National Park to Wanganui
I am going full hobo. I no longer have need for a can opener and I now have use for my harmonica.
This stretch of the journey has been a lesson in resourcefulness, generousity, patience and consideration.
When I returned to National Park the afternoon of January 3rd I had the challenge of finding companions for the upcoming paddling section of the trail: The Whaganui River section. This 4-5 day paddle has a series of rapids, so out of concern for safety the outfitters are unwilling to rent a canoe or kayak to a solo paddler travelling alone. Very late in the day I connected with David (Texas) and Bobby (Virginia), both Te Araroa through-hikers, who had plans to start walking the next day to Whakahoro, where the river section would begin. I was welcome to join them.
I scrambled to make that work. The morning of January 4th I got very busy very quickly. I rescheduled a tentative booking with my outfitter, quickly organized my pack, bought and organized food, mailed my bounce box to the next town and an extra pair of shoes to a point midway on the South Island. By noon, I was alone on the trail walking a very scenic mountain bike trail under a clear blue sky. Summer weather had arrived. David and Bobby were a few hours ahead.
Alex (my Doppelgänger) had earlier messaged me to share the location of a good campsite for this section of the trail, midway between National Park and Whakahoro. I had a good sense of where I was headed for the day at the end of a short 22 km walk. About 2 km before that point I came upon Bobby at an intersection. He had found another campsite earlier, settled in, and returned to the road to keep watch, wait for my arrival, and escort me back to a secluded campsite next to the river. This was just the first of many courtesies that Bobby and David showed me over the following days.
We spent the rest of that day getting to know a little about one another before sharing some chocolate, setting up tents, and calling it a day.
On January 5th we all set out on gravel road towards Whakahoro at our own pace, eventually meeting up at the Blue Duck Cafe in the early afternoon. There we lingered in the sun, charged our devices and rested before setting up camp above the Whaganui River, cooking dinner and then sleep under a clear summer sky.
The following morning, January 6th, was a later start. Our canoes would not arrive before 9:30 am, so we took the opportunity to have hot breakfast (bacon and eggs) at the cafe and anxiously waited, staring down the road for the vans that would be delivering our canoes and gear for the coming days.
The vans arrived. As did another 40 people. After much signing of paperwork, orientation and directions we set out on the river: Bobby and David in one canoe and me paddling solo in another.
Of the twenty-odd canoes on the river that day, nineteen were either green or red. Traditional colours for canoes. My canoe was white. Or used to be. He was scarred and weathered to some other shade. I christened “him” with a hobo name: Old Whitey.
Our route overlapped for the first two days with a popular Great Walk journey. The top section of this river is one of New Zealand’s signature outdoor experiences. There was a tremendous amount of traffic on this first section of the river. The first half of the day was hectic: surrounded by other canoes, people yelling to be heard, people yelling for help, people yelling for the sake of yelling, excited children, toppled canoes, anxious parents. It sounded and felt like visiting a waterpark.
As the day drew on, however, the crowds faded as paddlers came upon their campsites and huts at different points in the river. Because our plan was to complete the 172 km of river in four days instead of the typical five, we had a longer day ahead of us than most. Made longer still by the challenge of solo-paddling and the lack of current due to sunny weather the previous week. By 4 pm Old Whitey and I found ourselves alone in remarkably quiet, shaded canyons: high rock cliffs on both sides of the narrow still waters. No voices. No rapids. No wind. No sounds but the paddle dipping into the water and isolated bird calls. Coming around corners a subtle hum indicated an upcoming waterfall. There were dozens of these spilling down cliffs from 20 metres or more.
This solitude and slow pace caused me no concern. It was peaceful and calm. My heart rate dropped. My breathing was easy. My mind was clear of any and all complex thoughts. For hours on end. Magical.
As dusk set in I eventually came upon the Whakahoro campsite, where Bobby had suggested we camp that evening. This campsite was perched high above the river, atop the steep canyon walls. As I finished unloading my waterproof barrels, David and Bobby came down to the river and helped carry my gear up the steep path to the campsite. With two people paddling one canoe, they had arrived an hour earlier. Once again, my two new travelling companions were ready to assist: it was comforting to know that while I had hours to myself on the river, I was never alone.
I set up my tent and we had a very quick dinner in the darkness accompanied by beer (!) that could be carried in a canoe easily (Jorg’s excellent suggestion!) and then quickly called it a night.
The next day, January 7th, was another long one. The pattern we established as a group was:
- Old Whitey and I headed out first.
- David and Bobby would pass us about an hour later.
- They would stop and wait after each sizable rapid.
- We would regroup at lunch.
- Confirm our end of day destination.
This worked well. It provided assurance of safety where it mattered. It gave us freedom to paddle at our own pace. It gave us the assurance of common goals.
We first regrouped that day at the landing that leads to the Bridge to Nowhere, a popular tourist stop. This is a sizable concrete-formed bridge that was built speculatively after the First World War for veterans to access potential farmlands. The landscape proved unsuitable, so no roads or farms were developed. But the bridge remains. David hiked up to take it in. I considered my slow pace in currentless waters, solo-paddling against increasingly strong headwinds and opted out. Instead I set out ahead, after a quick snack.
A couple of hours later Bobby and David passed me. A couple of hours after that I saw them at the bottom of a set of large rapids. The largest we had come upon so far.
I braced myself in the bottom of my canoe, strained against the wind to align my boat into the current, and went for it.
I didn’t capsize.
Bobby said I took a perfect line. David said he could see most of the bottom of my canoe stood up near-vertically.
