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New Zealand Day 34-39: Whanganui River

Posted by on February 21, 2018

Day 34: New Years Day 2017. Wake up to a light drizzle around 7:45. I moved my stuff under the tarp outside the kitchen and a group of 18 thruhikers was getting all their shit packed into dry bags and plastic barrels and the kayak shuttle van and trailer was getting ready to roll. I made breakfast and that whole trip left while I was eating, but there were still some people waiting here to head out on the 9th, including Choop, who was excited to see my boat. I blew up the boat, put my pack into the trash bags, and Choop, one of the nondescript American dudes, and another chick helped me bring my stuff down to the river by the bridge right outside the Holiday Park. Choop took a picture of me on his phone in case no one saw me again and I floated out into the current for the first time. The paddle works great and the boat tracks pretty well through flat water. This is going to be fucking awesome! I Waved goodbye and thanked the trio for helping me launch and set off on cloud 9 in a light drizzle. The first couple kms into town were really shallow and the bottom of the boat dragged on the rocks a couple times, giving me not a little bit of worry about tearing the floor on my first trip. No worries, the boat is pretty tough. This shallow section of river was quite thrilling to start off and I got to run some really rocky class 1s for a mile or so, mostly little pour overs and wavy tongues. It was so much fun, especially hitting the narrow little pour overs between two big rocks that the packraft could just barely squeeze through. The river was bordered by pasture on either side and cows, goats drank along the banks and teals, ducks, and cormorants swam around in the eddies. Once I passed town, the water got deeper and there were some more legitimate class 1 rapids and I was so pleased with this little boats performance. It was so much fun and with my weight in the back and the pack’s weight in the front, it was very stable. I saw a bunch of people putting in with canoes and kayaks and waved and wished happy new year to everyone. 2 dudes in a canoe passed me later and warned me that a dude from the rental company was going to call a jetboat to have me pulled off the river because it was illegal to run it alone and that it was his job to call me in. Damn it! I believed that the guy said that, but I could imagine that he might be bluffing, I had no way of knowing. It stressed me out a little bit and I considered pulling off onto shore and hiding in the trees until the jetboat passed by, but realized that they might then think that I was in trouble if they couldn’t find me, so I decided to call his bluff and just keep on paddling, planning to act like a dumb tourist if I got busted, begging and pleading to avoid a fine. Sure enough, nobody ever came. I paddled past a few campsites, wondering where the group of 18 was that left this morning. I stopped for a snack on a beach and they passed me right as I was packing up. I paddled with Jake for only a minute or so until we hit the first rapid, but their canoes and sea kayaks were much faster than my inflatable and even though I was paddling as hard as I could for the sport of trying to keep up, I lost them completely within half an hour, but I enjoyed the peace of being on the river by myself, singing in the rain that lasted most of the day and paddling to stay warm. I saw many birds as I entered the National Park- kingfishers, NZ falcons, finches, teals, ducks, cormorants, gulls, magpies, pied shags, tuis, and bellbirds. I whistled back and forth with the bellbirds for a while and was full of happiness. There were lots goats along the banks and sheep could be seen in fields above the river gorge- private property, or pasturage in the National Park? Not sure. Perhaps it operates more like National Forest or BLM land here, I wonder. The hills have been deforested heavily up in the hills, but the river canyon was still dense with trees and undergrowth on hills 300-1000 feet high, sometimes with big cliffs towering above it and tons of waterfalls of all types and sizes- thin, wide ones that hugged the rock all the way down, narrow fast ones that flowed through cascading pools, and big ones that fell straight off rock overhangs, and loud reverberating little streams in thin side canyons that sounded like a diesel engine as you pass by. The rocks are sedimentary- formed only 30 million years ago and uplifted about 1 millions years ago- and the canyon is comprised of a deeply “entrenched dendritic drainage pattern”, as the Department of Conservation describes it , meaning it is deep and has a complex system of deep side canyons. The road paralleled the river in some places and I was warned again about being seen by the wrong person. Eventually, I made it to the second camp where half of the group of 18 were staying, I made dinner and did some underwear yoga. I didn’t feel as included with the group this time, like when the french dude accused me of spilling a bunch of fuel on the table after he started his stove and it lit up in a big fire ball around his fuel bottle. I reminded of this benefit of traveling solo; that you can be a part of a group sometimes without having to compromise your agenda while the rest of the group has to make compromises in order to stay together. I miss out on laughs and shared hotdogs by the fire, but on this part of my trip my agenda is to feel free and wild during my first adventure of a new sort- packrafting. So after dinner, I put my wet clothes back on and paddled for another hour before setting up camp on a beach. It was impossible to keep stakes in the loose sand, so I set the tarp up in a sloppy lean-to using the big stumpy root system of a washed up tree and out to a few driftwood anchors I set up, using two propped up driftwood logs to keep the shape.

