With New Zealand’s third-longest river cutting right through the middle of it Whanganui might just be the perfect place to do a canoe or kayak trip.
Yet, during the sixteen years that I spent growing up here, I’d never known anyone to paddle down the Whanganui River in a canoe or kayak! Swimming at Mosquito point, water skiing and a spot of fishing from the town bridge were about all I used the river for during this time.
In 2013, together with six friends, I decided it was time to give the Whanganui River canoe trip a go. The trip gained in popularity since the filming of the movie River Queen there in 2005. While the movie itself didn’t get rave reviews, the scenery was awesome!
So, I searched for some canoe and kayak operators and got in touch with Blazing Paddles, who were very helpful. Our Whanganui River canoe adventure was in motion!
Accommodation on the Whanganui River
The first thing I learned: You will need to secure accommodation independently alongside the river, or you will not be able to do the trip. The Department of Conservation (D.O.C.) has a number of huts and campsites along the Whanganui River. Having decided on the three-day canoe trip, I checked what accommodation was available through their booking system.
I managed to book sites at the Ohauora and Mangapurua Campsites. The booking process is pretty seamless, so with that done, we booked some Canadian river canoes for December 30th and 31st. We would set off from Whakahoro and arrive at Pipiriki, north of Whanganui, on the 1st of January, 2014.
Starting the trip
We arrived at the Blazing Paddles starting point at 8 am under a few rain clouds. With the weather forecast for more rain that day, we were a little apprehensive, however, we were pretty excited about the adventure that lay ahead.
After renting a sleeping mattress, we packed all our clothes, food, cooking equipment and sleeping gear into watertight drums and loaded the canoes onto the trailer.
We were driven the 45 minutes north to Whakahoro, in Whanganui National Park, where you launch for the three-day Whanganui river canoe or kayak trip. It can get a little crowded here, but once you launch you’ll pretty much have the river to yourselves, as they tend to space out the launching groups.
We were now all set and cruising down the Whanganui river at a leisurely pace in our two-man Canadian canoes.
The water at that time of year is just the right temperature to hang your feet on the outside of the canoes. Since there’s no major requirement to paddle hard, so you can get into cruise mode.
We found that the suggested times were very generous, similar to the DOC walking track suggested times. If you often complete the DOC walking tracks faster than suggested, the same will most likely apply to your canoe or kayak trip on the Whanganui River, too.
Campsites and huts
Generally, there’s a hut or campsite every two hours of paddling down the popular canoeing stretch of the Whanganui River. Look for the signposts, on either bank. Some contain specific instructions such as ‘keep left’ or ‘campsite is 150 metres on the right’.
Blazing Paddles supplied us with a waterproof map, so you could see where you were without any hassle.
Our first booked campsite was Ohauora, where we arrived around 3 pm, after taking some time along the way to stop for lunch.
There was drizzling rain when we arrived, which made putting up the tent a bit tricky. However, there was a small shelter there to cook under. Thankfully, within a few hours, the rain stopped.
While cooking around 7 pm, we noticed some rustling in the bushes nearby. It turns out there are lots of river rats, which could be the reason why wood framing surrounds the cooking area!
Unfortunately, the rats are quite friendly, and get pretty close! We made sure not to leave any food scraps out. However, that didn’t stop them from having a munch on some jandals that were in the awning of a tent.
Whanganui River Wildlife
There’s quite a bit of wildlife on the river banks along this trip. Quite often you’ll see some wild goats grazing on the lush grass alongside the river banks. There are also lots of Mallard ducks.
If you’re keen on eating eel, you could take an eeling line and you would be sure to catch something. I’m not much of a fan of eel without it being smoked, and even then I don’t find it all that great.
Most of the campsites will have a good area to pull up on (like this one below, at Ohauora). As you can see, we pulled our canoes up quite high and tied them off, just in case the mighty Whanganui River was to rise overnight.
We left at 10 am the next morning, bound for our next campsite which was just by the “Bridge to Nowhere”, around 28 km away from Ohauora.
We made good progress on day two, and made it to the Bridge to Nowhere stop at around 3pm.
The Bridge to Nowhere over the Whanganui River
The area to pull up at the Bridge to Nowhere is really small. For added spice, it often has jet boats coming in and out of it, too. That can make it tricky to land!
The best way to attack this is to paddle slightly past the bunch of canoes/kayaks, and paddle into where the arrow is pointing. It’s pretty calm there, so you don’t have to stress too much.
Once we had landed without any hassles or accidents, it was time to take a short walk to see this famous bridge.
The Bridge to Nowhere is a 40-minute walk from where you park your canoe, and well worth it.
What a hearty bunch of people that tried settling here!
If you take a look below the bridge you can see some eels swimming 30 metres or so below. Take some meat if you have it handy and drop it down to them.
Our second night was at the Mangapurua Campsite. This was just across the Whanganui River from the Bridge to Nowhere, so it was easy to park the canoes.
Like Ohauora, it was also small and only had space for about 5 tents. There was an area about 5 metres below this platform. The grass was overgrown there, so we were unsure if this was available for camping on.
We were sorted anyway, and looking forward to having a few New Years Eve drinks to celebrate. For the record, we faked the countdown at 9.30pm!
We woke at 8 am and slowly navigated our way through breakfast, packing up and launching the boats. This was our last stretch, through to Pipiriki, where we would be find our relocated vehicles at 3 pm.
This is later than the normal 1.30 pm time. We couldn’t get any campsites closer to the pickup point, so we needed extra time to paddle the remaining 32 km.
This last day was far slower than the previous two days. The river seems so much slower and you find yourself having to paddle quite a lot on this stretch.
It’s this last day where you find about three rapids where you could potentially fall out though. So, while it’s slower in most places, you’ll have some fun!
All in all, the trip was awesome and hassle-free. Three days was perfect. You get to see a big chunk of the river, and it’s enough time to spend catching up with friends.