NZ Day 20: Canoe Believe How Awesome This Is?

We didn’t sleep well – perhaps we took too many naps the previous day – but we didn’t want to miss our adventure, so we dragged ourselves onto our bikes and rode to the Adrift Outdoors depot and transferred our gear to the dry barrels. The manager said we could park our bikes in her garage while we were on the river, and she led us around to her house which was a few blocks away.

With that taken care of, we climbed into the van and began a long bumpy ride down to the put-in point on a tributary of the Whanganui river. My stomach felt a bit floppy from the twists and turns, but that didn’t stop us from chatting along the way with our river guide, an even-tempered and experienced young man named Francis. We also got to know the people who would be piloting the other canoe in our group, a friendly young german couple named Sebastian and Katerina. Five travelers total, in three canoes.

Getting ready to launch!

Down at the river, we watched as the touring company ahead of us slowly unloaded their boats and launched them one at a time. Francis offered to assist but was turned down. One unlucky pair of men immediately capsized their canoe on a rock before they even made it around the corner. We all clapped and yelled “hooray!” at their misadventure, as they pushed their canoe upright and gathered their oars.

Francis wisely decided that we would put in our boats farther downstream from the evil-looking rock, and as soon as the other company cleared out we launched without incident.

Ready to launch!

Francis gave us a few quick lessons on steering and rowing as we drifted in the calm, wide area of the tributary. I was glad that he chose to do this, rather than lining us up along the shore and delivering a long, warning-heavy lecture, like the other company did. It was easier for us to learn in the water, with Francis giving us live feedback to adjust our grip and movements. In retrospect I think the other company didn’t do this because they were used to bringing over a dozen people along, all at once, and didn’t have the manpower to give them personal attention on the river – so they did a drill-sergeant routine beforehand. I’m grateful I chose a company with a more intimate attitude – though I did so by accident. I never saw anything online that reported the ratios between guides and clients, or even explained why it was important.

It only took a few minutes of floundering before we could steer and row in tandem, and then we pushed out into the main river.

The artist at work! What a dork!!

Holy cow. The terrain was amazing. Like nothing we’d ever seen in person. As soon as I had a break in my steering duties, I hauled the phone out of my dry sack.


The river was wide and steady, giving us plenty of time and space to maneuver, which was important because we spent at least half our time staring in awe at the high canyon walls, which were thick with hanging vines, moss, ferns, protruding rocks dripping columns of water, and a maelstrom of branches and roots from uncountable trees fighting for access to the sun.


I could not have imagined a place so verdant, with air smelling so fresh, and the sound of insects and birds so intense. Sometimes the chirping of insects seemed to drown out the river itself.


It was not easy tearing our eyes away, but we did have to pay some attention to the river. Francis guided us around and through the rapids, giving directions and then leading with his canoe, which was loaded down with most of our food and equipment. Along the way he kept up a narrative, mixing local legends with facts and figures about the river and the plants and animals along it, drawing from biology and geology, a bit of geography, and recent conservation efforts.

Partway through the day we drifted ashore and took a lunch break. Francis unpacked one of the dry barrels and handed out fresh vegetables and cheese, suited for someone with a wheat intolerance like me, and made sandwiches. I nibbled some chocolate from my own stash and ran around snapping pictures – and cursed myself for not bringing along the Garmin Virb, which was back in the garage with my bike. The river ride would have made some excellent fast-motion videos.

“If I do this again,” I thought, “I’m bringing along a portable drone!”

Yeah I’m a bit of a gadget freak.

Francis is living the dream, and it shows. He's an enthusiastic, cheerful, knowledgeable, polite, and dedicated guide to the outdoors.

Here’s a shot of our intrepid guide, Francis. He is living the dream, and it shows. He’s an enthusiastic, cheerful, knowledgeable, polite, and dedicated guide to the outdoors.

Eventually we arrived at the first cabin stop, and pulled our canoes ashore. Here’s Katerina, stretching after being seated for three straight hours.

Here’s Sebastian, enthusiastically hauling one of our coolers up the long slope to the cabins. Just how long was that slope? Here’s a video!

A long trek, but worth it. Because we were big spenders, we all got our own benches inside the cabin. Most of the travelers had to bring their own gear and set it up in the camping area.

The cabin, or to be more accurate the John Coull Hut, was bustling with tour guides and helpful guests, unpacking and cooking food. Kerry and I rested and chatted for a while, then joined the crowd inside to help Francis get dinner ready.

This map was posted on the cabin wall. It explains the local efforts to reduce the number of possums, stoats, and rats in the preserve, all of which are unwelcome invasive species brought to New Zealand by man.

On a more practical note…

Heaps of them. Like, you don’t even know.

That’s why the cabin is surrounded by traps, like this one.

The camp water supply. Usually you can just drink this straight, but while we were there it required boiling.

The invasive mammals also smuggle diseases along. This season the camp water supply was determined to be “suspect”, so it needed boiling to be drinkable. In better years you can just drink it right out of the bucket.

Glow worms along the trail!

After dinner Kerry and I went exploring with our cameras, and we found some glow worms right alongside the footbridge to the cabin. Awesome! I didn’t have my focus-assist lamp, but Kerry’s camera had one built in. On the other hand, her image sensor didn’t seem to be as accurate. After a bunch of fiddling with manual controls and propping the camera on a stick, I got a pretty good photo.

The night sky on the river.

There were a zillion stars out too, of course. I’m not sure if I’ve ever been in a place with less light pollution than the middle of this preserve…

Kerry and I were completely exhausted from all the rowing, and the sights and sounds and the sleep deficit from the previous night, so we fell asleep quickly. Unfortunately the bunks in the cabin were rather stiff and cramped, and the air was stagnant, which made for a difficult night. Such is the price of adventure!

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