Out of New Zealand’s 10 Great Walks comes the red herring that is ‘The Whanganui Journey’. This epic adventure actually involves no walking at all! Instead, the Journey into the lush wilderness takes place on water!
Yes, ‘The Whanganui Journey’, is actually an epic canoe adventure, and we were about to jump in at the deep end, on our first ever canoe trip!
In fact, ‘The Whanganui Journey’ is the only one of the world famous Great Walks of New Zealand, that does not involve setting out on foot!
With options of two different starting points, covering either 3 or 5 days, we novices, wisely chose the shorter distance. Covering 88km, our journey on the North Island’s Whanganui River, would begin at Whakohoro.
This incredibly remote location, is the main starting point on the river. The route takes you through thick bush, following wide gorges, passing moss covered waterfalls, as you head towards the finish at Pipiriki.
We’d booked our canoe hire for the Whanganui Journey, several months in advance, with Whanganui River Canoes. The owner’s also have a campsite at their base, in the village of Raetihi. This is one of the closest campgrounds to the finish and unbelievably, to the start-one and a half hours drive away!
Staying at the campground the night before and hiring the canoes from there, meant we had transport to and from the River included. We could also safety park the camper on site, for the duration of the trip.
The overnight campground’s for the Whanganui Journey, also had to be arranged and booked in advance. Our first night would be a DOC (Department of Conservation) bunk at their John Coull Hut. Whilst our second night, was to be a cabin, at The Bridge to Nowhere campground, where the promise of a hot shower sold it to us!
By late afternoon on 21st December, we’d checked into the campsite, ready for The Whanganui Journey and adventure ahead. Blimey…What had we let ourselves in for!
On arrival, we were each allocated a large barrel for clothes and equipment and a small barrel for food. A yellow dry bag came with the bigger barrel. We could safely pack our kit inside this and then into the sealed container. The food had to be put inside a bin liner, before locking into the small barrel.
A couple of waterproof cases were also given, for storing electrical items, where they’d hopefully stay dry or at least float if they ended up in the river!
It soon became clear that we might not even get started on our trip. After heavy rains and high winds, none of the canoes had been allowed on the river for 5 days.
As the water levels had risen, so too had the dangers of the river in full flood. We wouldn’t know until the next morning, if the water had receded enough for us canoeists to take to the water.
If any more rain fell overnight, especially upstream, then The Whanganui Journey would finish before it began.
The Raetihi Holiday Park was actually really lovely. Commanding fine views across to Ruapehu, the snow-capped slopes of this volcanic wonderland, glistened in the evening sunlight.
A newly modernised toilet block, powerful hot showers and excellent camp kitchen, were a perfect addition to the convenience of the location.
We’d been joined by our son and his girlfriend, and our other son and 3 of his pals from his pilot training school. Luckily, we had a cabin booked, along with a glamping tent and our campervan pitch.
The site was so full, that the owners had built an extra cabin that day to accommodate us. Literally, they just finished it as we arrived.
Before settling in for the night, we had to watch a safety video at the campsite office. This detailed everything we should expect about The Whanganui Journey.
Lots of it showed what to do to avoid falling in and how nothing could be done, other than float to a bank, if you did fall in! It all sounded so simple!
One last check of the packing and that was it, time for bed. It was such a cold night, wrapping up and staying warm under the covers seemed like a really good option. Summer in New Zealand can still be really cool overnight, this was a really good reminder of that!
An early start the next morning had us braving the cold air, until sunrise brought a welcome warmth.
Tea and Coffee was laid on at the campsite office, as we all assembled at the meeting point, ready for the 8am departure. Thank goodness the weather was on our side and we were good to go!
Boarding the bus was quite exciting, with canoes attached onto the trailer behind us, we were almost ready for the off! Our camper and cars had been moved to the parking area and keys locked away with the owners, for safe keeping.
The driver hopped on board and off we went! The drive to the start was long and dusty, mostly covering unsealed roads, plumes of dust billowed out as we sped along.
As the dust settled inside the bus, we covered our faces and felt our freshly washed hair, weighed down by a fine coating of the grey stuff. We now knew, we’d be feeling unwashed and unkempt for the next few days!
The drive to the start was scenic, but brought a realisation as to how remote this place is. After 90 minutes on the road, our driver announced our arrival at Whakahoro and the chance for a toilet break at the DOC campground…..thank goodness for that!
