Here at Wilderlife, we’re collating Victoria’s diaries, photos and videos into a digest. Each post spans a section of Te Araroa between major towns and rest days.
Walking with her seven-year-old daughter Emilie, together they are raising funds for Federated Mountain Clubs and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy.
National Park to Whanganui
Day 14: 2 November 2021
National Park – Monument (28 kms)
We found a friend! Today we shared some great @teararoanztrail tales with @onehappyerin on the walk out from National Park along the lush and beautiful Fisher Track.
The daredevil exploits of Chilé (the inappropriately dressed chicken delivery boy), Storm Girl and Rocky the Rock Goblin kept us entertained for a good part of the journey.
As the sun rose higher and hotter, we descended from native bush into farmland and mānuka forest, observed by curious cattle, anxious sheep and leery goats. We had a short respite from the monotony of road walking thanks to a local farmer, who invited us all up onto his tractor, much to Emilie’s delight.
We were pretty shattered by the time we reached the Anzac monument alongside Rētāruke Road and grateful to spend the night in the big blue shed, sheltered from the raging wind that came up later that evening.
Day 15: 3 November 2021
Monument – Whakahoro Landing (24 kms)
The morning started out pretty chill as we waited for @onesleepyErin to rise and shine.
Once back on the trail, the girls told stories while I wandered ahead gawking at the coexistence of local bush and farmland. Sheep grazed the hilly terrains interspersed with purple green mānuka and the occasional patch of native bush, speckled with lancewood and tree ferns with long grey green beards of moss.
We turned a corner and saw steep hills dotted with young pine trees and signs on the gate for carbon farming, which seemed so out of place in this setting.
The wind whipped dust into our eyes, the steep roadside banks crumbling with fragile white soils, which in turn filled the tiny streams trickling down into the Retaruke River. I couldn’t imagine what a generation of pine trees and logging by heavy trucks and machinery would do to this already fragile ecosystem.
The scent of agriculture was thick in our nostrils, the sickly sweet odour of manure from the sheep and cattle. Their shit mixed with the mud they trampled underfoot, fragile mosses and tussocks replaced by grass, paddock weeds and slimy brown algae.
The Rētāruke River grew, brown and swift, one of the major tributaries of Whanganui.
Arriving at Whakahoro didn’t bring relief; instead a yawning hole of emptiness opened before me and I walked right in.
This had nothing to do with the setting I was in, although coffee on an empty stomach after walking 18km might have something to do with the uncomfortable physiological sensations I was experiencing.
I was lonesome. I could feel the weight of my aloneness like a stone and here we were, at the meeting of these two beautiful rivers, with other humans, and I had not felt more alone in a long time.
Emilie quickly abandoned me for better entertainment, or rather, to entertain. I was left wondering about my purpose in this world, if and when I’d ever find a sense of belonging.
Whanganui River Journey
Day 16: 4 November 2021
Whakahoro – John Coul Hut (35.6 km)
The big day had arrived and Emilie couldn’t be more excited. I was quiet and nervous, edgy with caffeine.
Our group assembled on the muddy river bank, frantically re-packing the contents of our packs into tough plastic barrels.
It all sounded easy enough, except my brain and my body weren’t connecting properly and the canoe spun around twice before joining the main river. By then panic and adrenaline were creating an unpleasant cocktail in my brain and I was hating everything.
When we stopped for lunch I agonized over my limited options — unfortunately bailing out now wasn’t one of them.
I shared how I was feeling with the group and they were supportive and receptive. Almost immediately I felt better and agreed to continue paddling. And you know what, I started to really enjoy myself — the rush of steering a big canoe down rapids, hauling on the rudder to keep it out of the eddies.
It’s amazing the difference a good kōrero can make to how you’re feeling. People often think they need to do something or say something to help when someone’s feeling down, but really just being there and listening is the greatest help, as well as gently affirming and empowering.
Whanganui River Journey
Day 17: 5 November 2021
John Coul Hut – Tieke Kainga (38.8 km)
Once back in the canoes, we found our river legs again within minutes of setting off. We shakily sailed down the rapids and did our best to avoid the swirling eddies, always waiting to suck you in and spin you out of control.
Our game of ‘Spot the Goat’ turned into ‘Spot the Waterfall’ and there were lots of these, from fairy-sized trickles to deep flows, all gushing into the Whanganui. This 290km long river is the second-longest in the North Island, after the Waikato, rising from Tongariro and continuing all the way out to sea, collecting a whole heap of detritus as it flows.
But for now it still seemed relatively pristine, flowing through steep banks of native bush with tree ferns, flowering lemonwood and towering rimu amongst the lush canopy.
