From the 10th until 14th of September we were in National Park village in Tongario National Park. It rained every day and our plans to do walks around the park and the mountains themselves were on hold or delayed. We had previously decided that we would do the final “Great Walk” of our trip which was a 3-day canoe down the Whanganui river. Both Fem and I have no experience in canoes and were concerned that the previous days of rain would affect the river levels.
Day 1 – The Canoe Trip
On the 14th, there appeared to be a break in the rain for about 3 days according to the weather forecasts, so we thought it would be now or never. We travelled to a canoeing company and set off to the insertion point which was a hut named Whakahoro. Fem constantly mentioned to the owner that we had no experience and that he was to let us know if the river was safe to travel down. We would respect his decision either way. He assured us that he has 18 years of experience on the river and he would make the final call if we were to go or not.
When we got to Whakahoro, he checked out the river and said we were ok to go. He did mention that the current was flowing faster than normal but this would assist us going down and would take our 6 hour travelling time down to 4 hours. I was pleased that I would mainly only have to steer and not worry too much about paddling. He said that if we did tip out to just get the canoe to shallow water, tip the water out and then open one of the barrels to change into warm dry clothes. Since we only had one set of warm clothes, I was not sure if I would do that last part if it came to it! He also mentioned that our centre of gravity would be a lot higher as we were both a lot taller, therefore we just needed to be careful when balancing the canoe.
We stored our possessions in six 30L watertight barrels. There were three blue barrels that I had my things in and three black ones that housed Fem’s gear. The owner tied the barrels in a 2 by 3 pattern with a blue rope across the 2 person Canadian canoe. He also put in a ten metre black rope that we could use with one end tied to the front of the canoe. We had our two 3L Camelbacks which held our water supply. Fem put hers in the bottom of the canoe. I tied mine to a canoe cross beam (shown in the photo below). We didn’t have wet suits, so I just wore my swimming trunks with a normal pair of shorts over the top for warmth. I had two T-shirts and my raincoat on my torso. Fem was similar but with long quick drying pants and thermal pants. We both had our Teva sandals on our feet.
The owner and his assistant then helped us into the canoes and away we went. With both of us in the canoe, the sides sunk a little lower than normal. While I felt pretty ok, Fem was instantly concerned with how unstable it seemed.
For the first hour things were well, our progress was good, we thought we had good control on the canoe. I did sense that my legs were getting a little tired from keeping the back end balanced. Fem had to shout out to me a lot about the direction she wanted to travel. She was sitting in front of me and with my hearing aids out, she was hard to hear. We saw plenty of wild goats on the sides and the scenery was good. The water itself was very murky and you could not see through it at all. Our speed was good, I reckon it would have been about jogging speed.
We passed the first camp site named Mangapapa . Then just over 1 hour into the trip, we came around a bend in the river. There did appear to be two river currents merging together. We came across one and turned to line up with the other one, but came in on an awkward angle. This caused the canoe to rock from side to side. Despite us both desperately trying to keep it level and the rocking under control, the canoe tipped over.
The first thing that got me was how cold the water was. My lungs seemed to collapse in shock. My breath came out in short sudden gasps plus with the shock of us having overturned. I looked across to Fem to see she was experiencing the same thing. Neither of us could touch bottom so we could only move around the upturned canoe and try to manoeuvre it down the river.
I tried to make light of the situation. “Ah well, we went over, let’s get this back up and get going!”.
One thing I saw once I got over the shock was Fem’s camelback floating away down the river. I was not too concerned with it as we had more important things to worry about.
Remembering the advice we were told, we tried to get the overturned canoe to the river bank. However the current was too strong. Each time we kicked ourselves over while dragging the canoe and got close to shore, the current would just pull us back out into the river. Judging by our speed relative to the shoreline, I estimated the current was still about the speed of an average person jogging. It was definitely faster than walking speed.
After trying this about four times I was getting a bit concerned. A lot of the shoreline on both sides of the river was just steep cliffs with no possibility of putting the canoe on land. Other landing sites were on the other side of the river or being passed by too fast for us to get to. I was always pleased with the “powerful” kick I could do in the swimming pool, but this current was just way too strong. Dragging an upturned canoe, it was like a dead weight in the water. We just could not get it to land or even just shallow water.
