The Whanganui Journey – Three Days of Torture

When is a Great Walk not a walk? Obviously when it’s a paddle.  The Kiwis know a great marketing strategy when they see one. Consequently, the Whanganui Journey is shoe-horned into the Great Walks of New Zealand program, even though there is no walking involved. This has been an enormous success for the tourism industry with around 10,000 people a year undertaking one or more days on the Journey, a number which, according to the tour operators we spoke to, continues to grow.  On the Whanganui Journey you canoe between 88 kilometres (the three-day version) and 145 kilometres (the five day version) through a mixture of forest, farmlands, open areas and steep-sided canyons. Long pools are interspersed with fast flowing rapids to provide a bit of excitement to the paddle.

Should you/can you do the Journey? All through the Taranaki and Tongariro regions of New Zealand we were told “you must do the Whanganui Journey”, “it’s easy” and “it’s fun”. My imagination pictured us gently paddling down the river, the flow of the river pushing us ever onwards with occasional rapids to provide a bit of an adrenalin rush. As is so often the case,  reality didn’t quite match my imagination. It turns out that how easy the Whanganui Journey is, and how much fun you have, entirely depends upon the wind and river flow. Strong head winds, low river flows combined with a less than sylphlike canoe (it was more a two tonne barge than canoe) meant that our trip was less easy and fun and more a back-breaking and arm numbing endurance test. The head winds were such that if one of us stopped paddling for a moment the canoe would be blown back up the river. This basically meant that we had to steadily paddle for between 5 and 6 hours a day and, for some sections, we really had to put some oomph into the paddling. On the second day, when the head winds were particularly bad, a couple of people even had a quiet cry in their canoe (while still paddling to make sure they didn’t go backwards). The only reason I hadn’t joined them was that Rob cannot cope if I have a cry (even a little one). Whilst there was no doubt that the scenery was impressive, I found that I stopped looking and just concentrated on getting to the end of each day. The Whanganui Journey may be fun and easy, just not when we did it – so check the conditions before signing up or do the Journey at a different time of year.

Who does the Journey? When we paddled the Whanganui Journey there were around 14 people in the huts and about another 30 people in the adjoining campsites. Ages ranged from people in their 20’s to people in their late 60’s. There were people from all over the world – they included a group from the UK (a young woman, her mother, her boyfriend and his father); a Kiwi family being guided by a local Maori; a couple of fit looking French lads in their 20s; a large group of Kiwi friends; and, on the last day, a group of Danish backpackers. We spent most of our time with a couple of Canadian environmentalists with whom we were transported to the start of the Journey. The Canadians were the only ones with any experience canoeing – they had been paddling for more than 40 years (they struggled with the canoes being described as “Canadians”. Apparently in Canada they are just “canoes”). The advantage of all these people being on the river at the same time (besides the obvious social benefits) is that there was always someone close by in the event of trouble.

Guided or Self Guided. When we canoed the river there were only two groups who were being guided. Every other group (including us) had simply hired the canoes through a tour operator and made it up as they went along. We and everyone else managed to get to the end, notwithstanding the obvious lack of experience of most people out on the river.

Canoes. Canoes can be hired through various operators in Taumaranui, Raetihi and Ohakune who also provide you with barrels for your gear, any camping equipment you may require and transport you to and from the start and end of the Journey. The cost to us for the hire for 3 days and transfers was $360. The canoes are designed for tourists with little paddling experience who are going to collide with rocks and trees – so don’t expect a sleek lightweight Kevlar model. The tour companies had varying quality of canoes, so do your own investigations before deciding which tour company to sign up with. The Canadians with whom we were paddling said that the Old Town canoes used by some other groups had a good reputation for this type of paddling.

Keeping your stuff dry. We were told that the barrels in which our gear was placed would keep our gear dry for up to 15 minutes of submersion. We weren’t willing to risk it and so also placed our gear in dry bags which then went in the barrels. We did take a spill and were in the water for longer than 15 minutes, but the combination of barrels and dry bags ensured that our stuff didn’t get wet.

Maps/Trip notes. We bought the DOC map for the Journey which shows every rapid on the river and were also given trip notes by our tour operator. We only ever looked at the map over breakfast and we did not read the notes at any stage. This only turned out to be a problem for the last two rapids when we took the wrong fork in the river and ended up scraping over very shallow sections of the rocky river bed. DOC has a free pamphlet which has a basic map showing the location of each of the huts and campsites and this is all that is probably needed.