Groups are good fun and in the calmer moments we shared lollies, played eye spy and alphabet games as we cruised along the rolling muddy green mass of water.
Lunch was a social affair on the pull out spot to the Bridge to Nowhere walk. I was really enjoying fresh fruit and vegetables, having procured a bag of apples and a cucumber from the good sorts at the Taumaranui Canoe Hire.
The Bridge to Nowhere was a bit underwhelming, a giant concrete structure crossing a deep chasm of a creek in the middle of – you guessed it – nowhere.
We thought about the brave souls who had attempted to cultivate and eke out a sustainable existence in this wild land. Sections of land in the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys were offered to returned servicemen from World War One, who put up some seemingly gallant efforts to make a home in this place.
In its heyday, the valleys were home to 46 farms and in 1936 a steel-reinforced concrete bridge replaced the rickety old timber version. However, by that time many families had abandoned their holdings, disheartened by the harsh life and forces of nature. By 1944, when the government decided to cease maintaining road access, the last few pioneers packed up and left this “valley of abandoned dreams”.
Whanganui River Journey
Day 18: 6 November 2021
Tieke Kainga – Ngaporo (12.4 km)
Today’s short trip down the river saw us haul out at the sunny DOC campsite of Ngāporo.
We made a quick and unanimous group decision to call it a rest day and stay and play on the daisy-covered terraces under the sunshine.
Once the barrels were brought up and camp set, the cask wine and cards came out and we all got merry.
Grand plans of swimming in the deep eddy below the rapids were dampened slightly by the discovery of a dead goat bobbing quietly by the shore, its white fleece almost the same colour as the rocks. I tried to convince the group that we needed to lasso it and drag it out into the rapids to float further downstream, but I didn’t get any willing takers (although lots of willing spectators).
What’s up with these Europeans? I’m sure back in Aussie the boys would have been down there in a flash. Upon closer inspection (thanks @onehappyErin for the support) and a poke with a stick, the heavily waterlogged goat was probably best left for the eels to nibble on, so I got back into the cards competition instead.
Once daylight had slipped from the sky I went insect-spotting and found a few large cave weta scuttling around on a tree, their bulbous grey/blue eyes peeping out from under their long, skinny antennas. They didn’t enjoy being spotted and scuttled off to higher regions, leaving me to admire the stars and be serenaded by the resident morepork.
My whole body aches. My chest, neck and shoulders feel bruised when I inhale deeply due to five days of paddling, sleeping in my tent and one fabulous spill into the river.
I’m writing this at the end of an epic 43 kilometre day, lying in our tent and listening to the campfire softly crackling and popping. We were all aiming for the Flying Fox campground, but turned up to find it empty and deserted, just in case the large “closed today” sign was a mistake.
Whanganui River Journey
Day 19: 7 November 2021
Ngaporo to the River Bank (43.9 kms/9h35m)
Shattered from a huge day on and in the river, we continued downstream and hauled out on a river bank, Stew and I mournfully examining our wet gear.
To be fair, we’d had four days with no spillage; but today, just after Pipiriki we headed into a rapid that ran right under some low-hanging willows and narrowly avoided a huge rock.
I was steering as well as I could, but the big waves broke right over one side of the canoe, filling us up. We lurched through the next set of waves like a surface-stricken submarine, finally consumed by the power of the river.
The canoe slowly spun around sideways, barrels popping up everywhere. And there we were . . . right in the drink.
“One of you grab the kid and one stay with the boat — and hold onto your paddles!”, was the advice burned into my brain from our pre-river journey briefing, but then Stew’s paddle floated past and I jumped in to grab it, leaving him to manage the canoe. Emilie came with me, bobbing down the river calling “Mummeeee!”, as did an unsecured dry bag full of backpacks. I scooped them all up and we kicked for the bank, and I was surprised at the sheer brute force of the water.
I left Emilie to look after the paddles (the little legend still had hold of hers!) and scrambled back to help Stew dislodge the canoe, which had gotten wedged in a tree trunk.
I hung on to the tree and used my feet to push it free so we could float the canoe. Tom had paddled back up in the kayak to help and rescued our barrel – and Emilie.
She loved the excitement of it all and went back to entertain Tom and Hils while Erin helped us wet water rats with the canoe.
By the end of it we were all buzzing with adrenaline, ready to try the rapid again. But while there was a bit more whitewater to come, we all stayed upright.
