Destination NZ: Five days canoeing through paradise on the Whanganui River

Ditching the city for the country meant a happy canoe year.
Ditching the city for the country meant a happy canoe year. Photo credit: Kethaki Masilamani

I didn't imagine ringing in the new year barking: "heave, ho!" through a rapid on the Whanganui River, but there I was. The cheesy order helped me and my partner paddle in sync and made our boat move faster than the river itself. 

The first morning of the five day trip started with a cup of coffee at the Taumarunui Canoe Hire shop. 

It's a very rural, family-run business. If you ask for lactose free milk, you'll get a prompt response of: "We're farmers." 

While an instructor with more muscles than I knew could possibly exist on a human being walked us through the secrets of staying afloat, his mother handed around freshly baked bread for those of us needing to stress-eat. 

But there was no need to worry as the team prepared us with everything. Of course they covered off the safety rules but they also supplied water-tight barrels for all our gear; clothes, food and a tent for the trip.

It seems like an almost fool-proof process, but there's always a fool among us. Just half an hour into the trip I found myself tossed out of the boat, not having kept my balance through my second rapid. But the boat stayed intact and as promised, all the barrels remained tightly bound to it. 

Destination NZ: Five days canoeing through paradise on the Whanganui River
Photo credit: Kethaki Masilamani

For the first three days, the water runs along a road, and while you won't see it, you'll hear the murmurs of civilisation and the occasional truck honk. A few hours downstream, when the river hugs the local farmland, you'll come across a sign for Lauren's Lavender farm. The first day of canoeing can use a lot of mental and physical energy, so a cold beverage is a welcome relief. 

But if like I did you arrive near closing time, you'll rightly be told to enjoy the river instead. Lauren has places to be. But the views of her lavender fields alone made the several flights of stairs from the river to the farm well worth the effort. I'm assured by canoers who did make it with time to spare that the beer is excellent and makes the rest of the day a little more fun. 

The views on the water itself are second to none. Be it farmland, towering cliff faces or native bush, they are breathtaking. The vistas make the hours of paddling go by in a flash. What draws you back to reality is the hike up the banks of the river when you reach your destination.

The Department of Conservation has campsites and huts along the river equipped with long drops, water tanks and a kitchen area. But the shortest distance from the river bank to a campsite would have been around 10 minutes, while the longest - at the Whakahoro stop - felt like an eternity with our heavy barrels.

That long walk was worth it as across from the campsite was an oasis: the Blue Duck Station, with hearty cooked breakfasts and flushing toilets. If you're nice to the owner, he'll tell you the best spots to see glow worms at night, and even generously offer to drive your barrells down the hill. 

Destination NZ: Five days canoeing through paradise on the Whanganui River
Photo credit: Kethaki Masilamani

Here's what you need to know about the camping side of things. Every inch of the forest is idyllic, there's no bad spot to choose from so just point and pitch your tent. All water needs to be boiled before consuming; our group had a running joke about giardia in the river water, it's funny because it's true. Breathing through your mouth will help with the long drop situation, but might not be medically advisable.

If five days of river baths is not your thing, there is the option to do it in three days. But on those fourth and fifth days, you lose the roads as the native trees take over, piwakawaka skim the river surface and there's a back-and-forth of tui calls - it's paradise in every sense of the word. You can break up the day by pulling up on river banks for a scroggin stop, or a packed lunch and a refreshing swim will revitalise you with all the energy you need to keep paddling on. 

The end of five days is bittersweet. Your body may be calling out for some time off and in desperate need of soap, but the days without mobile phone reception, in nature, with a lot of physical activity all adds up to a deeply grounding, satisfying experience. 

The Taumarunui Canoe Hire team will pick you up at the end of your trip with the best cupcakes in the world, and another muscly man who can single-handedly lift the canoe you've struggled to drag for the last five days is there to free you from everything you've been carrying. They'll then shuttle you back to your car and efficiently de-barrel you. It's a great service. 

If you really need some rest and relaxation and a shower, post-canoe, might I suggest The Chateau in Tongariro. It is equal parts bougie and and a jarring contrast to the DOC sites you'll have visited. The hotel is a short 45 minute drive from Taumarunui, standing stark against a Ruapehu backdrop, as if from a Wes Anderson film. 

The prices, if you book at the right time, can be very affordable and it's a luxury you'll appreciate after all your hard work. Time has stood still at The Chateau, it's like being on the Titanic if it hadn't hit that berg. 

If you go down to the indoor, heated pool, it'll feel like you're on the actual Titanic, complete with flooding water. Its sauna room is precisely what the doctor ordered for your newly discovered canoe muscle cramps. 

Five days of canoeing isn't for the faint of heart but take it from this nerd, it is doable by all. It's a once in a lifetime experience and if it isn't already on your 2021 bucket list, then I strongly recommend you add it to that list soon.