The drop toilets were more than welcome, and a chance to get ready for the next few days of the non-flushing variety!
In front of us, several other buses were already unloading canoes on the narrow lane. This dead-end track lead to a muddy slipway to the waters edge, our launching site and the start of The Whanganui Journey…this was going to be messy!
Typically, our bus was last in the queue. This meant hanging around, with our nervous energy yet to be unleashed. All of our barrels were loaded underneath the canoes, so we couldn’t reach any of our kit until it was unloaded.
Frustratingly, our final preparations; such as packing away some of the layers that we no longer needed, after the cold start and finding a snack to nibble on, had to wait.
There was then, what seemed like a bit of a rush to get organised, as our turn finally came. Quickly stripping off what we didn’t need to wear, slapping on the sun lotion and insect repellent and actually strapping the barrels into the canoes. The Whanganui Journey had now come upon us in a flash!
Finally, our turn to step into the Canadian style canoe came. Just as were about to set off, our canoes had to be moved to one side to make way for a rescue jet-boat….heck this was a bit unnerving!
Apparently, no sooner had one group taken to the river, than all hell had been let loose and they’d somehow requested a rescue mission!
We wondered what on earth we’d let ourselves in for. The glum looking party retuned to shore, minus their canoes, so, it was now our time to find out.
Wading through the the muddy bank to our waiting canoes was a dirty business. “Just one last thing” announced the owner, “here’s an emergency beacon, just press SOS if you need immediate rescue”. With that, he handed us a small yellow device, placed it inside a yellow waterproof box and got ready to let us loose.
Into the canoe we staggered, took to our seats and before we knew it, with a push and a shove, we were off! Yikes!
Frantically trying to remember everything we’d been shown from the safety briefings, we knew straight away that teamwork was total priority.
If the 3 days on the river was going to be a success, we’d have to get along, work together and definitely not have any marital differences.
We’d decided that Nigel would steer (that’s sitting at the back) and I would be the engine at the front! Being up front, also meant that I had to be lookout – gosh, how hard could that be?!
Oh, it sounded all so simple, but we were about to find out from the start, that this was a lot harder than it looked.
The first part of the river was actually not the Whanganui River at all, this was a gentle, smaller river, that flows into the Whanganui river.
We had instructions to turn left and did as we were told. Then the vast expanse of the Whanganui River, in what looked like full flood, appeared ahead of us.
Whirlpools swirled in the murky water, obstacles of fallen trees, rocks and occasional debris, soon came into view. The task of keeping an eye out for things that could topple us was constant.
This was a real adventure and we were on our own! The other 6 in our group had taken to the water before us and were nowhere in sight.
It was just us and the surrounding birdsong, which echoed from the gorge-type walls of the river. Rising above us, the thick greenery of the New Zealand bush, resembled something from a far-flung land.
We soon got into a bit of a rhythm, enough to keep us gliding through the wide swathes of water. Before long, we saw the distant outline of the other’s up ahead too.
It would be another 2 hours of paddling before we caught sight of our lunch stop. This was at one of the basic DOC campgrounds, that are located every couple of hours along the river.
Apparently, there are usually beaches to pull in at, but for us, with the river so high, these were submerged beyond reach. Instead, there were no shallow segments of water, not even a river bank to launch ourselves onto.
Thankfully, our lunch-stop had a small muddy verge, where we could aim to land. Hoping, that we’d make it before missing the opportunity to stop, we steered with all our strength to get to the bank.
We threw our rope over to our waiting group, who were already on dry land. After a few tugs on the ropes, we were pulled ashore. So relieved, that we’d got our first stop in the bag!
By now, the heat was beating down, so not only was this time for food, but also the sunscreen and more insect repellent.
Our rest was short-lived. After a quick picnic and use of the drop toilet, we knew we’d have to be back on the river, to make it to our campsite for the night.
This first day, should have taken around 7 hours to complete, except that you apparently move quicker in a full river. All was going well, until we hit the only obstacle that we hadn’t accounted for-a strong headwind.
For some reason, we’d never expected to be battling the gusty stuff at any point in the journey. As the wind blew up the valley, there was no escaping its strength.
