Raumanui to Jerusalem
We put on the water at 7:30. When it’s time to get started, after 9.5 hours of hard sleep, I can barely bring myself to wake up- this is the thru hike sleep I haven’t reached yet on this trip. Sluggishly I pack my sleeping gear and spoon breakfast into my mouth. A thick foggy mist obscures most of the ridges around us, making the peaks seem exotically high. Maybe we overshot the early mark?
But no, the morning is perfect. We are rigged and pull off into a magical scene of mist rising and billowing off of placid glassy water.
It’s enchanting. The light refracts and bounces off the walls, painting the river into a watercolor.
I. Love. River trips.
Not only is it incomparably beautiful, but the air is crisp and perfectly still. We glide downstream in an illusion of effortlessness, silently dipping our paddles. I recognize this feeling- it is serene and full, the same of being in a church sanctuary outside of the hours of a scheduled worship. Which I guess is exactly what this is. Everyone seems affected- we all make as little sound as possible, unwilling to break the spell.
Eventually the morning lightens into full blown day. We strip off rain jackets and puffies, and after a few hours start running through several riffles. We are keeping a sharp eye for the Ngaporo campsite in order to take a snack break, and prepare ourselves for the notorious rapids below it when we hear the white din of frothing water from downstream.
Hmm, strange. I didn’t think there was anything noteworthy until after Ngaporo. Meh, maybe there’s a rock causing an echoing hole in the water. Rounding the corner, we see a very tall white wave. Woo! We run right down the middle and Prana gets a lapful of water. And we learn how easily a canoe wants to tip over once it has many gallons of water in it. We carefully paddle to shore, and tada! it’s the spot we were wanting to stop anyway.
We scoop out the water as we watch the other boats come through behind us with very similar runs, all upright. Once all the boats are beached and bailed, we climb up to the hut to have a snack.
It’s a beautiful dramatic overlook in a precipitous elbow of the canyon. We toss around the idea of staying here, but alas, logistically it doesn’t make sense.
We watch a few canoes run through the rapid below, and reboard our boats for our turn, thankful for the hot afternoon.
Our next stop is a set of caves marked on the maps, neither that large. The first approach has some really bizarre stalagmite formations dripped into the clay from the springs above.
When we reach the first cavern, the floor is a pond of clay quicksand. We all dither at the entry, but for all the big talk, no one feels particularly interested in going in any farther.
The second cavern has a large waterfall in the back, and many of the boulders are covered with large, often whole, seashell fossils.
Next up on the river is supposed to be a visual illusion called ‘The Drop Scene,’ where the river looks like it disappears into the earth, but that never really materializes. And then there is another big wave rapid! This may or may not be the rapid the Canoe Hire called 50/50. Prana and I line it up and go right for the meat, of course. The main wave breaks over the bow, three-quarters filling the boat. Again, it’s instantly cantankerous to control and prone to rolling over, but we manage to paddle over to the side and start bailing. Ellie and Bro are next, and run a great line, right before their canoe dumps them unceremoniously into the river. They float past, nudge-swimming the dead weight towards the shore. Jo has a clean run in her kayak, then Mario and Peach have a clean run. The rapid is 25/75 for our group! Prana and I get enough water out to paddle over to Ellie and Bro, and with the combined force of 3 half gallon milk jugs as bailers, eventually scoop out most of the water. It was a gentle capsize, and nothing was lost or ruined by soaking, so everyone is in fine spirits over the adventure. We sit down at the bank we are at to have lunch and hope a whole passel of boats will pass through to bet on. Our lunch spot is shadeless, and our roasting vigil is rewarded with a single canoe run- no flip.
Abandoning the actionless spectacle, we continue on. There are a few more exciting rapids, but the sun has turned scorching, the afternoon wind has picked up, and the long afternoon darkening of the soul has begun.
We reach Pipiriki, the common ending point for the upper section of the Whanganui, directly below a surprisingly clean accidental run of a bizarrely folded hole. We stop at the boat ramp to see if Mike No Evil is waiting for us as predicted, but we find neither him nor a kayak parked anywhere, and so press on.
The last 11 k to our hopeful camp for the night is uneventful, by which I mean to say monotonous. We are headed to a town named Jerusalem, in which there is an old convent and chapel. The character of the canyon has changed a bit: the walls are less sheer, or rather they have more shoals and crumbled debris fans at the base of them; the river channel is wider, and there is more live vegetation at the river level. We see a handmade sign on the edge of the river: Shop Tent Here. An old steeple peaks out of the tree canopy above us. I guess this is it.
We tie the boats to a driftwood trunk mired in the steep clay bank, and I go up to investigate.
The shop owner is friendly, but not offering what I had in mind. I head up to the convent with Mario to talk to the nuns. There is actually only one nun, Sister Christina, and when I ask about the possibility of camping rather than renting rooms, she seems reluctant. She doesn’t say no, but it’s not exactly an enthusiastic welcome. So where does that leave us?
Mario and I walk back to report to the crew what we’ve all learned. One of the dangers of traveling in a group is the multiplied effect of inertia; there is rarely a true chance of just checking something out to get info, because of the exponential time that builds during transitions and dissemination of the information. Or at least I find that to be the case, because I struggle with making a decision on a group’s behalf and feel the need to present every thing democratically. I had been hoping to find a free camp tonight, for the budget aspect as well as feeling more spontaneous and wild, just finding one’s very own spot to put one’s tent, but when we presented the options people were different intensity degrees of the same answer: staying. I am disappointed, and trying not to anticipate an uncomfortable night camping where I question our reception. We make a fire line to unpack the barrels from the canoes and start the long haul up to the church.
When we top out on the lawn with our first load, Sister Christina is demurely waiting on a bench in the shade to show us around. I am nominated as the one to receive and then re-present the tour while others go back for barrel round two. Sister Christina, I quickly learn, is warm and very welcoming. She is in her mid to late seventies, I guess, and she has the sturdy ankles above sensible shoes, shuffling gait, and no nonsense focus that brings a familiar sense of my Grammy to mind. She even is wearing a similar type of old patterned smock top. I realize that either her English is not as mastered as her perfect accent implies, or we had an unusual request that she needed time to square with. Either way, she shows me the showers, the bathrooms, the water faucets, tells me how delicious the spring water is, reiterates her welcome ( I feel the strength of sincerity) and tells me a summary of the history of the church. She shows me the sanctuary and says we are welcome to go in, it is kept unlocked. As we walk, she snaps off a few offending dead stems from the flowering plants. “I keep all the gardens here.” “What is your favorite flower?” “Hmm. Roses. They do so well here. They bloom and bloom.”
Suddenly I am so so glad we stayed here. Everyone sets their tent up and we are in such a peaceful little bowl, cupped by the fruit trees and flowers, then by the steeples and roofs rising past the gardens, then by the ridges of the river valley walls rising past the roofs. We cook dinner, and the spring water is as delicious as Sister Christina promised.