After discussing it with Fem, we thought we should try to tip over the canoe in the water and get back into it. But when you cannot touch the bottom, as the canoe is flipped, it basically scoops up a lot of water as it turns over, which sends either the head or the tail of the canoe under the waters surface.
It was around this time when the ropes holding the barrels somehow came undone. Three of the barrels started floating away from us. Fem was able to grab one and hang on to it. Fem yelled out for me to get the barrels. I was not able to get to the other two barrels in time and they floated out of reach.
“Man… what next…” I thought.
Fem also was getting her legs tangled up in the big long black rope. It’s unnerving to feel this rope wrap around your legs in murky water you cannot see through.
Fem also became separated from the canoe briefly. She had to let go of the barrel to be able to swim to the canoe. She yelled out and I moved around to the back of the upturned canoe and with her extending out her oar I was able to grab it and pull her close to the canoe again. The whole time we needed at least one hand on the canoe to keep with it.
We tried to turn over the canoe again and again. But each time it just scooped up too much water and we were not able to do anything with it except roll it back over again.
At about this time the barrels that had floated away came back to us. I grabbed on to them and asked Fem for some rope. She was able to get the black rope and began to slowly find the end of it. The cold water was making our hands and fingers numb. It was getting difficult to do detailed tasks with our fingers. As she was finding the end of the rope, her camelback was also nearby. I quickly grabbed it and clipped it onto one of the handles of a nearby barrel. After Fem found the end of the very long rope, she gave it to me and I tied the barrels to it. We had all our equipment again. Things were starting to look up.
We then got stuck in a small shallow whirlpool. This meant we were moving a little slower, but going around in a big lazy circle. We tried to take advantage of the slower speed to get to the shoreline again, but at this spot there were mainly steep cliffs and the current just pulled us away again when we thought we almost got there. After going around twice we realised where we might get stuck, so we were able to kick free into the main current and that pushed us down the river.
The cold of the water was starting to get to us. Both of our bodies were numb. The only thing keeping us warm was our constant efforts to get the canoe either to move to the shoreline or turned over.
I got the idea of putting the barrels under the upturned canoe and then trying to flip the whole thing over. Since the barrels were buoyant, these should push up the canoe as it turns and thus it should get less water in it.
We tried this about 2 or 3 times and then finally success! We were able to turn the canoe over and while it was mostly full of water, it did not sink.
I got my legs tangled in that damn black rope and had to kick and untangle myself free. This happened a lot to Fem and a few times to me.
With me on one side and Fem on the other to keep it balanced, I then started to empty out the water using a 2 litre milk bottle with the end cut off. We did have 2 of them, but only one was tied to the canoe. We lost the second one the moment we turned over and never saw it again.
Hanging on to the side of the canoe, it was a painfully slow process of emptying out the water 1 litre at a time. My arms were getting a little sore, but they were also very numb from the cold so I just kept going.
During this process at an early stage I was able to touch bottom. I could feel lots of loose medium sized pebbles. I think we would have been about waist deep in the middle of the river. We tried to stand up while holding on to the back of the canoe. We found ourselves getting dragged over the pebbles by the bottoms of my feet. I can recall thinking “Wow. these Tevas are awesome!”. We were able to slow our speed, but at the same time we were creating a huge wake by our presence. I felt the water from the current rushing past us, was surprised at how loud the roar of it was and realised this was not going to work. So we gave up and continued down the river.
It was around this time we past the signs indicating the second camp spot named Ohauora. We were surprised to see practically no landing bay at Ohauora. It made it very very easy to miss it and drift on past. If you were in a canoe, it would have been impossible to back-paddle to make it back. Ohauora was the half way mark for our trip. I knew we needed to get back into our canoe before we risked sailing past our hut which was next.
After about 20 minutes of emptying the canoe, it was high in the river with the two of us clinging on to the sides as we still continued down the swollen river. I yelled out to Fem to get into the canoe. She was loosing her strength fast and had trouble pulling herself in. With both of us not being able to touch bottom, this made it very hard to get in. She asked me to get in first. With great difficulty I pulled myself up and was successfully able to get in the canoe. Ahh, it was so great to get out of the water! My body started to warm up straight away as there was still a bit of sunlight left.
