The scenery along the Whanganui River Rd en route to Pipiriki from Whanganui is camera conducive – stark, wet mountain slopes plunge into lazy jade stretches of the Whanganui River.
About 7km north of Parikino as the river and road bend into an obvious U-shape, cars slow to admire the Oyster Cliffs, where fossilised oysters jut from rock that used to be submerged in the ocean. If you cross a bridge and see the Moukuku Scenic Reserve sign, you've gone too far.
The Māori villages of Atene, Koriniti, Ranana and Hiruharama crop up as you travel further upstream – ask a local before you go sniffing around. Along the road you'll spot some relics of earlier settlements, such as the 1854 Kawana Flour Mill near Matahiwi and pā sites.
Pipiriki is beside the river at the north end of Whanganui River Rd. It’s a rainy river town without much going on (no shops or petrol), but was once a humming holiday hot spot serviced by river steamers and paddleboats. Pipiriki is the end point for canoe trips coming down the river and the launching pad for jetboat rides.
One of NZ's 'Great Walks', the Whanganui Journey is actually a canoe or kayak trip down the Whanganui River in Whanganui National Park. There are also jetboat tours to be had on the river, plus cycling along the Whanganui River Rd.
Canoeing & Kayaking
The most popular stretch of river for canoeing and kayaking is the 145km downstream run from Taumarunui to Pipiriki. This has been added to the NZ Great Walks system as the Whanganui Journey. It’s a Grade II river – easy enough for the inexperienced, with enough roiling rapids to keep things interesting. If you need a Great Walks Ticket, you must arrange one before you start paddling.
Taumarunui to Pipiriki is a five-day/four-night trip, Ohinepane to Pipiriki is a four-day/three-night trip, and Whakahoro to Pipiriki is a three-day/two-night trip. Taumarunui to Whakahoro is a popular overnight trip, especially for weekenders, or you can do a one-day trip from Taumarunui to Ohinepane or Ohinepane to Whakahoro. From Whakahoro to Pipiriki, 87km downstream, there’s no road access so you’re wed to the river for a few days. Most canoeists stop at Pipiriki.
The season for canoe trips is usually from October to Easter. Up to 5000 people make the river trip each year, mostly between Christmas and the end of January. During winter the river is almost deserted – cold currents run swift and deep as wet weather and short days deter potential paddlers.
To hire a two-person Canadian canoe for one/three/five days costs around $100/200/250 per person not including transport (around $50 per person). A single-person kayak costs about $70 per day. Operators provide you with everything you need, including life jackets and waterproof drums (essential if you go bottom-up).
You can also take guided canoe or kayak trips – prices start at around $350/850 per person for a two-/five-day guided trip.
Hold onto your hats – jetboat trips give you the chance to see parts of the river that would otherwise take you days to paddle through. Jetboats depart from Pipiriki and Whanganui; four-hour tours start at around $125 to $150 per person. Most operators can also provide transport to the river ends of the Matemateāonga and Mangapurua Tracks.
The Whanganui River Rd and Mangapurua/Kaiwhakauka Track have been incorporated into the 317km Mountains to Sea Mt Ruapehu–Whanganui bike track (www.mountainstosea.co.nz), itself part of the Nga Haerenga, New Zealand Cycle Trail project (www.nzcycletrail.com). As part of the experience, from Mangapurua Landing on the Whanganui River near the Bridge to Nowhere, you catch a (prebooked) jetboat downstream to Pipiriki, then continue riding down the Whanganui River Rd. For repairs and info, try Bike Shed in Whanganui.
Remote Track Access
The Matemateāonga and Mangapurua/Kaiwhakauka Tracks are brilliant longer tramps (downloadable from www.doc.govt.nz). Both are one-way tracks beginning (or ending) at remote spots on the river, so you have to organise jetboat transport to or from the river trailheads – ask any jetboat operator. Between Pipiriki and the Matemateāonga Track is around $50 per person; for the Mangapurua Track it’s around $100.
Sleeping options here include camping and hut accommodation inside Whanganui National Park, and some low-key lodges, cabins and camp sites along the Whanganui River Rd.
Whanganui National Park
Whanganui National Park has a sprinkling of huts, a lodge and numerous camping grounds (free to $15 per hut outside of the Great Walks season, which runs October to April). Along the Taumarunui–Pipiriki section are two huts classified as Great Walk Huts during summer ($32 per night) and Backcountry Huts in the off-season: John Coull Hut and Tieke Kainga Hut, which has been revived as a marae (you can stay here, but full marae protocol must be observed – eg no alcohol). The Whakahoro Bunkroom is also on this stretch of river. On the lower part of the river, Downes Hut is on the west bank, opposite Atene.
Whanganui River Road
Along the River Rd there are a couple of lodges for travellers to bunk down in. There’s also a free informal campsite with toilets and cold water at Pipiriki, and another one (even less formal) just north of Atene. Also at Pipiriki are a campsite, some cabins and a cottage run by Whanganui River Adventures.
Camping & Huts Passes
Great Walk Tickets are required in Whanganui National Park from 1 October to 30 April for the use of huts (adult/child $22 to $70/free) and campsites (adult/child $6 to $20/free) between Taumarunui and Pipiriki. Outside the main season you’ll only need a Backcountry Hut Pass (adult/child for one year $122/61, for six months $92/46), or you can pay on a night-by-night basis (adult/child $5/2.50). Passes and tickets can be purchased online (www.greatwalks.co.nz); via email (email@example.com); by phone (0800 694 732); or at DOC offices in Whakapapa, Taumarunui, Ohakune or Whanganui.
There's not much in the way of food on the road, but the casual cafe Matahiwi Gallery is a charming stop – call ahead to ensure it's open. Otherwise, pack a sandwich.