A canoe tour on the Whanganui River – into wild waters

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We capsized several times on the first day of our five day canoe tour on the Whanganui River, which is also one of the Great Walks of New Zealand (and the only one you do not actually walk but paddle). But in the end it turned out as one of the highlights of the whole New Zealand trip.

Day 1: Cherry Grove – Ohinepane. 25 km

„Let‘s see – Ok, we go down the main current and then we have to take a sharp right turn in order NOT to hit that stone, and then there‘s another stone behind.“

Ben, the canoe rental, has advised us to get out of the canoe at the first major bend to assess the next rapid. Apparently it is one of the most difficult ones of the whole canoe tour on the Whanganui River. What he didn’t tell us is that a canoe reacts quite differently from a kayak (something we have done before) … Instead of going to the right, and in spite of fervent paddling on our part, the canoe continues straight forward directly heading for the stone – and then the boat tilts and slowly turns over.

Capsizing is far less stressful than anticipated – February is New Zealand summer and the Whanganui River is surprisingly warm. We just have to get to the shore, unload the canoe to tilt the water out, repack, and get in again. At least, capsizing just 15 minutes into the five-day trip should take the fear off it. 

In the boat again

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In fact, we fall into the water three times on that first day on the canoe tour on the Whanganui River. Once, a nearby kayaking guide has to come swimming to rescue us and the boat from a tree where it is stuck. And by the evening we feel depressed and doubtful about canoeing on the rapids of a truly wild river. 

Only three other people have started the five-day canoe tour on the Whanganui river with us that day. All of them younger solo travellers on single kayaks. Lim, with whom we are paddling within viewing distance because he rented the kayak from the same operator as we did, is a Korean student. He has never been on a river, nor pitched a tent, but he is doing quite well (although he, too, falls off his kayak occasionally).

Day 2: Ohinepane – Whakahoro. 40 km

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Stubbornly we decided the evening before to stick it out – either we will never go into a canoe after this trip or we will get better at it. On our second day, the rapids continue, but we manage somehow. Perhaps we have gained more experience and are working better strategies in assessing the current beforehand, squinting at the river surface.

“There’s that snag over there, and behind that …  I don’t think that wave in the distance is a stone … Anyway we should go to the far left and steer around whatever it is …” We treat the heavy, roundish canoe as a washtub that will just follow the current from whichever point it is when the river starts going faster, and concentrate on finding the right entrance point and on keeping it as straight as possible. This seems to work better than yesterday’s attempts at “steering”. And gradually the river gets slower: The Whanganui River is extremely low after a hot and dry summer, and people had warned us that we would have to paddle a lot.

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We stay overnight at the Whakahoro campsite with a wonderful view over the river from above (but a very exhausting climb up to the site).

Day 3: Whakahoro – John Coull. 40 km.

On the third day of our canoe tour on the Whanganui river, we enter the Whanganui National Park and paddle mostly on calm waters through canyons with impressively high steep walls. Drift wood piles up on the sides and sometimes in the middle of the river – keeping us somewhat busy spotting trouble. But on the whole it is a relaxed and quiet day: Ducks follow our canoe, cormorants sit watchfully, and wild goats scramble up the shores. Once or twice we glide past kingfishers that only make the effort of flying up when we are at arm’s length from them. There are no roads or settlements within the Whanganui National Park, the only access is by boat.

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The extremely low level of the Whanganui River also means that the features along the river and most rapids are quite different from their description in the river chart – today we don’t even notice some of the normally difficult ones. By now, our group of five has become sort of a river family.

Day 4: John Coull – Tieke Kainga. 39 km

The John Coull hut was the starting point for more kayaks and canoes. On the following section in the National Park, the Whanganui River offers spectacular scenery and not so difficult paddling in most places. The five of us who started out together on the difficult rapids of the upper river stick together more, watching out for each other and sharing breaks.

Half into the day, there’s a popular side-trip by foot leading to the Bridge to Nowhere. It is a proper road bridge built in the 20th century to provide access for new settlements – but the terrain proved too difficult to finish the road. Some of the pioneers held out for a few decades, but many died or went away – today only the concrete bridge, far too large for the hiking path crossing it, remains. A few name plates remind of of the settlers who once tried to cultivate the forest, a dense jungle today.