However with me in the back of the canoe this raised up the front of the canoe even more. Fem asks me to try and paddle over to the side for a hopefully shallow spot to make it easier for her to get in. I was not able to control the canoe very well with her in the water and holding on the side.
I urged Fem again to try and get into the canoe. With me holding the other side for stability Fem tried and tried to get in. Unfortunately the efforts destabilised the canoe too much and it toppled over again.
The cold water rushed over me again as I fell in and it seemed even colder now. Fem was starting to shiver in the water. I could see her lower lip trembling with a combination of fear and the cold water. I was very cold too and was shivering a bit. I was quiet for a while, not really sure what to make of it all.
“What are we going to do Matt?”
“I dunno. I am thinking…”
I was fast running out of ideas. I knew we had to get out of the water fast. I didn’t know how long we had been in there. We tried to turn over the canoe using the barrels under it again and again and it just didn’t work like before. I checked the barrels and noticed one of the blue ones had sprung a major leak. It was no longer buoyant and since it was heavy and barely above the surface it was hindering the turn over process. I knew it was one of my barrels, but with almost no hesitation, I untied that barrel and set it loose.
“Jeez, I really bloody hope that’s not the one with my hearing aids and camera and wallet…” I thought to myself as it sailed away barely visible.
With the dead weight no longer there we were having more success. But I was still not able get the canoe over successfully.
Fem was getting colder and colder. I was feeling numb and was shivering as well. She started to yawn and I was getting concerned if it is a sign of early hypothermia.
Fem said “Matt, I am not sure how much longer I can hold on”
I replied “Fem, just hold on for a bit longer…”
With all the attempts to overturn the canoe, the long black rope had wrapped itself around the canoe. The rope is a jumbled mess with all the barrels on the other side.
In sheer frustration, I grab the ropes and with both my feet on the side of the canoe I pull with all my might. Fem sees this and pushes up from her side as well. The canoe flips over again, more quickly this time and luckily, it’s not totally awash with water.
“Finally!”, I yell out as I frantically start to empty the canoe with the milk carton.
While I am emptying the canoe, Fem notices a possible spot where we can get to shore. The current has taken us close to the left side of the river, so it’s a good shot. With the canoe the right way up and a lot of water out of it, it’s no longer the dead weight it was in the water. We are able to shimmy over to the left and I reach out and grasp long blades of grass and clumps of dirt on the cliffs edge. Fem does the same and we are able to stop the canoe just out of the main current.
I look up to where we are and it’s just a very steep grassy hill that has gone straight into the water. There was a small flat section of mud, dirt and grass sticking out about 50 cm wide by about 3 metres long. It would have been enough to get the canoe off the water. But we still needed to get ourselves out of the water.
I tried repeatedly to get out, but the grassy walls near the water were too steep. Every time I get a footing and put weight on it to launch myself up, it just collapses under me. After lots of failed attempts and looking for rocky parts, I still was not having luck. Fem was urging me on and I tried again and again until my lower legs were all scratched and red from slipping. Fem tells me to hold the canoe and she tries to get out. She somehow manages to get out and up a steep embankment. She is out of the water! With her holding on to the canoe’s rope I am able to let go of the canoe and use both hands to try and get a hold.
I finally am able to get a hold and am able to pull myself out with mud everywhere! We then drag the canoe up the small section. So we are finally both out of the water and the canoe is on land!
The canoe is still on an angle and the water still inside it rushes down to the back. With Fem holding the rope to ensure the canoe does not slide back into the water, I set about removing the rest of the water and Fem helped with untangling the mess of the ropes. This took some time, but we end up having just the blue rope tying the 5 remaining barrels to the canoe with plenty of grannie knots to ensure it does not come loose easily. The long black rope was also tied to itself to ensure it does not get in the way again.
Very carefully we got back into the canoe. We were both wet and still prone to shivering in the cold wind. We were able to launch successfully and we then paddled very carefully down the river.
Every turn we did was very slow and deliberate. There was one bit when the canoe started to rock from side to side again. I yelled out “STABILISE IT!!!” and we both clung to the sides and it stabilised without tipping over. We both breathed a long sigh of relief then.
