The Whanganui River Journey is a fun alternative "Great Walk" and can be achieved by anyone of average fitness (even novices like us). As it is not as straight forward as the other Great Walks, it requires a little planning to ensure you've got everything covered. This a guide to helping you plan for the journey, if you would like to hear about our personal experience, read this.
Whanganui River Rapids
This is the first thing that everyone asks: "How bad are the rapids? What's the best way to approach them?". As two people who have never paddled through a rapid before, we can say that you genuinely don't need to worry about them. We stayed in the canoe for all five days, so if we can do that, so can you. Remember, they wouldn't let rookies on a river that was dangerous.
A rapid on the Whanganui River is classed as anything that isn't still, so technically there's about 50 per day! But the major rapids are on day one, two and five. If you choose the three day version, then you only need to worry about day five.
There's no getting round the faster rapids on day one and two, but on day five (where the worst ones are) the river is so wide that you can paddle around them. There is genuinely three options for most of them: paddle through (risky), paddle around (completely fine) or get out and carry the canoe over the nearby beach around the rapid (also fine, but the canoe will be heavy with all your gear).
When we paddled the Whanganui, only one group out of fifteen fell out the canoe (and that was because they aimed to go through the worst part and got it wrong. They kept doing this for all rapids because they wanted the bumpiest experience possible).
However, there is another aspect of the river that could tip you out...
The current condition of the Whanganui River
At the time of writing (April 2018) the Whanganui River had suffered a major flood that caused significant landslides with the worst being from Ohinepane to John Coull Hut (day two - day four). The biggest danger from this is the trees and branches that have now become lodged in the river bed and become obstacles.
The most dangerous by far is just before Whakahoro Hut (the end of day two) and we nearly got severely injured from this. Unfortunately several huge trees have became stuck in the middle of a rapid, meaning the river pushes you through at speed into branches that look like they could skewer you.
The best course of action is to paddle seriously hard and wide at this point and hope you can go quicker than the river. Even after this, another group who were with us got past the trees and then got tipped by a tree under the water they couldn't see!
The condition of Whakahoro Landing
Similarly, Whakahoro landing took the brunt of the flood and the mooring area has completely disappeared. The work around is a mud bank and small tree fern that is left, making getting up to Whakahoro even less enjoyable than it was.
We assume DOC will fix this soon, but when we were there Whakahoro was in a very bad state.
Difficulty of the Whanganui River Journey
Before paddling, we thought five days of canoeing down the Whanganui River would be one of the most physically challenging Great Walks. However, we found that after a while our arms got into a rhythm and didn't hurt throughout the trip. Mind you, we did have a canoe with seatbacks (make sure you ask upon booking, there is limited availability). Our arms were most sore at the beginning of each day before we got in to it, just paddle through this discomfort and it will get better.
The days are a lot shorter than DOC suggests, but you still paddle for at least five hours most days. You do feel it at the end of the day, but as the river flows nicely you won't always need to paddle too hard.
Booking the Whanganui River Journey
Booking the Whanganui River Journey isn't a problem as it's not one of the most popular Great Walks. When we paddled, we heard of people booking the day before and the combination of huts and camping normally means there's plenty of capacity.
We would recommend avoiding the school holiday periods primarily because the amount of jet boats on the river dramatically increases. On the first four days we barely saw anyone else. On day five (Good Friday) we saw at least 10-15 jet boats. They're not dangerous, but they are irritating as you have to stop paddling to ride their wake.
Bookings are required for huts and campsites during the Great Walks season between 1st October and 30 April. Outside of this period it is a first come, first served basis.
During the Great Walks season hut places are NZ$32 per adult, free for children under the age of 18. Campsite places are NZ$15 per adult. Outside this period the huts cost NZ$20 per adult and campsites are free. International visitors do not pay more than New Zealand residents for the Whanganui Journey.
Once you've booked the tickets at the huts and campsites it's time to look into the canoe hire.
Whanganui Journey Canoe Hire
There are three main companies who hire out kayaks and look after all the logistics of the Whanganui River Journey. We chose Whanganui River Canoes as they were based in Raetihi and we wanted to hop in our car afterwards and have only a short drive to our accommodation.
Alternatively you can chose Taumaranui Canoe Hire if you want to stay in Taumaranui after or Yeti Tours in Ohakune. They all seemed to provide the same service: transfers to and from the river, canoe, paddles, barrels for gear, safety equipment, maps and lots of advice on how to complete the Whanganui Journey safely. We found the owner of Taumaranui Canoe Hire very friendly and knowledgable and they were also the first pick up to arrive at the end of the journey to pick everyone up, a godsend after five days in a canoe!
Whanganui River Journey in 3 days
If you're at all worried about the rapids and just want to do the most beautiful part of the river, then the three day version is your best bet. Starting at Whakahoro, you'll miss the rapids between Taumaranui and Whakahoro, having a leisurely paddle for the first two days.
Unfortunately everyone must do the three main rapids on the final day, but you can very easily avoid them. If we weren't doing all 9 Great Walks to the exact specs laid out by DOC, we would have chosen the three day version.
Whanganui River Journey in 5 days
The five day version is for people who love canoeing or those who want to complete the whole journey. A couple of the rapids on day one and two were pretty challenging for a beginner, but easily navigated and fun at times. The worst part was just before Whakahoro with the trees that wouldn't normally have been there.
