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Whanganui River Journey: An untouched wilderness

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September 2020 Issue

The Whanganui River Journey is unique in many ways, not least in that people who have never before set foot in a canoe can paddle its 145km length.

This Great Walk is not actually a ‘walk’, but a 145km river journey. It may not immediately appeal, especially for those raised with feet firmly set upon dry land, but it’s an adventure that should be on every Kiwi’s bucket list.

Over the course of five days (three if you opt for the shorter and more popular 88km alternative from Whakahoro), paddlers are treated to the best of what the Whanganui River, the world’s first natural environment to be granted legal personhood, has to offer.

From cavernous river valleys that rise up through pristine native bush to the telltale song of endemic and native birds, the Whanganui River is a truly untouched wilderness, yet it’s easily accessible to the average New Zealander – where else in the world can paddlers negotiate a large river, with over 200 rapids, shoals and whirlpools, with minimal risk?

The middle reaches are a showcase in spectacular scenery and diverse wildlife. Impressive stands of broadleaf and podocarp forest terminate at the top of towering cliffs which plunge into the river’s depths. Beneath the surface, eighteen different species of native fish thrive while above, paddlers keep a keen eye out for glimpses of kereru, pīwakakawaka, tui and miromiro.

Whilst extended periods of rain can bring high river days with faster flowing water, more frenzied paddling and increased debris, experienced canoe hire companies can pass on many years’ experience of the river and its hazards before departure.

I paddled the river over the busy New Year period when increased canoe numbers meant we were lucky to tag along behind a Māori cultural guide’s canoe: occasionally catching snippets of information about the river’s rich history, and sneaking peeks at the perfect line to take through the largest rapids.

Facilities along the way are excellent. Campsites are spacious, flat, thoughtfully placed by the river and located high above the flood line (although the experience of hauling heavy barrels full of supplies and gear up steep riverbanks each night is one best re-lived in hindsight).

If you can book early enough, I recommend taking advantage of the relative luxury of John Coull Hut, or opt for the cultural experience at Tīeke Kāinga marae. Tīeke campsite is also placed conveniently across the river from the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, a fantastic spot with stunning views, especially enjoyable with a cool beer from the lodge’s bar after a day’s paddling.

The highlight of the final day is the three biggest rapids of the route. Each brings a new injection of adrenalin and achievement, especially if you are one of those lucky enough to remain upright in the turbulent waters of the main rapid or the swirling eddies immediately after.

Through this section, I observed a humble connection developing between me and my fellow canoeists. Most of us had entered the river a few days earlier filled with trepidation. Yet there we were, spurring each other on through each obstacle, whooping in delight as one canoe after another made it safely to Pipiriki without capsizing.

I sense that the Whanganui Journey has more to offer, and you can guarantee I’ll be heading back to the river at the next opportunity.

It’s possible to explore side streams off the main flow. Photo: Louisa Albanese/Backpacker

Section-by-section over the Whanganui River Journey
Tackle New Zealand’s wettest Great Walk in three days or five.

Taumaranui to Ohinepane Campsite
22km, 3-5hr
The lesser paddled upper reaches of the river will give you a greater chance of solitude, and enjoyable sets of rapids as you drift through rolling hills and farmland. Fast paddlers will reach the campsite within 3 hours, and some may wish to continue to the smaller Poukaria campsite.

Ohinepane Campsite to Whakahoro Campsite
35km, 6-8hr
Day two is punctuated by more rapids, but it is prone to treefall, and can be dangerous for paddlers. The scenic Whakahoro Campsite offers views over the river, but the consequence is a 400m walk from the landing, which paddlers will have to lug their barrels up. The good news, however, is that paddlers can eat their feelings away at nearby Blue Duck Cafe.

Whakahoro Campsite to John Coull Hut and Campsite
37.5km, 7-9hr
The starting point for the popular three day journey, Whakahoro marks the beginning of true wilderness, and the next road access is not until Pipiriki 88km away. This section is one of the most scenic as it passes through narrow mossy gorges. It’s a relaxing day with small rapids, so you may feel it in your arms by day’s end. John Coull Hut is the first roof you’ll find on the journey, and a good spot to listen for kiwi or spot long-tailed pekapeka at dusk.

John Coull Hut and Campsite to Tieke Kāinga
29km, 7-9hr
The scenery continues on relaxing day four, and within a few hours, the iconic Bridge to Nowhere is reached – a must-see on this section. The 1.5hr return side trip is a good chance to stretch the legs from the track start at Mangapurua Landing. Arrive early to find a mooring and avoid crowds from jet boat tours. From here, continue to Tieke Kāinga – the only Marae accommodation of the Great Walks.

Tieke Kāinga to Pipiriki
21.5km, 4-6hr
If you’ve managed to stay in your canoe thus far, the final day’s paddle might have other plans for you. The infamous Fifty-fifty, which capsizes half of the paddlers who take it on, is one of two rapids sure to thrill on the short but sweet final leg to Pipiriki.

In the neighbourhood

Alternative track: The Mohaka River in Hawke’s Bay provides a range of journeys for more experienced paddlers, with a number of DOC campsites along its banks.

Since you’re already here: Walk the 2hr Te Maire Loop Track near Taumarunui to explore some of the region’s now rare podocarp forest.

Just got a weekend? A two day paddle is possible from Taumarunui to Whakahoro, and includes some of the best rapids.

Where to stay: Check with your canoe hire company about pre-trip accommodation options.

Where to stock up: Taumaranui’s Seriously Outdoors for gear, or supermarkets for food.

145km (Taumarunui to Pipiriki), 87km (Whakahoro to Pipiriki)
3-5 days
John Coull Hut (24 bunks), Tieke Kainga (20 bunks). Multiple campsites
Taumarunui, Whakahoro (from Owhango or Raurimu), Pipiriki

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