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Canoeing (A Christmas Story)


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It’s December; a month that conjures from the cauldron of Hades that intensely socio-political debate about whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or not. It’s also the anniversary of a merry tale of friendship and canoeing, of adventurous spirit, and, for me at least, nostalgia. This lengthy anecdote is set in summertime, with no decorations or carols or snow or Santa but, much like Die Hard, and indeed all the best Christmas fables, does have heartwarming themes of family, home, goodwill and altruism. Moreover, to prod the naysayers a bit more, just like Die Hard Christmas is essential to the plot of my chronicle, and there are no other ingredients to festive tale than heartwarming themes and being set at Christmas. There, I said it.

On that resounding truth bomb, allow me to wipe the dust from this leather bound volume titled Christmas 2018 and turn to where our story begins: somewhere far away from anywhere, in a country no one cares about called New Zealand. T’was two days before the night before Christmas: or, as some people call it, December 22nd. Nine sort-of-strangers prepared themselves with excited anticipation for the adventure of the year. They had been planning this trip for months, and the day had finally arrived.

Carving its way through the lush vegetation and fern-dense bush of the North Island of this forgotten land is the Whanganui river. Our intrepid protagonists planned to paddle an epic 145-kilometre stretch of this mighty watercourse in canoes over four days. The B-Story in this tale, of course, is about how nine non-New Zealanders spent several days grossly mispronouncing the word ‘Whanganui’. Many years ago a misunderstanding took place during mapping the country, where, although this place is spelled with a ‘wh’ which is pronounced like an ‘f’ in Māori, it is not pronounced how it’s spelled. I found out much later that Whanganui is pronounced more like ‘wonga-nooie’, with no ‘f’ sound at all, as if New Zealand place names aren’t already stressful enough.

Nonetheless, it was a warm and sunny summer’s day as the crew gathered at the meeting place in the tiny rural town of Owhango, the only memorable thing about it the hotel-bar-lodge the travellers rested their heads that night. The interior design of this place was so outdated it was old when it was new, with brown carpets, thick salmon-pink ribbed wallpaper, time-yellowed bathroom suites, chairs reminiscent of a school canteen and a naturist-style en-suite with no door or even a beaded curtain or a banana tree leaf or anything to promote the usual level of privacy expected from a trip to the toilet.

As beer flowed and introductions commenced, the crew quickly discovered that, despite being 12,000 miles from home, they were all from the same corner of England, a place warmly known as the West Country. Fond nostalgia and joy at this coincidence surged, especially for those who had been away for a long time, as they discussed places and memories from the motherland. Among the group there were three brother–sister combinations, one couple, three cousins, one best friend duo, and an outgoing individual who knew only one person but, it transpired, shared several mutual friends with the others. Here is where you would insert a joke about everyone from the South West being related, FYI.

Because the Christmas elves like even numbers, and because the canoe hire company wouldn’t allow one person to go out alone, a lone wolf traveller called Pete joined the group to make it ten people in five canoes. He was quite a bit older than everybody, so it seemed like an odd match until his rounded accent revealed that, in a stunning Christmas miracle, he was also from the West Country.
The first major challenge arose later that evening when they had to put all their camping and cooking gear, spare clothes, food and booze for four days into watertight barrels. Who knew that cylindrical was such an awkward shape to pack things into? Deep into the night they packed and re-packed their belongings by torchlight in the car park trying to stuff everything they needed into their river suitcases, and went to bed much later than they should have.

The next morning, the team discovered how difficult it is to get a large group of people to be anywhere on time. No individual was late or dithery but the process of so many people getting ready, chatting, being ready but then remembering something, making another coffee for those who are ready while they wait for those who aren’t which then holds up those who weren’t ready but now are, and so on. Someone coined the process ‘compound faff,’ and it set the foundation for a laid-back pace over the next few days. Pete was on time, though.

Hours later than planned, the team were shuttled to the river in the canoe company’s old smoky van. They were soberly warned that around a third of people fall in, and with so many in the group capsizing seemed inevitable. The new friends nervously looked around calculating the odds and wondering who it would be. They were then instructed how to tie everything down properly so that, if or when the canoe overturned, their stuff wouldn’t take off down the river like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. They were briefed about rapids and told repeatedly that we would need insect spray for the evil sand flies.