Whanganui River Journey
Day 20: 8 November 2021
River Bank – Hiponga Park (29.3 km)
I woke on a river bank, the air cool and still. My damp tent was stuck to the foot of my sleeping bag, tent pegs wedged in between river sand, mud and pebbles.
At this early hour a low mist hung about, kissing the glassy surface of the brown water. Only a thin layer of sunshine was visible on the high tops of the gorge. The calm was soon broken by the rumbling of a log truck along the narrow road opposite and the echo of a backfire that sounded like a gun going off.
My right hand was throbbing all the way up my forearm and I was dreading another day in the canoes. By now my instant coffee was all gone and I drank my tea silently and sullenly before dismantling the tent and shoving the sodden fly into my barrel.
Once the sun was out, I’d spread it out on the river bank to dry, but for now it was time to pack up and get back on the river. My hand was sore and my morale was low, so I forced myself to count goats as we paddled on. As much as they are a destructive pest, it’s hard to dislike goats, with their charisma and charm.
DOC estimates feral goats occupy over 14% of New Zealand with a population of several hundred thousand, half of this thought to be on public conservation land.
Nimbly skipping along ridges and ledges that other animals would fall off and break their necks, these agile and inquisitive little beasts devour our fragile native vegetation, severely impacting plant biodiversity and contributing to erosion.
And yet, there’s something about their intelligent gaze and nonchalant gestures that’s extremely endearing, not to mention their entertaining group dynamics and high pitched bleats to one another.
Other than goats, we now spotted gaggles of large grey geese, ducks with almost fully grown ducklings and the occasional freshwater shag sunning itself or going after fish.
Every so often the loud, wailing call of a peacock rose above the peaceful lull of the river and the torpedo shape of a kērēru cut across the skyline, as did the outstretched wings of a harrier hawk, turning and gliding across river and bush in search of its next meal.
The sun grew higher and we baked morosely in our life jackets, donning long sleeves, hats and sunglasses in an effort to dull the sun’s relentless heat.
We reached Hiponga Park just after lunch where we unpacked the canoes and carried our barrels up the hill to set up camp on the wide green field, before returning to use the last of our energy to leap off the jetty to soak in the cool of the river.
Whanganui River Journey
Day 21: 9 November 2021
Hiponga Park – Whanganui (19.6 km)
By now I hated the world and everyone in it, but most of all, myself. I woke before dawn with pins and needles shooting down my right forearm and into my fingers. No matter what position I tried to put them in, I couldn’t get back to sleep.
Emilie woke a little later and wrestled around in her sleeping bag, finally complaining of a piece of grit in her eye. Supermum was less than empathetic and told her to use the drink bottle to wash it out and give it a rub, or, the preferred option, just shut up and go back to sleep.
Unsurprisingly, none of these worked and we both had a little meltdown and wept independently of each other.
I was tired, so drained, so empty. There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, and I have nothing to fix it with, nothing whatsoever. I was even out of coffee and while one of our river mates very kindly gave me a sachet of instant cappuccino, it wasn’t the same. We eventually excused ourselves from the group to go for a short wander up to the historic Pa site nearby, Emilie grumbling all the way. Clearly I was ruining her social life and while I had no social life, the younger pre-child part of me wailed that she’d ruined mine.
We made our way down to the jetty to check out the river levels and the state of the canoes, which were currently perched high and dry as high tide wasn’t until 2pm.
The warm wind wafted in the rich rotting aroma of death and I noticed the dead goat carcass wedged on a tree, only a few metres from where we’d been joyfully jumping off the jetty during yesterday’s high tide. Now completely revealed, the poor thing’s head and horns kept it wedged in the tree’s branches, while what remained dangled darkly. Real nice.
Emilie was playing and I was left questioning my parenting skills, feeling pretty darn sorry for my grouchy, miserable self when a boatload of blokes turned up. Never one to miss an opportunity, I asked if they had a spare beer, and do you know what, they did!
I swear it got me all the way to Whanganui and I even managed a rousing chorus of Leonard Cohen’s So Long, Marianne, before Emilie cut me down with repetitions of Frozen.
Victoria and Emilie are walking the Te Araroa over the 21/22 summer season. They are raising funds and telling stories about the mental health benefits of time spent in the wild places of NZ, as well as the importance of protecting those areas for future generations to enjoy. To see all their stories, visit wilderlife.nz/adventures_with_emilie/ and follow them @adventures_with_emilie on Instagram and Facebook.
90% of the funds raised are donated evenly between the Mental Health Foundation and the Federated Mountain Clubs of NZ Mountain & Forest Charitable Trust. 10% is going towards some of the expenses of walking the trail.
If you’d like to help them out, please donate via their give a little page.