I hit the waves straight on but took on a huge amount of water as the nose of the canoe fell forward into subsequent waves. I was terrified for a moment, but I gingerley manoevered the canoe, half full of water, to a rest next to David and Bobby. They were riverside, bailing their canoe, gear removed, after fully submerging and falling out of the boat in their attempt.
Once again, Bobby was quick to help me out. He immediately took charge by jumping into the water and hauling my canoe the last few feet to the safety of the shore, then set about bailing my canoe as I chain smoked two cigarettes waiting for my nerves to stop twitching and regain composure.
We regrouped, dried off, and paddled another four hours to Pipiriki. Once again, David and Bobby were waiting patiently for me as I trailed 30 minutes behind. As I approached the dock, two young Maori boys waved from the adjacent pier. As we marched up the road with our gear shortly later they peppered us with questions and offered advice and directions on where to camp in town. This genuine curiosity among young Maori children is common. Many times I have been struck by the way these children approach adults and engage in conversation – not just pleasantries – with genuine interest and willingness to help in some way. It is not precocious in any way. It is unfiltered and honest. I think it is beautiful.
Setting up camp next to a public toilet slash shelter in Pipiriki is where I learned my hobo trick. In addition to beer, I had packed some canned tuna for this trip. I would not normally want to carry that weight in my pack, but the canoe affords this “luxury”.
The previous night I had struggled – while Bobby and David watched – with the can opener tool of my pocket knife to open a first can. There were shards of metal and sharp edges everywhere. I was bracing myself throughout the exercise, expecting to sever an artery at any point.
That is when the hobo trick came up. What you do is this:
- Turn the can upside down.
- Place it on concrete ground.
- Lean in.
- Push it back and forth vigorously.
- After a few minutes, the lip of the lid will wear away enough to lift the lid off the can.
Bobby, being ever-helpful, helped me with this. It works!
January 8th was our third day on the river. It was the most physically challenging for me due to almost constant headwind. The wind would catch the front of the canoe and turn the boat sharply. Beyond the push required to move the boat forward in currentless water, it took huge effort to constantly adjust bearing into and out of the headwind. I exhausted my ability to do a “J stroke”. There was no muscle energy left by the end of the day. I lagged David and Bobby all day, but they continued to patiently wait at regular intervals throughout the day.
Our goal that day was the Downes Hut. It was really nice, perched above the river, fenced to keep away feral goats (these were ubiquitous along the entire river btw). We all enjoyed an early night and the comforts that a hut provides: mattresses, tables, chairs and running water.
Conscious of the distance ahead and a need to coordinate with tidal currents as the river approached our end point at Waganui city, I rose very early the morning of January 9th to give myself the best chance to get through the day successfully. I awoke two hours before Bobby and David and discreetly had coffee and packed my gear up to head out by 6:30 am.
That’s when I locked Bobby and David in the hut.
When they awoke an hour later the door was latched shut from the outside. Locking them in. As I was silently paddling through still waters and thick morning fog, marvelling in the scenery and contemplating life, they were frantically banging and rattling the door of the hut, processing what had exactly happened and why. Eventually, David climbed out through a window and they escaped my inadvertent imprisoning.
The rest of the day, thankfully, went really well. We hit the tide waters midday, rested for an hour until the tide turned, and enjoyed a steady tidal current to the edge of the city. Once again, I was about half and hour behind, and once again, David came down to the shore to help me with my gear.
We completed the river journey. In four days as planned. 172 km. 44 hrs of paddling. Old Whitey was a little more scarred than when we started. My hands were covered in blisters and aluminum dust. My knees were raw with cuts from abrasive sand in the bottom of the canoe and my ankles were stiffened from the hours hunched into the wind.
But the day was not done. We repacked our backpacks, changed our shoes, and walked a final 6 km into the city centre, checked into hostels and ended the day with beer and pizza and a sense that we had about enough canoeing as we could handle under the circumstances.
Being a hobo means being resourceful. Being a hobo means you are only alone as you want to be, you can turn to other hobos for help. The 15th point of the 1889 Ethical Code of Hobos says:
Help your fellow hobos whenever and wherever needed, you may need their help someday.
Bobby and David carry that hobo spirit. Beyond the (awesome) can-opening tricks. I am grateful to Bobby and David for their patience, concern and generous willingness to help a fellow traveller. To stop and wait. To jump in the river to bring a canoe to shore. To walk back to the road to lead me to a good campsite. To bail my canoe. Their actions and attitudes provided a sense of comfort and safety on the river that allowed me to enjoy the moments of solitude without worry. I am grateful for what they have given me. I hope I can return the courtesy to them, or others, on the trail ahead.
The morning of January 10th I walked alongside the river from my hostel, under a sunny blue sky, down to the Quay in Waganui city, where a Saturday market was set up. Amongst the crowded market of food and craft vendors sat a young girl, about 12 years of age. She sat in a wee chair with a small tin box at her feet. A budding busker. Hands to her cheeks, her gaze was firmly locked on the sidewalk in front of her. One could easily construe the lack of eye contact for shyness. It wasn’t that. It was determination. Her focus was completely on the task at hand: playing her harmonica and playing it to the best of her ability. Another child, unburdened and genuine with the courage and freedom to be herself.
Playing a hobo song.
On a hobo instrument.
As a hobo listened.
I am that hobo.
A friend gave me a harmonica to take on this journey, figuring I would find myself alone and with a need to entertain myself. Til now, it hasn’t seen the trail. It has been shipped forward in my bounce box from town to town for weeks. I think now is the time for it to join me on my journey. Now is the time for me to go full hobo.