The Whanganui River, on the North Island of New Zealand, is in flood. It’s racing towards the river mouth. Here in the town of Whanganui, the water is high over the boardwalk. Ducks quacking and diving, bums in the air. I see Charles Ranginui from afar and he has a camera to his eye. He has it pointed at a pair of half-submerged rubbish bins, and then out into water that’s full of debris. I watch a chest freezer float past. The branches of a huge tree break against the town bridge as it sweeps beneath it. I can smell mud, and the water is brown with silt.
Ranginui has lived and worked on this river his whole life. He’s a river guide and his iwi, his tribe, is Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi. He was brought up with the Ngā Poutama people of the bottom reaches of the river. His clan is Ngāti Ruru of Parinui, of the upper reaches. As well as working as a river guide during the summer season, he exhibits his photography and drives trucks. Seven years ago he guided my family down the river on a similar day, the river rising in flood, though it wasn’t as fierce. I remember him standing tall at the back of his six-man canoe, made from his iwi’s mould. In his wetsuit, slick as quicksilver in the pouring rain, he steered with a paddle, laughing and telling stories, even as he instructed us on how to paddle through treacherous rapids, each of which he knows by name. The route Ranginui guides takes days to canoe and is incredibly remote, the river weaving through fern-rimmed canyons. When he sees me he draws me into a deep hug. “How you doing, darling?” he says smiling.
“Look,” he says, pointing to the water. “The drama.”
There’s a stump floating upright. “See, it’s going down now, and it’s going to come back up.” It looks incongruous. It’s so large and moving wildly. “Wow, that’s epic,” he says. “That’s what happens upriver. That’s why it’s so dangerous up there. You know, the roots are down low. See how it’s popping up and down, that’s freaky.” He says that even when the river isn’t in flood, these submerged trees can rise up out of the water with no warning at all.
Ranginui was born upriver, in a place called Ohui. “My family, they’d use the dinghy and go out and grab logs,” he says. “They’d have No. 8 wire and they’d jump on and hammer the No. 8 wire into the log while it’s still drifting, and they’d use the dinghy to drag the logs in close to the shore and they’d quickly jump off, tie it around a tree and it’d anchor and then swing right around. Free firewood, but some are good to carve, too. There’d be lots of native out there,” he says, pointing to the debris-filled river. “It’s a carver’s dream. They’re all going to end up on the friggin’ beach. The next couple of days, it’s going to be epic.”
The beach at the river mouth is a black iron sand beach and driftwood piles up at the high-tide line. As if to prove him right, a log, straight and long, floats by and the timber is a beautiful red colour. Ranginui exclaims and shakes his head at the missed opportunity: beautiful timber, could make a waka with that, he says – a canoe. “If we could catch it.”
“We used to have an ancient canoe, a dugout, and it was so stable. There’s a couple in the museum. We used to go across the river and the sides – it’s not high like a six-man, it’s really low. It’s like just sitting on a log. My dad would have all the pig dogs, sheep dogs, and all the food – my dad, I remember him using a shovel as a paddle – bloody amazing. I’ll never forget the shovel. We’d be right on top of the water and the dogs would try and jump. I remember misty mornings – the mist, wow. Hence my photography now. It really made an impact. Everywhere I look I see pictures.”
Ranginui is soft spoken, and I have to lean in to hear his voice as a cold wind whips across the water.
“There’s a natural eddy – see where the bubbles are,” he says, pointing to the river again. “That’s been there since ancients’ times, before Europeans. Everywhere on the river where there’s a natural bend, there’s always eddies. See that current out past the bubbles, it’s all swinging down that way and then here’s the calm spot – and in this flood you can still paddle upriver if you stay in close, can you see? You could paddle up there pretty easy, really, until you hit some swift. But then you could still sidle across there, you know, just sidle across to the other side, just gently, it’d be kind of freaky with all the logs – but it’s doable. But upriver today, it’d scare you to bits.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 31, 2018 as "Life of a river guide".
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