost stepped in with my meager French vocabulary but it seemed Mute Boy finally got the point.
Jack told us another person was joining our trip. She turned out to be a short-haired, bleached-blond Swedish girl who truly looked the part – ready to strike down raging rapids with a snap of her wrist. Well, looks can be deceiving…
Jack pointed to a pile of life jackets reeking of mildew and told us to all grab one and bring our barrels to the van. It was finally time to go. Katie and I glanced at each other. Perhaps Wade’s Landing wasn’t the best choice? But there was no point in second guessing. We were already hooked fish, so we may as well wriggle along. We knew that despite the disorder of the company, a river was a river. Once we glided onto the water all would be well. So we grabbed our moldy life jackets and stepped into the rickety van.
(Wade’s Landing: Nothing But The Best)
Jack revved the engine and away we went. It was a forty five minute drive weaving around hills on gravel roads to get there. I bounced in my seat and looked out the window. The farms along the drive were truly stunning. Of all the farmlands I’d seen thus far on the trip, these were my favorite. One sheep-covered hilltop had a tall white tree with green leaves planted right at the center. It towered above the land like a protector. I think I could live happily-ever-after under a tree like that.
At one point along the road Jack stopped, hopped out, and picked up a single person kayak for Blondie. Well, what do you know?! It looks like we could’ve had single kayaks after all! Too bad no one told us! (I’m looking at you B.U.!!)
We arrived on a muddy road alongside a shallow, thin river. Was this the Whanganui? No, as it turned out, it wasn’t. This creek fed into the Whanganui. It was our jumping off point. Jack gave us a bare bones instructional on how to navigate our canoe and not capsize. Though brief, his lesson was extremely useful. He then asked if there were any questions. I posed some regarding which campsites to stop at, times, distances, etc. You know, the basics. I’m not sure why I needed to ask for this information, but there you have it.
(Wade’s Landing: Your Safety Is Our Number One Priority)
By now Katie and I had realized that this adventure cost $14 more than our Abel Tasman kayaking experience, which was one day longer, had top notch equipment, and an excellent multi-hour training course. We also were given cookies and juice. Cookies and juice, people! So if I seem judgmental chalk it up to my previous experience.
It was around 10:30 A.M. when we finally hit the water. Katie and I slid out first. The water swiftly moved us downstream where we met up with the Whanganui River. We entered the larger body of water easily and floated along at a slow but steady pace. By now the dynamic trio (B.U., Mute Boy, and Blondie) had paddled ahead of us and we were glad for it. There was absolutely no one around. No buildings along the water’s edge. No signs or sounds of man. Complete and total solitude. Peace. It was more than we’d hoped for.
Rivers agree with me. Kayaking on the sea had left me queasy. The constant crashing of waves eventually grated on my nerves. But this soft and tranquil flow was like salve to my wounds. All that previous disorganization and chaos instantly washed away. As predicted, once on the river, all was well. It felt blissful.
Katie and I floated carelessly down the river’s center as it cut its never-ending path through rock, soil, and dense green forest. Luxuriant vegetation rose up on either side of us like massive walls. Birds twittered back and forth across the water as it rippled and gurgled against our canoe. The placid surface was often so still it reflected like a mirror to the sky.
So there we were, drifting along, when a totally random topic came up: Xena: Warrior Princess. OK, not so random. One of the reasons we were drawn to New Zealand was a mutual love for that campy television show. This was the country it was filmed in, and we were looking forward to seeing some of the locations used, but we had to head further north for that to happen. In the meantime, though, we imagined ourselves to be much like Xena and Gabrielle paddling along the river in “The Price,” minus the soldiers dying on stakes and the Horde threatening our lives, though I admit to mimicking their cries for “Athena” several times along our journey. (Note: Only Xena fans will understand that last sentence) Yes, much geeky fun was had once again, and the best part was that no one was around to witness it!
Far in front of us was the dynamic trio. Whenever we got close to them we could hear Blondie’s voice rebounding off the ravine walls. We slowly backed off. We were happy to be loners. Happy to be of no interest to them, whatsoever. Halfway through the day we spotted them stopped for lunch on a rocky beach. We pulled off at a rocky beach of our own, upstream and on the other side of the river. Basically, we were being overtly antisocial. We’d booked this trip with the intention of being alone. No guides, no ties, just us and the river. So we felt zero guilt about keeping our distance and didn’t imagine they’d want us old farts around anyway.
