Whanganui River: Whakahoro to Pipiriki (4 days / 88 km)
What a great shared adventure for me and my two teenagers! I spent four days paddling and camping by the river with my daughter (14) in a canoe with me, and with my son (16) in a kayak. While we were very comfortable on the ocean and in kayaks, we had never paddled a canoe before or been on a multi day river trip, so I was a little unsure of how this combination would work, but it turned out to be perfect. It gave my son some independence and my daughter was happy to be at the front of the canoe with me steering.
I selected to complete the most scenic section of the river over 4 days to give us time to enjoy the scenery and to get to campsites with plenty of time to pitch our tent and cook dinner. Other groups completed this same section of the river over 3 days, but that meant a 7 hour paddle on the first day! We hired the canoe and kayak and were self-guided.
Trip Completed: January 2023
Starting Point: Whakahoro, Whanganui River, New Zealand
Ending Point: Pipiriki, Whanganui River, New Zealand
Total Distance: 88 km
Duration: 4 days
Whanganui National Park in the Manawatu/Whanganui region in New Zealand.
Maps and Resources
Map and Guidebook: View Whanganui Journey paddling guide for a detailed map and route guide.
Campsite Reservations: In the Great Walks season (1 October 2023 – 30 April 2024) reservations are required for huts and campsites. Outside the Great Walks season (1 May 2023 – 30 September 2023) reservations are not required — huts and campsites are first come, first serve. Reservations can be made on the Official Whanganui River Journey Page.
Outfitters & Shuttles
Outfitter: You can hire canoes from Whanganui River Canoes.
Road Trip to Raetihi Campground
Like many of our adventures, this one started with a 5 hour road trip. Lots of nervous energy in the car, with questions about how far we had to paddle each day, and how big the rapids were. I love this part of an adventure – it’s the excitement of what’s to come. My son had a great spotify playlist for us to listen to, apparently he’d only chosen a couple of songs and then used the Spotify ‘enhance’ option. It resulted in lots of songs I hadn’t heard in years amongst others like “Dirty Deeds” and “Three is a magic number” great for singing along to. We also played the number plate ABC game (spot every letter of the alphabet on number plates). Who knew I, O & V have never been used on number plates in NZ!
Day 1: Whakahoro to Ohauora (27 km)
After loading up our gear, we were off with a group of around 20 other paddlers to Whakahoro – a 1.5 hour drive on mostly unsealed roads. When we arrived at the river, there was an extensive safety briefing, some paddling instruction and we were also issued with a Spot Gen 3 GPS tracker for any emergencies (more on that later). We started paddling around 11am – I felt for those that had a 7 hour paddle ahead of them.
As we got underway and left Whakahoro behind, negotiating the first few rapids was straight forward and we soon settled into a paddling rhythm. We all realised pretty quickly that staying in the fast flowing water after a rapid was like getting on the travelator at the airport.
The Whanganui River has lots of grade 1 rapids and a few grade 2. The two biggest rapids – Naporo and 50/50 were on our final day. The main risk as explained to us in the safety briefing was the abundance of large rocks and trees that we could get stuck on.
We paddled for a few hours until we were ready for lunch – by this stage the groups had thinned out and we were only in sight of a couple of other canoes. We paddled past Mangapapa campsite, missing the easy landing option there but there was an easy place to beach our canoes at the next turn. We had lunch and chatted to a French couple who took our photo.
Just after lunch, we came across a canoe that was stuck on a tree in the middle of the river. One of the occupants was safely on the river bank, the other was trying to free the canoe – but it was impossible. There was no-one else around, and with no cell phone coverage the only way to communicate was using our GPS communicator given to us by Whanganui River Canoes. We gave the device to them and then continued paddling.
After paddling past multiple waterfalls and caves we arrived at Ohauora campsite just after 4pm. There was only one other large group at the campsite – a guided group whom we would see multiple times over the coming days. They had all the luxuries, and even had a tablecloth over the campsite table!
After setting up camp, we played a bit of frisbee before eating dinner from a camp table with a view of the river. Dinner was our first try of freeze dried meals from Back Country Cuisine, including desert. Fish Pie was a winner, as was the Apple Pie. Spaghetti Bolognese was average. Just as we finished dinner, the couple who we gave our GPS communicator to turned up – they had used it to request a jet boat rescue and were now back on the water. They gave the GPS unit back to us and were heading to John Coull Hut — another two hours away.
