RIVER OF LIFE

Pad­dle a wilder­ness wa­ter­way with a soul.

Backpacker - - 365 Days Of Adventure - BY ADAM ROY Se­nior Dig­i­tal Ed­i­tor Adam Roy and his part­ner dubbed their ca­noe The Kraken.

THE BUSH AROUND the Whanganui River is a color study in green. The mosses that be­gin at wa­ter­line give way to palm-like ma­maku ferns that look like frozen fire­works, and then rimu trees that drip with long strands of virid­ian nee­dles. The green­ery clings to sheer walls, like a slot canyon cross­bred with a rain­for­est. It’s dense enough to feel as if the Whanganui has en­sconced it­self in a se­cret world.

We’re not the only ones to think so. Ac­cord­ing to Maori le­gend, the first per­son to nav­i­gate the river was the 14th­cen­tury ex­plorer Ta­matea-Pokai-Whenua, who crossed the sea from Poly­ne­sia be­fore pad­dling his ca­noe up­stream. If Ta­matea’s ocean voy­age left him hum­bled, the le­gends cer­tainly don’t record it: Upon reach­ing the mouth of the Whanganui on the western shore of the North Is­land, the first thing he did was climb the high­est cliff he could find and leave a mark of ochre-red paint at the top, just to prove he was there. In a dream­scape like this one, it’s im­por­tant to ground your­self in re­al­ity.

As my group pad­dles down­stream on a 55-mile, three­day sec­tion from Whaka­horo to Pipiriki, our own re­al­ity check floats just over the gun­wales. Fist-size chunks of pumice bob along the wa­ter, re­minders that this river’s ori­gin is a vol­cano named Ton­gariro .

In to­tal, the river cuts 180 miles across the North Is­land and oc­cu­pies a unique place in the coun­try’s lore and land­scape. The Maori con­sider it an an­ces­tor and a taonga— a cul­tural trea­sure—and in 2017, the govern­ment of New Zealand made it the first river to be granted per­son­hood, with all the at­ten­dant rights and pro­tec­tions. Ninety of its miles are also the only river­ine mem­ber of the coun­try’s Great Walks, ad­ven­tures con­sid­ered to be the best.

Our guide, Phil, has been pad­dling the river long enough to tease out its se­crets. Af­ter our first night’s ex­trav­a­gant ice cream dessert at a ter­raced camp­site called John Coull Hut, he swings us around the cook shel­ter to an over­hang filled with glow worms, shim­mer­ing in faint points of blue light. Around a bend in the river on our sec­ond day, we fol­low him through a boat-wide break in the gorge. There, he tells us that we’re stand­ing on an old bat­tle­ground: A group of Maori war­riors lured their en­e­mies into this canyon, then rained boul­ders down on them from above. We camp that night in the mowed fields below the Tieke Kainga, a Maori marae and ceremonial space, af­ter re­ceiv­ing a tra­di­tional wel­come from the hosts.

That evening marks the re­turn of the rains, ham­mer­ing our tents, swelling the class 2 rapids, and mud­dy­ing the wa­ters that will carry us to the take­out at Pipiriki. It’s as if the liv­ing river stood up to see us off, away from this mag­i­cal, hid­den place.

Above: The au­thor high-fives the river­bank.

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