While on the beach we ate lunch and basked in the sunshine. I, of course, searched for some interesting rocks. I spotted several brick red ones scattered along the shore. Then Katie blew me away with her bizarre finds - amalgams of dark and light chunks of stone and fossils. Totally psychedelic, man. We tucked our loot in a satchel and headed back onto the water.
I was overjoyed when I saw a group of wild goats standing on the river’s edge. I swiftly snapped some pictures before being carried off by the current. How fortunate we’d been! To see wild goats right on the river. But wait! Two more were eating eagerly on the hillside around the bend! And more still were drinking water to our right. They were in the bushes, behind the trees, scaling the rocks…more and more appeared before our eyes. I guess it wasn’t such a rare opportunity to see them, after all. I sometimes would call out to them, speaking their native tongue: “Behh-eh-eh-eh! Behh-eh-eh-eh-eh!” Most ignored me but some whipped their heads around. Others that were deeper in the bush would even respond. At one point a baby goat must have lost its mother because we could hear its sad constant cry in the distance. I responded to it with my goat-speak. It eagerly replied. We called out to one another, back and forth, but I stopped cold when Katie pointed out that I could be leading it astray. She made a good point.
Six hours of paddling later we finally arrived at our first stopping point: John Coull Hut. We had the choice of camping that night or staying in the hut. We elected to stay in the hut to save time in the morning. We had another 6 hours of paddling in store and we wanted to get an early start. Our arms ached as we carted three barrels up the long and steep pathway to the hut.
Up to this point on our trip we’d only experienced extremely knowledgeable (if not sometimes overzealous) hut wardens. You could spot them at forty paces with their khaki shorts, wool socks, and athletic physique. On the flip side, John Coull hut had a plump matronly woman with grey hair and a smoking habit. She barely knew anything about the area when asked, in fact she was doing more asking than answering. We discovered she was a volunteer for the week and this was her last day. You could see her mentally counting down the hours till her departure. In conjunction with her unenthusiasm, we had the dynamic trio fumbling around the kitchen trying to turn on gas burners with little success. Toto, I've got a feeling we're not on Milford Track anymore...
We helped get the burners going while the young ones spied our cookware with curiosity and a bit of envy. None of them had much by way of proper equipment. I tried to strike up a conversation en français with Mute Boy. I found out that he came to New Zealand all by himself to seek adventure and to learn English. Yikes! He’d really thrown himself into the fire! Then I learned that B.U. was 19 years old, had just graduated from high school, and was enjoying a gap year abroad before attending Boston University. Then there was Blondie who liked to talk a lot, but only about the following subjects: What she’s gotten for free, whether she can get something for free, and how awesome she is. While she talked to Katie about said topics, I had the privilege of eavesdropping on Mute Boy and B.U.’s conversation. Their discourse was fraught with irritation and frustration. It was obvious that B.U. had zero interest in being Mute Boy’s tutor. I felt sorry for the both of them. Mute Boy was obviously lonely and B.U. had run out of patience. I couldn’t wait for tomorrow morning to come.
Suffice to say, this trip was fast demonstrating to me that I no longer relate to 20 year olds. An unexpected side effect to our age gap began to crop up – Katie and I started feeling like their mommy and daddy. We didn’t want to feel this way, it just sort of happened. Our water filter became communal, they needed to use our thermos, our lighter, our plastic bags, and questions started popping up about where we were going and what we were doing next. Look here, young’uns, we booked a solo river trip, not The Swiss Family Robinson.
Speaking of Swiss, the next morning two Swiss gentlemen (the only other people staying in the hut) rose first and did an admirable job of staying quiet while eating and packing. Katie and I got a move on, too, with the intention of taking advantage of daylight and creating a buffer zone between us and the kiddies. We were worried that our “getting to know you” session the night before would make them feel inclined to hang out with us on the river. We got a small lead. Katie was even able to snap some amazing photos of pristine river reflections before the water started rippling. Blondie had broken away from the boys and made a beeline for us in her one man kayak. She'd had no interest in us the day before, but Katie and I suspected that now we appeared to be the better providers. Considering how we had all the necessities, it was no wonder, but we didn’t realize this qualified us as her new Daddy Warbucks. I eyed her warily.
Katie is (has always been) far kinder when it comes to interacting with people she doesn’t particularly want to interact with. She responds with bright smiles and nods, and gives full answers with follow up questions. I tend to be more brief. A minimal amount of smiling, little eye contact, no gratuitous information. I’m pretty positive Blondie thought Katie was nice and I was a jerk. I had no problem with that. By subtly dragging my oar against the current we successfully lagged behind as Blondie drifted downstream and far away from us.
