Whanganui River Journey Guide + Tips (With Photos)

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 9

Disclosure: I did the Whanganui River Journey two years ago and opted to do the full route from Taumariniui to Pipiriki in 4 days (condensing the journey by 1 day). This is totally doable but means you’ll have some longer days on the water.

Although not technically a walk, the Whanganui River Journey is classified as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. It’s a multi-day canoe trip you can do in 3, 4, or 5 days. It involves paddling through landscapes of remote hills and bush-clad valleys, passing by waterfalls, rapids, and historic sites.

Though the thought of paddling for 5 days straight may seem daunting to some (especially if you haven’t paddled a canoe before) don’t use that as a reason not to tackle this adventure. The river is gentle and there’s plenty of time to figure it out as you go 🙂

In this guide, I’ll share everything you need to know about the journey to help you plan your own Whanganui River adventure.

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 1

Whanganui River Journey Route Options

There are a few different ways you can do the trip, but note that they all end up in the same place, Pipiriki where there’s a large landing and boat ramp to get the canoes back on trailers and transported home.

(for more info check out the DOC website)

Option 1: 5 days and 4 nights

Paddling for 5 days is the longest and most leisurely way to embark on the journey. It starts from Taumarunui to Pipiriki (145km) and allows you to spend more time exploring the river and its surroundings. You can also take a detour to enjoy side trips along the way.

The itinerary is as follows:

  • Day 1: Taumarunui to Ohinepane (21 km)
  • Day 2: Ohinepane to Whakahoro (44 km)
  • Day 3: Whakahoro to John Coull Hut (37.5 km)
  • Day 4: John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga (22.5 km)
  • Day 5: Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki (20 km)

Option 2: 4 days and 3 nights

Another option is traveling the same distance as the 5 day route, but in 4 days instead. The 4-day option also starts from Taumaranui and covers about 145km.

It’s ideal if you’re a fitter group, have previous paddling experience, or are on a limited schedule.

Note: It offers enough opportunities to also see the highlights of the river, but you may not have enough time to explore all the side tracks and places of interest along the way

An example itinerary is as follows:

  • Day 1: Whakahoro to John Coull Hut (37.5 km)
  • Day 2: John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga (22.5 km)
  • Day 3: Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki (20 km)
  • Day 4: Pipiriki to Wanganui (by bus)

This is what we chose to do, and I was really happy with the decision. It meant for some long days, but was a better use of time than 5 days which would have meant a lot of downtime.

Option 3: 3 days and 2 nights

This is the most popular option as it can be tackled over a long weekend. It’s Perfect for those with limited time and who prefer a more challenging paddle.

This option starts from Whakahoro Landing but still ends in Pipiriki. It’s shorter and faster, and you can cover a total distance of about 87 km.

And Example itinerary includes:

  • Day 1: Whakahoro Landing to John Coull Hut (37.5 km)
  • Day 2: John Coull Hut to Tīeke Kainga (22.5 km)
  • Day 3: Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki (20 km)

Guided or Self-guided?

Guided means more history, more confidence paddling through rapids, and less planning your trip, but also means more stopping as they chat about features, more cost, and a lot less freedom.

We were in a big group of mates and enjoyed the freedom of doing our own thing – but one day it could be nice to do it again with a guide and soak up some more history from the region.

What’s The difficulty of the Whanganui River Journey?

In my opinion, navigating the river is not difficult at all. Yes, you’ll have sore arms. Especially at the beginning of the journey. But once you get the hang of it, it will be smooth sailing.

You’ll definitely get a sore butt and back (because humanity is yet to invent a comfortable canoe seat)

Though it caters to various fitness levels, I strongly recommend you have experience paddling for about 6 hours straight because some days will require that of you.

Here’s an overview of all the factors you need to take into account before the attempt. 

1. Distance travelled

The distance of the full 5-day journey is 145 km. The shorter 3-day trip is 88km.

