Ultimate Guide to New Zealand’s Whanganui Journey
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This blog is a complete guide to preparing for the Whanganui Journey in New Zealand. It includes information on packing, renting equipment, booking campsites, as well as what to expect along the river!
The Whanganui Journey is one of New Zealand’s “Great Walks.” The Great Walks in New Zealand have a reputation for being some of the most scenic hikes in the entire country, each one offering a different landscape or uniqueness.
The Whanganui Journey not only offers a stunning landscape, but a unique experience altogether as it isn’t actually a walk or hike, but rather a canoe/kayak trip down the Whanganui River!
Because the Whanganui Journey is on the river, even the most experienced hikers will have trouble knowing how to prepare for this trip – myself included!
When Dan and I decided to embark on the Whanganui Journey, I was excited but nervous. I had no idea what to expect or how to prepare! It took a lot of research, calling tour companies, and speaking to the Department of Conservation (DOC) to finally figure out what I was in for.
And it wasn’t until after completing the journey for myself that I really understood how to properly prepare for it!
So, in this blog, I’ll tell you everything I learned about the Whanganui Journey based on the people I spoke to and my personal experience.
Topics covered include:
- About the Whanganui Journey
- Length of Trip
- Difficulty and Distance
- Where to Stay
- Equipment and Hire
- Time of year
What is the Whanganui Journey?
As mentioned above, the Whanganui Journey is one of New Zealand’s “10 Great Walks” which means it offers premium views and good facilities. It is one of the most popular outdoor activities to do in New Zealand!
The Whanganui Journey is a multi-day kayak or canoe trip along the Whanganui River. You can choose the length of the trip or section of the river you want to see, if you want to camp or stay in huts, or if you want to join a tour or conquer it solo.
The Whanganui River has a lot of historical significance to New Zeland and specifically to the Maori people as it was once a main method of transport in the region.
The deep gorges, lush rainforest, and tons of birds will have you in awe. It is really an experience for nature lovers. Without cell-phone reception, internet, or even stores, this is a real wilderness experience and an adventure to remember!
How difficult is the Whanganui Journey?
I read many blogs before embarking on the Whanganui Journey that made it out to be the most difficult thing ever. For me personally, I didn’t find it that challenging. That being said, I only did 3 of the 5 days and there are lots of different factors that contribute to the difficulty of the journey. Some factors you can control, and others you cannot. These factors are:
1. The weather
Extreme weather can make the Whanganui Journey more difficult. Very hot and sunny conditions can put you at the mercy of the harsh New Zealand sun while paddling for countless hours.
Headwinds can make paddling a lot more challenging and rain can be cold! You cannot control the weather and out on the river, the weather can change drastically at a moment’s notice so it is important to be prepared for anything.
We had great weather the entire time with almost no wind which was great!
2. The river level
Depending on how much rain the region has had will effet the river level. If the river level is very low then it will not be running very fast. This means you need to paddle harder and longer.
When the river is high, it flows fast and you don’t need to paddle much at all in fact some people told me they almost never paddled and just let the river take them to the end!
3. The length of trip you choose
Depending on how keen you are you can do the Whanganui Journey in the 5 days or choose a shorter length of trip all the way down to a day paddle. 5 days is a long time out on the water. To make the trip more manageable consider 3 or 4 days only. This is what we did simply because we had almost no experience!
4. Your preparedness
Packing the right food, equipment, and gear is crucial in preparing for the Whanganui Journey. But just as important is your mental preparedness. Know that it isn’t a leisurely float and that you will be required to paddle for 5-7 hours each and every day. Mentally preparing yourself for this challenge will also make it more manageable.
In general, the Whanganui Journey isn’t too difficult. When I did it there were many couples in their 50’s and older completing the journey. Most days take 5-7 hours out on the river and you will be required to paddle for most of this time. It is a physical journey, but not one of extreme difficulty in my opinion.
How Long is the Whanganui Journey?
