River of Fun

What's your instinctive reaction to an invitation to try something different?

On the trail, my default setting has gone from a cautious, "Maybe", to an enthusiastic, "Yes," which explains how I went from sitting in a quiet library to thrusting a paddle into the gale-tossed waters of the Whanganui River in less time than it takes to watch an episode of "Man vs Wild.”

As soon as I landed in the town of Whanganui, where the river spills into the sea, I made a beeline for the local library to take advantage of free wifi and to write up a back log of posts. Once seated in a handsome, book-lined, wood-panelled room, a gentleman tramper like myself could stretch his legs under a desk and dream about his muse descending from the ornately-plastered ceiling.

I sighed. My muse is Rosa, and she hovered far to the north in Auckland. I diverted myself from a blank computer screen by chatting with a couple of librarians about river history. One of them was Maori. When she heard me sigh with regret at not having had a chance to get on the water, she asked, "How would like to paddle a waka ama- a racing canoe- now? We're having a river race tonight. You can join one of the crews."

I almost declined, thinking wistfully about the bottle of wine and food I had bought earlier and a relaxing evening making friends with the booze-loving occupants of the backpacker's lodge I had checked into earlier. Then I gave myself a mental kick and said, "Yes! I'd love to."

A few minutes later, she deposited me at a boat club on the river bank. A brisk westerly wind tore across the water, funnelled up the concrete boat ramp and lanced through a milling throng of men, women and children.

My librarian companion introduced me to a barrel-chested Maori paddler dressed in a wetsuit and over-sized life jacket, He squeezed my hand in a giant fist before thrusting a paddle into the other. "Just about to start the practice and safety drill. That team over there's short-handed." He pointed a meaty finger at a disconsolate group of people shivering stoically in the shelter of a tree. I staggered slightly as a fresh gust caught me. "She's a bit windy today," he boomed, lifting his voice to a quarter-deck pitch.

I wandered over and introduced myself. I reckoned the average age of our crew was about 55 if our hair-colour was anything to go by. Brown with a touch of pewter looked to be the youngest. Privately, I christened our team "The Silver Wackies".

"Race here often?" I mumbled through numbed lips to a rotund silver-haired lady.

"No. First time for all of us. We're all into indoor rowing at the local gym, normally."

"First time for me, too," I replied. "Bit nippy, isn't it?"

"Try putting on a life-jacket," she suggested. "I've got two on."

I blinked to clear my streaming eyes. "Clever clogs," I thought. "That explains your roundness." Once on and cinched tight, the jacket made a slight difference. When no one was looking, I thrust my hands inside it. A New Zealand summer evening can make wimps out of the best of us.

"If you capsize," the safety instructor said with Kiwi relish, "Just cling to the hull until the safety boat rescues you."

The silver-haired lady whimpered and the rest of the crew looked at each other doubtfully. Another chap asked, "Did he say, 'If you capsize?' or 'When you capsize?'"

Morale didn't improve over the next 45 minutes while we waited our turn to take to the uninviting, wind-whipped waters. Boat after boat launched and returned while we watched from the frothing shoreline, cheering half-heartedly, semi-delirious with cold, pretending we were having a marvellous time. "This is all very English," I thought remembering frigid summer cricket matches,

At last, the barrel-chested Maori called our team's name. We lined up with two other teams and wobbled on frozen legs into the slender craft. A pool of water on the bench soaked my shorts when I sat down. With an enthusiastic thrust from the shore, we lurched forward onto the water, nervously clutching the gunwales. A Maori teenager served as steersman and timed our strokes, counting up to 12 before calling, "Change!", signalling us to change sides. The silver-haired lady occupied the bench in front of me. An over-eager thrust of her paddle sent a spray of water backward, drenching my face, blurring my glasses and all but over-turning the craft.

However, the stiff paddle upwind and upriver did us good. The activity warmed us and by the time we paused at the start line and waited for the other two wakas to get into position, we were more or less paddling in unison. From the safety boat, a red flag lifted, a green flag dropped, the steersman shouted something in Maori and began counting strokes. We dug deep and shot forward.

And it really felt fantastic fun as we flew downwind with the current, the crew stroking as one, concentrating hard. My water-streaked spectacles prevented me from seeing much more than a blur, but it didn't matter. For a few minutes, I felt what it must have been like to be part of a Maori waka crew in older times, on a mission of exploration, trade, war or a combination of all three.

A waka to a Maori is what a horse is to a nomad of  the plains, It's more than wood (or in this case, fibreglass.) It's life, union, spirit. The strong voice of our young steersman communicated that to us. For a few minutes, our silver-haired amateur crew got it at a visceral level, even while we inexpertly plied our paddles.

When the frothing surge, rhythmic chanting and heavy breathing came to an end and we rested gratefully on the dripping paddles, we found we had won our heat and a place in the finals.

So we did it all over again.

Arriving second in that race didn't matter. We felt warm, inside and out, although no-one lingered after we had put the wakas to bed on their racks. Instead, the car park emptied in minutes as the Kiwis headed for home, a  hot bath and a stiff rum toddy.

My librarian escort had long since abandoned ship but I brazenly asked one of our crew for a lift. He whisked me back to the backpackers lodge with the car heater on full blast.

There, I showered, put on every item of clothing I possessed and heated a glass of wine on the stove.

While a satisfied feeling reached deep inside me, I remembered how easily saying, "Yes!" comes to Rosa and how much I admire her relaxed, open attitude to life.

There is something about the Whanganui River that encourages this spirit. It's relaxing yet invigorating. It's a river of fun as well as a river of spirit. No wonder people become so attached to it.