Either way, you’ll be paddling for about 4 to 8 hours per day, depending on your speed and any breaks and side trips you take in between.

2. Whanganui river rapids

The river has several rapids ranging from Grade 1 to 2. The most notorious ones are the Ngaporo, Autapu, and the aptly named 50:50 rapids (because half the people who attempt them tip out!).

When exploring–with minimal rainfall–these will be much gentler and the entire trip will be a breeze. But high rainfall increase the water levels and makes the rapids faster and more powerful.

3. Best season and weather to visit 

The best season to visit is from October to April. It’s warmer and the water level is more stable. Avoid setting out right after heavy rainfall as the river will be swollen and rapids running faster.

My Experience Doing The Wanganui River Journey

I did the Whanganui River Journey in February 2023 with my partner. We chose the 4-day and 3-night option. Here’s a summary of our experience.

Getting there

After a 5-hour drive, we arrived at the Owhango Adventures base. The hosts gave us a briefing on what to expect on our journey and showed us our canoes and equipment. They also helped us pack our dry bags and barrels. We then overstayed.

Day 1: Taumarunui to Whakahoro

The next morning we were driven to Taumarunui and started our journey. The first day was the hardest because our arms had to get used to paddling. Not to mention it was a lengthy trip stretching for about 37 km to our first hut at Whakahoro. I have to admit, though the upper section was mostly flat and calm, it was also quite boring and monotonous. There wasn’t much to see except for a couple of farmlands and pine forests. With the only highlight being the Ohura Falls. We reached Whakahoro and settled into a spacious and comfortable hut.

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 2
Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 3

Day 2: Whakahoro to John Coull Hut

One of the most enjoyable and scenic, this trip was narrow and winding, with more rapids and obstacles to navigate. We entered the Whanganui National Park and were welcomed by native bush, birds, and wildlife. We also stopped at Mangapurua Landing and took a short walk to the famous Bridge to Nowhere. From here we paddled through until we reached John Coull Hut. Though smaller and rustic, we managed to have a comfortable stay.

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 5
Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 6

Day 3: John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga

Getting to our third hut was a wild and adventurous ride. En route, we passed by several marae (meeting places) and pa (fortified villages) once inhabited by local tribes. We continued our journey until we reached Tieke Kainga. 

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 7
Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 8

Day 4: Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki

A gentle and calm way to end our adventure, the last day was the shortest and easiest, with fewer rapids. After journeying for about 15 km, we arrived at our final destination, Pipiriki. We reached Pipiriki around noon.

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 11

Getting back

We drove back to the Owhango base with our tour guide, unpacked our stuff, and took a hot shower. 

Booking the Whanganui River Journey

If you want to do the 3, 4, or 5-day journey, you’ll have to book your accommodation in advance through The Department of Conservation (DOC). They offer both huts and campsites, with basic facilities. But you’ll also have to factor in the canoe hire and transportation to and from the river. Below are the best ways to navigate these aspects. 

Tristan Balme Whanganui River Journey 4

Booking Huts and/or campsites

There are 3 huts and 11 campsites along the river. You can choose to stay at either huts or campsites or a combination of both. If you’re looking to experience the river for the whole 5 days, it’s best to book both huts and camps. The fees vary, but here’s a rough estimate of how much you can expect to pay.

  • Huts: $32 per adult per night, $16 per child (5-17 years) per night
  • Campsites: $14 per adult per night, $7 per child (5-17 years) per night

The huts have: 

  • Bunk beds
  • Mattresses
  • Pillows
  • Blankets 
  • Gas stoves
  • Toilets
  • Showers

While the camps contain: 

  • Tent sites
  • Toilets
  • Water taps
  • Picnic tables

Canoe Hire

Hiring your canoe or kayak from a reputable company or tour operator can save you all the hassle. Some provide excellent equipment and service, so you don’t have to worry about all the logistics.

Pick up and drop off

Most tour operators have transportation included in their packages. They’ll drive you to the starting point. And when you finish your trip, they’ll take you back to their base. 

