The Whanganui River, once known as the Rhine of the South Seas, is a major river in the North Island, with a rich, interesting history and many sites of cultural significance.
Officially classified as one of NZ's Great Walks, the 145km journey on the Whanganui River from Taumarunui to Pipiriki usually takes around 5 days by canoe or kayak, although you can opt for a shorter 3 day excursion from Whakahoro to Pipiriki, 87km.
Flowing from the Mountains to the sea through the Whanganui National Park, the river has special status with its own legal identity due to its spiritual importance to Māori. It is a wilderness area where little has changed in hundreds of years and is regarded as taonga - a special treasure.
The area around Whanganui was once densely populated, with the river providing access for Māori and early settlers to the central North Island. With over 200 rapids and long stretches of white water it was never an easy journey. In 1892 a paddle steamer provided a link to Taumarunui, connecting to road and rail services.
Negotiating these 200 rapids nowdays in a kayak or canoe adds a thrilling touch of spice to your adventure; a burst of adrenaline and trepidation at the onset of each series of rapids, quickly replaced by a sense of achievement and satisfaction as you come through unscathed. A local operator told me that 50% of the double Canadian canoes tip over at the first series of rapids, and 50% turf out at the rapids near the end. But providing you are well briefed and equipped and that you are not paddling in dangerous or flooded conditons, it's all part of the fun. In normal weather conditions the rapids are fairly gentle (grade one and two) and can be negotiated without too much difficulty, making a great adventure for family groups or friends.
During the 1930s, a bridge was constructed to provide access to settlement farms for returning soldiers. By the time the bridge was completed attempts to farm this rugged land had been abandoned and proposed roading was shelved. The 'Bridge to Nowhere' is a lasting legacy of that time and is a well-known attraction. When paddling along the river, stop at Mangapurua Landing, secure your canoe and walk to the Bridge to Nowhere, an easy track approx 1 ½ hours return.
Of the settlements dotted along the river, the most well-known are Pipiriki, and Jerusalem the site of a Catholic Mission established in 1892 and home to renowned poet James K Baxter who established a commune there in 1970.
Tour operators provide guided and independent trips, including 1 & 2 day canoe options, jet boat tours, or a combination of both. Although the Great Walk route ends at Pipiriki, it's possible to continue on to Whanganui.
Accommodation is a combination of huts and campsites. From 1 October to 30 April, hut and camp passes must be purchased before you start. They are available from river operators, DOC in Whanganui, or local Visitor Information Centres.
While most operators provide Canadian Canoe's because of their stability and large storage capacity, our group consisted of mostly experienced paddlers who completed the trip independently in sea kayaks. One of the local tour companies provided a shuttle service for us, enlisting the support of a local Maori woman to perform a Karakia for us (a Maori Blessing to provide guidance and protection), a poignant, moving experience before we started our epic journey.
For more details on the Whanganui River Journey click HERE