Rapids. There are rapids on the river and the Canadians told us that they thought they were quite technical for a so-called “easy” river. Again that may have been a function of the low river levels which meant that more rocks and logs were exposed. I was a bit apprehensive of the rapids before starting but, as the trip progressed, started to look forward to them, as they at least provided some respite from the paddling. Most people undertaking the Journey at the same time as us took a spill at some stage. We took one spill on a rapid known as 50/50, but which the jet boat operators had renamed 80/20 at the time we went down the river (ie 80% of canoes wouldn’t make it through the rapid). It took us a while to get back to shore (with some help from the Canadians who made it through) and empty the canoe, but it was no real drama.

Length of time: Various options for the Whanganui Journey are offered by tour operators, of between 3 and 5 days. There are more rapids on the first two days of the five day option, but those days are not as scenic and you will have to camp on the first night as there are no DOC huts in the upper reaches. We opted for the three-day version and in the end I was glad that we didn’t have to paddle another couple of days.

Closest town: The town that you will leave from to start the Whanganui Journey will depend on which tour operator you use. Taumaranui is the largest town with the most facilities, Raetihi the smallest with the least facilities. We stayed in Ohakune where there was a number of accommodation options, restaurants, a supermarket and two canoe operators. All of those towns are can be easily accessed from Wellington by bus and, in the case of Ohakune, by train.

Accommodation. The three-day version of the Journey starts at Whakahoro where there is a DOC bunk house and campsite. Up river from Whakahoro are three campsites to choose from for undertaking the five day version. Downstream from Whakahoro are two huts ($32 per adult per night which need to be booked in advance through DOC) with adjoining campsites. Besides the campsites adjoining the huts there are an additional 5 campsites to choose from between Whakohoro and the end of the Journey at Pipiriki (note, this is just a pick up point for the canoe operators and has no facilities).  The huts have bunks, mattresses, water supply, hand washing facilities, gas cookers and toilets. The campsites have toilets, sinks and a water supply – so if you are camping you need to bring your own stove. Most campers stay in the campsites adjoining the huts, probably because the huts are placed in a way which most evenly breaks up each days paddle. There is one private campground and lodge directly opposite the last DOC hut, Tieke Kainga, called the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge. This was a fairly popular option when we did the Journey, no doubt because it has a bar and hot showers.

Time of year. In theory the Whanganui Journey can be canoed at any time of year. We met one guy who did the trip with a bunch of mates in the middle of winter. He said the trip was easy because the river was flowing freely, but that, even with a wet suit on the whole time, it was pretty cold. The best time of year is probably early in the Southern hemisphere summer when the river flow is likely to be at its best, the chances of strong head winds are less and it is more likely to be warm. When we did the trip in the middle of February we were told by the ranger at Tieke Kainga that we had experienced the first of the big autumn head winds. The Journey does get closed from time to time if the water level is deemed too dangerous and this can occur at any time of year (DOC warns that you shouldn’t canoe the river when water levels are predicted to rise or it is in flood. As always, you should make your own assessment of safety and not conclude that the Journey is safe simply because it hasn’t been closed).

Times. The DOC map provides an average time for completing each section of the Whanganui Journey but we found that nobody canoeing on the same days as us finished the sections within those estimated times. The tour operators will provide a time at which they will collect you at Pipiriki – to make sure you meet this pick up time (which is important with some operators as they may charge more if they have to wait) base your time estimates on the previous 2 days of paddling.

Pre paddle briefing. The night before the start of our trip we were given a relatively information free pre paddle briefing and provided with our barrels so that we could pack them up ready for the trip the next day. Given that, for a change, we didn’t have to carry all our food on our back, we splurged and filled the food barrel with real food (instead of the dehydrated stuff we had become accustomed to). We also observed that a number of other groups took the opportunity to take beer and wine.

Day 1 Whakohoro to John Coull Hut (37.5km, 5 hours).

The Canadians on Day One of the Whanganui Journey
The Canadians on Day One of the Whanganui Journey

We were picked at 7am, introduced to the Canadians and taken down to the depot to collect the canoes, PFDs and paddles. The Canadians carefully sized their paddles and PFDs; we just took the paddles we were given. We were then transported out to the Whanganui River (about an hour and a half from Ohakune) and given 5 minutes of instruction (aim for the apex of the “V” on any rapids and try to avoid hitting trees and rocks). Then we were off and heading over our first, fairly tame rapid before getting into our pattern for the days to follow – long pools followed by very short periods of exhilaration over the rapids. After an hour and a half we pulled up at the first campsite, Mangapapa for a lunch break. From there it was a bit over 3 hours to the hut, where we met “Young Peter” the hut warden, an incredibly fit and enthusiastic 81 year old, who had been involved in the campaign to turn the area into a national park and a warden ever since the park’s creation in 1986.

