“We’ve been through this. We’ve managed at least a hundred of rapids the past two days. By now, the waka(canoe) is like our body and the paddle’s our hand. Charmaine and I rowed together like champions as we got carried down swiftly by the current. The rock in front of us started growing bigger in appearance. It’s huge. We needed to manoeuvre pass it. On the left? Right? Left or right? Charmaine questioned as we accelerated towards it. I man up and commanded left! With a few big strokes we managed to bang right straight into the rock. It was awkward. That image of Charmaine leaping out of the waka into the water involuntarily froze in my head. This must be the 50/50.”
Our first Great Walk in the North Island, ironically, isn’t a walk but a paddle.
Prior to this, I’ve been on a kayak once 15 years ago and rowed in a dragon boat for an afternoon last year. Charmaine had been on several holiday cruises. These would probably qualify us as amateur paddlers. The lady boss of the canoe rental company warned that this 90km canoe trip down New Zealand’s longest river would put any relationship to test. “One canoe, two paddles and three days of rapids can reveal more than what you already know of each other.” I looked confidently at Charmaine and raised an eyebrow signalling her to make the payment using her credit card.
We started at the Whakahoro river bank where we had a much needed crash course on paddling techniques using the big C and letter J strokes, and on learning to identify the “V” in the rapids. We also had our roles made known, Charmaine Armstrong as the front paddler aka the “engine” and I at the back, the “rudder”. We then set off on our first test of our 7-month marriage. With Charmaine’s brother Alex - a man with few words - in tow on the kayak, all ready to step up to his mediator role if need be.
Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily merrily merrily
Life is but a dream.
Well not really.
We woke up from that dream wide awake when we saw our very first rapid surfacing in the near distance. We aimed for the “V” like we were told and got carried through the rapid like on an airport travellator. We eventually ended up spinning 180 degrees. After a few embarrassing spins in the presence of paddlers from various countries, slowly but surely, we got the hang of it and were able to ride through the white waters. But by now there was no one left behind to watch us negotiate the rapids in style.
Where there were no rapids, the river was still, the water reflection mirroring perfectly like a classic watercolour painting. It was perfect for a painter, not the paddler. The painfully low and still river meant that we had to paddle doubly hard. With a huff and a puff, we beached up and finally got to John Coull hut, our dwelling for the night.
At the hut, we were joined in company by Tom and Marilyn from the States, Chris and Nikolai from Germany, Matan from Israel and not forgetting the bubbly hut warden Leianna who memorized everyone’s names even before we arrived.
Tom and Marilyn, at 69 years old, were way ahead of everyone else. Tom credited their lead to yoga, of which he practises 3 times a week. And Marilyn, who got one wrist caught between the ferry’s doors just two days before the canoe trip, gave credit to her optimism. “We have already booked it, can’t possibly back out when the other wrist is still working!” Tom and Marilyn also shared that they had their first date on a canoe. And indeed, they concurred with lady boss’ words “A canoe trip will give you a good indication on a first date”.
They became our idol instantly. I wish Charmaine and I will continue to be fit and have the same adventurous spirit when we are older.
You can never find Chris and Nicolai without beer bottles in their hands. Nicolai had a white buttoned down shirt when we first saw him at the hut. “Here for an interview?” I heard myself blurt out. Turns out, he just attended a friend’s wedding and that was the only long sleeve top he had against the unforgiving sandflies. While the rest of us had instant noodles, simple fast cooked meals, fruits and bread, Chris and Nicolai had a gourmet camping fare with bacon, eggs, sausages, pasta and lots of beer. Making us all salivating with jealousy in the cosy communal kitchen.
I got friendly with them and had lots of good laughs that whole night. Still they didn’t offer me the beer. “Come to cologne, I’ll buy you beer”. I only wanted those in his large hands.
Matan was the first Israeli we met in these 3 months in New Zealand. “There are many of us around, you just don’t know that we are. But you just have to look at our sandals and you can probably tell because all Israelis have these sandals.” True enough, we began recognising more Israelis on our travels after we got out of the river and what better way to start a conversation than sandals.
After the perfect weather we had on the first day, we were to expect heavy rain for the next two days. It was much needed as the water levels were simply too low, making it difficult to row. However, it also meant that we had to raft through the rain on the longest leg of the journey.
Factoring the weather conditions and the slow arms we had yesterday, we decided to start our day early so that we can reach the next hut by dinner time. Before we left, Leianna told the girls to prepare a song and the guys to prepare a short sharing on our Whanganui Journey. I could immediately see the colour draining off Charmaine‘s face. We were to present these songs and sharings at the next hut, where the only Marae (Maori sacred house) on all of the Great Walks lies.
Day 2 began with rain pouring over our heads shortly after we set off. This time, Charmaine took on the role of the rudder while I became the engine. Although we were the first to leave, Chris and Nicolai caught up with us quickly - German engineering, no doubt about it.
Distracted by the mini performance she had to put up later, Charmaine probably added a couple more kms to our journey but she still managed to steer us through all of the rapids without capsizing. We thought through it hard and decided on the classic Singaporean song ‘Home’ cos there’s “river” in the lyrics. Pretty apt. I encouraged Charmaine enough to hear her rehearsing 16 times, and Alex and I even planned to come in at the second line, like a real choir.
We were too slow, by the time we reached the Marae, the ceremony was already over. Haven’t seen Charmaine so happy for a long while now.
It was that night we learnt about the 50/50. We spoke with others who rented their canoes from different companies. It was the topic that everyone was interested in. Those who knew shared and the rest of us who were clueless looked at the map for the first time. It’s the rapid where there’s a 50% chance of capsizing, hence the infamous name. I went to bed thinking of how information from the various canoe rental companies was relayed differently, questioning if the 50/50 was exaggerated.
We had to all reach the ending point by 2pm, the bus from the canoe rental company would then pick us up and send us back to town. Apart from the German beer buddies, the rest of us decided to row together on our final day. We thought that if we were to miss the bus, we’d all miss it together.
The weather continued to be cloudy. It looked even more depressing with my sunglassses on. I went back to being the rudder and let Charmaine power us through to the ending point. The journey till our lunch break at Ngaporo was pretty uneventful, everyone went about it without a hitch.
The real excitement began right after. All of us were on our way towards this huge rapid on the bend with a big rock jutting out right in the middle. Everyone lifted our paddles and slowed down to analyse the situation. The experienced considers, the young ventures. Upon identifying the “V” on the right of the rock, Charmaine and I decided to take the lead and be the first to tackle the rapid head on. Literally. We banged right straight into the rock, head on. The last minute decision to steer left to avoid knocking into the river wall was too late. Seeing how Charmaine and I flew out of our boat, Alex took the right but he too flipped when his kayak brushed against the river wall. Tom and Marilyn saw the 2 capsizes unfold before their eyes and thought to do better by getting off their canoe and dragging it across the bank. Matan tried his luck and went far left from the rock, though shallow with only about 15cm of water, he came out of the bend unscathed. This capsize got Charmaine and I straddling an upturned canoe for a long time while the rest tried their best to tow us with their boats.
90km later, I’m proud to announce that our relationship is still intact but not my cameras and phone that died at the capsize. To anyone going on the Whanganui Journey, heck the 50/50, heck the I-will-be-embarrassed-if-I-capsized thought, you’ll have more fun and experience with the tip-over. Just don’t forget your life jacket. We also realised that it wasn’t at the 50/50 that we capsized, but the one before it.