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John Coull

John Coull
 
 
 
 
 

ALTHOUGH the Whanganui River has a very strong Maori history extending over six hundred years, it also has a strong European history starting with the age of steam transporting people and goods along the river to support early colonisation of the North Island. In recent years, the river and surrounding national park has supported some strong growth in the tourism market. What happened though, in the quiet years between the times of steam and wooden canoes, and the modern times of plastic jet boats and canoes?

Beach at John Coull

Beach at John Coull

We beached our boats on the gravel bank. The stones were flat and firm with a bit of mud in between them deposited when the river was higher a day or two ago. With the canoes dragged up out of the water we took one of the chilli bin and the water up the steps towards the John Coull Camp.

This was the first European place name I had seen along the length of the river. Every other place along the river has a Maori place name apart from Settlement Road, and a few settlements downstream from Pipiriki. This place does have a Maori name though – Pukerua, meaning two hills.

Walkway to the camp

Walkway to the camp

The hut and camping ground were named after an auctioneer in Wanganui who became a city councillor. John Coull was appointed as the first chairman of the Wanganui River Scenic Board in 1957.

At the time the steam boat days were all but over. Tourism on the river was almost non-existent with the railway and highways across the plateau a far more efficient means of travel. This left the facilities along the river in a sad state of deterioration.

Looking upstream from landing

Looking upstream from landing

The scenic board was tasked with managing the river, doing pest and weed control, clearing river channels, building huts and picnic tables, and erecting signs. John Coull saw a 17,500 acre block of crown land around this part of the river become scenic reserve to be forever protected. It was named in his honour.

Over the years more crown land along the river became scenic reserve thanks to the effort of the Wanganui River Scenic Board. In 1986 these reserves were all combined to become the Whanganui National Park. John Coull Reserve was absorbed into the middle of the park, but the hut and camp ground retains his name in commemoration of his work in the early days of the board's conservation efforts.

Where we beached

Where we beached

We had this morning travelled 12.6 kilometres downstream from Ohauora. My bony bottom had started getting very numb on the wooden seat towards the end of the leg so it was a relief to be walking again. Cameron mentioned there was just 9.5 kilometres to go to our camp tonight. Having less distance to travel today really made quite a difference. There wasn't as much pressure to reach our destination and plenty of time to relax along the way. Here we were fifty kilometres from our final destination in Pipiriki, and 138.5 kilometres upstream from Wanganui.

The dead remains of several large trees were washed up along the bank at the top of the shingle beach. A three metre wide gap appeared between the trees through which a track scarred deeply into the grassy slope zig-zagged up the hill towards the camping ground. We followed the track heading moderately uphill.

John Coull camping ground

John Coull camping ground

The sun was by now starting to come out after an overcast morning. Perhaps the weather was going to clear for the next few days.

The camp ground was sheltered in the scrubby trees. The slope had been levelled out to three flat step terraces big enough to support up to 26 tents during peak season. There would have been a lot of tents erected here last night with the large school group staying here overnight. It would have been rather crowded for Tim and Sophia who had stayed with us on our first night at Maharanui and paddled down here to stay last night.

The old damaged toilets

The old damaged toilets

A large wooden picnic table stood at the entrance to the camp ground from where the track continued along the bottom of the lower terrace to the left heading towards the hut. At the end of the camp ground were two large printed signs from where a flight of stairs climbed the other two terraces to a shelter at the top of the clearing. The shelter was identical to the ones we had seen at the other camping grounds. We headed to the shelter to prepare lunch.

The large signs included a large map of the river, showing how far we had come downstream. It had been hard to keep our bearings with the way the river twisted and turned so much doubling back on itself so much, but since Ohinepane we have travelled a surprisingly straight SSW general direction up to here. Since leaving Ohauora this morning the river has been very straight with only small bends giving the illusion we had travelled a long way.

Path of the big landslide

Path of the big landslide

From here the general direction turns to the south east towards Pipiriki where it will continue in that direction further downstream before gradually turning to the south towards Wanganui.

Looking at the map more closely, we had another kilometre or two heading SSW before turning eastward, then south eastward. This bend was the second most westward part of the river, the most westward being at the back of the next bend.

John Coull Hut behind the slip

John Coull Hut behind the slip

We prepared the lunch of more buns with salad vegetables and meat that was still fresh despite this being our third day on the river. We relaxed at the picnic table under the shelter before exploring the camp ground. We were the only group here at the moment. No doubt a lot more people will arrive from Whakahoro later today.

I returned to the signs at the lower terrace and continued along the track towards the hut. The gravel track between boards had been constructed very recently. Three new toilets had recently been constructed beside the track, opposite four old run down toilets that had been taped off and closed. Just past the toilets was a gully where a big landslide had come down during the storms in June last year. The landslide had damaged the septic system under the old toilets and came just centimetres from taking out the toilets. Beyond the toilets the landslide had wiped out some of the track and just missed the hut, depositing an enormous amount of vegetation debris dragged down the hill.

Porch of the hut

Porch of the hut

The hut and track had been repaired since the landslide, but there was still a huge amount of debris strewn down the hill from the track. Above the track the gully was perfectly clear. The momentum of the landslide had been substantial enough to completely clear out the slope and dump everything from just below the track.

I continued following the track around to the hut. A wood shed full of wood stood above the track. The entrance to the hut was a large verandah with shade cloth over it. The hut must have only been a few years old. There were two large hexagonal picnic tables on the verandah. This would have made a very pleasant place for meals in good weather.

