Our all-women group of eleven aimed to canoe the Whanganui River from Whakahoro to Pipiriki - a distance of 88km. We were under the wing of one of the companies that guide on the river - an excellent decision for novices.
At Whakahoro, on a side tributary of the Whanganui, we're having our introductory lesson. Upright paddle means 'keep straight ahead'; paddle tilted left or right indicates the desired direction - sometimes accompanied by a circular motion to one side that says 'pause for a while'.
Then 'forward paddle', 'back paddle', 'draw stroke', 'ferry glide' and 'sweeping stroke' and the nitty-gritty - shooting rapids. You go for the V, paddling so that your speed is faster than the current. You are then in control and unlikely to capsize. There are 110 named rapids on this stretch and nine of these may need special care.
The water is murky and greenish-brown. (The muddy appearance is due to the heavy silt load the river carries). I gaze at the untouched bush that hides the river. On some cliffs, toe-toe (also called pampas grass) wave in the breeze like prayer flags. On others, ferns cling. This is one of the largest remaining areas of untouched lowland forest in the North Island. There is no road access. It's unpeopled wilderness.
Maori used to live in villages along the banks. Then the European missionaries arrived in the 1840s. From the 1860s, a regular steamer service brought international tourists to what was called the Rhine of the South Pacific.
Today the river belongs to us. We reach our first campsite at Mangapapa, after 11kms of paddling and struggle up the slippery bank with barrels of personal stuff, food and cooking gear.
We pitch our tents on a level site overlooking a curve of river. A combination of good food and energetic paddling combine to give me a good night's sleep, lulled by the melancholy cry of a morepork, the croak of a frog and the splashing of a waterfall on the opposite bank.
We wake to find mist blanketting the tops of the trees like a skullcap of cotton wool. 'Rolling out the barrels' downhill is a breeze compared to the uphill drag of yesterday!
We interrupt the 26.5kms of the day, with a welcome swim. Later we raft up and have a few biscuits and some chocolate - while two canoeists hop overboard and drift in the current.
Negotiating one rapid, we have company - a pair of Mallard ducks. We bounce through the boiling waters no trouble, apart from getting soaked. We're getting the hang of these rapids!
Many waterfalls drop down the banks. Some in strips, like glistening bead curtains; others like silver ribbons. We explore one hidden within a cavern. A few spout from a hole like gargoyles - we take showers under them in our canoes, to hilarity all round.
By late afternoon we're at John Coull Campsite, labouring up a steep bank with the gear, while a fat kereru (native pigeon) watches us before flying off with a whirr of wings.
The next three days repeat the pattern - the sun shines; we become more confident at rapid-shooting; we swim; share jokes and raft up together.
One morning we walk along the Mangapurua Valley towards the Bridge to Nowhere. In this tough wilderness, soldiers from World War I tried to farm. But the land was tough and inaccessible and the farms finally reverted to wilderness.At Tieke Marae we're met by a young Maori man and are given a cheery hongi (Maori nose-to-nose welcome) from members of the family who were there.
Later that afternoon we shoot the Ngaporo Rapid following instructions to stick close to the bank where the channel runs. Immediately after the rapid we reach our last campsite of the trip, Ngaporo.
Despite paddling 23kms that day, we get the gear uphill easily - we now have a chain system sussed. A group of paddlers lights a campfire with driftwood and we watch the stars come out and the river slowly turning black. It's a magical moment to mark the last night of our journey.
Next day's Autapu Rapid can have pressure waves up to one metre high. We all come through intact and hardly have time to bale water out before we pass an old eel weir and are into the Paparoa rapid.
This is a long turbulent rapid. I look back and see an upturned canoe with two heads bobbing along beside it. This, our first and only capsize, certainly ends the trip with a bang, not a whimper. It's been one of the experiences of my life and I feel privileged and proud to have done it.
Information Credit: Judith Doyle read more of Judiths adventures on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing