Journey Down The Whanganui

OMG! You’re going to New Zealand? You have to go to Hobbiton!

Yes, but do I really?

The Lord of the Rings is so much more to me than little people running around a grassy paradise.

It’s an epic: an adventure-rich journey in which both wits and strength are put to the test through new and different challenges.

That’s what I wanted my LOTR experience to be in New Zealand.

So, when I heard about a multi-day kayak trip down a remote river, identical to the one used in The Fellowship of the Ring, I immediately asked where I could sign up.

It’s a chilly early May morning when I step off the bus in Ohakune, a small ski town located Northwest of Wellington.

This is the launching point for my three-day journey down the Whanganui River.

24 hours earlier I was exploring the streets of Wellington when I received a call from Yeti Tours. The voice on the other end told me they are still renting kayaks for the river trip but the season is coming to an end and bookings are scarce.

You see, the rule is simple: the company will let you travel down river without a guide but you must have at least one other person with you.

Fortunately, another reservation came through for a small group leaving in just two days.

Music to my ears.

“I can make that work!” I exclaimed and had him put my name on the list.

I now found myself walking the streets of the small ski town and gathering supplies for this adventure.

Question is, what do I need?

Let’s see…

I’ll be kayaking for three days down a river so remote that my only two lifelines if something goes wrong are a helicopter or jet boat.

I guess I can leave the phone and laptop behind.

How about clothes?

Let’s see…

I’ll be kayaking for three days down a river so remote that the only other faces I’ll see are the people going with me, a few birds and probably sheep (because it’s New Zealand and there’s always sheep around).

I guess one pants, shirt and jacket will be fine.

And what about food?

Ah, the real question.

Let’s see…

I’ll be kayaking for three days down a river so remote that the only food I’ll have is what I pack and what I can hunt.

Hunt?

HAH! Ok Chris. Stick to the packing idea.

Better get groceries.

One hour, a few cans of tuna, one loaf of bread, a can of beans, bananas and two prepackaged lunch meat later I was ready to do this thing.

Later that evening i pack up my “go bag” and make sure all my other worldly possessions, aka a single backpack, are stored and secure.

Before fading into sleep I allow myself to envision the days to come and the potential my middle-earth journey holds.
Day 1

I wake to the rising sun over the beautiful snow-capped mountain peak.

It’s a clear, brisk morning and I am ready to start my trip.

When I arrive at the rental shop I find the crew loading up what will soon become my all-in-one home away from home for the next few days along with other essentials: life vests, dry bags and emergency call beacons (you know, just in case).

Everything is tied down and double checked before our driver shifts the van into drive and we head out.

If the only highlight of the trip was the drive to the river it would have been worth the full price.

We ascend through rocky, mountainous terrain and onto paths that can hardly be classified as roads.

Higher and higher we climb until that inevitable peak where we look out and catch a glimpse of the beauty that is New Zealand’s countryside.

We savor the moment while it lasts then begin the descent down the opposite side toward our final destination.

Or in this case, the launch point for our journey.

Twenty or so minutes later we come to a stop on the river bank and begin to unload our gear.

Kayaks in the water, life vests on and gear secured in our dry bags, it’s time for the safety briefing.

We listen as our driver / seasoned river-navigating professional offers advice like:

Don’t take your life vest off.

Be sure to stay off the river after sunset.

Try not to slow down when approaching a rapid as this will probably lead to you capsizing.

and, my personal favorite…

If you tip over be very careful because no one is around and you’ll need to wait for a jet boat to come get you.

Umm, ok?

He follows up his words of wisdom with pulling out a map and showing us where we should make our mid-day (lunch) and overnight stops.

Other than that, we have complete freedom to enjoy the river.

After all, it is called freedom kayaking.

He gives us a thumbs up and heads back to the truck to leave.

We are off!

We start as a small group, eagerly paddling our three kayaks down river and soaking up the initial thrill of it all.

Before long though we seem to drift apart, each settling into his own flow, until the nearest person becomes a small spec off in the distance.

That’s ok, we will all meet for lunch at the same rocky bank later.

After all, this was part of the experience.

Complete solitude with no modern-day distractions or temptations.

It’s me and the beauty of nature.

And it is BEAUTIFUL.

Whanganui River Day 1

Rugged, tropical landscape lines the banks of the Whanganui River as far as the eye can see.

Canyon walls carved out over thousands of years from the slow, relentless flow of water seem to stretch until the heavens above.

If not for the lush bush peaking over the top edges it would be easy to think these moss-slicked borders have no end.

And of course, somehow, the occasional sheep is spotted strolling around.

Like I said, it’s New Zealand and sheep are everywhere.