Days 35-37: I slept in the first day, but didn’t feel rushed to get out of camp. By the time I made breakfast and packed up, it started raining again and continued the rest of the day. My shoulders are sore from the long day yesterday, but I had to keep paddling today to stay warm. The rapids were smaller than I had hoped for, and the trekking poles started to slide around each other a little, so I had to constantly readjust them to keep them even and I realized that cutting the tails of the zipties meant sharp plastic bits near my tubes, so I redid the zipties and left the tails on this time. Time went by quickly these days on the water. I didn’t stop very often on the 2nd day, but I stopped for a couple hours at the camp with all the other hikers for an early dinner, then kept paddling to another beach camp for the night. I set up the tarp using only driftwood with one main pole and anchor stakes. There were many goats of various colors and varieties today along the river- big granddaddy goats like the dead one we saw in the Kaimai Range, black scruffy ones and white ones and tan blotchy ones and lots of little kids too. It rained hard in the morning right as I woke up, which reminded me that I needed to figure out a different way to store my sleeping bag, which had gotten slightly damp through the trash bags, probably because of some small tears on the bottom that let water in as my pack sat in the bilge all day. I stayed under the tarp until 10:30 while waiting on the rain, but eventually embraced it and packed up and left with everything soaking wet, having lots of type 2 fun. The river had flooded from all the rain and was brown and full of sediment, washed out some of the shoreline, and the waterfalls were spectacular. The bush here, as I was told, is the densest one in NZ, and here it really showed. Plants grew out of the huge grey cliffs, black moss taking up every square inch of unused space, fern trees and lots of dense shrubs, puriris, and tall NZ pines in the hills. I saw a fish leap out of the water about 8 inches above the surface. The goats weren’t out today and the ducks were hiding amongst the caves. I stopped for a snack and tried to get a photo by a waterfall, and was so wet and cold that I thought about climbing into this ultra dense wood and trying to set up a hammock camp, but instead I pushed on to stay warm. I set up my Zlite sleeping pad on top of the inflatable seat and it made a big difference in my posture, kept my back from getting sore and insulated it from the cold pretty well. I got to camp just as the old Canadian dude and one of the Irish dudes showed up, and I set up the hammock and the tarp just as the rain slowed down and a few patches of blue sky could be seen through the clouds. I played lots of jazz and ate a lot of food. I still felt a bit distant from the group of thruhikers, but got the Canadian dude’s email address so he can send me the photos he took of me on the water with his waterproof camera. I never got them. The next day, the 4th of January, was cold in the morning, but sunny all day, which felt very welcome after all this cold rain. I took a nap while floating in the current and woke up to being run gently into the rocks. The flooded river made a lot of boil fields where it ran into the cliffs, so I had to paddle here and there to avoid being stuck, but mostly just floated along. I stayed on river for a few hours, but stopped at the camp just after the hut to dry out all my stuff. My camera had gotten wet, which was concerning, but it seemed to dry out nicely. The Canadian guy and the Irish dudes showed up and gave me a beer. I moved all my stuff under my tarp/hammock camp when everyone else showed up. I had an early dinner, then lots of guitar and watching the hikers play games, like juggling a slightly flat ball with their feet, and tossing giant rocks at the floated, bloated bodies of goats that had been sucked up by the floodwaters and were now circling around in the eddy just below camp. It was macabre and hilarious and impossible to take my eyes away from, watching these testosterone fueled smelly, bearded young hiker trash dudes chuck heavy rocks trying to pop these goats like a group of cavemen. Then they played cricket with one of the canoe paddles and almost broke a bunch of stuff. I went to bed early and heard rats under me in the night, shaking my water bottle at them to try to scare them off.

