” I see trouble up ahead. Where the riverboat swayed beneath the sun is when the river runs red. Like a king who stalks the wings and shoots a dove. And frees an eagle instead. Its more or less the same as the things that you said. ( Ocean Colour Scene – Riverboat Song)
I probably should have opted for the Bee Gees’ “Islands in the Stream”. Because that is what we were. On two separate occasions. In true Kiwi fashion we had been chucked into the Whanganui River on an open top “Old Town” Canadian canoe with little more then a life jacket and a 15 minute “safety video”. I calculated the weight of our rig was some 300kg which meant we had a fair amount of velocity going down a rapid. There were 40 rapids on Day 1.
My head was full of “look for the V” and “avoid obstacles” mantras that the instructor had instilled in me when we approached the 5th rapid of the day. Well we hit the epicentre of the V and avoided all obstacles except the right bank! In my defence, it was a narrow channel…but when the nose of the canoe caught the bank it turned side on and the pressure if the water coming down the rapid did the rest and over we went. Soon we were like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton floating down the stream, holding on like grim death to both the canoe and our paddles. But there was no calamity – we reached calmer waters, righted the canoe and set about baling out the water. We congratulated ourselves on a textbook capsizing, where our gear was still attached and dry and we didn’t have an iPhone out trying to record everything.
The second instance was far more calamitous. We were now pros at negotiating rapids having survived the rest of Day 1 without incident. So, on Day 2, we stopped at a nice pebble beach, right before another rapid. My strategy on re-entering the river was to take a wide arc and hit the V but things went pear- shaped from the getgo. We got too close to the rapid and in a frantic attempt to straighten the canoe we smacked into a tree on the side of the rapid. Major error. The canoe tipped and when I came up for air Kath was gone and I was pinned against the canoe. The canoe had tipped the wrong way meaning that all the water from the rapid was entering the canoe, pinning it against the submerged tree. Luckily I heard Kath call from a bank further down the river, but the canoe was still stuck. Frantic efforts to release the canoe from the tree proved pointless and I was getting super tired just staying upright in the torrent. It was, as the Sheriff in No Country for Old Men proclaimed, ” a colossal goat-fuck.” Just when I was entertaining thoughts of abandoning the canoe, Dylan the Frenchman arrived. An ideal guy for a crises as he was soooo laid-back and set off every morning with a cup of coffee balanced on his canoe and a Gauloises hanging out of his mouth. Turns out he was also super strong. With the help of a third paddler we were able to get the front of the canoe out of the water and free of the tree and soon I was floating alongside the canoe downstream. With the last of my strength I was able to find the bow rope and swim to shore, where we both hauled our beleaguered canoe to safety. I sat on the shore for a long time riding an adrenaline crash and the realisation that we had dodged a bullet.
All this may seem as an attempt to dissuaded you from canoeing down the Whanganui River. But nothing could be further from the truth. It is a remote and stunningly beautiful place where the river meandears through deep gorges dominated by huge bluffs. The jungle is rich and green and the birdlife is is bountiful, not to mention the picturesque campgrounds, huts and a lodge dotted along it’s length. Just remember to hit the centre of the V or you may be doing your own version of Kenny Rogers…..