‘I ex­pected to see a ve­loci­rap­tor’

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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

Air New Zealand (airnewzealand. co.uk) flies daily to Auck­land from Heathrow via Los Angeles, with con­nect­ing flights through­out New Zealand.

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

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