I had lived in New Zealand six months before I learned about the Whanganui Journey.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation works to maintain a list of “Great Walks” or over night hiking treks (or tramps in kiwi speak). These have varying levels of difficulty and popularity.
I have had the privilege of completing several of these but many kiwis aren’t able to make the advance plans and bookings that the most popular routes require.
But the Whanganui is an exception. It is the kiwi’s great walk…do you know why?
Because it isn’t a walk!
The Whanganui Journey is a canoe trip. With special significance for the Maori people, this river was used as “coming of age” journey for men from the regional iwis (tribes).
Lush sacred lands, tropical canyons and wild bird serenades make visitors feel as they’ve truly landed in Jurassic Park. Besides the stunning scenery, there are a few other planning tips that make this journey different from other treks in New Zealand. Here are the things I wish I had known during our planning:
- Start by booking through a Canoe Hire Company and don’t bother hiring a guide
Call one of the many canoe hire companies and use their organized transport. They can also give genuine advice regarding campsites and route. You will need to book your own sites/huts through the Department of Conservation. Everything else can be provided by the Canoe Hire, canoes, life jackets, ropes, maps and barrels. These guys have it down to a science!
We had a fabulous experience with Taumaranui Canoe Hire. They dealt with our various iterations and constant addition of friends without batting an eye. We felt safe and supported – would 100% recommend!
2. You will capsize
In our group of 15, every single canoe flipped by the end of the trip. This was actually much more fun and far less scary than it sounds. The canoe hire warned that 75% of groups capsize. We were proud to exceed their expectations.
The only rapids are at the very beginning (near Taumaranui) and end of the entire journey (Pipiriki). There is little to be concerned about in between.
3. You will hate jet boats
Retirees think they’re super adventurous when they crowd together on jet boats. Zooming up and down the river, cutting sharp corners to generally wreck havoc. Luckily, you can hear them coming from a distance and drivers are generally respectful of canoes. Regardless, there isn’t much mutual love and the wake left from these boats is just as treacherous as any rapid.
4. Pack differently than any other camping trip
Prepare for all your items to potentially get wet. Plan to put everything in the barrels (you’ll get 2.5 per person) but a water bottle. The water bottle you can rope to the inside of your canoe. Essentials include rain gear, sunscreen, water shoes/sandals and lots of bug spray. You can also pack as much as you want! Hello GLAMPING – bring the wine and cheese. You’ll only need to carry the barrels to your campsite, and they have far more space than I anticipated. We even stuffed in big pillows, delightful.
5. Stop and smell the roses!
There are many lovely places to stop and enjoy the scenery. One of the best parts of doing the full 5 day journey was the stop at Lauren’s lavender farm. This slice of paradise on top of a hill offers a totally different atmosphere from the river below. Try their natural lavender mosquito repellent, stop for a beer, flat white and cake. Be careful – you might want to stay all day!
Bridge to nowhere is a common and must-see stop. At this point in the journey, your crook back will be desperate for a walk. This stop gets crowded and there isn’t much room to tie up canoes. I recommend arriving early and getting your photos before everyone else. It takes 20 minutes each way to get to the bridge. A weird spot, but very kiwi to make a deserted bridge a major landmark.
On most travelers final night you can choose to stay at one of two locations. There is a beautiful DoC site on Maori lands, alcohol free, you might also have the privilege of being a part of a traditional welcoming ceremony. Alternatively, there is a private lodge and campground across the river. This side has a small bar – don’t hesitate to make the trip across the river. It is a fun stop and nice reward after several days of canoeing.
Of all the Great Walks I’ve completed thus far, the Whanganui Journey was unexpectedly my favorite. Most travelers can only dedicate a few weeks to New Zealand and adding canoeing to the itinerary might sound like lots of extra hassle. However, if you are looking for a true kiwi experience – there’s nothing better.
Lots of sunshine, no predators and time to be silly with wonderful people. There’s nothing more kiwi than that!