Packraft on the Whanganui River


Packraft Beach Tarp Setup on the Whanganui River


Whanganui River Packraft Panorama


Whanganui River Packraft

Day 38: Another cold morning, and I repacked all my stuff, and got out onto the river just after the family that camped with us had gotten into their canoe. It’s only 9km to Pipikiri where I decided to take out, and I paddled most of the way to get there. The rats had gotten into my almonds last night through my food bag. The 3 biggest rapids were still pretty inconsequential, and just like yesterday, I played guitar on the water while my boat was carried downstream by the current. The last rapid just before the ramp was the biggest with 2 currents meeting in the middle and making choppy lateral waves that splashed just a little. I got to the boat ramp just after a bunch of jet boats, including rangers and private trips going to the bridge to nowhere, which I had skipped. These on day tours cost $160 NZD to go to a bridge that was built with the intent of opening up land for WWI vets to live on, but the road was too expensive to build, so they abandoned the whole project after the bridge had already been completed. One of the commercial jet boat guys even asked me if I was out here solo and when I told him I was he said “good on you, man!” I guess it’s no big deal to be out here by myself after all and the guy on the first day of the trip really was bluffing. Called it. I deflated, dried, and wiped down the raft at the boat ramp, packing it up as the others showed up. Even though I don’t have much stuff, I was made to feel very in the way. The family talked to me for a little bit, saying they’d been to Moab in the early 90’s and rode the slickrock bike trail, and owned a hotel/accommodation business in Targhee. I ended up hopping on their shuttle back to Raetihi. I made a sign at the gas station, got another 1.5L L&P soda, and got 2 rides from other boater shuttles back to Taumarunui. The first ride was just employees and I talked about Moab, whitewater, and skydiving. The second was a shorter ride and I played blues for the guests and they applauded for me afterwards. One dude was biking across NZ and his wife came to join him for a month, both of them from Switzerland. I tried to charge my phone at the I-site, bu tit took really long, so I ended up going to the road around 4pm with my sign and eventually got a ride with Daniello, a Brazillian dude that brought me all the way into Mt Eden outside of Auckland. He just hiked Tongariro this morning and saw snow for the first time ever. We talked a lot about adventure, how I hike and raft, and how he just kayaked for the first time, and did the pinnacles hike. As a city boy, getting outside in New Zealand was inspiring him to spend more of his time playing outside. He’s a web developer and got a 5 year visa and a partner visa for his wife. We talked about poor people in Brazil, how they will have extra children just to get 500 Rio more from the government each month, which is only about $160, about  indigenous peoples, poison frog arrows, crocodiles in the amazon, bullet ant gloves, ayahuasca, first contact with tribes, how they impeached their president without considering how their vice president is worse, and how they are cracking down on corruption from ploys like throwing extra billions into construction projects for the Rio Olympics to profit from. We talked about marijuana, and how it is legal in Uruguay and Colorado for different reasons and with different impacts, and we talked about the “American Dream”, in regards to getting a visa as an international worker, and how it is made harder with racism. I went back to the Backpacker’s Choice hostel and felt right at home, everyone saying hello and asking how my trip went. I jammed with Daniel, the Indonesian guitar player, and shared a joint with a few people behind the art gallery. I went to bed after midnight after watching half of No Country For Old Men.

Day 39: I went grocery shopping in the morning, got lots of fruits and veggies, nuts, and muesli. Xena Princess Warrior, whom I met on the Appalachian Trail, is landing in Auckland tomorrow to travel with me for about a month, and the time spent waiting for her arrival moves slowly. There were lots of people performing in the street, including an english dude on a 15 foot high unicycle entertaining a large crowd, a young kid playing and singing Light My Fire on guitar, a white dude with dreads playing a hang , and an eccentric bald black dude in all black and white fancy looking striped clothes, a nice hat, and polished shoes selling bees wax. What a cool vibe in the city today. I felt sick and got some allergy meds, but really started to feel like shit in the evening. Not before Xena gets here! I did some gear maintenance, played pool with an Indian dude that speaks 5 languages who explained how all languages come from sanskrit, and I won a game of Cutthroat and quit while I was on top. Stayed up until 2 or so, jamming with a Greek baglamas player named George on old Greek folk tunes with long, 10 and 12 bar phrases in melodic minor.

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