Day 2 John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga (29km, 6.5 hours).

The hut at Tieke Kainga, Day 2 Whanganui Journey
The hut at Tieke Kainga, Day 2 Whanganui Journey

I started the day thinking that, given the distance, it would be a bit shorter than the previous day.  I knew that wasn’t going to be the case when it took us 40 minutes to get to the first marked stream, a distance of only a couple of kilometres (so we were officially paddling slower than we could walk). The day didn’t improve from there as the winds got stronger and stronger. We abandoned any idea of a side trip walk to the Bridge to Nowhere because: (a) we were stuffed; (b) it was a bridge and I seen plenty of those; (c) we had already done a 4 day walk through the park on the Matemateaonga Track; and (d) we were stuffed. We paddled on, the traffic on the river increasing as we passed a number of day trippers who had taken the jet boat up river and were paddling back to the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge.  Eventually we reached Tieke Kainga, which was also a Marae (a Maori meeting ground with a traditional carved building) the area being used by DOC through an arrangement with the local Maori. Peturae, the hut warden gave us a detailed history of the area and even fed us some venison burgers. Usually a welcome ceremony is held at the hut, but everyone was arriving so late (the last couple to get in arrived at 9.30pm) and so stuffed that it was cancelled.

Day 3 Tieke Kainga to Pipiriki (21.5km, 5 hours).

The Whanganui River - rapids below Tieke Kainga
The Whanganui River – rapids below Tieke Kainga

Having learnt our lesson from the previous day we were on the water just before 8am trying to get as much distance done as possible before the winds started. Shortly after leaving Tieke Kainga we entered a long gorge of slow running water beneath high cliffs. As the winds had not started, the paddle through there was fairly pleasant, if a bit slow going. From the finish of the gorge to Pipiriki were the biggest rapids of the whole trip: Ngaporo, Autapau and Lower Paparoa. The notes for Ngaporo (read after the event) stated: “The best course is close to the bank. The current then sets strongly against the cliff, takes a sharp left bend and passes over a large boulder which causes a powerful pressure wave under normal to high conditions. Keep to the left of the main current.” Even if we had read these notes they would not have been helpful – we didn’t take a sharp left bend but instead pranged into the cliff, we couldn’t go over the boulder because it was above the water level and we couldn’t go left because it was too shallow. We had to try to go between the boulder and the cliff, which, after being trapped up against the boulder for a bit, we managed.

The Autapu rapid (the rapid known by locals as “50/50”) has a pressure wave of up to a metre high. We reached the rapid with the Canadians before any other canoes and had a good look at it from the pool at the top of the rapids. The Canadians gave us instructions to go the side of the “V” apex and to try to maintain that position by the front paddler (i.e. me) doing draw strokes. They went first, got through the major part of the rapids, but got turned around in the eddy and had to complete the last little part of the rapids heading backwards. We went next, with me drawing at the front of the bow for all I was worth. Just as we had got through the major rapids and as I was thinking that we had done a better job than the Canadians, we hit the eddy and, at this point, my draw strokes were less than helpful – we flipped the boat. I then did everything wrong – thinking that it would be easier for Rob to pull the canoe in without me hanging on to it, I let go and attempted to swim to shore. Pulled by the eddy and with the PFD getting in the way, I made no headway in bridging the distance to shore. Rescued by the Canadians we made it to shore, emptied the canoe and then sat down to watch the other canoeists, who had in turn been watching us from the pool at the top of the rapids. The fit French guys were next and promptly capsized. They were followed by the boyfriend and husband portion of the UK group – yet another victim of the rapids.  Next were the mother and daughter portion of the UK group, who made it – chalk one up for the sisterhood (a more unkind person could say UK 1 Australia 0, but we won’t go there).

We found the last couple of rapids fairly easy, mainly because we went the wrong way and had to push the canoe over the shallow bed using our paddles. The last rapid finished just above Pipiriki, the end of the Journey. The Canadians were immediately collected as they had to meet an early bus. We, however, spent an hour and a half waiting around for other canoes to arrive and then loading all of the canoes on the trailer before embarking on the hour long trip back to Ohakune. As I said to Rob “if I ever suggest a canoeing trip again, just remind me of this one”.

4 thoughts on “The Whanganui Journey – Three Days of Torture

  1. I’m sad to say that I saw this page a few days before going on the Whanganui Journey and decided not to read it because I saw it was negative. Reading it now, its scary how similar our experiences were, “three days of torture” is the best way to describe it. BTW, I did it in November, so I guess its more up to luck with the winds than it is the season.

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