Whanganui River: Walking on water

GREAT WALK: Rest stop along the Whanganui River.
GREAT WALK: Rest stop along the Whanganui River.

There is a Great Walk in New Zealand that isn't a walk at all. On the Whanganui Journey, the only steps need be those in and out of a canoe.

One of New Zealand's nine listed Great Walks, the Whanganui Journey is very much the odd one out. Sitting beside the likes of the famed Milford Track and Abel Tasman Coast Track, this walk is a canoe trip on one of the country's longest and most beautiful waterways.

WALK ON WATER: Canoeing in the Mangawaiiti section of the Whanganui River.
WALK ON WATER: Canoeing in the Mangawaiiti section of the Whanganui River.

With its headwaters on the North Island's Central Plateau volcanoes, the 290-kilometre-long Whanganui River was billed as the Rhine of the South Pacific during the heyday of steamboat travel in the late 19th century.

At that time, up to 12,000 tourists cruised through its deep gorge each year. Today, the river still attracts about 10,000 people a year, except that now, like me, they mostly come in canoes.

By the time the river reaches the tiny settlement of Whakahoro, where we will launch our canoes, it has cut a deep line into the green hills. The slopes above are creased like origami, wild goats graze at the river's edge, and bush and silver ferns extend as far as I can see.

Ahead of us are 90 kilometres and three days of paddling, following the river as it wriggles through the gorge that is the centrepiece of Whanganui National Park.

The pattern of the journey is set early, with sections of still water broken by small rapids that are like corrugations on water. The river levels are low and the canoes scrape over the riverbed as we bounce through the rapids.

Although we will paddle 37 kilometres this first day, the task is not onerous. The flow of the river is like a travelator and, even when we pause to snack, we move inexorably forwards.

Around us, kingfishers dart across the river and there is an occasional splash from a brown trout. Bubbles percolate through the water from decomposing logs, and small waterfalls carve channels into the soft rock of the cliffs. There are said to be about 500 waterfalls along this stretch of river. For a time, the only sounds are the murmuring of rapids and the whirring of cicadas.

"This is about as isolated as it's possible to get in the North Island," says my guide, Grant.

Midway through the day, we come to the Whirlpool, a once-notorious section of river where a blockage of rocks created such a maelstrom that it spun several steamboats. The problem was fixed by a pioneer's best friend, dynamite, and today it is a benign section of water, drifting past the landslips that created the blockage and still scar the earth.

During the last couple of hours into camp at John Coull Hut, the river slows, until the reflections on its surface are faultless. You could turn the world in any direction and it would look the right way up. It feels perfect, but it is just a foretaste of what is to come the following day.

At John Coull Hut, camping ledges are benched into a steep slope high above the river. A kiwi calls through the night, but otherwise the world is almost silent, with even the river out of earshot.

The next morning, the river draws us on, entering its most beautiful stretch through the gorge's Mangawaiiti section. Moss-coated rock walls plunge straight into the river and the gorge is suddenly as still and solemn as a natural cathedral. The reflections are so pure they are like paintings on the surface of the water. It is peaceful and somehow unnerving at the same time, with land and river seeming to merge into one.

"I've had some people get sick in the canoe here from vertigo," Grant says.

And on we glide, our arms rather than our legs propelling us along this Great Walk. A short distance ahead, however, comes our one chance to actually walk. The Whanganui River's most famous feature is the Bridge to Nowhere, set deep in a tangle of forest. Built in 1935, it was constructed as part of a scheme to develop the isolated valleys around the river. Sections of land were offered to World War I servicemen and a road was planned from Raetihi to Stratford.

The land quickly proved too rugged and remote, and by 1939 only three families remained in the area. Four years later, it was abandoned. Now the Bridge to Nowhere sits like a memorial to failed development.

The bridge is a 45-minute walk from the Whanganui River. We tie up our canoes at Mangapurua Landing and rediscover our legs as we walk shaded through the forest to the reinforced concrete bridge.

Constructing it was an epic task, with 105 cubic metres of concrete and 15 tonnes of steel carted through the mountains to build what is now a folly in the forest.

Despite the failure, settlement is not entirely absent along the Whanganui River. Even through the national park, the river is lined with small parcels of private land.

A few kilometres beyond the Bridge to Nowhere, on one of those parcels, is the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge. After paddling for two hours from the bridge, the farmhouse accommodation seems opportunistically named, until I discover it is only 15 minutes from the bridge in one of the jet boats now occasionally whizzing past us on the river.

Perched on a balcony of land with views up and down the river, the lodge is our home this second night. Although it is a working farm, it is also gloriously removed from the world. With no road access, it can be reached only along the river.

"I have 20 kilometres of the most beautiful road in New Zealand," owner Joe Adam says, waving a hand along the river. "It's the most scenic driveway in the country."

The next morning, as we set out for Pipiriki, the gorge closes in again. The river runs narrow and deep, and cliffs surround us. For almost two hours, there is barely a rapid, but when they do come, they have more punch than any before them. The canoes splash through, their noses bouncing over standing waves.

There are said to be 239 named rapids along the Whanganui River and, as we exit the gorge, with the river suddenly widening and the mountains falling back from its banks, we have only one rapid left to run. We have made it down the river without incident, or so it seems.

The Pipiriki boat ramp is in sight as we hit the seemingly innocuous final rapid. Three of the four canoes sail straight through, but the final canoe skids sideways into the rapid, filling with water and tipping over in slow motion.

John and Phil bob about in the river for a few minutes before swimming to the bank as we tow their canoe to the boat ramp. They will finish this Great Walk on foot after all.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism New Zealand.

GETTING THERE Canoe trips depart from Ohakune. Air New Zealand operates daily flights to Palmerston North and Taupo.

Intercity buses run from Palmerston North to Ohakune (three hours 25 minutes) and hire cars are available at Taupo. See intercity.co.nz.

PADDLING THERE Canoe Safaris runs guided canoe trips along the Whanganui River, as well as offering independent canoe hire. A three-day trip from Whakahoro to Pipiriki costs $705. See canoesafaris.co.nz.


MORE INFORMATION newzealand.com.