CANOEING NEW ZEALAND’S WAIKAREMOANA
The Sea of the Rippling Waters
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“Don’t do it! Don’t jump!”
We heard that yelling from afar. When our party turned the last corner of the track leading to the scenic Aniwaniwa Falls, we caught sight of the young guy so addressed. He was teetering on the stony ledge above the thundering waters. “Don’t jump! You’d kill yourself!” again pleaded his mate, out from the safety of the flax-and-fern crested rim.
“What a bloody idiot!” Laurie shouted, exasperated.
Laurie was our grey-bearded balding friend, late mid-age, leader of our party. He wiggled on his short sabre-shaped legs and his steely eyes shot half angry half terrified glances across to the lean, yellow-haired figure that was leaning over so as to study the swirling eddies at the bottom of the cascade.
I felt my stomach going into a cramp. It was the time when jumping from waterfalls had become a craze that drove thrill seekers to dubious triumph or death. Just recently I had read in the paper about a guy that had ignored all pleading. “Shit! That’s a long way down!” had been his last words. No way his battered body could be revived.
We had not yet been able to launch our canoes. White capped waves were keeping us away from the waters of Waikaremoana, the large lake inside Urewera National Park where the jungle still grows as ever. In it are included Maori villages, some of which are best reached by horseback. They are now private plots in the Park which was established in 1954 and expanded in 1962. I had initially mistaken the widely branched lake for a man-made one, because it is used to produce electricity. In summers with droughts its water level is so low that tree stumps show. And yet, it has been created by nature. Several thousand years ago, an eight kilometre long and four kilometre wide landslide blocked streams and thus drowned some valleys.
Gingerly, the yellow-haired would-be thrill seeker stepped back and joined his mate. I gave off a sigh of relief. “There are better ways of testing our courage,” I muttered. Then I turned to my wife Klara and our teenage daughters Bessie and Ella: “Canoeing in strong winds or through rapids may not be as immediate a thrill as jumping off cliffs or waterfalls, but the adventure lasts much longer and offers much more variety. Wouldn’t you agree?” We had no idea that we were in for a greater share of adventure than bargained for.
Apart from our family our party included Graham who was Laurie’s mate, and another couple with two boys and a girl. Keen as we were to start paddling, forest walks and waterfalls had to do for now. On another occasion we discovered a special attraction near Mokau Landing where our canoes were waiting. It was signposted as “Mokau Falls – 34 Km (!) high”. A funny mistake, or a practical joke? And yet I bet thirty-four metres may suffice to tempt any sightseer.
Even in the shelter of high forest gusts of wind followed us until the track leading to some tarns had taken us deeper into the jungle. The dense, tall trees blocked out much of the sun, but dazzling shafts of light stabbed now and then at us and hit the ground. Our long-legged girls scampered ahead together with the other teenagers. The adults followed at a slower pace allowing contemplation of plants and listening to bird calls.
The mood around the forest tarns was mysterious. If out of the dark green undergrowth elves or hobbits had emerged, we would not have found this surprising. The absence of much wind let us sample the humid earthy scent of the surroundings. The water in the ponds was still and black. It did not invite us for a dip, instead we rested on patches of sun speckled grass. Back at our camp, we found that the gale had intensified, whipping the shore with sprays of water and sand. It took some effort to shift our canoes and tents to a more sheltered spot.
Easter in New Zealand falls into autumn. Since this was the time of our holiday, our evenings were short. Awaiting the night is pleasant, if a campfire is lit and people can group around it, drinking tea or something more “spiritual”, chatting, or singing. Unfortunately, the dry weather had forced Park Management to impose a fire ban. So, there we sat in the night chill, huddled in our sweaters. Suddenly, somebody broke out in laughter, shining his torch at a bucket. Unconsciously, we had formed a circle around it, as if it were the sorely missed fire. It looked even funnier when somebody else placed a toilet seat on top of it.
After a few days of roaming about on foot and much less on water, fine weather with gentle winds arrived. We were able to cross the lake and put up our camp in Te Kopua Bay. This was a welcome change of scenery allowing us to explore an area that we had not reached on foot so far.
For the kitchen, we chose a dry gully protected not only from the wind but also from the eyes of any zealous rangers; we were now able to light a campfire, albeit with the necessary precautions. Our tents were nestled in low manuka forest on a terrace overlooking the bay with the beached canoes.