With tranquility recaptured, we continued our solo adventure once again. We coasted past high rise cliff faces and the goats became fewer and fewer. Vibrant green algae waved steadily below us whenever we rushed over grade one rapids. Minor thrills mingled with relaxation on the meandering river. We ran out of drinking water at some point, so I pulled out the water filter and pumped river water straight into our bottles. It was safe to drink but left something to be desired when it came to taste. It had the distinct flavor of dirt.
We pulled over at a lovely campsite sitting high on a ridge overlooking the river. There we happened to meet an American woman who’d emigrated to New Zealand. (Hi, Arleigh!) She was from Seattle, of all places, so we instantly started chatting about Washington, New Zealand, quality of life, Kiwis, healthcare, blogs, you name it. She even gave me tips about emigrating. Katie and I spent a good half hour talking with her before moving on.
Down the river we docked and hiked out to see the “Bridge To Nowhere.” Apparently New Zealand didn't have a Sarah Palin to say “thanks, but no thanks,” because there it was in all its glory; its sturdy frame spanning the ravine with no particular purpose other than being a mountain bike trail. The short hike gave us lofty views of the river and a chance to stretch our legs before finishing the second half of our day’s journey.
By the end of those six hours our arms were beat, but beat or not they still had to paddle. The sun had fallen behind the tree line and the air was cooling. We started singing. What better way to inspire a steady paddling rhythm than with a song? We sang together during a long stretch of river, arms pumping steadily. Before we knew it we were at the beach right in front of Tieke Marae Hut, our final camping spot on the Whanganui River. Our arms were grateful for a break.
Once again, we had to choose between staying in the hut or in our tent. This time we chose camping for two reasons: 1) The camp site gave us a gorgeous view of a farm across the way with horses prancing on a hilltop – it was out of a dream! 2) The grown-ups wanted some space.
Instead of a lackluster hut warden, Tieke Marae had no hut warden at all. The place was fairly fancy. It had two huts, a bunk room and a kitchen, the latter of which even had a working refrigerator. Tieke Marae was also a Maori meeting place with a traditional marae and carved totem on display. This would be a spiritual and soothing place to sleep…or perhaps not. Once we entered our tent and tucked ourselves in we heard a horrific screeching sound coming from the surrounding bush. I have a feeling if we hadn’t been in New Zealand (say, Australia for example) there would’ve been some concern. But we were in New Zealand so we weren’t worried. There’s nothing dangerous here. The same goes for that eerie didgeridoo-esque groaning I heard later in the night. Who knows what it was? I wasn’t scared, though. No worries, mate! Cheers!
Light rain tickled our tent on and off through the night, never falling harder than a drizzle. Come morning the rain had stopped, but thick grey clouds continued to threaten. We awoke to a cacophony of birdsong. I never caught sight of the songsmiths, but they sounded like jazz musicians on crack. I did happen to catch a glimpse of several pukekos, though, as they sauntered through the campground. They are flightless New Zealand natives with black and blue feathers and red beaks. Their coloring is striking, reminiscent of fairytales creatures.
We took advantage of our early rousing and packed up the tent. This was our last day on the river. We had a pick-up scheduled for 2:30 P.M., and since we’d already cut it close on several other occasions during our vacation, we were hoping for a less stressful end to this expedition. Yet again, we counted ourselves very lucky with two full days of splendid weather. Today was a different story. The rainfall began soon after we left camp. Believe it or not, I ended up delighting in the soft rain hitting my head and the water around me. We were experiencing the river in a different light, and besides, we both had raincoats on and our belongings were safe within the barrels. We were wet but happy.
An hour later, though, I was getting a smidgen tired of the constant drizzle. Katie had to keep bailing water out of our boat and it was difficult to look around with my hood plastered to my face. Not long after, the rain thankfully relented. The clouds remained low and grey, which wasn’t much help when it came to wringing our bodies out. That was no matter, though, since today we would face the biggest rapids of the trip. Woohoo! Not to say we were in danger, but there was every chance we could tip over. Our teacher, Jack, had told us he had recently flipped over in this part of the river, so we knew we had to keep our wits about us.
