The emerald-green Whanganui River tumbles from the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro to the Tasman Sea at Wanganui, passing through the WHANGANUI NATIONAL PARK, a vast swathe of barely inhabited and virtually trackless bush country east of Taranaki. The park contains one of the largest remaining tracts of lowland forest in the North Island, growing on a bed of soft sandstone and mudstone (papa) that has been eroded to form deep gorges, sharp ridges, sheer cliffs and waterfalls. Beneath the canopy of broad-leaved podocarps and mountain beech, an understorey of tree ferns and clinging plants extends down to the riverbanks, while abundant and vociferous birdlife includes the kereru (native pigeon), fantail, tui, robin, grey warbler, tomtit and brown kiwi.
The best way to explore the Whanganui National Park is on a multi-day canoe trip into the wilderness mostly stopping at riverside campsites. The most popular exit point for canoe trips is the small settlement of Pipiriki, where jetboat operators run trips upstream to the Bridge to Nowhere.
If you’re not taking a river trip, you can explore the roads that nibble at the fringes of the park: the Forgotten World Highway (SH43) provides limited access to the northwest, but only the slow and winding Whanganui River Road stays near the river for any length of time.
At 329km, the Whanganui is New Zealand’s longest navigable river. It plays an intrinsic part in the lives of local Maori, who hold that each river bend had a kaitiaki (guardian) who controlled the mauri (life force). The mana of the old riverside settlements depended upon the maintenance of the food supplies and living areas: sheltered terraces on the riverbanks were cultivated and elaborate weirs constructed to trap eels and lamprey.
European missionaries arrived in the 1840s, traders followed, and by 1891 a regular boat service carried passengers and cargo to settlers at Pipiriki and Taumarunui. In the early twentieth century tourist-carrying paddle steamers plied the waters to reach elegant hotels en route to the central North Island.Read More
Whanganui River trips
Whanganui River trips
Canoes, kayaks and jetboats work the river, tailoring trips to your needs. The rapids are mostly Grade I with the occasional Grade II, making this an excellent paddling river for those with little or no experience. That said, the river shouldn’t be underestimated: talk to operators about variations in river flows before embarking.
Taumarunui to Whakahoro
The navigable section of river starts at Cherry Grove in Taumarunui, from where it’s about two days’ paddle to Whakahoro, essentially just a DOC hut and a boat ramp at the end of a 45km road (mostly gravel) running west from SH4. Between these two points the river runs partly through farmland with roads nearby, and throws up a few rapids that are larger than those downstream.
Beside the river, several kilometres southwest of Cherry Grove, a former stronghold of the Hau Hau is the site of a couple of nui poles. In 1862 the Hau Hau erected a war pole, Rongo-nui, here, with four arms indicating the cardinal points of the compass, intended to call warriors to their cause from all over the country. At the end of hostilities, a peace pole, Rerekore, was erected close by.
Whakahoro to Pipiriki
Downstream from Whakahoro most people take three days to get to Pipiriki. Along the way you’ll see the Mangapapa Stream Ravine, the Man-o-war Bluff (named for its supposed resemblance to an old iron-clad battleship) and the Tarepokiore Whirlpool, which once completely spun a river steamer. At Mangapurua Landing it’s an easy walk to the Bridge to Nowhere (1hr 15min return), a trail that becomes the Mangapurua Track. Further downstream you come to Tieke Kainga (aka Tieke Marae), a former DOC hut built on the site of an ancient pa that has been re-occupied by local Maori; you can stay or camp here or across the river at Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, a terrific base for river activities. The last stretch runs past the Puraroto Caves and into Pipiriki, where most paddlers finish.
The Whanganui River Road
The Whanganui River Road
The outlying sections of the park to the south can be accessed along the Whanganui River Road, from either Raetihi, a small town on SH4 near Ohakune, or Wanganui. The River Road hugs the river’s left bank from the riverside hamlet of Pipiriki 79km downstream to Upokongaro, just outside Wanganui. It’s a winding road, prone to floods and landslips (though by early 2013 the final 13km of gravel should have been sealed). Still, even in the best conditions the route will take a minimum of two hours.
Opened in 1934, the road is wedged between river, farmland and heavily forested outlying patches of the Whanganui National Park, and forms the supply route for the four hundred people or so who live along it. Facilities along the way are almost non-existent: there are no shops, pubs or petrol stations, and only a handful of places to stay. If you don’t fancy the drive, consider joining one of the Wanganui-based bus tours (see Whanganui River Road Mail Run).
The road is detailed in the free Whanganui River Road leaflet (readily available from i-SITE and DOC offices and downloadable from
w wanganui.com), which highlights points of interest and lists their distance from Wanganui.