12/19 The Great Launch

Whakahoro Hut to John Coull Hut

Anywhere from 37-47 k

We have now had enough slow mornings in a row that I feel as if we’ve had a full rest day when I wake up. I’m still not going to complain about one more though, so I make coffee in bed and type. We are all anxious for the day to get started, but we know that it’s not likely to before 9:30, so we comb through food bags again in case there are overlooked crumbs, pack up, and wait.

Every van hauling a boat trailer that drives down the road sends us leaping to action. We are used to being up at 5:30, and if we are not hiking before 7:00 it’s because of our own alternative project. After a series of short days we are so ready to get on the river! The fourth vehicle is finally ours. We chase it down to the boat ramp and help unpack boats and barrels. We start packing food and camping gear into the hopefully waterproof kegs, and the delivery guy hands us extremely chocolate muffins as promised by Karen. Yes! We all made the fatal mistake of packing today’s breakfast in with the food being delivered this morning, somehow assuming they would arrive earlier, so the muffins taste even better seasoned by a forced fasting. They aren’t quite the brownies my aunt usually sends (the main drawback to an out-of-country trail?) but they are the first things we have had in a week that have been actually made with love. We learn that Mike No Evil put on a day ahead of us, and which I’m selfishly disappointed about, but it’s no surprise. I think he walked from the end of the Tongiriro Crossing to the river in one day. His message says he will wait for us at the halfway boat ramp.

The guy delivering the boats helps us get everything lashed in, gives us a few refreshers from key points in the safety talk that happened a week ago, and then shoves us into the Retuarke River, our entry chute into the Whanganui. And then, we are paddling!

My biggest regret is not taking more pictures today. I am wary of unpacking the camera- it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a canoe, and ours is pretty weighted down; it seems like it would not take much to tip it over. I also don’t take many on my phone, certain I will drop it- the case it’s in is waterproof, but it sinks like a stone. I need to get a floaty attachment for it. The river is beautiful! It far surpasses my expectations. The banks are steep rock- limestone? volcanic? -and plunge straight into the dark green water. I assume the water must be murky, nothing is visible below the boat; but the paddle is clearly visible with each stroke and I realize the river is just very very deep. The rock walls are covered in a rainbow of mosses and algaes; maroon, gold, rust orange, dark and bright and yellow greens. Where the rock is bald, it is swirled and fluted and pleated. Above the cliffs the forest is chock full of tree ferns and moss-draped sky gardens. Springs drip and trickle, and tiny silver threads flow from cliffs above.

We take a lunch break very soon after getting on the river, since one chocolate muffin after being up for 6 hours only goes so far. The rapids are not too intimidating, enough to feel insecure in a canoe a couple of times, but fun. Jo is in a kayak, Super Mario and Princess Peach are in a canoe, Prana and I are in a canoe, and Bro and Ellie are in a canoe. They get hung up once, but manage to free themselves. They are doing outstanding for their first time.

There are a few little alcoves that we poke the bow of the canoe into to explore, but none lead anywhere. Finally we see a cave ahead that looks more promising! It has a beautiful dry soft sand floor inside. I wish we could camp here, but we make the time stretch with some snacks.

We have two hours to go until camp from here. Strangely, the sections of river are portrayed in times instead of in kilometers. We have 6 1/2 hours of paddling today, which is fairly accurate; when we consult the different maps we have access to, we come up with anywhere from 37 to 42 to 47 kilometers.

Just as we are rounding the last horseshoe to before camp, the wind picks up into a full blown gale. The final 30 minutes are ludicrous- we don’t even know if we will make it, every stroke taking every muscle without discernible forward progress, until we touch the nose down on the beach. Hallelujah, holy shit. I can’t even imagine if that wind had started any earlier. We unpack the canoes and carry the barrels up to a flat shelf to camp, and are pleasantly surprised to find this campsite is not the zoo we had seen in pictures. We set up our tents and have a cooking shelter to ourselves. Prana and I have pasta with mushroom marinara sauce from a glass bottle- total luxury. Super Mario and Princess Peach have a bottle of red wine to toast for tonight, and I present Prana with his surprise ginger beer. He seems pleased and touched. There are a few half hearted jokes about doing some Crazy Sevens or maybe some pull-ups, but everyone is pretty thrashed from the day. It’s hardly early, but we all turn in promptly after dinner.

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