Death by vacation, Part 1

The Whanganui River has the distinction of being designated as a legal person, which is a world-wide first. I thought it strange- how can a river be a person? Is this a gimmick to bring environmental awareness to the river? But then I saw the river. The river has always been its own sacred entity to the iwi(Maori tribe) that live in the area, and is a life force in its own right.


My daughter and husband were able to arrange time off from their work schedules, so a road trip was in order. When we travel together as a family, just a few rules apply:

1) A minimum of plans and necessary reservations will be made. Usually, we have no real daily itinerary or ironclad schedule. It allows for the unexpected and forces us to make decisions together.

2) When everything falls apart, as it occasionally does, we figure it out. It’s an opportunity to face the challenge and congratulate ourselves!

3) The out-of-the-box experience, something that forces us into a state of flow, is what we relish and talk about for years. We must have moments when we are trying not to die prematurely. (This usually involves water sports or mountain biking).

The Whanganui River Great Walk seemed like the perfect Rudzinski trip.

Three hours south of Auckland, the Whanganui River rises on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, an active volcano. The river flows first north, then south to Taumarunui, a small town that was originally a Maori settlement. The river then heads on, past other small historic towns, until it reaches the coast at Whanganui. Unlike other famous tracks, such as the Milford and the Kepler, this Great Walk is on water. The entire river journey is approximately 4 days, with campsites and white water along the way. We decided to launch from Taumarunui and paddle for just two days because we reasoned one night of river camping in the cold( 35 degrees) justified bragging rights.

Friday afternoon, we arrived in Taumarunui, all 4 blocks of it. Ten minutes outside of town, over a bridge and along a winding road paralleling the river, we found the canoe rental. After ascending a steep, unpaved driveway, the entrance turned out to a dirt parking lot filled with a wide assortment of vehicles, including a school bus and an RV, all in various states of repair. Up an even steeper incline was the canoe rental office, a fragmented building, which was clearly a family home. The surrounding yard was littered with rental equipment, kids’ bikes, gas tanks, and farm implements.

When I rang the bell in the cluttered office, two barefoot children arrived and stared at me like I was an alien. Both disappeared when I asked about the rental. A young woman, who did talk, finally appeared and confirmed our reservation. However, the situation quickly devolved.

Yes, they had tents and all the equipment- they would just have to find the tent with the complete set of poles. Yes, they had some waterproof barrels- well, sort of- we should just put something like our sleeping bags into the not-so-waterproof containers. Our two rented rooms had space heaters, but the electric blankets did not work. The gas tanks were empty, so no hot showers, and the wifi wasn’t working in the rooms. There’s no cell service on the river, so if we don’t show up in two days, they will come looking for us.

I tried to remind myself we were on an adventure.

We returned to town for dinner at the only open restaurant, “Jasmine’s Authentic Thai Food,” low on atmosphere and heavy on the peanut sauce. Carrie was cooking a migraine, and I was fighting flashbacks to the movie Deliverance, complete with dueling banjos playing in the background. The lack of organization and preparedness on the part of the canoe rental was creating significant doubts. When doing something risky, like canoeing a wild river, I want to know I am in the hands of experts. At this point, I was hoping to live to see the campsite.

The week before the trip, we were notified the river was high, but water levels were expected to drop before our departure. As we fell asleep in cold beds, the rain became steady and lasted all night, and in the morning, the river was looking pretty fat and ugly. At first, our departure was delayed because the sun came out. Then levels continued to rise by the hour and we needed to make a decision, even if we lost our payment.

The husband of the family admitted they were just getting started for the season and in the throes of organizing the business. They also ran a farm with livestock, had raised five children and now two foster kids. The canoe rental was a side business to make ends meet, and, clearly, a needed income. However, despite a significant loss of money if we canceled, these good-hearted people were more concerned about safety. In the end, they apologized for the river conditions, refunded our reservation, gave us a discount for the night stay, and served us homemade bread and jam.

Another view of the river

As we drove back to town, the three of us agreed we might be interested in making this trip again, but were happy we canceled – we didn’t want to die so early in the road trip.

We went biking instead!

Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au: I am the river, and the river is me