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Today’s campsite at Tieke Kainga is situated on traditional Maori land. Originally most of the area was sparsely populated by Maori tribes, but with the creation of the Whanganui National Park everyone who lived there had been forced to leave the park. When the park administration (DOC / Department of Conservation) decided to establish campsites in the 1990s, the Maori tribe who still formally owned the land protested. Eventually the campsite was placed under joint administration of DOC and the tribe, and they could build a Marae (a meeting house) next to the campsite.

Day 5: Tieke Kainga – Pipiriki. 24 km

Our last day on the river is quite short with some steep and fast rapids, but also more relaxed parts among widening banks. Often, we are still paddling in a canyon with high walls and piled-up driftwood, and the most difficult part is avoiding the high waves of the jet boats which pass us frequently, ferrying groups of hikers or mountain bikers between Pipiriki and the Bridge to Nowhere landing. All five of us are nervous because today we will encounter a very sharp and fast left-bend rapid with a big stone sticking out right in the middle of it. “A red canoe is wrapped around it – so you should spot it easily!” everybody has assured us. We cheat a little by dragging the canoes and kayaks over the shallow banks on the left side….

After a few hours of paddling, we arrive in Pipiriki, the final point of the Whanganui River tour: with a sense of achievement, but more importantly, very relaxed. The tour on the river has taken us very far from our normal life and work, and not only because there’s no Internet, electricity and mobile connection. And we are glad that we pulled through with the trip after the first bad day.

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What you need to know for a canoe tour on the Whanganui River

Most people only do the last three days of this trip, which are arguably the highlight of the river. This also means there are more people. We would recommend doing the five day trip. Some companies suggest stretching the three days into four days, or five days into six, to give you more time for exploring. However, when we did the trip we did not feel rushed or overly exhausted although the river was unusually slow and we had to paddle a lot.

You have to book most campsites and huts before you go. We rented our canoe at Whanganui River Canoes/Raetihi for 200 NZ Dollar per person which included storage barrels for the gear, life vests and a map of the river as well as transport to and from the river. Apart from the canoe rental, we organised the trip (huts and food) by ourselves.

All expenses have been fully paid by ourselves and we did not receive any sponsoring.

12 Comments

  1. What a wonderful post on camping and canoeing at Whanganui river.New Zealand us so picturesque and U can imagine what an adventure it must have been canoeing at the river.Thank you so much for sharing 💕

  2. Whanganui National Park sounds like an incredible place. I love that it’s only accessible by water. It sounds like those comfortable in canoe would be most suited to navigate with ease. But it sure would be amazing to try!

    1. It depends on your experience. A canoe is heavier and you cannot navigate quickly. As the river was low water there were a lot of rocks and trees….

  3. You had a great canoe trip. I am very impressed because the most extended canoeing trip in which I participated lasted two days. And your journey is five days long. In addition, it has been divided into exciting parts. Whanganui River seems to be wild and beautiful. I like those caves and greenery along your route.

  4. I have visited Whanganui but not done a canoe tour in the river! Your images with the reflections on the water look simply stunning. This part of NZ is so beautiful. I must do this tour and visit the national park in my next trip. 🙂

  5. I’m glad you stick with the canoe trip to the end of the 5 days trip. The views and experience are just incredible. I don’t think I can paddle for 5 days, but you actually had one of the amazing trips in New Zealand.

    1. Yes, we are glad too that we did it! We also learned a lot in terms of canoing skills. And we learned that it is not the end of the trip, if you capsize.

  6. Wow, I admire your stamina and the willpower to paddle again after capsizing! I love the lessons you got from this adventure, especially when you mentioned that on Day 4, all 5 of you stuck together and watched out for each other. That’s really nice. We can’t go wrong with getting out there and exploring a beautiful country like New Zealand –especially when it comes to outdoor adventures like this.

    1. Thanks for your kind words! Although I have to admit it was more stubborness than willpower that made us continue. Looking back it was a great adventure!

  7. This is cool. I had no idea canoe tours were such a thing but after reading your post, I realized it is a nice way to explore. Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience. You definitely got me interested.

    1. If you have never been in a canoe or a kayak it might be better to do only the last three days. The Whanganui river is one of the Great Treks of New Zealand. The only one you can paddel.

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