Best Canoe Hire Companies and Tour Operators For the Whanganui River Journey

Once you’ve sorted your accommodation along the track, you’ll have to decide a few other things

  • If you want to navigate the river on your own or will feel comfortable exploring it with a guide.
  • If you want to bring your own Kayaks / Canoes or want to hire them
  • If you have your own pickup / drop off transport, or want to use one of the local operators.

Most people do unguided, but book with a tour operator to hire the canoes, and watertight containers, and to get dropped off/ picked up either end.

This just makes sense – And I’d totally recommend it – otherwise, you’d need a

below are some of the best tour operators and the type of service you can expect from them.

1. Owhango Adventures

Disclosure: I used Owhango for my river journey and I highly recommend them. We stayed in their lodge the night before (which was basic but all you needed before an early start). Then used their service to drop us off in Taumarani and pick us up again in Pipiriki. It included canoe/kayak hire, life jackets, waterproof barrels for our gear, and a brief trip plan with tips for tackling the rapids.

They are based in Owhango and offer culturally guided and self-guided trips, short 1-day, and full 5-day trips. They are audited and approved by DOC and here’s what’s included in their package: 

  • Accommodation
  • Transport
  • Equipment and gear
  • Safety briefing
  • Optional: Guided Tours

Taumarunui Canoe Hire & Jet Boat Tours

Taumarunui offers 3 to 5-day guided and unguided trips. They also provide shorter trips and jet boat rides for those looking for a brief paddling experience. Their packages include: 

  • Transport 
  • Equipment and gear
  • Safety briefing 
  • Free camping before journey
  • Wi-Fi in the campsite
  • Bush Shower and Toilets 
  • Car parking
  • Snacks

Whanganui River Canoes

Based at the Raetihi Holiday Park, Wanhanui is a growing and family-owned business that offers guided and unguided 3 to 5-day canoe experiences. They offer shorter trips and school camps too. The company is audited by the Adventure Activity Regulations and their services include:

  • Shuttle to and from the river
  • Equipment and gear
  • Snacks and drinks at the end of the trip
  • Free parking at their base
  • Safety briefing
  • Hot shower at the end trip
  • Accommodation

Final Thoughts

The Whanganui River Journey is one of the most unforgettable adventures I’ve embarked on. Though not extremely easy, I can definitely say it’s worth it. Paddling along the longest navigable river creates a beautiful balance of fun and challenge. Although some beginners got through just fine, I still recommend you have some canoeing experience. Not only because it requires a great deal of arm work but you will encounter some challenging–but doable–rapids along the way. 

Frequently Asked Questions

How hard is the Whanganuiv River Journey?

The Whanganui journey is moderately difficult. I easily navigated most of the rapids and only experienced sore arms at the beginning of the journey. But I recommend you have some basic paddling skills and knowledge of how to handle rapids before you attempt the journey.

Is the Whanganui River Journey a Great Walk?

The Whanganui Journey is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. But it’s not a typical hike. It’s a canoe or kayak trip and the only one where you can stay in a marae. 

What should you bring for the Whanganui River Journey

Because you’ll have limited space in your canoe or kayak and might have to carry your gear between the river and your accommodation, I recommend you pack light. Here are some essential items to bring along.

  • Waterproof dry bag or barrel to store your clothes, food, and valuables
  • Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and pillow (if camping)
  • Gas cooker, matches, cooking utensils, and cutlery 
  • Plenty of food and water
  • First aid kit, sunscreen, insect repellent, toilet paper, and personal hygiene items
  • Rain jacket, warm clothing, hat, gloves, and sunglasses
  • Swimsuit, towel, and sandals or water shoes
  • Camera, phone, power bank, and waterproof case
  • Map, compass, whistle, and torch
  • Book, cards, or games for entertainment
  • Rubbish bag

What grade are the rapids on the Whanganui River?

The rapids on the Whanganui River are from 1 to 2. They are easy to moderate with smooth and regular waves. 

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