New Zealand’s Whanganui River

I had read about one of the world’s greatest and most scenic kayaking rivers: the Whanganui River that flows for part of its length through the wild and remote Whanganui National Park in the north island of New Zealand. I decided to attempt to kayak this river….


For my next kayaking adventure I decided during mid-January 2011 to go by motorbike with my folding ‘Pakboat’ kayak to the old steam boat town on the Murray River of Echuca situated on the border of New South Wales and Victoria about 2,100kms south of Caloundra. I planned to kayak to Mildura about 750kms down river. On 13/14th January devastating floods, the result of the ‘perfect storm’ hit the inland town of Toowoomba and the coastal cities of Brisbane and Ipswich resulting in the death of over 20 people and widespread destruction to property and infrastructure. Over the following days the flood waters slowly made their way south inundating the towns that I would have to drive through and eventually arrived to flood the Murray River towns including Echuca and Mildura. It was obvious that my planned kayaking expedition had to be abandoned at least for this year.

Several weeks previously I had read about one of the world’s greatest and most scenic kayaking rivers: the Whanganui River that flows for part of its length through the wild and remote Whanganui National Park in the north island of New Zealand. I decided to attempt to kayak this river which is renowned for its grade one rapids. On January 21st I took a China Airlines flight to Auckland arriving at 7pm in steady rain and increasing darkness which after a 45 minutes bus ride to the city centre was complete. I transported my kayak and camping gear on a two wheeled trolley from backpackers to backpackers to be met with the same response – ‘Full Up!’ January 21st was the one night in the year when the Auckland music festival for youth called, ‘Big Night Out’ was held and all the backpackers and hostels were overflowing with many tattooed and stud encrusted youth immersing themselves in excessively loud brain numbing poundings and which to them passes as music. By this time I had lugged my heavy trolley to the summit of Queen Street in the heart of busy Auckland and in the continuing steady rain arrived at an old cemetery and decided that I would far prefer the ghostly company of the long since dearly departed to the thumping beat of modern drongo music. I pitched my tent amid the graves and slept soundly until dawn.

After a five hour bus journey south to the friendly country town of Taumarunui situated at the confluence of the Whanganui and Ongarue Rivers I was directed to Cherry Grove recreation area where the two rivers converge and pitched the tent. After assembling the skin-on-frame kayak in continuous rain ready for an early start the next morning I retired early to finish reading a Wilbur Smith novel. The afternoon rain slowly increased in intensity and by nightfall was drumming monotonously on the tent. The heavy rain continued unabated for over 36 hours. The Whanganui River rapidly changed from being a slowly flowing and placid river to a brown, raging torrent down which swept trees and debris, grade one rapids were transformed into a maelstrom of churning and dangerous floodwater made more ferocious by metres high pressure waves and a river level marker indicating 10m disappeared under the swirling, angry water.

As the river level continued to rise swiftly and alarmingly and the teeming rain continued without pause a local resident, Fred Hughes turned up at the tent during the following afternoon with a four wheel drive vehicle and a large trailer and very kindly offered to provide me with hospitality until the wet weather abated – I gratefully accepted his gracious offer. Fred and his wife, Heather made me very welcome as one of their family for four days until the river level had dropped sufficiently to allow me to begin kayaking. During this time the authority responsible for the river environment, the Department of Conservation had rescued several kayakers and canoeists by helicopter and forbidden those trapped at camp sites along the river to continue until the water level had dropped sufficiently and debris no longer was being swept down river. Several canoes were lost by being torn from their moorings and carried away.

Fred, who repairs canoes and kayaks for the ‘Blazing Paddles’ canoe company very kindly offered to accompany me to the first camp site and show me how to ‘Read the River’ and kayak the rapids correctly. We set off together with me following closely behind Fred imitating his every move. We approached the first series of rapids – the Towhenua Rapid which is a swift left hand ‘S’ bend comprising a long straight rapid ending in a confusion of pressure waves rebounding from the river bank before the river resumes its fast, turbulent course to the next named rapid. Fred successfully negotiated the initial rapid by avoiding the central, plunging waves with me right on his tail, he swept left into the pressure waves, rode up one and instantly flipped over disappearing beneath the turbulent, brown water with only the bottom of his kayak visible. I was stunned not knowing if he was trapped underneath the kayak. Not wanting to follow his frightening example I paddled furiously with my left paddle and with water sloping over the sides managed to avoid being swamped and was quickly swept downstream. I glanced back over my shoulder and to my immense relief saw Fred’s head appear, he clung onto the rear of his kayak and it was several kilometres before he was able to feel the bottom and climb onto his flooded kayak and continue downriver.

I very quickly learned how to determine the best route through the rapids and was able to complete the river journey which took six days through the stupendous, sheer sided gorges to the kayak exit ramp at Pipiriki having survived the infamous ‘S’ bend Ngaporo and Paparoa series of rapids without being swamped or ending up in the river.

At the third camp site I was woken by nocturnal visitors who had gnawed their way through the tent and were exploring the interior in search of a five star feast – I later found out that they were river rats who had learned that there were easy pickings inside tents! For the rest of the journey I was awakened every night by soft, little feet pattering across my sleeping bag exploring the interior of the tent. They were not rats but possums who used the rat’s entry holes to gain access to my wilderness sanctuary!

As I was relaxing at the penultimate camp site a party of canoeists arrived and casually remarked that a category four cyclone was tracking towards south east Queensland – the first that I had heard of such alarming news! They informed me that they had read about it in the papers but due to a complete lack of mobile phone signal in the deep gorge I was not able to verify their report. Arriving at the Pipiriki kayak and canoe exit ramp I inquired of a jet boat tour operator about the imminent cyclone and he told me that the cyclone had been upgraded to category five and was heading directly for Brisbane! As I had now completed the river journey I decided to return to Caloundra as soon as possible to contend with the cyclone threat. I faced a journey of 140 kilometres, 80 kilometres of which were on unsealed roads to the large town of Whanganui where I could bring forward my flight. Climbing up to the hamlet of Pipiriki I inquired about the possibility of a lift and was delighted to learn that only two days previously the postal service had been changed to a postal bus service and that the driver was delayed by having to wait for a jet boat tourist – he kindly offered to take me to Whanganui.

As soon as we reached town I called at a flight centre and changed my bus and flight tickets for the following two days and was very relieved to learn that the cyclone which had been upgraded to category five had crossed the coast at Tully about 1,500 kilometres north and that south east Queensland was not affected.

Thus ended a wonderful river journey through unspoilt, pristine wilderness on a magical river that flows at times swiftly and then slowly through sheer sided, fern clad gorges topped by towering forest and along which soaring Brown Falcons scan the river for prey. This unique journey stands as one of the world’s finest kayaking experiences and is remembered with enthusiasm by all who have accepted the challenge of this superb river.

Ian Crane


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