The full Whanganui Journey as described on the Department of Conservation’s (DOC’s) website is 5-days and 4-nights. The classic route is as such:
- Day 1 – Taumarunui to Ohinepane or Poukaria
- Day 2 – Ohinepane or Poukaria to Whakahoro
- Day 3 – Whakahoro to John Coull Hut
- Day 4 – John Coull Hut to Tīeke Kāinga
- Day 5 – Tīeke Kāinga to Pīpīriki
This, however, is a little bit long for many people so there are shorter versions available with the most popular being the 3-day option. Also where possible people opt to stay at other campsites so they do not have to pay for the more expensive huts.
For a list of all the campsites check out this pamphlet from the DOC. You can find all your options with some estimates on the time it takes between the major campsites and huts.
Below are the descriptions of the different routes available:
5-Days and 4-Nights
|Total distance:||145 kilometers|
|Recommended campsites:||Ohinepane, Whakahoro, John Coull Hut, Tieke Kainga|
5 days of paddling in the sun is a long time for most people – therefore carefully consider if this is something that you really want to do and are physically able to do.
You must camp for the first two nights on this route as there are no huts available.
The first two days are also more technical so depending on the river conditions and your experience, you may be advised not to take on these two days. Usually, experienced kayakers or canoers choose the 5-day option.
4-Days and 3-Nights
|Total distance:||123 kilometers|
|Recommended campsites:||Whakahoro, John Coull Hut, Tieke Kainga|
For those looking for a bit more of a challenge than the 3-days but less extreme than the 5, this is the perfect medium. It also allows you to take a short detour to Ohura Falls which you would miss on the 3-day option.
You will need to pack camping gear as there are no huts available for the first night.
3-Days and 2-Nights
|Total distance:||88 kilometers|
|Recommended campsites:||John Coull Hut, Tieke Kainga|
This is the most popular route due to it being less difficult than the rest as well as the most scenic. This is also the route Dan and I chose to do. We didn’t have much canoe experience and thought being on the river for 3 days would be enough. For us, the 3-days was perfect and to be completely honest, my arm strength couldn’t handle much more than that anyways!
The decision of what length of trip you want to do is totally up to you. If you are up for the challenge, tackle the 5 days. If you just want the experience and scenery then go for the 3!
You can also choose shorter routes however you will have to check with one of the rental or transport companies prior to booking. Yeti Tours who I went with can help you with more info.
Guided Tours vs. Self-guided
There are various companies that offer guided tours for the Whanganui Journey. This is a great option for solo travelers, those who are not confident, or those who want more of a relaxing trip.
The guided tours mean you do not need to book where to stay, know your route, pack or cook your food, or bring any of your own gear. Simply show up with the clothes and toiletries you need for the next couple of days and you are off!
Guided tours also will give you more insight into the areas around you and offer knowledge that you wouldn’t otherwise get. The downside is that they are much more expensive and will cost between $500-$1,200 per person depending on your group size and the tour company.
Self-guided means you have your own gear (or hire it) and book your own accommodation. You will need to pack all your own food and cook for yourself. If you don’t have your own canoe or kayak (as most people don’t) then you can “freedom hire” it which also comes with transport to and from the start and end of the journey as well as storage barrels for your food etc.
If you want to save some money and are up for the adventure, self-guided is the choice for you! Keep reading for more information on what to pack, where to stay, and equipment hire!
Where to Stay along the Whanganui Journey
If you are not going on a tour, then you must choose where you are going to sleep each night along the river. Since the Whanganui Journey is Great Walk, you must book huts and campsites through the DOC in advance.
If you don’t book far enough in advance, all hut and campsites may already be fully booked. In this case, you can use NZHuts, which will notify you if there are any cancellations or openings for your selected dates.
You can choose between a variety of spots to spend the night along the river (the most popular spots are recommended above) from this map and information brochure.
You can choose to camp or stay in huts. Huts offer beds in bunkrooms and cooking facilities and cost $32 NZD per person per night. The only huts along the Whanganui Journey are John Coull and Tieke Kainga.
