‘I expected to see a velociraptor’
settlement was inhabited for more than 500 years before being abandoned in the early 20th century after a dispute with the pakeha (non-Maori) government. Re-established after a 1993 sit-in by the original inhabitants’ descendants, today Tieke Kainga is both a Department of Conservation bunkhouse and camping ground, and an important gathering place for the local hapu (clan). And the monumental, intricately carved pou whenua that greeted us is not merely a decorative or warning totem pole: its faces and symbols signify the clan’s story, flowing along with the river from ancestral Mt Ruapehu.
Water is an oft-used metaphor for virtually everything: time, sex, death. But to New Zealanders it’s much more elemental – a connection forged when the first Polynesian migrants arrived in their seagoing waka (canoes) a thousand years ago.
Today, Maori and pakeha alike thrive on sea and river, as New Zealand’s world-beating watersports teams demonstrate regularly.
How better, then, to get under the skin of Kiwi culture than on a waterborne expedition? My encounter with that stern-faced pou was the cultural highlight of a three-day guided canoe safari tracing the meanders of New Zealand’s longest navigable river. I was tackling a 56-mile (90km) stretch of the trail known as the Whanganui Journey, rather curiously classified as a Great Walk by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation alongside such tramping classics as the Milford and Routeburn Tracks. The journey offers the chance to absorb the glorious natural habitats and Maori heritage of Whanganui National Park, designated 30 years ago, on a remote but relatively accessible mini-adventure.
I’d started my own voyage of discovery two days and many miles upstream from Tieke Kainga at Whakahoro, the put-in on a slowmoving tributary. On that brisk autumn morning, a dozen or so curiously square-chested people – that’s the aesthetic downside of life jackets – were anting around, grabbing dry bags and cool boxes. The sun was a good hour from cresting the northern ridge, and my damp neoprene bootees were unpleasantly clammy.
But a few minutes of toting paddles and hefting waterproof barrels into fibreglass craft warmed me up, and I quickly forgot my dank toes as guides Simon Dixon and Bailey Stubbs began their briefing. Life jackets were checked and kayaking technique imparted – pull with the abs not the arms, steer at the back with sideways sweeps – before safety warnings were repeated. “Safety” being a relative term. The Whanganui is largely a benevolent waterway; a brief dunk is the worst most can expect.
Allocated to double canoes and a larger boat for five, our band of water babies – a Kiwi family, an American couple and a younger doctor plus two teenage boys – splashed into the shallows, lowering ourselves gingerly into the seats and easing out into the flow of the implacable Whanganui.
Borne along smoothly by the current, I gazed around at green walls looming to either side: huge tree ferns, parasitic rimu trees and mossy banks rising dozens of metres above us, occasionally splashed with orange montbretia blossoms. Despite our location, the scene was less Lord of the Rings, more Jurassic Park – I halfexpected a velociraptor to peer out
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The three-day, two-night guided Whanganui Journey trip with Canoe Safaris (0064 6 385 9237; canoesafaris. co.nz) costs NZ$795 (£412) per person, including all equipment, transfers from/ return to Ohakune, meals, one night’s camping at John Coull and one night at Bridge to Nowhere Lodges’ Campsite.
Further information: newzealand.com from behind a fragrant manuka tree. It’s hard to believe that a century ago this sleepy spot was a popular stop for riverboats plying “New Zealand’s Rhine”, as billed by late-19th-century tourist brochures. A large houseboat hotel was moored here, served by paddlesteamers trundling upstream from Wanganui town, carrying tourists and goods. The relics of landings and weirs built by labour gangs to keep channels navigable can still be spotted.
In mid-autumn the Whanganui is a slow, somnolent beast. But it was not always so. Shortly after a languid lunch stop we approached Tarei-poukiore: “the whirlpool”. A century ago, one traveller described it thus: “The whirlpool was a frightening thing to see, a great sucking, swirling, almost
The Maori ceremonial centre, left and below right