How they get up there? I have no idea.

Hours pass, the sun rises to its highest point and the group reunites at the lunch spot.

Let’s be clear, we are in the backwoods so by spot I mean a small patch of grass leading to a picnic table that is attempting a balancing act on the only semi-level mound of dirt.

Works for us.

This is an important stop in my journey for a multitude of reasons.

One, the group is able to introduce ourselves and get to know one another a little better.

Two, I am able to see how much of a rookie at this whole camping thing I really am.

I have my first glimpse of this after I pull out my lunch: prepackaged ham stuffed between two slices of bread, a banana and some water.

Not too bad, right?

That’s what I’m thinking until my fellow adventures unload their supplies: a portable stove, packets of pre-cooked meals, an assortment of cheeses and salami, a bar of chocolate and coffee.

I look down at my lunch and see it in a whole new, disappointing light.

Needless to say I’m eager to get back on the river and put this initial display of preparedness behind me.

And so the day continues without incident.

We paddle over 20 kilometers in around six hours before docking at our campsite for the evening.

That is a lot of alone time.

Think back, when was the last time you spent six hours along, with nothing around but nature and the occasional song of a faraway bird?

Another new experience for me.

Our campsite offers much more than our lunch spot.

In fact, it is more than I was expecting.

The area is well maintained and includes a barracks-style hut with a bathroom, dining area and gas stove.

We each select our beds and head to the main room to enjoy our second meal of the trip.

Once again I have the opportunity to see how ill-prepared I am on the food front but I am coming to accept it.

Rookie.

That doesn’t stop me from scarfing down my well-earned meal, as basic as it is.

In the process of tolerating my dinner I observe our group sitting around the dining table and notice the lack of awkwardness over an urge to make conversation.

Usually, in hostels, everyone is waiting for that one person to break the ice then it’s non-stop conversation until the early hours.

Here, in this campsite on the river, no one waits for that moment. We each enjoy our quiet peace in proximity of our companions.

It is if we each know that words won’t be the glue to bind us on this trip. Our shared experience of tackling this challenge in the days to come will do the trick.

After a silent evening we clear our areas and each settle in for the night.

Good start, Chris.

Day 2

A cold shiver runs up from my feet all the way to my head, rattling my eyes from sleep.

This is why there’s no one on the river besides me and a few other crazies I thought.

It’s a slow-moving morning since the only objective of the day is to navigate about 30 kilometers downstream to our next campsite.

We enjoy our breakfast (some more elaborate than others) then begin gathering our gear to set off.

Once again we glance at the map and agree to meet at a specific spot for lunch, the river-famous Bridge to Nowhere.

Then we are off, quickly returning to yesterday’s pace and thus migrating apart with each rhythmic stroke of the paddle.

We are lucky as it is another beautiful day. Although a bit chilly, there is not a cloud in sight.

This day is extra special to me. The date is May 12th, 2018 and it marks one month from the start of The Global Stroll.

To memorialize this momentous occasion I spend my morning reliving the past 30 days and their many stories while allowing the calm current of the river to take me to my next destination.

I think about the moment my Mom and little brother dropped me off at the airport in Cincinnati.

The night in Los Angeles.

The flight to Queenstown, New Zealand immediately following the long-haul journey to Sydney, Australia.

My first days in Queenstown

Bungee jumping

Road tripping to Milford Sound

Hitchhiking to Isengard

Hiking Roy’s Peak for Sunrise

Hiking to see the Franz Josef Glacier

and so much more.

I make it to day 20 before finding myself angling toward the left bank of the river, time for lunch.

My fellow travelers and I gather for our midday meal at a small campsite located at the start of the Bridge to Nowhere path.

A quick history lesson:

After World War I the New Zealand government awarded veterans with an area of land bordering the Whanangui River specifically cleared for them. To access the private village an impressive concrete bridge was constructed. Overtime the settlers of this community found it difficult to beat back the ever-growing bush and abandoned the land.

But the bridge remained.

Present day the bridge connects two equally dense areas of plants, ferns and other jungle-comprising greenery but leads, you guessed it, nowhere.

So, when you have the opportunity to see such a random piece of architecture and history you go for it.

And go we do.

Bridge to Nowhere

Sandwich in hand and eyes up we trek through the bush to the bridge. We marvel at its beauty for a few minutes, walk over and back, snap numerous photos and then decide the river is calling us back.

See you later, Bridge to Nowhere, it’s been real.

A few minutes later we each climb back into our vessels and set out for an afternoon of more paddling.

And for me, more reflection.

Where was I again?

That’s right, I was getting ready for my first coachsurfing experience and a roadtrip to Dunedin.

