Whanganui River Journey 'Great Walk'

Question: When is a Great Walk not a walk?
Answer:-. When it is a canoe trip down the Whanganui River.

Don't ask me why, but the Whanganui River Journey is designated as one of the nine Great Walks of New Zealand. As such, we felt obliged to do it for the sake of completeness, though the idea of canoeing slowly down one of New Zealands most beautiful and pristine rivers would have ensured that it was part of our itinerary anyway.

To travel down the Whanganui is also to experience in part the history of New Zealand; the river was an important travel route for hundreds of years for the Maori who lived along its shores and, in the early days of European settlement, served a similar role for the Pakeha who tried to carve out a living in its alien and unforgiving environment. The Maori waka (canoes) and 19th century steamboats are long gone and the Whanganui is now the domain of the jetboat and the canoe. The latter seemed the more appropriate way for us to complete our New Zealand Great Walk adventure.

Day 1: Whakahoro to John Coull Hut

We opted to do a three-day trip from Whakahoro to Pipiriki, down a section of river that passes through the wilderness of Whanganui National Park. The canoe rental people picked us up from the backpackers at National Park and, after a winding hour-long drive through the steep hills and valleys, we found ourselves at our starting point near Wades Landing, Whakahoro, where a large open Canadian canoe awaited us. Our gear loaded up in six water-tight drums lashed to our canoe, we set off from the banks of the Retaruke Stream, swiftly moving along with the current to swing a sharp left hand turn into the Whanganui - our journey was underway.

Mudstone bluff

Ready to hit the river

First glimpse of the Whanganui

There are 93 named rapids between Whakahoro and Pipiriki and we had barely turned the corner when we passed through the first. Fortunately, no rapid is greater than level 2, giving a fun ride and an occasional bath from the wash of a standing wave. Only a handful have the potential to capsize a canoe and these would be waiting for us on the third day when we had honed our rapid-running skills.

Today was for simple enjoyment of the river and for learning how to handle the different types of rapid - broad, shallow ones as wide as the river with many small waves; narrower ones with V-shaped entries and high standing waves, where the current was forced through deeper narrow channels, often by shingle banks blocking the river; fast, curving ones that tried to run you into the shingle bank or cliff wall; and occasional pressure waves caused by hidden boulders and snags.

Still water entering a small rapid

Tall rimu on the river's edge
Very quickly we found ourselves in the green-clad Whanganui Gorge, alternating between small rapids and long reaches of still water. This was to be the pattern for most of the trip, as we glided down the river under the steep papa (mudstone) walls of the gorge, topped with tree-ferns, nikau palms, beech and tall podocarps, their branches laden with epiphytes. All morning we had alternated between sun and cloud until finally the weather did what the river couldn't - drenched us! However, once the rain cleared, we dried out quickly and the remainder of our trip was under fine, if mostly cloudy skies.

Two views of the Whanganui Gorge and the dense forest along its banks near Man O'War Bluff

After a stop at the Mangapapa campsite for a bite to eat, we pushed on around a long horseshoe bend, passing features such as Man O' War Bluff, where once a Maori pa stood in a commanding position high above the river, and Tamatea's Cave, named after a Maori chief. The next place we could get out and stretch legs was on a shingle bank below Ohauora Campsite. Leaving Ohauora, we rounded a bend into the long calm Otaihanga Reach, lined with low papa cliffs. The dense vegetation reflected in the still waters of the reach as we paddled gently down, passing numerous waterfalls, some falling as a fine spray from the high sheer banks, others spilling out into the river from narrow clefts cut deep into the soft papa cliffs.

Tamatea's Cave

Small rapids in front of the Ohauora
Stream entrance

Rest stop on a shingle bank

Reflections in the still waters
of Otaihanga Reach

Finally, after 37km, the welcome sign for John Coull Hut appeared high on the river bank; one last rapid and we beached our canoe for the night. John Coull is a modern comfortable hut and Murray, the resident warden, gave us a warm welcome with the pot-belly stove all fired up and a hot cuppa. We were joined by 10 other canoeists for a pleasant night of conversation and cards, deep in the heart of the Whanganui wilderness. Only 44 rapids to go!

Day 2: John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga

Leaving John Coull Hut, we continued on down the Whanganui Gorge, passing the broad opening of first the Tangarakau and then the Whangamoama Rivers. Below these confluences, the river edges were lined in places with snag banks, where large trees that had been washed out of the two side rivers during floods were trapped in tangled heaps by the eddies of the Whanganui. The campsite at Mangawaiiti perched high above the river on a grassy flat at the edge of the papa cliffs was a good spot to stop for a break and watch other canoeists drift by below us.