You also have no choice but to camp on day one if you choose the five day version as there is not hut.
Whanganui River Journey Huts and Campsites
The Whanganui River Journey has three huts which you can stay in: Whakahoro (we didn't know about this before), John Coull and Tieke Kanga. They all have one bunkroom where everyone sleeps and a small kitchen area. There are eight campsites in addition to the three that accompany the huts, meaning you can customise your itinerary more if you camp. None of the places to stay have water you can drink out the tap, so bring your own water or be prepared to boil batches at each stop.
Whakahoro - Even before the flood Whakahoro was a nasty stop! Once you moor, you need to carry all your gear uphill for 400 metres. This is made even worse by the fact that most people need to do this at least twice because of all the food and camping gear required!
However, it is right next door to the Blue Duck Station - a place that offers coffee, dinner and breakfast, as well as a hot shower for $4. After a couple of days canoeing, this is bliss. Dinner requires booking in advance so send an email or just pop down as soon as you finish paddling to make sure you don't miss out. The Blue Duck also has rooms and is just a couple of hundred metres from the DOC hut so it would be just as handy to stay there.
John Coull Hut - John Coull Hut has also suffered from the flood, but not as badly. The beach still exists, but the banks and path to the hut have become solely mud. You'll need to carry your gear uphill, but it's a fraction of the distance that it is to Whakahoro.
Tieke Kanga - Tieke Kanga is actually a marae, offering an authentic Maori experience. However, the lure of the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge opposite was too great for us. We heard good things from fellow canoeists, you may or may not get to experience a former Maori greeting depending on who is around at the time.
Bridge to Nowhere Lodge - A sight for sore eyes after four days in a canoe, the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge offers comfortable rooms, hot showers, free tea and coffee, a bar and a kitchen. When we arrived they'd just put out home made banana and chocolate muffins as well. There's also a lounge with books and board games. The view is great and we were so happy with our choice to pay a little more and stay there rather than the hut.
You can choose their dinner option which was a little expensive for us (mind you after smelling the roast chicken and potatoes I was swaying) or cook for yourself. Breakfast (continental) comes as part of the dinner package or can be purchased separately for $15. The only downside is that the path up to the lodge is pretty bad, a mud bath that's uphill all the way. Worth it though.
Cafes and restaurants along the way
The bliss of the Whanganui River Journey is that there's a couple of cafes you can stop at for your caffeine fix. On day one be sure to look out for the Lavender Farm on the right side of the river around four kilometres before Ohinepine campsite. After a short stroll you'll see a beautiful property that offers all kinds of homemade goods. Be sure to bring cash as they don't accept foreign cards. We sadly only had cash enough for a muffin to share but it was delicious.
Similarly, Blue Duck Station at Whakahoro is another haven for caffeine addicts, hearty food and a shower. We stocked up on bacon and eggs for breakfast on day two as well as a delicious coffee the night before.
The final stop is the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge which serves food if pre-booked. It also has a bar which serves alcohol if you need a beer at the end of four days canoeing! You can stop by the bar even if you aren't staying
What to pack
Five days of canoeing requires a bit of planning, especially with your packing. Here's what you need to bring:
Rain coats are essential as you'll feel the full brunt of it sat down in a canoe. It's also sensible to bring thermals for the huts and to have a spare couple set of clothes to ensure you always have a dry set to wear in the evenings. Although you do warm up paddling, it can still be pretty cold just sat down, so bring warm layers for the day.
As you have barrels (and don't have to carry it on your back like hiking), food isn't too big an issue on the Whanganui River Journey. However, choosing five days worth of food (and keeping it fresh) requires some thought. We chose our trusted Pesto Pasta, but also brought some packet food like fried rice, noodles and cous cous for our dinners, cereal bars for breakfast and some snacks for lunch (bread rolls crisps, raisins, chocolate). Many people brought wine and fresh food too.
Make sure you don't forget tea and coffee and little pick me ups for the evening.
Toilet Paper - None of the huts or campsites have toilet paper and all toilets are long drops that are separate from the main building.
Gas burner - No campsites offer gas burners, assuming you may camp for one night, it's best to bring your own gas.
Kitchen set - You'll need a pot, matches, cutlery, mugs and plates as none of the huts have any of these.
A warm sleeping bag - Even though it's the North Island, Whanganui can get cold.
Battery Packs - To ensure your phone and camera are fully charged. This can help in the snoring huts so you can listen to podcasts/music.
Flip flops - There's a lot of getting in and out of the canoe in water, and trips to the outside toilets making flip flops a must.
Suncream and Insect repellant - The Whanganui Journey is completely exposed, meaning on a sunny day you'll have the sun on you for at least five hours. It's also a haven for sandflies, so having a repellant will make lunch a little more tolerable
Torch - As the toilets are separate from the huts, you'll need one.
Bottled water or purification tablets - None of the water from the taps are drinkable, so bringing your own water or tablets will save you from boiling it.
Rubbish bag - Whatever you take in must go out, so you'll need a bag for rubbish.
Wet wipes - The only way to stay clean (apart from the showers at Whakahoro).
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