And so it goes for the remainder of the day.

I recall all the great times I’ve experienced over the last month while soaking up the incredible vistas that lay in front of me.

As if it is perfectly planned I reach day 30, today, a few moments before rounding the river bend and seeing the sign for tonight’s digs.

Remember when I said last night’s campsite was nice? Well, by comparison, tonight’s is on par with a luxury resort.

Known as a marea, the campground was originally a Maori community house used for ceremonial and political purposes.

Being such, it is well-kept and fully equipped with running (drinkable) water, an oven, multiple stove burners and, wait for it…

a fireplace!

That’s right, this trip just went from a rugged journey to glamping.

I’m not complaining, a warm fire after a long day on the water sounds perfect.

We gather around our heat source while chowing down on the next round of food. Once again there is a collective quiet and peacefulness among the group, each enjoying our own versions of this shared moment.

But, unlike the previous night, there is still a buzz of energy keeping us going. Maybe it is a sense of accomplishment or the small luxuries of our temporary home, we didn’t know.

Too awake to consider sleep we wander out of the main room and back into nature.

What we see next is out of this world, literally.

Gradually lifting our gaze we are graced with a clear-as-day view of our Milky Way.

A long, cloudy streak of what can be thought of as dust paints the night sky above us in multiple hues of white and grey.

Wow! is all that I can muster to say in the moment.

Wow!

Who knows how long I stood there with my neck craned and eyes glued to the heavens.

I finally break my stare while taking a deep breath, perhaps locking in the memory, and bring my attention back to this world.

And what is waiting for me on this planet?

A sheep!

I kid you not, there is a damn sheep wandering around the marea.

I can only shake my head in amusement as I make my way to bed.

Day 3

The last remaining embers of our only heat source have long since cooled by the time I wake up the next morning.

It’s a cold and cloudy start to the day but hanging around camp is not an option, we have a river to conquer.

Day number 3 of our journey and our last. We are around 25 kilometers north of our rendezvous point with our ride and we are determined to be on time.

A quick once-over of the marea to make sure nothing is left behind then off we go, right back to our paddle patterns as if we never left the river last night.

Today’s leg is overall the calmest but undoubtedly the most scenic.

Canyon Walls of the Whanganui RIver

Somehow those impossibly tall canyon walls seem to grow the closer we come to our destination.

The bush thickens and the long, overgrown moss stretched from the highest peaks to below the cold surface of the water.

It looks like I paddled my way back in time to an ancient part of the world.

Mesmerizing!

Just over a month ago I was living a normal life and now I’m floating alongside history.

In that moment I have the sudden urge to position myself next to the edge and guide my hand along the slick surface of the cliff face.

I think to myself that I’m probably the only person throughout history to ever touch that exact spot, and maybe the last.

Still a few hours away from the conclusion of this journey but I know, after an experience like that, my LOTR adventure is complete.

But one hurdle still stands in the way from claiming victory over this body of water.

We were warned about it the first day we began our trip.

The Final Rapid.

One that is known to capsize the inattentive or inexperienced voyager.

Not me I confidently proclaim to no one while really thinking don’t screw this one up, Chris.

The current quickens and the peaceful silence of the Whanganui River is replaced by a deafening cry of an angry adversary.

Fate closes in.

Stroke by stroke I inch toward my final obstacle.

A minute or two goes by before I see my opponent off in the distance.

Swells of white foamy water built up around several large rocks jutting from the middle of the path.

There it is, The Final Rapid.

I complete a once over of my gear while re-positioning myself in the kayak.

My pace accelerates in rhythm with my heartbeat: faster, faster, faster.

At full speed now I line myself up to tackle this beast head on.

One final push and I am ready.

Soaring down the center of the current I teeter on the edge of collapse before anchoring my paddle and regaining balance.

Too far left!

I quickly readjust my course as I whiz past one of the many protruding boulders.

Stay the course, Chris.

Too far right!

Another split-second redirect as I zip by one more trip-ending obstacle.

Back and forth I go for what feels like forever before finally making it to calmer waters.

I did it!

Better yet, WE did it!

My fellow adventures and I make it past the notorious Final Rapid unscathed.

Our victory cries ring throughout the river valley and are quickly answered by the unmistakable sound of a honking car horn.

Our ride awaits.

And so our story comes to an end. We pack into the van and head back to town.

First exchanging laughs then proud tales of having ventured down the Whanganui River for three days with nothing more than our kayaks and thirst for wonder.

I sit back with my head held high knowing that I accomplished exactly what I came to accomplish.

Another new experience.

Another push of my limits.

Another incredible memory on The Global Stroll.

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