If you want to camp, there are more options for you. Many of the campsites are near empty even in the peak season as so many people choose to stay at the huts. Dan and I chose less popular campsites for this reason and had both campsites all to ourselves – not a soul in sight! We stayed at Ohauora and Mangapurua on our 3 day 2 night journey.
Campsites cost $20 NZD per person. At the campsites, there are picnic tables, a covered cooking area, pit toilets, and water and sinks. You will need to bring your own camping gear including a tent and cooking equipment (a gas cooker.)
There is also the option of some privately owned accommodation. This will be more costly but also more luxurious. These places cannot be booked through the DOC and must be booked separately.
How to Make Bookings
Once you’ve decided what length of trip you want and where you want to stay, you need to book the huts or campsites you’ve chosen. This is done directly on the DOC website. If you haven’t got one already, you will need to make a booking account and use their online booking system.
One thing to know about the Whanganui Journey is that unlike the other Great Walks, the huts and campsites don’t fill up as quickly. During school holidays or over Christmas you should book well in advance, but during other times it is worth waiting and booking once you have an idea of the weather and river conditions.
Dan and I made the mistake of booking way too far in advance, We had a change of plans and ended up having to change our booking. Luckily the modification fee isn’t too much!
Unless you have your own kayak or canoe you will need to rent one. There are various rental companies around that offer freedom hire which means they will rent you the canoe and other essential equipment for a fee. These companies also provide transport to and from the river at the beginning and end of your trip.
Dan and I rented our canoe from Yeti Tours. For a two-man canoe, it costs $180 NZD per person to use the canoe for 3-days, including transport as well as a safe place to park our van.
Along with the canoe we got paddles, a map, life jackets, waterproof barrels to store our stuff, an esky (aka chilly bin or cooler box) as well as a GPS locator beacon for extra safety. They provided really good equipment and were a very professional company to work with. We would highly recommend them! Oh, and they even gave us large blocks of ice to keep things cold over the trip.
You will likely be renting a Canadian canoe, which is a large flat bottom canoe for two people. Kayaks are usually only rented out to those with adequate experience.
If you plan on camping and don’t have camping gear (tent, mattress, cooking equipment) then this can also be rented from hire companies.
What to Pack on the Whanganui Journey
Besides your canoeing equipment, you’ll need to pack some personal items to make the journey more enjoyable. Here are my packing lists.
- rainproof jacket
- rainproof pans or fast drying pants
- a couple of pairs of socks
- clothing for warm weather
- clothing for cold weather
- and light-weight sun-proof clothing for out on the water
- sturdy sandals or old trainers
- comfy shoes for around camp
- swimsuit/board shorts
- a good hat
- sunscreen (lots of it!)
- bug spray/repellent
- personal toiletries-personal medication
- sunglasses (polarized is best for on the water)
- garbage bags
- waterproof Ziploc bags
- food for the entire trip. Consider easy hiking meals, lots of snacks like nuts and candy, high protein and high carb meals,
- water purification tablets or water bottle with filter
Camping gear (if you’re camping):
- A tent
- sleeping mats
- sleeping bags
- gas cooker
- gas bottle
- camping pots and pans
Best time of year
The most ideal time of year to do the Whanganui Journey is from October to March. This is the Great Walks season and also the warmest time of the year. The Whanganui Journey can, however, be done all year round if the weather is suitable and the river level is good.
Contact the DOC or a rental company in advance to get advice about the river levels and conditions during your anticipated arrival date!
Before you go…
And there it all is…everything you need to know before you go on the Whanganui Journey! Overall, it is a fun and unique experience that I really enjoyed. If you prepare correctly and enjoy the great outdoors then I’m sure you’ll love it as much as I did!
If you have any questions about the Whanganui Journey, ask us in the comments! Also, if you loved this article be sure to check out our official New Zealand page for more great travel guides or these related articles:
January 14, 2021