Travel Diary - taking a waka down the Whanganui River



  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

It’s really the only way to describe my experience on the Whanganui River with Willie Huch from Owhango Adventures, and his whānau. I’ve walked away with my heart filled to the brim with love, my stomach filled to the brim with delicious food, and my wairua centred. It’s actually the most centred I’ve been this year, and given what we’ve all been through, I think that’s actually quite special.

It’s why I’m going to have to take you to the beginning of this story.

Thanks to Torpedo7 and Visit Ruapehu, I’ve been given the opportunity to explore some of New Zealand’s most remote and beautiful places in the central North Island.

The terrain is raw, perhaps even prehistoric, some untouched by humans for hundreds of years. If you were to look up New Zealand in a picture book dictionary, I’d like to think this is exactly what you would see.

My journey starts in Owhango, a small town situated about 20 kilometres south of Taumarunui. It’s quaint, and the history runs deep.

I am greeted by a man named Willie Huch. I instantly revert to pronouncing his last name just the way you think it would sound, and politely he says nothing. It’s not until later I find out its actually pronounced “hoootch”, but Willie is never one to correct anyone, he’s just not that kind of guy. He’s allowed people to pronounce his name wrongly for years, which I get with a name like mine, and just smiles and laughs away because to him it’s not about sweating the small stuff.

Willie Huch from Owhango Adventures.
Willie Huch from Owhango Adventures. Photo credit: Supplied

Within the first five minutes of meeting Willie, I know I have made a friend for life. He is a man of mana, and his presence is safe, inviting, almost familiar - like how it feels with your closest circuit of people. He tells us we are going to travel down the Whanganui River in his Ferrari. Now I’m no expert, but nothing in that sentence made sense to me, yet I’m taking a leaf out of Willie’s books. I’m not sweating the small stuff, I already trust this man, and for some reason instantly know this adventure is going to be amazing.

We arrive at the river and I see the Ferrari in its full glory. A beautifully moulded Waka, red of course, docked at the water’s edge. Willie confirms this is our ride for the day, and talks to us about the region, about his home, and about this special community. He describes his family as “the river people.” He’s been here all his life; he knows every legend, every bend in the river, every rock of this area.

And then there is his blessing.

Willie and the boys of the river sing their Karakia. He is connecting with the spirits of the land, and asking them to guide and protect us on our journey. A tear runs down my face, and I’m unsure why I instantly get so emotional —perhaps it’s old age. Willie sees and gives me a comforting nod as if to say he understands.

He invites us to walk into the water and splash ourselves from head to toe to tell the spirit we’re here. The Whanganui River is the first in the world to be identified as a living entity. In this moment, I understand that completely.

Travel Diary - taking a waka down the Whanganui River

And so we start our journey. Typically (and arguably predictable) I arrive dressed in the most inappropriate clothing. Chucks, rolled up chinos, and a tee shirt. You can take the boy out of the city but you can’t take the city out of the boy, what was I thinking? Probably adventure, but make it fashion. Thankfully Torpedo7 have hooked me up with just the right gear to keep me warm. A merino top, some water booties (and this boy loves a good bootie), a wind breaker jacket, and some comfy shorts. A quick change and we’re off.

In this moment I feel completely connected to Papatūānuku, Mother Earth. It’s not meant to sound evangelical in the slightest, but you just can’t help shake the feeling when your spirit just aligns with the world. This really is New Zealand at its best. Raw, real, wild, and free — is that a song? It should be.

As we make our way down the river, Willie talks to us about his life, about growing up in the Owhango community. It becomes clear in everything he does, family and community is everything to him. It’s how he was raised, and the same values he is now raising his tamariki on. As they say, what is the most important thing in the world? He tangata he tangata he tangata, it is the people, it is the people, it is the people.

I’m quite thankful to also have Tom Patrick from Torpedo7 here. He’s an expert when it comes to anything adventure, and especially being on the water. In this particular moment, he’s also the person calming my nerves, explaining the physicality of the water, how to paddle, and everything I need to know (and not worry about) when it comes to the rapids.

I notice there’s a fern on the head of our waka, and I ask Willie why it’s there. He says it’s how they connect to the land and guide a safe journey. Someone will take a fern from where we take off, and place it where we end. It’s beautiful, almost like a guided spirit that is with us all the way.

We end our journey at Willie’s uncle’s house. If we were in Auckland it would have been as if we were pulling into a driveway in some suburb. In this case, it was the fourth bend in the river, just after the big rapids, next to the low hanging tree. We pulled in just like a Ferrari would (on the count of the speed of the water), and met John. He walked us up to his slice of paradise, and that it was. He introduced us to his community, a family of Tui and kererū surrounding the area. Instantly I felt the same connection as I did with Willie.

We walk up to the house, and make our way back to Owhango. I am a dry, warm, and a very fulfilled little hobbit. I am told a hangi is waiting for us, now you can add happy hobbit to that list too.

It’s wonderful how the universe works. Up until this point I haven’t been having such a great couple of weeks, but it’s amazing what some air and outdoor experience like this can do for you. It really is the best mental health medicine in the world.

Perspective really is everything, and not sweating the small stuff is just the lesson I needed to learn in this moment from Willie.



  1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

What is that particular characteristic you ask in this instance? As cheesy as it sounds, there’s only really one word, and that is love.

This article was created for Torpedo7 and Visit Ruapehu