The only solution was to paddle harder and get the task done. At this point, we knew, this was no walk in the park! This was going to need all our upper body strength, concentration and cool wit, to get us through.
After 5 hours of paddling, our first night campsite came into view. John Coull Hut, another DOC campground was upon us.
More frantic steering, had us glide in between a mass of parked canoes. This was not easy, with no beach to happily wade onto, our only option was to leap out of the canoe and haul each of our canoes up the steep bank.
A flat strip of grass, provided a space to park up our groups canoes overnight. We never expected having to physically carry each canoe onto dry land!
First though, our barrels had to be unloaded and carried up to dry land. There was no room alongside the river, due to the steep, muddy banks and sheer number of canoes, that had arrived before us.
This would have been such hard work. However, an organised team effort, had everything carried up to the tent area and our own shared hut, high above the river.
The hut was over-booked, so we quickly had to find a bunk amongst the rows of mattresses that were taken. After the heavy rains, some people had become grounded in previous camps. This meant a backlog on the river and more people than expected at our camp.
The campground itself was really basic but good. A kitchen adjacent to the bunk room had gas burners and running water. Although this had to be boiled, it meant we didn’t have to carry extra supplies on the journey.
Outside, a small sink for washing and a separate sink for dishwashing, looked out onto the river below. Several drop toilets were located between the tent area and the hut. Although smelly, they were generally clean and the next best thing to a flushing loo.
A terrace area with large picnic tables and an indoor dining area, with a log burner, made it all actually rather comfortable. As darkness fell, we retreated to our bunk beds, where the nightmare of a bunk room began.
Snoring reverberated around the room, almost in a chorus. Sounds from a horror movie, like nothing we’d heard before. The worst culprit, a middle aged man, 2 bunks away, made the most deafening sounds imaginable.
Before we knew it, all we could do was laugh. In a kind of way that you do as a child, when you’re at a school assembly. Trying not to giggle in the important part, but then you can’t stop yourself!
The laughter soon turned to tears and after about an hour of being sandwiched between the snoring, we gave in. Instead, we grabbed our mattress and took to sleeping on the kitchen floor.
There we were, thinking, we’d solved the problem – how wrong were we? Well, unbeknown to us, the Snorer from Hell 2 was unleashed next to the log burner! At that point, we gave up trying to sleep. As a new dawn came, it was time to put it down to experience and get ready for day 2 on the river!
As a low mist cleared from the treetops, the sun broke through and the chill from the early morning gave way to warm air.
Fully refreshed as can be after no sleep, we relied on coffee and cereal to awaken the senses! Just as well, as we needed all our energy to carry those barrels back to the canoes, as well as manoeuvre the canoes, onto the river.
We were told, that there’s usually a small beach here to provide a much easier landing exercise, than this steep bank experience.
As we safety made it to our seating positions, without toppling over, relief came in. Quickly followed the need to focus on the direction of paddle, before we ended up just spinning around, like something from a Kylie hit!
Ahead of us lay another long day. Although the river levels had dropped a little, they were still much higher than normal.
We were told that the river can rise up to 13 meters after heavy rain! Canoes have to be tied securely, out of the water overnight. It’s been known, for the canoes to disappear with the rising water or be carried away down stream.
Every now and then, we would spot a submerged tree, peaking above the water. After watching the safety video and seeing how a canoe can topple or get stuck against one of these huge trunks, we had to be really on guard, to avoid a collision.
Occasionally, we’d cross some bumpy rapids, strong currents and spiralling whirlpools. The river is wide, the valley alongside is a mix of complete natural bush, blending upwards towards the sky, whilst a canopy of greenery covers the wilderness.
Moss-filled cliffs, hide behind cascades of exotic looking waterfalls, whilst narrow inlets, carved out against the passage of time, provide a mystical, forgotten world. It all looks like a far away jungle, as if expecting monkey’s to swing between the trees.
The headwinds were still annoyingly against us, but the determination to combat the aching backsides and energy depleted arms, overrode the niggles.
Our first stop of the day, after an hour and a half, was a welcome one. The basic DOC campground provided another drop toilet and a picnic bench. Plenty of sand flies joined us for our break, reminding us, to keep spraying that insect repellent to the body parts!