“These damn wasps got me!” Laurie swore stomping back into camp. He had taken a small party for a hike along a lake track when they chanced upon a wasps’ nest. Laurie, walking in front, got stung badly. The others beat a hurried retreat. There are no dangerous animals in New Zealand, but the introduced German Wasp has multiplied to such an extent that it has become a real hazard. We hadn’t expected wasps on a track, although they made hanging around the beach difficult. Bessie and Ella were glad they had been fishing under Graham’s patient guidance instead of joining the hike.
Klara and I explored the lake shore by canoe. In Korokoro Inlet we beached our boat and walked to the fall with the same name. The water was dropping from a smooth vertical cliffside which I estimated as about 20 metres high. Thick foliage framed the fall. Rain forest draped with mosses and lichens accompanied it all the way from top to bottom.
“If the water had formed a pool instead of disappearing between boulders, this would be a good place to dive,” I observed.
Planning our departure from Te Kopua Bay was not easy, because of the changing wind patterns. Unfortunately, we got prevailing Northerlies which would make the crossing of the Wairau Arm adjacent to our Bay hard. Then there was Te Kauangaomanaia, a passage that resembled a bottleneck and led to the Whanganui Arm where Mokau Landing, our starting point, was located. As it turned out, the time came when we could wait no longer. In the night before our departure we were awoken by strong gusts that shook our tents, causing the canvas to flutter loudly.
We were up early the following morning and rushed to break camp. This did not help much; by the time we had launched the canoes, the wind had come up strongly. I decided to take Bessie as my paddling partner. Both our girls were rather strong and used to adventure trips, but Ella, though younger seemed to be more robust. She was to help Klara.
As soon as Bessie and I had reached the spit that sheltered Te Kopua Bay, we realised what struggle lay ahead. Waves hit our canoe from all sides making it perform a frantic dance that was hard to transform into a forward movement. We hugged the coastline and I decided to follow it paddling north as long as possible to make use of the comparative shelter it offered. Only then would we cross the wide open water of the Wairau Arm.
“Dad, where are the others?” Bessie shouted.
I was unable to turn my head enough to look back. Waves and wind buffeted the boat so much I had trouble to keep it from veering into an awkward position and getting swamped. However, the way we were going, we were all right. Much can be done by small changes of body posture; experienced canoeists do this even without being aware of it.
“Is anyone behind us?” I shouted back.
“No Dad, they are moving away from us. And it looks like some boats are missing.”
Now I saw them from the corners of my eyes. They were heading straight across the Arm. I was surprised about our leader. I knew he was an experienced canoeist, but obviously mainly familiar with rivers. I knew that the rule was to follow him, but even if I had wanted, turning round would have carried the risk of capsizing. I was very concerned about Klara and Ella. Although Klara had been on many paddling trips together with me and had a well-toned body, the present conditions might prove beyond her capacity.
At last, Bessie and I had to bite the bullet and fight our way across the open water. Gusts of wind jumped at us as if we were in a fierce cushion battle. All we could do was to dip the paddles in on the windward side, so that we were driven diagonally along, keeping our course. After every gust we would paddle furiously to make headway, wary of the next blast that would be heralded by dark wind-shredded patches on the water rushing towards us. Then we would throw ourselves against the blow keeping the paddles pressed into the water.
Slowly we drew near to Te Kauangaomanaia, the passage that separates the Wairau Arm from the Whanganui Inlet and hence our destination.
“I think we’re going to make it,” I called out to my daughter, elated.
We just made it around the southern spit of the passage and then the wind pushed us into it. We landed in a convenient spot. One by one the other boats arrived and released their exhausted occupants. Bessie and I had awaited the arrival of Klara with trepidation and were relieved when her canoe made it to our sheltered landing place. However, there was no expression of cheer in Klara’s face when she dropped her paddle. Somebody stepped into the water to pull her canoe on land. Ella climbed out while Klara seemed to be still glued to her seat.
“You’ve made it! Congratulations!” I yelled to her happily, misreading the situation. Graham pulled her out of the boat. I came to give her a cuddle, but she pushed me away.
“Why didn’t you hurry to help me?” she snarled, close to tears. “I’m absolutely exhausted. Everything is spinning around me and I feel such pressure around my heart.”
Laurie scolded me for “buggering off on my own.” He didn’t accept my explanation and I refrained from calling him a “blockhead” or something of that nature.
Amazingly soon everybody recovered and we made it through the comparatively sheltered passage. We crossed the Whanganui Inlet where it opened up like an inverted funnel so that the Northerly wind was unable to pack too much muscle into its gusts. We reached our destination without further excitement.
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© Joe Paul 1983 & 2011