One by one they launched their canoes, manoeuvring around a calm bit of the river before being unleashed into the watery wilderness. Some were nervous, others confident. Launching first, the best friend duo quickly discovered they made a formidable canoe team; working as one seamless, four-armed river beast capable of gliding like a greasy fish through any rapid. This was good, as there was a rapid immediately after the launch point. With a surge of derring-do, they steered into the jumbled, fast-slowing water and, paddling hard, with a hoot and a “Yeeew!” they were instantly addicted to canoeing.

It was another stunning New Zealand summer’s day and spirits were high, especially as it was someone’s birthday and he’d been given a mandatory sombrero to wear. Since they had between seven and nine hours of paddling per day for the next three days, there was a lot of time on the river; time for quiet contemplation, time for taking photos of their beautiful surroundings, and time for jovial chatting. They shared stories about growing up as they paddled side by side, they discussed music and the best present they ever received, they bounced jokes around, laughing freely, encouraging each other and enjoying the company of like-minded people.

Christmas is a nostalgic time. It stirs memories from childhood, evokes traditions resurrected especially for this time of year and signals time off work to be with family. This was an unusual holiday period for the crew, firstly because Christmas in summer is unfathomably weird to northern hemisphere dwellers, and secondly because they were in the middle of nowhere, canoeing down a river, which isn’t very Christmassy. But the misfit gang quickly felt like a family, perhaps more so because they were all so far from their own families.

After seven hours of paddling the group arrived at their campsite, which was actually just a grassy slope with a picnic bench, long drop toilet and a tap. They set up their polyester igloos in singles and pairs and arranged themselves around the bench that stood under a rustic shelter, cooking on their little camping stoves. The lack of phone reception called for such simple after dinner entertainment as talking, singing and playing the guitar one adventurer brought along, drinking beer and playing intense card games.
All the while dark rain clouds gathered overhead. It rained most of the night and several team members discovered their tents to be not at all waterproof, some flooded out entirely and others tortured with random drips to the face. Alas, it rains a lot in this forgotten land, even in summer.

In the morning, those who were flooded in the night gloomily wrung out their sleeping bags and mats, consoled by the others with coffee and help packing away the soggy tent. After a late start, they set off for another eight hours of paddling. Spirits quickly rose as they drifted through some truly spectacular scenery. There were endless tree ferns, high rocky ravines, imposing landslips, and waterfalls that were, quite frankly, just showing off.

Paddling the Whanganui river

Water lapped peacefully under the canoes and dripped from the paddles with every stroke in the soothing rhythm of a Japanese garden water feature. The enthusiastic chatter of the native tui birds echoed through the valley, a melody mash-up of dolphin chirps, a robot from a 1970s sci-fi movie, and a blackbird after sixteen espressos. It was raining again, which created a heavy atmospheric stillness. They became confident in their canoes, some revelling the challenge of taking more technical routes through rapids and one river chicane that required a 90-degree turn left followed by an immediate 90-degree turn right to avoid rocks and shallow gravel banks.

At some point the crew agreed it would be nice to do a ‘secret Santa’, but, as they were in the wilderness and had no money with them or shops to go to, they agreed the gifts would be free. Creativity would be necessary, gifting each other their skills instead. Names were drawn from a hat, and quietly they pondered what to get their person.
Even though they had mostly just met, there was a sense of togetherness and generosity among the team. They didn’t hesitate to help each other with carrying barrels or setting up tents, and they shared food, equipment and their own unique expertise. Many of them felt inspired by the others’ life stories and it reminded them that ordinary people have the capacity to do extraordinary things.

They arrived at the next campsite in the early evening and it was impossibly packed. The only space left to pitch their tents was a small gravelly ledge close to the river, forcing them to deftly slot five tents in a jumble of guy ropes through a tense, three-dimensional game of Tetris. The unfortunate two who were flooded out their accommodation the night before bunked with another team member, the three of them sardined into a one-person tent. And still it continued to rain.

The following day was Christmas Day and, holy canoe, did it rain. After packing away sodden tents and giving up on staying dry they launched, late as usual, from the campsite in a torrential downpour that lasted most of the day. The river was noticeably faster flowing with a number of imposing rapids to tackle – pairs of canoeists watching others’ routes through the churning water to figure out the best line to take in hope of minimise capsizing. When canoeing, you of course get a bit wet, especially at the front while tackling rapids, but on that day the team encountered a new level of soaked where throwing oneself overboard seemed like a good way to dry off a bit.