Next almost came our capsize moment. As Nigel stepped over the barrels to take his seat at the back of the canoe, a sudden lack of balance swung us over to the left. As I got ready to get wet, Nigel’s bottom half disappeared under the water, as our fellow canoeists leaped from the river bank to grab hold of the unsteady canoe.
Thank goodness, for those quick thinking crew members! Catastrophe was just about avoided, the only evidence was a few buckets of water, that had now settled around our feet, along with the loss of a drinks bottle into the river. Luckily, this bobbed up and down like a cork next to us, so we could save it from floating off into oblivion.
Progressing ahead of time down stream, we were soon upon the only part of the journey, where you pull over to do a bit of a walk- that’s if you want to!
This was ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’, but first we had to get there, which meant landing on a very high, muddy bank, in a strong current. A flurry of canoes had already parked up, making access really tight.
Adding insult to injury, was the arrival of the jet-boat. Crikey, this was all a bit daunting for us novices!
For the sake of some background info, the jet boat is the alternative means of transport, for anyone wanting to see The Bridge to Nowhere. This bright yellow boat, catapults visitors upstream in a flash, so they can visit the bridge without much effort!
As they look on, we have to paddle and steer like crazy to get to shore. As the yellow jet boat, gets wedged against our canoe, we have to navigate round it’s rear end, avoiding getting caught in a section of rapids. Using all our strength, we finally steer to a tiny section of free river bank.
Hauling our rope ashore, to our anxious looking crew, each dashing to assist in pulling us to dry land. There was nothing left for us to do, other than reach for a sweet treat and get some much needed sugar through the veins.
Our walk to the bridge, took us through the bush, along a well marked path. The 45 minute route, gradually meandered up hill, until we reached a clearing in the trees. There in front of us, above a small river, was the pretty arch of the bridge.
The story behind the structure is a bit of a sad one. The land here was given to returning soldiers after the 2nd World War. Supposedly as a gift, to allow them to farm the land.
They soon realised that the land was unsuitable for use, so they never got to use this fruitless gift. Nowadays, the only reminder is the bridge that was built to access the land. Of course, with no useful purpose, the structure became known as ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’.
Located in beautiful bush, the bridge is actually lovely. Below it, we could see huge eels swimming in the river.
Following a photo opportunity, we returned for the 45 minute trek back to the canoes. A picnic lunch followed, under the shade of the sun, before setting off for the next section of the journey.
Easier said than done! Getting back into the canoes was really awkward. The jet boat was still parked up too, the only way we could get to one of our canoes, was to step on the deck of the jet boat first…not to the amusement of the slightly grumpy driver!
All was going well, after finally getting back on the river. That was, until our jet boat friend whizzed passed! The waves grew larger and larger, the swell seeming huge against our tiny canoe!
As we just about managed to ride the storm, the waving tourists almost seemed to have a bit of a smirk on their faces, or were we now just paranoid?!
The day had gone quicker than anticipated, great teamwork and sections of calm water, made the earlier part of the river more enjoyable.
Then, we hit a continuous headwind once again. An hour or so later, we were loosing our enthusiasm. The only option was to just grit our teeth, put in the effort and talk our way through it.
Finally, there it was, a large sign on the right hand side of the river. This was our next overnight campsite stop, at The Bridge to Nowhere Campground.
Steering swiftly towards the slightly easier looking river bank, we were overjoyed to have arrived. It had been a long day, but apparently, we were told it was quicker as the river was full…one consolation!
A smiley face soon greeted us from a quad bike, this was amazing, it was the manager who’d come to collect our barrels and show us round camp.
Surprisingly, we were first to arrive for the night. Goodness knows how, but we obviously weren’t as bad as we thought!
Our really basic bunk room had the most fabulous views across the river. Perched high above the valley, the outdoor deck was a welcome rest area, for a mug of coffee. A pile of firewood was delivered on the same quad bike, ready to warm ourselves by, after dark.
The really big appeal of booking his campground, instead of the DOC Tieke Camp across the river from us, was the really simple fact that there was both: A hot shower and a Bar!
Not quite 5* luxury, the actual facilities were very tired and even more basic than basic. The hot shower was perfect though, and everyone took advantage of this welcome refresher. There was only one place to head after a good clean up- yes the bar!
Walking 5 minutes uphill, we found The Lodge. This proper homestead, complete with flushing toilets, had a huge verandah and the smell of comfort food drifted over us. Perched overlooking the most fabulous river views, is where we settled for a beer and a comfy chair.