View from Mangawaiiti campground
- time to watch others canoes pass by


The narrow ravine of the
Mangawaiiti Stream

Snag banks lining the edge of the gorge


Part of the Mangapurua Track
leading to the Bridge to Nowhere

Pushing on, we soon arrived at Mangapurua Landing where we tied up for lunch and a chance to stretch our legs with a 5km sidetrip up the Mangapurua Gorge to see a monument to failed dreams; "The Bridge to Nowhere". After the First World War, soldier settlers had been given land in the Mangapurua Valley to "develop" into farms. For many years they struggled in the steep unforgiving terrain with the river their only point of access. A strong concrete bridge was finally built in 1935 giving road access to the valley, but it was too late; many had already abandoned their holdings and a few years later the government bought out the remaining farms and closed off the valley. Nature reclaimed the Mangapurua, leaving the bridge isolated in the middle of the wilderness as a stark reminder that mankind does not always win when he chooses to butt heads with nature.

The Bridge to Nowhere

Yes ... it really goes nowhere

Time for a break on a rare sandy beach

King Billy - one of many feral goats
that live on the steep river edge

View downstream from Mangapurua

Back on the river again, we found ourselves gliding down a long steep-walled reach. The river is a strangely quiet place; the soft stone-rumble of the rapids periodically punctuating the silence of the reaches, and the occasional song of a forest bird or bleat of a feral goat on the cliffs above us, a reminder that other creatures call this place home.

It was easy to let the mind drift as we watched the strange patterns of the eddies and uprising columns of water in the river. You can imagine the rhythmic chants of the Maori warriors as they paddled their wakas from one village to the next, or the amazement of the boater- and bonnet-hatted Victorian tourists lining the decks of a paddle steamer pushing upstream through the exotic and feerique landscape of this green-clad gorge.

Our reverie snapped as we turned the bend at the end of the reach. The gorge opened out and feral goats were replaced by grazing cattle on the river banks as we passed through a section surrounded by private landholdings. On our left, on a high sandy bank lay the site of Tieke Kainga, once a Maori Village, now a hut for canoeists, but one set in the grounds of a rebuilt marae. If there are Maori staying at the marae, canoeists are given the experience of Maori protocol; a powhiri or welcome ceremony followed by communal meal.

Unfortunately for us (but perhaps fortunately for the Maori, as the powhiri would have obliged me as a visitor to sing a song) nobody was there, and that night we only shared the peaceful location of the hut with several other canoeists, a greedy rooster and an overpopulation of possums.

The Marae at Tieke Kainga
Sole residents of Tieke Marae

Whanganui cliffs
At night you never know who is watching you

Day 3: Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki

Leaving the marae at Tieke, we quickly re-entered the deepest part of the Whanganui Gorge and drifted down a long reach, the stillness disturbed only by the sound of the occasional waterfalls cascading out of their narrow clefts in the papa cliffs lining the gorge. But where are all the aquatic birds? - only a few ducks and a solitary shag in our three days on the river. The birds may have been absent, but the reflections in the still reach revealed a myriad of strange symmetrical creatures along the waterline of the cliffs. The silence was broken by a deep thrumming noise and soon a jet boat roared by, its wake washing from side to side and back again in the narrow gorge - reality returned and the reflectofauna of the Whanganui fled at its passing.

Te Wahi Pari (The Place of Cliffs)

Waterfall emerging from its
cleft in the cliffs

Bend near Kahura Landing

Shingle bank and mudstone cliffs
at Ngaporo campsite

Sunlight reflecting on rough water near Ngaporo
The reach ended at the confluence of the Manganuioteao river and not long after we heard the sound of Ngaporo, the first of the three big rapids on the river. Soon the current was drawing us into the V of the rapid that led us into a long plume of standing waves and before we knew it, it had spat us we out the other side, none the worse for wear than a couple of buckets worth of water to bail out from the wash of the waves. The nagging fear that we might capsize at least once before the trip was over began to evaporate with Ngaporo behind us.

Last part of the Gorge

At the next corner, we kept our eye open for the narrow opening of the Mangaio Stream. Murray, the warden at John Coull had recommended we paddle up it, where about 100m in, but hidden from the river by the narrow ravine, is a magnificent rock amphitheatre. Thanks for the tip Murray - it was spectacular. A little later on, we beached the canoe to have a look at the Puraroto Caves, before heading on to the last leg of our trip, first bouncing and splashing our way through the metre-high waves of Autapu rapid, then cruising down a long broad reach with the sun and a northerly wind at our backs.

Mangaio Amphitheatre

Puraroto Cave

Fern-covered cliffs near Puraroto

In the ravine of Mangaio Stream

The gorge had opened out again and farmland and the odd building replaced the forest on the river's edge. A final bend in the river and our destination of Pipiriki appeared.

Only Paparoa, the longest rapid of all lay between, but our 3 days of practice had put us in good stead and riding its long, narrow band of waves through in style was a perfect way to finish our Whanganui River journey.

Ninety-second and last rapid before home

It was a bittersweet trip back along the winding road from Pipiriki to National Park; there was sense of satisfaction and enjoyment from our three days in this superb wilderness and river environment, a feeling of elation that we now done all of the Great Walks in New Zealand, and a strange melancholy and emptiness that this meant that our trip would soon be over. To end an adventure is never as easy as to start one.