Auckland: Puhoi’s paddling playground
Novice kayaker Debbie Griffiths and kids go down a lazy river.
The six-year-old seems a little bemused when he glances back at me from the front of the kayak.
“This is fun; we haven’t even capsized yet!”
It turns out Nate had been keeping his serious misgivings about this adventure to himself. We’ve already exceeded his low expectations of our kayak trip by remaining inside the vessel.
A 20-minute drive from our North Shore home gets us to the rural settlement of Puhoi on a crisp, clear Saturday morning. This historic community was originally settled by people from Bohemia in the mid-1800s on the promise of free land, Kathy Mankelow’s ancestors among them. After a stint working overseas, she returned to the settlement 22 years ago with husband Cody to begin their own family.
They set up a weekend kayaking business from their home, which backs on to the river so that Kathy could stay at home while the kids grew.
“It got so busy that it quickly became full time for both of us,” she explains.
Puhoi River Canoe Hire is now popular for corporate team building days as well as for day trippers, tourists and families with children aged three years and up. Cody tells me it’s the repeat business that makes it particularly satisfying.
“We get people who remember coming here as a 10-year-old and now bring their own children for a paddle.”
It’s a friendly and warm family operation and the years of experience mean it’s a well organised, tidy set-up without that sterile “sausage factory” feel.
When we arrive, several other groups are being briefed about the route they’ll take down the river, which includes a map and helpful photographs. Others are being fitted for lifejackets and shown the correct way to paddle.
Puhoi translates to mean “slow water” and that’s the big drawcard for families. It’s a safe 8km-long glide down towards the coast with the outgoing tide. More experienced paddlers are encouraged to paddle up for a kilometre first to see Puhoi township or to branch off to explore Hungry Creek River before doubling back to continue on to Wenderholm Regional Park.
Our family has booked two double kayaks and are advised to paddle upstream first to get a feel for them so that we can easily return to get any problems fixed on our way back past headquarters. Husband and 10-year-old Asher are confident and soon disappear around the first bend with Nate and I close behind. Birds, the splash of the paddles and the breeze in the trees are the only things we hear as we watch the changing landscape.
Crowded overhanging willow trees soon thin out and the river widens as we pass green paddocks dotted with cows. As we near the estuary, we see the mudflats.
“Cool. Look at those birds.”
Asher has spotted a pair of herons gliding across the river to land on the bank ahead of us. That begins the game of “what bird do you see?” in which Nate scores big with ducks, a kingfisher and a circling hawk.
It’s not long before we’re approaching the bend in the river that runs underneath then alongside State Highway One. On a day when feeling “at one with nature” was the main aim, this close proximity to modern life is the part I was least looking forward to. The traffic, though, is a mere murmur and gliding under the road bridge proves fascinating to all of us.
After that, the passing cars are forgotten and we’re back to studying crabs on the marshlands and discussing likely homes for crocodiles and other deliciously ridiculous things that young kids and parents chat about when there’s no homework or after-school activities to rush off to.
I’m surprised that despite the dozen or so other kayakers who were being launched into the water when we arrived, we hardly ever see anyone else. The peaceful river is ours.
Older child, Asher, is enthusiastic about WaterWise lessons in school and now takes the chance to relax with her feet over the side while dad paddles. Nate – who’s revealed himself as a nervous Nelly – has been given a kid’s paddle that doesn’t need to be turned and now feels confident enough to dip each side into the water.
“Wow!” he exclaims again. “This is so much fun!”
The double kayak is easy for me to paddle and control thanks to the rudder. Another dad is assisting his daughter with a tow-rope attached to his single seater. There are options for everyone to enjoy the day. One woman I chat to afterwards had not paddled before and is thrilled by the experience.
“That was so lovely,” she says.
“I have some amazing photos and I’ll definitely do it again.”
Kathy agrees it’s the perfect introduction to kayaking for beginners.
“The river is so slow-moving, it’s considered safe enough for customers to go down by themselves,” she says.
“It gives first-time paddlers the confidence to go on to try sea kayaking or faster-moving rivers.”
About two hours after setting off, we reach Wenderholm. We’re helped out of the kayaks and given a ride back to our vehicle in Puhoi. We have packed a picnic but the historic Puhoi Pub is also an option for lunch – it’s just steps from the Canoe Hire property and has plenty of tables out front where kayakers can eat and drink in the sun.
I find it’s sometimes difficult to gauge whether kids have enjoyed a new experience but, in this case, it proves easy.
When we get home, Nate writes a story about his kayaking trip. He calls it: “My super duper amazing day out.”
NEED TO KNOW
Puhoi River Canoe Hire is open daily from September 1 until June 30. The river is tidal so bookings are essential to ensure your kayaking adventure coincides with the high tide. Contact Kathy or Cody to find out the best time for the date you’d like to go out.
Need bed and breakfast accommodation and a quick break? Puhoi is just two kms from the end of Mahurangi West Road and paddling the Puhoi River is a great way to pass a few hours while staying at our B&B at Mahurangi West.