The only way in and out of this place is by boat. The location is stunning and to think, that it’s all been built in such difficult terrain, is even more mind blowing. Guests can spend the night here in comfort and a group were on their way by boat, as we warmed up the sofa!
As the smart looking Europeans arrived with their suitcases, we headed back down to our camp, swapping the sofa for a wooden bench and a glowing campfire.
Talking into the night, reflecting on the journey so far and gazing up at the clear night sky, seemed all rather perfect after such a hard day on the river.
Thankfully, we didn’t have to share our cabin with any strangers. So fully refreshed, after a good nights sleep, we were ready for the final day ahead.
This last day was to be the shortest, with only 4 hours of paddling ahead of us. To be honest, we all just wanted it to be over and done with! 3 days seemed so long on the water. We all commented, just how glad we were, to have not chosen the 5 day option!
As the time approached 8.30am, we realised we were the only ones left at camp, after what turned out to be a full campsite overnight. All the canoes from the DOC site had also gone, so we were now keen to get on the river.
We’d been warned that the last day came with the worst rapids and a 50-50 chance of falling in or capsizing.
With that in mind, we were all apprehensive, not knowing what to expect. Thankfully, the quad bike took our barrels to the canoes, after we’d loaded them into position, we were off.
It took all our determination to get into the rhythm of paddling. This final day brought out the aching limbs, fatigue and desire to just finish. Still, the headwind blew, how could somewhere that looked so sheltered, be so windy?
Our last day, saw the landscapes change, we could almost feel civilisation, driving us on to Pipiriki and the finish.
After about an hour and a half, a large pebble beach with the usual DOC campground, provided a stop for both us and what seemed like, every other canoe out on the river. With a very quick toilet break and snack, we wanted to get going again.
Eager to reach our final destination, we were soon back on the river. From now on, we had rapids to navigate, this was a new challenge and the hope that we’d stay dry and upright was willing us to get it right.
We’d been told there would be 3 sets of rapids, the last being just before the finish. This was supposed to be the worst and the one where most people got caught out.
I’m not sure if it was because the water levels were high, making it easier, or if we were expecting worse, but when the rapids came into view, our paddling worked overtime and with eyes on the”V” (this is what we’d been told to aim for), somehow we made it through.
It may have been a bit bumpy, but it actually was rather good to have a bit of action! As we made our way through the final set of rapids, we suddenly realised that the end was in sight!
Goodness, there it was-the large sign for Pipiriki, followed by a small boat ramp and a few mini-buses!
Bumping our way across the rapids, we headed for the calm water beyond. We’d done it! Amazingly, without even getting wet. Let alone being one of the half, who didn’t end up in the water itself.
Maybe it was down to luck, but we were very pleased and proud, as we glided our way through the last couple of meters of river. As we launched ourselves onto the boat ramp, relief and large smiles were etched on our faces.
Wow! Not only had we done it, but our group were first back, despite being last to leave camp! We were shattered, the arms could take no more, we were running on empty.
Our mini-bus from Whanganui River Canoes picked us up at 2pm. We had to unpack the barrels, empty each canoe and help load the trailers with all the gear, before leaving.
The drive back to Raetihi Holiday Park took about half an hour. As we pulled into the car park, the owners announced a free BBQ and refreshments for everyone on their terrace.
We’d never had a sausage bap that tasted so good! One last task, before jumping into a hot shower on the campsite, was to empty our gear and disinfect the barrels.
Placing our clean supplies back in the storage area, was a welcome final phase to the journey. Neatly stacked, ready for the next Whanganui Journey adventurers’.
For us, it was time to hit the road. This was Christmas Eve and we were heading North for some well earned relaxation. It had been a true adventure and a brilliant way to start the holidays together as a family.
Well, we all agreed, it was good to do, but none of us would do it again in a hurry! Feeling content in the knowledge that we’d accomplished the only one of New Zealand’s Great Walks that isn’t a walk at all, was a good feeling to have!
We couldn’t have chosen a better company to hire our canoes from. The campsite at Raetihi was fab and those campsites on the actual river, were both good in their own way.
Next time, I think we’d all want to keep our feet firmly on the ground, but we’re so glad to have experienced this very different journey, in this incredible country.
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