The rain finally eased off in the afternoon and half the group decided to stop and do the Bridge to Nowhere walk – a 40-minute hike into the dense bush to a disused road bridge that was intended for a settlement in the hills abandoned long ago. The trail was hilariously muddy and slippery made even more exciting by the risk of falling over, especially as most of the way had no railings or barriers to prevent unlucky souls falling over the edge of the ravine. The bridge itself was underwhelming, but the walk through impossibly green fern-addled nature was an amazing sight. They made it all the way there and back to the canoes without incident, until the last few metres where one adventurer, barefoot and not paying attention, slipped over in epic fashion, managing to do an elegant pirouette in mid air, much to everyone’s amusement.

Back on the river, they busted out the booze because, y’know, it was Christmas. Merrily they paddled and passed around a never-ending goon bag of wine. When they eventually arrived at the campsite, however, all the proper canoe parking spots were taken and the few places left to tie up were away from the main path. The only way into the site was up a vertical grassy slope, and their drunkenness was partially a serious problem and partly the source of quality entertainment. They wedged themselves, a little unbalanced, into footholds spaced out up the slope and formed a precarious human chain to pass the barrels from canoe to the top of the bank. One drunk team member lost his grip and the barrel tumbled back down the slope into the river, the lid splitting off in the process, but it was saved by someone in an impressive ninja manoeuvre before sinking under the murky water. They laughed about it for ages.

The peril was worth it, though, as what awaited them was a ‘lodge’ that they had booked for the night – really just a room with bunks but, thank the Christmas stars, it was dry. Getting around the campsite was sketchy as it was so muddy and slippery, much of it completely impassable, especially while carrying barrels, and especially while intoxicated. It was a beautiful campsite, though, perched on a hill above the river and as the rain eased, wispy clouds spiralled from the trees in an enchanting scene straight from a fairy tale.

The view from the lodge on Christmas Day

They had previously agreed to a pot luck Christmas dinner, and soon a feast was laid out in their lodge. Everybody crammed in, perched on bunk beds and slotted into corners with more food than they could eat, though they were hungry after so much paddling. As he had joined the group at the last minute, Pete hadn’t booked a space in the lodge and was camping outside. He had so far – wisely – kept to himself during their alcohol-influenced evening antics, but when the team insisted he joined their feast he seemed touched and relished the festivities. Wine and rum were distributed, games played and, at last, the secret Santa was unveiled. The gifts were very touching and personal, ranging from a downhill bike riding lesson to a work-out plan to a song written about the recipient to a bracelet made from flowers picked along the river. It felt special and many were moved by the thoughtfulness of each others’ gifts.

The next morning they had to get the barrels back down the steep slope, which seemed easy compared to getting into their canoes, the tying points of which were now submerged under eighteen inches of water with no shallow spot to climb in. It was either a risky leap of faith from the bank or wade up to the waist into the river and gently scramble in without capsizing the whole thing.
At almost noon they finally set off, finding the river so full and fast flowing that they barely had to paddle. Luckily they had plenty of time until they had to be at the meeting spot to be picked up by the canoe hire company, so they relaxed, holding onto each other’s canoes to drift five-abreast along the Whanganui river, playing guitar and singing songs while going through rapids, sharing marshmallows, and doing a great deal of laughing.

They found out later that authorities very nearly pulled everyone off the river, as it was becoming so full and dangerous. Miraculously they were allowed to finish their trip, and, besides, an adventure in good weather is fun but an adventure in bad weather is mega. In the end, not a single person in the group went overboard. The statistics gods must have disproportionately punished some other unlucky people, but, hey, that’s their problem. They reached the end of their epic 145-kilometre journey and were shuttled back to the weird hotel; tired, happy, ravaged by sand flies and relieved to be somewhere dry.

Thus concludes my canoeing Christmas story. Nine adventurers made genuine friends that Christmas. In each other they found a sense of belonging, and I’m probably not alone in saying that it was an adventure I will never forget.
As for Die Hard, well, it brings joy to millions of people every year, especially those engaging in what I call ‘Alt-Christmas’, like my canoe adventure. Alt-Christmas may have few of the expected traditions, but absolutely has the kindness, togetherness and giving spirit that this holiday embodies. And that, surely, is what Christmas is all about.

The author and best friend on the river; one of the happiest moments in life so far

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