Literally about 20 minutes later we came to the sign for the hut. “John Coull Hut is 250 metres downstream on the right”.
“Jesus are we almost there already?”
We moved over the right side and hugged the shoreline carefully. We were looking for the landing bay and we were NOT going to miss it.
We saw a sign saying “Welcome to John Coull hut” but there was no landing zone. There was just a steep grassy hill, but not as bad as before when we got the canoe out. We manoeuvred the canoe to the side and out of the main current. Fem carefully gets out of the canoe and climbs up the hill and sees a path. I urge her to follow it and see where the landing zone is. She follows it and sees that it is just around the corner. So rather than get back into the canoe, we just walked along the steep shoreline dragging the canoe by the rope on the front. I was shocked when I saw the landing zone. If you did not know it was there, you WOULD have missed it. There was a strong current right in front of it and it was only about 10 metres wide. It was also directly behind a steep turn. The shore was a small section of dirt and mud that was on an angle of 45 degrees. I took the rope connected to the canoe and dragged it over. I got another shock when I stepped on the dirt near the waters edge and I sunk down almost up to my knee.
We were not going to be able to drag the canoe up the steep slope without getting the barrels out first to lighten the weight. Fem untied them and passed them up to me. Then we were able to get the canoe up higher and we then tied off both ends to nearby trees and stumps.
We were safe! We took the 5 barrels up to the 100 metre path to the hut. This took ages as we were both exhausted.
Later on, based on the timestamp of photos we took, we estimated we would have been in the water for 3.5 hours.
In hindsight, I was seriously worried about what would have happened if I didn’t get the canoe over the last time and Fem was not successful in getting us to land. There would have been a very good chance we would have gone right past the hut and given how cold we both were I don’t think we could have held on to the canoe much longer.
The photos below show Fem and myself just when we arrived at the hut. The middle photo is our landing zone at the John Coull hut.
We were the only ones at the hut. We opened the barrels and to our shock, 3 of the 5 barrels had water leakage. The barrel that I had cut loose contained my sleeping bag. At this point of time I didn’t care too much about the lost bag. I was glad we were out of the water and at the hut. Also if I had a choice of which barrel to “sacrifice” that would have been it. The two barrels that had remained dry contained our shoes and the food, my hearing aids, camera, wallet and matches. I was so happy my hearing aids were ok!
Almost all of Fem’s dry clothes were saturated. Her sleeping bag was damp and wet in spots. My clothes were damp or had minor wet sections. The utilities bag was wet. Fem’s headlight torch was damaged and didn’t work.
The wood fire in the hut did not have any matches provided. Luckily the ones we had were in one of the dry barrels so we used them to try and start a fire. After a frustrating hour of attempts, we could not get the damp wood to keep burning. We then gave up and had a dinner.
With most of Fem’s clothes wet, we had to share what little dry clothes we had between us. I ended up with just two T-shirts and a pair of underpants and Fem was the same. After being in the water for that long we needed to get warm.
We used the yellow plastic bag liners for our clothes as makeshift sleeping bags and had just Fem’s damp sleeping bag over our bodies. Anything to try and warm ourselves. We have an early night and try to get to sleep. I can’t stop shivering as I just cannot get warm. My exposed legs are cold to touch and shaking uncontrollably. Even with a second hut mattress over me to try and keep the warmth in, it does not help much.
After a while Fem has had enough of this and tries to start the fire again while I try to get warm. After another hour, she is successful and the fire is going! We then move our hut mattresses out in front of the fire and spend a few hours slowly getting warmer. My legs finally get warm and stop shivering.
We no longer want to go further with this canoe trip. We cannot risk another spill in the water with the strong current. Our confidence in the water tight barrels is gone. So we will just stay at the hut until we are rescued.
Day 2 – The Waiting
We wake up and the fire has gone out. Another hour is spent by myself at first and then Fem persists with it and gets it back up. We resolve to not let it die out again as we are running out of matches.
