A Great Walk with a difference –exploring the Whanganui Journey

Department of Conservation —  19/05/2015

By Lesley (Les) Judd, DOC Partnerships Ranger, Whanganui District

New DOC staff in the Whanganui District headed off on an adventure recently to explore the Whanganui Journey with two staff from the Taumarunui i-Site.

With the number of visitors completing the Whanganui Journey rising steadily every year, we were keen to see what all the fuss was about.

Ready to ride! Whanganui River.

Ready to ride! Whanganui River

The Whanganui Journey is one of the nine Great Walks in Aotearoa, unique in that it does not require walking.

Instead, the Whanganui Journey navigates the Whanganui Awa (river), weaving 145 kilometres from Taumarunui to Pipiriki.

Rangers Rachael and Josh paddling the awa.

Rangers Rachael and Josh paddling the awa

Typically paddled as a three or five day trip, we fast tracked the first part of the voyage by jumping on board the jet boat Wawāhia with long time DOC ranger and expert on the awa, Pete Rihia.

Setting off on a sunny afternoon Pete brought us alongside a large rock, known to local iwi as a kaititaki, or guardian of the stretch of water. Acknowledging the kaitiaki by placing a leaf on the rock ensures a safe voyage on the water.

Pete educated and entertained us throughout the day with stories of life along the awa—both pre-European and during the busy river-boat era at the turn of last century. Relics of these times are still visible as you travel the awa, providing a physical link to the rich history of times passed.

Pete also showed us the DOC campsites where paddlers spend the night and, in return for his tour guide skills, we gave him a hand cleaning the toilets—proof that our trip wasn’t all about having fun!

We arrived late afternoon at the Whakahoro bunk room where we set up for the night. This renovated historic building was once the school house for the Whakahoro community. Facilities outside the bunk house now cater for over 40 visitors a night over the busy summer period.

Whakahoro bunk room and campsite.

Whakahoro bunk room and campsite

Next morning we packed our gear and continued on our way. We called in for a cup of tea with Simon and Athena, the friendly wardens at John Coull Hut who volunteer to spend a week each year taking care of visitors to the hut.

On to the Mangapurua Landing where we stretched our legs and walked to the Bridge to Nowhere; a large bridge located exactly where the name suggests, in the middle of nowhere.

The bridge was constructed in the 1930’s to service the WW1 returned servicemen and their families farming in the Mangapurua Valley. Survival was tough in the valley, and those families that did not walk off the land were forced off during the Depression. The road that was carved by these settlers now serves as a popular section of the Mountains to Sea cycle trail, on a good day the valley is alive with cyclists enjoying its rugged beauty.

Bridge to Nowhere.

Bridge to Nowhere

We said farewell Pete at the Mangapurua Landing and hello to our new (much slower) mode of transport—Canadian canoes.

Mangapurua Landing.

Mangapurua Landing

A couple of our crew had never been in a canoe before, but after a two hour paddle to our next stop, they were looking like professionals.

Les on the Wawāhiai (far right) with i-site staff.

On the Wawāhiai (far right) with i-site staff

We arrived at our next overnight stop with an outdoor education class from Katikati College.

Tieke Kainga is a camp with a difference. Co-managed with DOC and Te Whanau o Tieke, it is a camp site and bunk room as well as a working marae.

To welcome us on to this special site a powhiri (traditional welcome) was carried out by by local kaitikai Leianna and Reina. While a scary experience for some, who had never been welcomed on to a marae, we were greeted with open arms and soon made to feel at home.

Tieke Kainga.

Tieke Kainga

Whanganui River trench.

Whanganui River trench

We hit the water the next morning as the mist was clearing from the awa—destination Pipiriki, the end of the Journey. But not before enjoying some more spectacular scenery.

With lush forest clinging to the steep sides of the trench it is easy to believe you are travelling through a prehistoric world.

A large portion of the Journey passes through the Whanganui National Park—a wilderness protected for the special lowland forest type it represents.

This is the heart of Kia Wharite country, a large-scale biodiversity project undertaken by DOC, Horizons Regional Council and local iwi and land holders.

These parties work together to slay pests and weeds, protect native wildlife and improve the health and well-being of the entire Whanganui River catchment.

It is said the Whanganui National Park is home to the largest population of North Island Western Brown kiwi and the endangered whio (blue duck) also make their home here on the clean and swiftly flowing side-streams that feed in to the Whanganui River.

For those who like a little excitement mixed with their scenery, our final mornings paddle was spiced up with the navigation of several fast flowing rapids. While our crew managed to keep dry and afloat, we were entertained by the students and teachers from Katikati College who weren’t so lucky.

Ranger Rachael.

Ranger Rachael

After a few hours of paddling we reluctantly arrived at Pipiriki, all wishing our adventure would continue a little longer. Feeling enlivened from our three days soaking up the wonders of the Whanganui Journey, we definitely know what the fuss is all about.