Inside the hut

Inside the hut

The original hut had been constructed at Puketapu, about a kilometre downstream. That had been the scene of a significant historical battle and the hut had been built on a marked cemetery. Following protests from the Whanganui tribes, the hut at Puketapu was dismantled and a new one built here in the mid 1990s.

A hand written whiteboard welcome sign was out the front door. Aside from the usual take your shoes off and make sure your canoes are well above the water in case the river rises, there was information on the weather (well the previous two days anyway). There were also warnings against leaving food in tents due to the large numbers of rats roaming the area day and night.

The bunkroom

The bunkroom

Another part of the sign said Tieke Kainga, the next hut, was 40 minutes by jet boat and 5 hours by canoe, and Bridge to Nowhere is 20 minutes by jet boat and 3.5 hours by canoe. We hadn’t seen any jet boats this morning, or any of yesterday, not since a little before Ohura. Few jet boats pass through this part of the river, most of them run between Pipiriki and the entrance to the Bridge to Nowhere. The camping ground we were heading towards tonight was Mangawaiiti, which was ten minutes by jet boat or 2.5 hours for us by canoe.

There was another sign about aerial pest control over the national park from just this side of Whakahoro to the easternmost point of the river, then along the left bank further downstream to Mangapurua Camp, the second one downstream where we will be scheduled to have lunch tomorrow. They will be dropping 1080 poison to reduce the possum population in the forest and hopefully bring back the birds which were noticeably absent. We had seen very few in these three days on the river.

Shed behind the hut

Shed behind the hut

To the right of the main entrance was the entrance to the smaller ranger’s hut. The ranger wasn’t there though, but is apparently there much of the time between 1 October and 30 April each year. Perhaps this was going to be like the Heaphy Track where I had spent an entire week on the track without seeing any rangers at all. It had been a few days since a ranger was last here as the weather forecast on the noticeboard were for Monday and Tuesday, and today was Wednesday. Monday’s forecast had been fine with 28 degrees, which sounded about right. Tuesday’s forecast had simply said fine, but we did have a fair bit of rain yesterday. The annual rainfall around this part of the river was high by North Island standards at around 2500 millimetres per year only the western slopes of the volcanoes and the main dividing ranges receive higher rainfall each year.

Inside the hut was a large dining table and a large sign with some historical information about John Coull, the inspiration for the hut. A small wood burner stood in the middle of the hut. No doubt this would warm the hut very nicely during cold weather.

The new toilets

The new toilets

Around an alcove was the kitchen with several gas burners and a window overlooking the river. An open cupboard under the burners had a stack of old magazines for bored people to read. Next to the kitchen was the bunk room with two levels of bunk platform designed to sleep twenty four people – well that’s the maximum number of people who could book bunks at this hut each night.

The intentions book had a bunch of entries mostly from New Zealanders, with a few Australians and the occasional entry from travellers from other parts of the world. Like most other intentions books I had seen around the country the back pages were well and truly coloured in by bored creative people who had stayed here recently.

Returning to the river

Returning to the river

People doing the more common three day journey tend to stay here and at Tieke Kainga, the only two huts along the river aside from the one at Whakahoro at the start of the three day journey. The three days on the river are on average longer than the days we have spent on the river. Our first two days had been long and demanding, but our final three days will be a lot easier.

Staying at the huts cost $32 per night, as opposed to the camp sites which are $14 per night. The fees apply during the season between 1 October and 30 April. Outside these times the huts are not attended by the wardens and are not maintained. They are quite a bit cheaper then, where Back-country Hut Passes may be used, but who would want to canoe the river during the winter rainy season? The camp sites are free during the off-season. Kids under 17 stay for free all year around. During the season the camp sites and huts need to be booked in advance, but as we were part of a tour group, Cameron had organised this for us.

Looking downstream from beach

Looking downstream from beach

I returned to the camping ground and after relaxing a little longer we returned to the river with our chilli bins to pack up and continue travelling down the river towards Mangawaiiti.

Heading down to the river I looked across to the other side where a stream was flowing out over a small shingle bank into the very clear water before it headed downstream into a rapid. Cameron did mention the river was a lot clearer here than it is at the camp ground. It is apparently quite muddy down there. His canoe was a bit out in the water and had the water level risen much it would have carried his boat downstream. I wondered if that had ever happened to anyone in his past trips. Losing a canoe would be a bit of a logistical nightmare, recalling Cameron having to pick up our boats and paddles after coming to grief on some of the rapids on our first day.

Packing up the canoes

Packing up the canoes

Hidden from us across the river a little downstream was a terrace around 20 to 25 metres above the river upon which the Mangapapapa Pa stood completely concealed from our view, and perhaps for good reason. The spelling is correct, with all the “pa”s. The name probably means stream full of tiger beetles.

The pa and nearby camping ground had been used by the Maori for a very long time, probably centuries. It had been abandoned for several decades but in recent years the local Whanganui iwi have returned to the site. Around 100-120 people come up the river to camp there for around two weeks two to three times per year.

Final look upstream

Final look upstream

Once packed up, Cameron went for a quick swim. The others wanted to wait until reaching tonight's camping ground at Mangawaiiti, but he said the water was a lot muddier there. No one else had a swim here though, so we continued heading downstream, having learnt about the gap in the recent history between the age of the steam boats and the modern age of plastic boats.

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24 February 2016

 

Whanganui Nat Park

New Zealand

 

39°14'00”S
174°54'51”E

58 - 75m ASL

 

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