Kayaking/Canoeing Down The Whanganui River
Whanganui..A city with a population of around 43,000 and New Zealands third-longest river which cuts right through the middle of it. Yet, during the sixteen years that I spent growing up here I'd never known anyone to paddle down it in a kayak. Swimming at Mosquito point, water skiing and a spot of fishing from the town bridge were about all I used the river for during this time. Fast forward to 2013 and together with six others (three also from Whanganui) we decided it was time to give it a go, especially that the trip has gained in popularity since the filming of the movie River Queen took place along it in 2005. While the movie itself didn't get rave reviews the scenery from what I remember was awesome. So, I googled a few operators and got in touch with Blazing Paddles, who were very helpful and provided a free 0800 number to call.
The first thing I was told was that you have to secure accommodation independently alongside the river otherwise you would not be able to do the trip. Department of Conservation (DOC) have a number of huts and campsites along the river and having decided on the three day trip, I checked what accommodation was available through their booking system. Aside from a few smaller campsites, everything was booked out however managed to book sites at the Ohauora and Mangapurua Campsites. The booking process was pretty seamless and once that was sorted we booked in the canadian canoes for December 30th, 31st to arrive at Pipiriki on the 1st of January, 2014.
We arrived at the Blazing Paddles starting point at 8am under a few rain clouds and with the weather forecast for more rain that day, were a little apprehensive however pretty excited about the adventure that lay ahead. After renting some gear there like a sleeping mattress and cutlery we packed all our clothes, food, cooking equipment and sleeping gear into water tight drums and loaded the canoes onto the trailer before being driven the 45 minutes or so to Whakahoro, the site where you launch for the three day trip. It can get a little crowded here, but once you launch you'll pretty much have the river to yourselves as they tend to wait a little before launching groups.
By the way, you can check river levels at different points by going to this website. We were now all set and cruising down the Whanganui river at a leisurely pace in our two man canadian canoes. The temperature of the water is the right temperature to hang your feet on the outside of the canoes, and there's no major requirement to paddle hard so basically you get into cruise mode. We found that the suggested times were very generous and similar to the DOC walking track suggested times, so if you often complete the DOC walking tracks faster that suggested, the same will most likely apply here too. Generally, there's a hut or campsite every two hours of paddling down the river. They are signposted on the sides of the river and some contain specific instructions such as 'keep left' or 'campsite is 150 metres on the right'. Blazing Paddles supplied us with a waterproof map, so you could see where abouts you were without any hassle.
Our first booked campsite was Ohauora which we arrived to at around 3pm after taking some time along the way to stop for lunch. It was spitting when we arrived which made putting up the tent a bit tricky, however there was a small shelter there to cook under and within a few hours the rain stopped. While cooking around 7pm, we noticed some rustling in the bushes nearby. As it turns out there are river rats and could be the reason why this wood framing surrounds the cooking area. Unfortunately, the rats are quite friendly, so get pretty close! We made sure not to leave any food scraps out here, however that didn't stop them from having a munch on some jandals that were in the awning of a tent. There's actually quite a bit of wildlife along this trip. Quite often you'll see some wild goats grazing on the lush grass alongside the river banks, Mallard ducks and plenty of eels (which you can also see below the bridge to nowhere). If you're game, you could take an eeling line and you would be sure to catch something. I'm not much of a fan of eel without it being smoked, and even then I don't find it all that great, however there's plenty in there so go for gold! Most of the campsites will have a good area to pull up on (like this one below at Ohauora). You'll see we pulled our boats up quite high and tied them off, just in case the river was to rise overnight. We left at 10am the next morning bound for our next campsite which was just by the bridge to nowhere, around 28 kms away from Ohauora. We made good progress on day two and made it to the Bridge to Nowhere at around 3pm. The area to pull up here is really small and often has jet boats coming in and out of. The best way to attack this is to paddle slightly past the bunch of canoes/kayaks and paddle into where the arrow is pointing, it's pretty calm in there so you don't have to stress too much.
The Bridge to Nowhere is a 40 minute walk from this point and well worth it. What a hearty bunch of people that tried settling here! If you take a look below the bridge you'll see some eels swimming 30 metres or so below, take some meat if you have it handy and drop it down to them. Our second night was at the Mangapurua Campsite, just across the river from the Bridge to Nowhere. Like Ohauora, it was also small and only had space for about 5 tents. There was an area about 5 metres below this platform but the grass was overgrown so wasn't too sure if this was available for camping on. We were sorted anyway, and looking forward to having a few NY eve drinks to celebrate (we faked the countdown at 9.30pm).
We woke at 8am and slowly navigated our way through breakfast, packing up and launching the boats for the last day to Pipiriki where we would be meet by our relocated vehicles at 3pm. This time is later than the normal 1.30pm pickup, but as we couldn't get any campsites closer to the pickup point, we needed a little extra time to paddle the remaining 32 kms. This last day was far slower than the previous two days, not due to a hangover, but the river seems so much slower and you find yourself having to paddle quite a lot on this stretch. It's this last day where you find about three rapids where you could potentially come out in, so while it's slower in most places, you'll have some fun! All in all, the trip was awesome and hassle free. Three days was perfect, as you get to see a big chunk of the river and it's enough time to spend catching up with friends.