Fem has a sleep mid afternoon while I read some of the magazines that were left in the hut. Shortly after, 2 pig hunters enter the hut. They seem surprised to see us. We share our story of the previous day to their shock and amazement. They came to the hut via their jet boat, but they had to pick up other people so they could not take us back with them. But they assured us they will give the message to our canoe company so we should be picked up the following day sometime. This is very re-assuring to know.
About two hours later, three Israeli Russians enter the hut. Michael, Kesnia and Boris. They kayaked our first leg of the river that day. Again they were shocked to hear of our story. They were experienced sea-kayakers and on the day we set off, they had been denied entry on the river on the Sunday by other canoeing companies. They had only been allowed on the river that day due to their previous kayaking experience.
By late afternoon, most of our clothes have been flame dried. So we are much more warmly clothed than the previous night. The rest of the day is spent resting, chatting with the new arrivals, playing travel-scrabble (wet but functional), reading magazines or keeping the fire going.
That night they shared a meal with us. Offering us cheese and fruit and nuts with straight rum. We offered some of our chocolate in exchange and we all had a good time that night.
Since the fire had been going the whole day and the evening, the hut itself was very warm. I didn’t need a sleeping bag and was warm to just lie fully clothes on the mattress. However during the night, we had to wake up and put more big logs on the fire to stop it from dying out completely. Fem was mostly awake through the night and she had to nudge me to check the fire sometimes.
Day 3 – The Rescue
The two pig hunters had returned the previous night and were camping in swags outside in the camping section. They came into the hut in the morning and offered Fem and I some bacon with our breakfast. They assured us that they would immediately contact the canoe company as soon as they returned to their main base which would have been at about 2pm that afternoon. They apologised for not being able to take us with them, but we clearly understood the situation. We were just very grateful that they could get the message out that day!
We said farewell to the Israelis at about 10:30am. Then it was a slow process of waiting until we were rescued. Did the hunters get the message out in time? Will we be picked up today or tomorrow? I tell Fem that if they are not here by 5pm, it will be too dark and we won’t get rescued until the following day.
The above photos were taken at 4pm to show us just waiting and waiting and waiting.
At 4:30pm after a painfully slow afternoon, Fem hears the roar of a jetboat engine and we rush down to the landing area. There is a small jetboat waiting for us. He motioned us to quickly get our stuff. We run back to the hut and get our already packed barrels and take them down.
“What about the canoe?” I yell out to the driver from the shoreline.
The driver who was out of audio range for me, just gives me the 2 finger salute (meant for the canoe) and then smiled and waved his hand “bye bye”.
We jumped in and off we went back the way we came. The river had dropped another 1.5 metres since the Sunday when we started. I could barely recognise it. We could not even spot where we had been able to get out of the water and sort out the canoe on the way down. The current had also dropped off dramatically. Fem was able to get some shots from the jetboat. Photo 3 with the jetboat’s wake clearly visible is showing where we toppled out.
The left side of photo 4 is a rough idea of the landing area where we first got the canoe out of the water. As you can see it’s mainly a steep grassy cliff with a small section sticking out at the end.
There were large sections of the river where there was no current at all. It was like big sections were just a pond and some sections where there was some current. We were annoyed. This was how the river should have been for us.
We got back to Whakahoro and got off the river. It was late in the evening now and the assistant’s car had a flat battery so we could not get back to our car. They offered to put us up in a nearly lodge for the night to which we accepted. Everyone was so helpful and nice to us. They were all shocked to hear our story. After having a tasty meal of deer heart, liver and kidneys from a hunter’s first kill we settled in for a good night sleep.
Day 4 – Epilogue
After a good breakfast, the owner of the canoe company turned up and drove us back to our car. He was very humble and apologetic and did say “Well in hindsight, I probably should not have let you on the river”.
When we first arrived at the hut, we had initially been rather angry towards the owner and his very poor decision to allow inexperienced canoeists on what ended up being a swollen river. But by the third day, we were just grateful to have survived it and just wanted to move on.
We had not paid for the trip yet and since he didn’t bring it up on the car ride back I didn’t push it. Besides, we needed that money to get a new sleeping bag for me and a head torch for Fem.
We got back to our car and then left. This concludes our Whanganui Canoe Trip. If you have any questions, please let me know.
(Blog post co-edited by Femke)