This summer I went with some of my family canoeing down the Whanganui River. This particular trip is one of the Great Walks of New Zealand. If you are interested in some days of quiet surrounded by majestic nature steeped in history, I can highly recommend this trip. It has been on my wish-list for over 10 years – which might explain my enthusiasm and excitement. There are several options people can choose from. We chose the 3-day/2 nights trip.
Whilst I was prepared for 3 days of hard exercise in one of the most stunning National Parks, I was – and still am – amazed about the deep insights I had about the fundamental principles of life and about my fluctuating level of consciousness affecting my state of mind moment to moment.
Of course, the scenery was mind-blowing. The biggest surprise was the complete silence which was only interrupted occasionally by an increasingly noisy rumpling that signaled our approach of yet another rapid. The region had very little rainfall for months thus the river was pretty slow and the water level fairly low. Ever now and then we heard a bird, but normally only our paddles made a noise as we pulled them through the water.
It was interesting to observe how my thinking went in and out of the NOW, at times fully taking in the moment through all my senses, experiencing the exertion of pushing the canoe through the water, whilst at other times ruminating about some past memories or worrying about the difficulty of the next rapid.
In hindsight it is as clear to me as anything that ruminating about past incidences did not do me any good. Instead, it distracted me and I overlooked shallow, rocky stretches or rotting tree logs submerged just below the surface causing me a fright and the canoe getting stuck.
Similarly, worrying about the rapids to come was just as unhelpful. I got fearful and tensed up as a result of my thinking evolving around all the possible ‘what-ifs’. It was thus not a big surprise that by the time we arrived a the rapid anxious thinking reigned. Hence I capsized the canoe because I had very few thoughts – if any at all – about how to best navigate the tricky rapid. (The above photo pictures that particular rapid).
Most of the time my consciousness rose to a higher level and I remembered that our feelings are created by thoughts and not the circumstances. That’s when I – for example – was able to stop myself becoming grumpy with the head wind that made paddling double so hard. And without fail other thoughts about other things flooded through my mind. At other times, when I was getting fearful with the approaching rapids, I was less successful.
After 3 days, on my way home, I had ample time to reflect on the experience and it occurred to me that life is like paddling down the Whanganui River. The river has been there for thousands of years before me and will be there thousands of years after me (I hope). It’s speed, rise, and fall is determined by the forces of nature. Sometimes it runs slow and sluggish, and just around the corner, when the river bed is shallow and rocky, it races like a bucking bronco, only to calm down and continue sleepily for another while. Obstacles like big rocks and fallen down trees may make some stretches more dangerous than others.
Unbeknownst of the fate of the canoeists the river continues down to the coast where is merges with the sea. It just continues with its bumps and obstacles. It doesn’t get upset about the wind, the lack of water, of the many boats, it just keeps going. It just is. It’s not personal. I promised myself to take the river adventure as a guide of how to do life gracefully. As I navigate through life, I need to do the best I can when encountering obstacles. It’s not personal, whether the obstacle is a rock in the river or a life event. All I have to do is stay present in the NOW and take the obstacles the best I can.
Taking the trip down river was partially so appealing because of the challenges it promised. I decided to look at life’s challenges through the same lens: As opportunities to hone my paddling skills, test my fitness and endurance, and to feel alive!
PS: The movie “River Queen” is located in this area and describes a part of New Zealand/Maori history during the early settlement by Europeans.
PSS : The following is a 5 min video clip published by the Department of Conversation of the stretch of the river we took.