Day 2: Ohauora to Mangawaiiti (21 km)
I was up early to make coffee and scrambled eggs, but the kids slept in. We ended up on the river at 9:30am, no stress though as we didn’t have that far to go, and as it had rained overnight, the late start allowed the tent to dry a little.
The river was like a mirror as we paddled through massive gorges and cliffs covered in moss and ferns.
We called in at John Coull hut on the way, it had emptied out, but the Hut Warden told us 62 people had stayed there the night before.
We had the river to ourselves the whole day – we saw no one else. We were the first to arrive at Mangawaiiti, so we had the pick of tent sites. It got busy very quickly though, at least another 10 groups turned up.
We got to watch the swallows nesting in the shelter as we cooked dinner. Dinner was freeze dried Roast Chicken with Veggies (good), Roast Lamb with veges (yuk), Beef Teriyaki (great) and Apple and Berry Crumble (awesome). We played cards (Hearts) that night with another family we met.
I filled in the visitor log with our details and intentions – but couldn’t work out the multiple “TA SOBO” references. I have since found out that the Whanganui River is part of the Te Araroa (TA) trail which stretches the length of New Zealand and ‘SOBO’ means southbound.
Day 3: Mangawaiiti to the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge (18 km)
We started paddling by 9am, and by this stage we were all very comfortable with the rapids and were looking forward to each one, as the flat water had become boring.
We missed the Mangapurua Landing which is the start of the walk to the Bridge to Nowhere as it didn’t look possible to tie off there. We later realised that there is a very small loading zone that you use to get off, then maneuver your canoe back along the steep cliff to tie off. Luckily, we spotted a few canoes at the next left hand tributary stream where it was also possible to tie off and walk to the bridge. It was an easy 30 min walk to the bridge – a very interesting story of post 2nd world war settlement in the area which never went ahead, even after a massive construction effort in the middle of nowhere (hence the name). The kids now say we’ve been to nowhere 🙂
The Bridge to Nowhere is not actually in the same place as the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge – they just share the same name. It is actually another couple of hours down the river opposite Tīeke Kāinga campsite and Marae. It was a bit tricky to deduce where the landing was for the Lodge, as there was also a campground with cabins on the same side of the river – also branded Bridge to Nowhere. We got it wrong, but fortunately one of the staff yelled out “Are you Philip?”. No idea at the time how he deduced that, but it would become clear later when we found out we were the only group staying at the lodge. In any case, Darryl directed us about 200 metres further down the river where he met us with his quad bike to transport our barrels up to the lodge.
Due to some bad weather related cancellations (clearly the forecast was wrong) we ended up being the only guests at the lodge. This was great, we had two rooms, hot showers, cold drinks and a buffet dinner with chocolate pudding and ice cream for dessert. They even packed some extra chocolate puddings up for us to eat on the river the next day! We spent the afternoon playing chess, chasing 40+ ducklings, watching the Tui’s and looking at the view from the deck. I did some washing as well.
Day 4: Bridge to Nowhere Lodge to Pipiriki (22 km)
We were on the river a little earlier at 8:30 to ensure we didn’t miss our pickup at 2pm. It helped that we didn’t have a tent to pack up. There was a little excitement and maybe a little apprehension to start the day, we were keen to get to the ‘big’ rapids. However, there was two hours of pretty flat water before we got to the Ngaporo rapid.
The Ngaporo rapid was straight forward, we just kept the canoe straight and in the main flow – it weaved a bit, but we were out the other side without issue. On to the 50/50 rapid (or Autapu), so called because only half make it through without tipping out.
The next section of the river has what is possibly the worst hazard due to the number of canoes that have been stuck on it – there is a large rock directly in the flow of a small rapid that is only visible just before you reach it. We knew to look out for it, and to go left, but it was still a struggle to paddle around it at the last minute.
The 50/50 rapid has a spectator area afterwards, which is what we actually saw first – all the paddlers standing around watching others go down the rapid. We stuck to the left of the rapid, just clear of the initial large standing wave, then just kept paddling – we were fine. My son was also ok in the kayak, he loved it so much, he dragged his kayak around the rock for another go!
With the main rapids behind us, it was an easy hour paddle to Pipiriki, just past the Paparoa rapid. The kids were mucking around by standing up to paddle, all confident, having paddled for four days and overcoming challenges that they were a little nervous about – all the ingredients for an awesome adventure.
We broke up the return home with an overnight stop at De Bretts in Taupo for a soak in the hot pools and fun on the hydroslides.