The first big rapid had a boulder sticking up in the middle of the water on a sharp curve. We quickly chose to go to the right of the rock which meant riding alongside the ravine wall. I steered while Katie powered us forward. We headed straight for the V of the rapid and veered to the right. We whipped around the boulder and headed sideways into the rock wall. We both leaned to the right, toward the wall, just like Jack taught us. (Your instinctual reaction is to lean of away from an obstacle, but that actually increases your chance of tipping.) Bang! We hit the wall and thrust ourselves into it. Water crashed against the hull and tumbled into the boat. We rounded the corner afloat and immediately pulled up on a rocky shore where the dynamic trio and the Swiss gentlemen were docked. The Swiss gentlemen had hit the boulder and capsized. Their clothes were soaked through and their boat had filled with water.
After a brief chat we were on to the next rapid. Angling for the V again, we boldly barreled down the center of the maelstrom. A large wave crashed over the front right on top of Katie, but like I said, we were already soaked and couldn’t get any wetter. The eddy caught us in a strong up current, and we found ourselves being pulled back into the fray. Paddling hard, we dragged our canoe onto shore instead. That wave had dumped a lot of water into the boat. We bailed the water overboard and walked the canoe downstream, passed the swirling eddy and into safer waters. From then on there was nothing but smooth sailing. We’d both enjoyed the rougher rapids and were sadly back to grade 1 waters…or maybe grade 0.
We heard more white water ahead but there was a giant sandbar in the center keeping us from seeing the best path. We chose the left side because it was closer. Our choice had us dragging over a long stretch of rocks about six inches below the water. We had to throw our body weight forward and back like a rudimentary propulsion system just to keep us going. Then, moments later, an odd deep sideways dip occurred that nearly tipped us over! All this within visual range of the boat ramp that marked the end of our journey. Scraping our hull against the river bed and flipping over like a teeter totter would’ve been a triumphant end to our voyage, don’t you think? But that’s not what happened. We weathered it all sans capsizing and steered ourselves onto shore.
During our entire river trip I’d been determined not to get sunburned. This kept me from taking a much desired swim since I didn’t want to wash away my sunblock. Now the voyage was finished, I was still damp from the rain, and we were currently ahead of schedule for our 2:30 P.M. pick-up. Guess what I did when we crossed the finish line? I stripped down to my swimsuit and jumped in the water. It was a short but sweet swim, especially after not showering for three days.
A tall man with dreadlocks pulled up. He started talking to us casually and I noticed the Wade’s Landing emblem on his shirt. “Are you Steve?” I asked. No. He was Carlos, and he would be driving us back. Moments later all three of our little ones turned up unscathed by the river – we were so proud! Then the young WWOOFer-snappers helped heave the boats onto the top-of-the-line truck shuttling us back to town. Did I say top-of-the-line? Oops, what I meant to say was junk bucket on wheels.
(Wade’s Landing: Adventure In Style!)
We piled into the squeaky truck and set off. Our driver navigated the windy roads with little regard for lines or laws. Katie and I ricocheted back and forth in the back seat while trying not to put any pressure on the doors. The locks were dubious, to say the least. Mine was a naked screw, so it was tough to say if the door was actually locked or not.
Then came what we dreaded most… B.U. started to ask probing questions about where we were headed next, if we had a car, etc., etc. Blondie eavesdropped attentively. My muscles clenched. Katie had already informed me that Blondie was planning on going north to Waitomo, exactly where we were headed. So we decided to play it vague, simply stating we were heading south. Then the other shoe dropped – B.U. wanted to go south! The next question was inevitable: Could he tag along? We told him that, regrettably, our car was too small. This was only a partial fib. If you’ve been following this blog you’ve already seen Scottie’s diminutive size. We pack that car like a Rubik’s Cube, sliding every piece into its proper place. So, yes, our car is tiny, but if we had to fit another person in we could made it work. Though he would’ve been uncomfortable wedged inside with his belongings on his lap…not to mention unhappy that we were driving in the opposite direction.
This lie didn’t save us from B.U.’s queries but it had thankfully saved us from Blondie’s. She was off schedule with us anyway, as she still wanted to hike the Tongariro Crossing, but we knew she would’ve eagerly changed her plans if it meant a free ride to Waitomo. That would’ve meant hours together in our peewee car, not to mention the possibility of her wanting to continue on to wherever else we were going. We didn’t want to open that door. So, no, we didn’t offer a ride to anyone. And besides, the river trip was over, so our brief stint as surrogate parents had come to an end.
When we got back to Wade’s Landing we threw our stuff in our car as fast as we could and peeled out with the haste of a fire truck. So long, Wade’s Landing! It’s been real!
(Wade’s Landing: An Experience You’ll Never Forget)
P.S. We never met Steve.