Journeying down a mighty river in a canoe, with a few barrels strapped to the back holding all of our possessions and food, felt both otherworldly and absolutely natural.
As long as humans have fashioned themselves tools and means of transport, there have been brave souls who have ventured beyond the lines marked on the map to chart new bodies of water or land, and discover new homes or resources.
This thought crossed my mind many times while travelling down the Whanganui River with a rag tag group of fellow explorers. There we were in our modern-day, reinforced boats, packed well with watertight bright blue barrels, following in the wake of many before us, and even then it felt like we were on an intrepid adventure.
Stretching a notable 290 kilometres, the Whanganui River is Aotearoa’s third longest river, with special meaning to the local Māori people who know it as Te Awa Tupua, a physical and spiritual entity connecting the mountains to the sea, sustaining life and natural resources with its steady flow.
Seeking recognition of the river’s importance, and protection against degradation and detrimental human activity, in 1970 the local iwi petitioned Parliament to pass legislation, leading to the country’s longest-running legal case in New Zealand history. On March 28, 2017, Parliament passed a bill that made it a person in the eyes of the law, and as such ensures it receives the same rights and responsibilities of a human.
Interestingly, this case may have set a global standard. Only five days after the Te Awa Tupua bill passed, India’s Uttarakhand High Court granted the same legal personhood to the mighty river Ganges.
Prior to and following legalities, the long stretches of river, including white water and more than 200 rapids, were regularly used by both Māori and settlers to carry information and goods between villages and trading posts. It wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century that the river became less of a connection point and more of a tourist destination, known for its striking landscapes and Māori kāinga (village or settlement).
Today much of the river is flanked by the Whanganui National Park, thick with native and introduced flora and fauna, and draws in many souls curious to see the landmark for themselves. Now known as the only Great Walk in the country that you don’t actually walk, it’s an experience that has been shared by families, friends, partners and school groups, all of whom may come for different reasons but collectively leave more sun-kissed, wind-burnt, and full of the sights and sounds of New Zealand’s natural wonders than when they arrived.
For us this journey meant days of long stretches of water, silent but for the soft, regular lapping of our paddles. Bright, sunny and windy days where the top of the water was warm and the sun baked into our clothes and arms. It meant unexpected rapids that pulled and twisted our solid boats, looming cliff faces, bubbling algae, dense bush, and the feeling of travelling back in time.
We summited muddy hills to locate grassy paddocks, where we tugged and carried our barrels up and down, packing our tents up and down. Alongside other travelling groups, we shared jokes and silence, laughter and meals, watching birds and stars, listening to 80s music from the tiniest speaker I’ve ever seen, bathed in warmth of the kind of companionship that comes from spending hours together meeting both obstacles and delights.
These days surprised me with their combination of endurance and bliss, the noise of my mind forcefully settled over days by the majesty of nature and the physical demand. The final morning we settled into aching muscles as the crisp, bleary morning was pricked with light, tired and happy. This is how I remember the magnificent Whanganui River.
"E rere kau mai te Āwanui, Mai i te Kāhui maunga ki Tangaroa. Kō au te Āwa, kō te Āwa kō au."
"The great river flows from the mountains to the sea. I am the river, the river is me."