Wild NZ: Riverside Romance - Jetboating the Whanganui

Wild NZ: Riverside Romance - Jetboating the Whanganui

As the last streams of light disappeared, the motor started misfiring. Great! Within a couple of minutes, it conked-out completely, leaving us drifting at the mercy of the river …

Riverside Romance - Jetboating the Whanganui

My wife and I recently celebrated our 16th or 17th wedding anniversary – a fact we both completely forgot about until my mum rang and congratulated us. (In my defence, it was opening weekend for ducks!) Anyway, I thought this year we’d celebrate it a little differently. You see, we’d done romantic weekend getaways before – nice hotels, flowers, fancy restaurants, soaks in hot-tubs. And it was time, I felt, for something more adventurous …

With the help of my good mate Mike (aka Honeypot), a plot was hatched to take our jetboats up the Whanganui River for a romantic couple of days … although ‘romantic’ was a bit of a stretch, considering we’d be joined by Honeypot, his girlfriend, two sisters, two-year-old niece, mate Paul and three pig dogs. However, these were but minor details. What sold it to my wife were the images I painted of cruising through spectacular river gorges, with the wind in our hair and smiles on our faces, finishing the day in a warm hut, sitting around a glowing fire, while sipping on our favourite merlot …

“This’ll be GREAT!” I told her. And her loveliness agreed (while still a little unsure about the need for three pig dogs).

Honeypot, thankfully, did most of the organising – sorting food and supplies for the weekend. Which left me to get my boat going. It was summer the last time we had it in the water, and, during the last run, we’d snapped the steering cable. So fixing that was a priority … as was the slow leak in the hull … and the fact that it wouldn’t start …

Our local mechanic soon sorted the starting issue. I fixed the steering myself. And the leak? Well, I figured it wasn’t that bad – at least, that’s what I told Donna.

We made good time to Raetihi, where we met up with Honeypot and the rest of the crew. And, after filling the very last fuel container at the local servo, we continued on to Pipiriki – a remote town on the banks of the Whanganui.

Our plan for the first night was to head up to the John Coull Hut – an hour-and-a-half’s travel upstream. We’d left our launch until quite late though, and it was after 4pm by the time we got the boats on the water.

Which is where my brilliant plan started to unravel …

By pulling off the engine-cover and spraying copious amounts of ether into the carby, I eventually got our boat started. But, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get it up on the ‘plane’ and running at full speed. This was vital, as it enables the boat to get through shallow rapids without scraping along the bottom. There were three of us in my boat, plus two dogs and a bit of gear – but not enough to keep us off the plane. Honeypot had taken the lion’s share of our equipment (and everybody else), as he had a grunty, freshly-rebuilt 350 Chevy V8 powering his boat – unlike my old Ford V6.

I finally discovered that reverse was half stuck-on. So, problem solved, we were away. And the first rapid of the Whanganui was easily negotiated.

By now, however, the light was beginning to fade. We had powerful spotlights just in case, but I had growing doubts we would make it to the John Coull. Honeypot had taken the lead and we were cruising nicely behind him, enjoying the scenery. I’d canoed down this river on a Wildman trip earlier in the year – but for Donna, this was her first time, and I was stoked to be able to share it with her. We passed the Tieke Kainga Hut (a DOC hut/marae run by the local iwi) – and, with only 20 minutes of light left, I tried signalling the other boat to suggest spending the night here. But we were ignored …

Figuring we’d be doing the last half-hour in the dark, I sat back and tried enjoying the trip – keeping whatever anxious thoughts I had from Donna. But then, for an added bonus, as the last streams of light disappeared, the motor started misfiring. Great! Within a couple of minutes, it conked-out completely, leaving us drifting at the mercy of the river …

Honeypot and his boat-load continued on, not noticing our predicament, and were soon out of sight. The deep rumble of his V8 disappeared not long after, leaving us in complete silence. Well – almost silence. Donna’s panicked voice was loud in my ear as she contemplated jumping overboard and swimming for it.

Not quite the romantic getaway she’d envisaged!

With the boat now in a spin heading downstream, I ripped off the engine-cover off to assess the situation – and found water everywhere. It seemed that our little leak wasn’t so little after all.

Honeypot’s boat was eventually heard again – after what seemed like an eternity – and they soon appeared out of the darkness. We hooked up a rope, and he dragged us to the bank so I could have a proper look. The water had got into the electrics, but after much spraying (and praying!) we soon had it running again. With the bilge-pump pumping out the water, we started our trip back down the river.

The Tieke Kainga Hut was our new destination, being much closer than the John Coull. But the trip downstream wasn’t without its dramas. With darkness upon us and rain now falling, we were given an added challenge: thick fog – which rendered our spotlights useless. But, by staying close to Honeypot’s boat, we managed to see the white of his wake, and followed him carefully through the rapids.

Finally, the bank on which the Tieke Kainga is perched appeared out of the gloom. And, once we’d tied the boats off, eight exuberant adventurers made their way up the steep track and into the empty hut. And, after a hearty meal while sitting around a warm fire supping on good wine, the challenges of the day faded into obscurity.

At least they did for me. Donna wasn’t so sure …

Day two of our river romance dawned overcast and drizzly. The plan was to head up to the John Coull Hut – and do a little pig-hunting on the way. Donna was still concerned about the reliability of our boat, but with a little reassurance she was coaxed out of the warm hut. I pumped out the water that had accumulated overnight, and we headed upstream, keen to chase a few pigs and see the sights on a different stretch of river.

We stopped for an unsuccessful hunt up past the Mangapurua Landing (near the Bridge to Nowhere), and headed on towards the John Coull. After stopping for lunch on a gravel bank, we checked our gas supplies and realised that if we continued upriver, there was a good chance we wouldn’t make it down again – so the decision was made to head back to Tieke Kainga for the night.

The others were keen for another pig hunt, but I knew Donna wasn’t. So, in an act of extreme sacrificial love, I left the hunting and took Donna (plus Honeypot’s sister and her daughter) back to the hut.

Luckily, we made it back fine. But the others (this time) had a different story: their boat (called Liability) wouldn’t start when they returned from hunting – and they drifted down the river for nearly an hour. They eventually got it going, thankfully, because we weren’t going to look for them until morning!

Our third and final day was pretty relaxing. And, after a late start, we enjoyed our beautiful surroundings as we sped through the deep, steeply-sided gorge-sections of the river. During summer, this place is crawling with watercraft, but we had it to ourselves – and felt blessed to be there.

The last leg back to Pipiriki was uneventful … apart from a rock I hit when being briefly distracted by my wife’s beauty … which put a hole in the boat (and later, in my wallet). But we were only 10 minutes from the boat ramp, and with the bilge-pump on full, we made it without sinking.

Back on solid ground, I was already planning our next adventure … which (according to my wife) will include a nice hotel, flowers, fancy restaurants and a soak in a hot-tub. Or else!


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