A canoe trip down the Whanganui River, tucked away on the North Island, offers travellers the perfect combination of abundant natural splendour, history and adventure.

The mighty Whanganui River, tucked away on New Zealand’s North Island just three hours’ drive from Wellington, offers travellers the perfect combination of history, adventure and abundant natural splendour.

Its waters cut a deep and dramatic gorge, where tree ferns form dazzling hanging gardens, hidden tributaries beg exploration and waterfalls and ancient rock formations greet you at each bend. It is impossible not to be bewitched by the fissures and features in the soft rock face, shaped by the waters over the course of one million years. Most striking is the intense saturation of green, with almost fluorescent-coloured moss adorning the cliff walls.

The best way to experience the magic of the Whanganui River is by canoe. Rent your own from one of the many operators in Ohakune, which is 286km from Wellington and the closest town to the start of the river journey at the small community of Whakahoro. They will fit you out with a canoe, lifejackets, water-tight barrels to keep your clothes dry and a map showing the campsites and attractions along the way. They will also drop you off and pick you up on the river.

Pack some supplies, a sense of adventure and you are away on a three-day self-guided paddle that winds 87kms from Whakahoro to Pipiriki Landing, with no shortage of secluded river banks for picnic stops. Remote and wild, you will not see a town or road until you reach Pipiriki.

Day one on the river offers a lovely quiet 37km-stretch with nothing but water below and a canopy of podocarp trees towering above. Native birds are prolific, so listen out for the call of the tui, miromiro (tomtit ), riroriro (grey warbler) and kereru (native pigeon).

As the sun disappears behind the ridge and before the evening mists descend, head to the basic but cosy John Coull Hut, run by the Department of Conservation. Here, you are guaranteed a fire – extremely welcome if you have taken an involuntary dip in the river – as well as bunks and a kitchen. You can also camp here, or at other designated campsites along the river. The call of the rare brown kiwi can sometimes be heard at night in the forest around the hut, although it is usually hard to spot one of these shy birds.

Day two reveals the history of some of the river’s past inhabitants. The Whanganui was once thriving with Whanganui hapū (Maori) settlements which were established high on the cliff tops. According to Maori tradition, each bend in the river coveted a kaitiaki (guardian), who oversaw the life force of that spot. 

A huge transformation in the region occurred with the arrival of European missionaries and wheat farmers in the 1840s. In 1891, Australian-born entrepreneur Alexander Hatrick launched the first of 12 paddle steamers on the river to link the towns of Taumarunui and Wanganui, hoping to turn the river into an international tourist destination.  

Around the turn of the century, the river was promoted around the world as the “Rhine of the South”, European and US tourists crammed onto the riverboats in their Victorian finery to see the untamed landscape. One paddle steamer, the Manuwai, could carry 400 passengers, defying odds to pull, push and winch its way through the gorges and rapids. 

The last paddle steamer ceased running in the 1950s, superseded by road transport. Today you might spot an iron winch-hook embedded in the cliff face, or a pathway cut into a hillside long ago. And you can still ride the original Waimarie paddle steamer 13km between the towns of Wanganui and Upokongaro.

For a glimpse into post-World War I New Zealand, make a stop at the Bridge to Nowhere. From Mangapurua Landing (where you can tie your canoe), it is a 45-minute walk to the bridge along an easy marked trail. This inhospitable land at Mangapurua was given to war veterans, who spent many years trying to establish farms here. However, the harsh environment got the better of them in the end, and the farms were all abandoned. The impressive bridge today sits alone in dense forest, a poignant reminder of the hardships of farming New Zealand’s rugged interior.

To experience a traditional Maori welcome house, known as a marae, spend your second night at Tieke Kainga, 29kms downstream from John Coull Hut. This is one of the original Maori buildings on the river and is run by local Maori community members as a rest spot for passing canoeists. If you are lucky you might arrive on the day of a traditional Maori feast and be invited to participate in a powhiri (welcome ceremony) and share in a delicious home-cooked meal. Everyone is welcome at the marae, and someone will greet you on arrival and explain the protocol of visiting a marae and participating in a ceremony.

Day three showcases the river at its most magnificent, and features the deepest point of the gorge. Just past the Ngaporo campsite, 12.5kms from Tieke Kainga, look behind you for the famous “drop scene” – a corner of the river that is so beautiful it was thought to resemble a painted backdrop. The biggest rapids are also saved for day three, and you will be lucky to make it to the end without a dip. Thankfully your transport will be waiting for you at Pipiriki Landing and a warm shower is not far away.

This trip is one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, but is known as the Whanganui Journey because of its watery status. Huts, campsites and Tieke Kainga must be pre-booked through the Department of Conservation.