New Zealand is all about adventuring outdoors, so if you’re coming to this beautiful country, chances are that you have plenty of hiking and general nature exploration planned.
But if you really want to do something epic and off the beaten path, then you should consider the Whanganui River Journey.
“What is the Whanganui River Journey?” you ask. Well, let me tell you what it is, and why you must do it.
For three days, we canoed down the North Island’s winding Whanganui River — just the two of us — past waterfalls, dense forest, and incredible rock formations. We rented our canoe, stocked up our waterproof barrels with clothes and lots of food, and spent a total of 18 hours rowing downstream, unplugged from society, soaking up the peaceful nature, and barely making it through the rough rapids without capsizing.
For three whole days, we had no guide, no cell service, and no civilization.
It was just us, our canoe, a map, and the great outdoors.
Even though we still have three weeks left in New Zealand, I’m not sure that anything can top this adventure. No doubt, this experience was one of the most rewarding, adventurous, and all-around epic things I’ve ever done.
I can’t recommend it enough to you.
If you’re looking for an underrated expedition that’s completely different from anything you’ve ever done before, then you must do the Whanganui River Journey.
Here’s what happened during our three days canoeing down the Whanganui River…
The Whanganui River Journey:
An Epic 3-Day Canoe Trip
At 5:50 am, our alarm blared. It was time to pack all of our clothes, camping gear, and lots of food into waterproof barrels and head to the canoe rental lodge in Tamarunui.
Before we set out, though, we checked the weather forecast.
Rain, rain, and more rain.
That’s what we’d be working with for the next three days as we canoed down the river. “Well, at least it’ll be an adventure,” we thought, trying to stay positive.
When we arrived at the lodge, we tried on life jackets, and then received a briefing on all things canoeing: how to steer, how to turn quickly, how to approach rapids, how to tie up a canoe properly when it rains heavily, and more.
Essentially, the operators scared us into thinking there was no way we wouldn’t capsize (multiple times), and that we just might make it back alive, with all of our belongings unscathed.
What would actually happen remained to be seen…
An hour later, we arrived at the starting point of the Whanganui River Journey, where it was pouring rain. I threw on my super awesome oversized poncho, we loaded all of our waterproof barrels into our canoe, and nervously pushed ourselves into the river.
It took us a few minutes to get coordinated with our teamwork, communication, rowing, and steering, and only a few minutes more to start feeling confident.
And then came our first rapid…
We faced it head-on, paddled hard without stopping, turned the canoe where and when it felt right, and ultimately came out victorious.
Over the next eight hours, we faced many more rapids and felt extremely tired and fatigued as we rowed (and rowed, and rowed). But most of all, we enjoyed being completely out of touch with society, out in the peace and quiet of nature.
As we floated down the river, thick clouds hung over the treetops, waterfalls rushed down the cliff sides, ducks and ducklings floated by, mountain goats bleated, and the moody skies poured down rain.
There are no words that can adequately describe how truly stunning this place – and this adventure – was.
And this was only the beginning…
That day, I just kept thinking to myself how lucky I was to be somewhere like that. How most people that visit New Zealand never do anything like this. Actually, how most people anywhere haven’t experienced something like this.
In those moments, I couldn’t be happier.
The beauty of it all — of the nature, of the adventure, of the fact that we couldn’t be reached from the outside world — was so overwhelming.
As we canoed, we tried to find the words to express what we were seeing and feeling. But all that came out was, “Wow, this is so amazing” or “Oh my gosh, this is gorgeous.” Over and over again.
That night, we took plenty of ibuprofen to relieve our aching muscles, and we ate. A lot. Chicken soup, pasta with chicken, mushrooms, and bacon (a gift from another canoer), Thai chicken curry, ginger cookies, and dark chocolate were on the menu that night — all made with the help of our Jetboil (flash personal cooking system – see it here). We burned so many calories that day, I think we could’ve eaten triple that amount if we’d really wanted to.
After dinner that night, nature decided to show off again. First, with a beautiful sunset. And then, with glow worms lighting up the trees (a sight that many tourists pay $40 or more for!), and endangered bats flittering across the sky. As if Day 1 hadn’t been incredible enough…
Before falling asleep, we mentioned how we couldn’t wait for Day 2, and then drifted off into a deep sleep (despite the snoring people in our hut).
On Day 2 of the Whanganui River Journey, we woke up early, feeling extremely sore, but excited for the day ahead. It was still pouring down rain, but we decided to look on the bright side: at least there’d be lots of waterfalls!
After throwing on our quick-drying athletic wear and rain gear, we scarfed down some dried fruit and oatmeal, and were on our way!
Day 2 promised to be even more beautiful than Day 1, with taller trees, more wildlife, lots of fog clouding the forest canopy, and even the occasional ray of sunshine peeking through the cloud cover.
So in other words, Day 2 was absolutely gorgeous and those euphoric feels just kept on coming.
Since it rained all night long, the rapids were much smoother than the day before, and we didn’t have to paddle as hard. It was also a shorter journey — just six hours of rowing. That’s not to say, though, that it wasn’t a good workout. Because it definitely was!
Halfway through the day, we also tied up our canoe to take a lunch break and a mini hike to the Bridge to Nowhere (a “historical” concrete bridge in the Whanganui National Park which locals make a big commotion about). While the bridge was nothing special, it was still a lovely 45-minute walk through the trees and the cold rain, and a welcome change after sitting down in our canoe all day!
After a few more hours of winding down the river — ooh-ing and awe-ing the whole way at the jaw-dropping views — we arrived at the second hut, situated on sacred Māori land.
Upon arrival, we experienced a traditional Māori greeting ceremony in which we sang, gave offerings, listened to speeches, and “shared the breath of life” with one another (which basically means that we greeted each other the traditional way by pressing our noses together).
After the ceremony, we made dinner, which consisted of chicken soup again, as well as beef stew with wine and vegetables, and mashed potatoes. And as always, dark chocolate and ginger cookies for dessert.
That night, the sky put on another epic show for us. The clouds turned a dreamy shade of pinkish-orange and reflected their colors onto the river water below.
And just like that, so ended Day 2 of our incredible Whanganui River Journey.
When Day 3 rolled around, we weren’t ready for our Whanganui River Journey to end. One extra day, or even two more days, would’ve been ideal.
But at least we still had Day 3! And get this: It was finally sunny!
After another bowl of oatmeal with dried fruits, we packed up our canoe and set off for what would be the most challenging day on the river yet. Ahead of us, the 50/50 rapid awaited, in which only 50% of people make it out alive — or that is, without flipping over or sinking.
Plenty of other trying rapids also would also threaten to capsize us along the way.
We made it through Days 1 and 2 without incident, and without seeing anyone else lose to the river either.
But what would happen on Day 3?
Well, it felt different that day. But only time would tell…
About mid-way through our four-hour journey, we made it through a pretty rough rapid and then stopped on a riverbank for some snacks immediately after. As we watched other canoers rowing through the rapids, we finally saw a boat go down. This time, it was two guys who took on too many waves, and their canoe sank in a matter of seconds.
Even though it was hilarious to watch from the sidelines — as they floated in their lifejackets down the river, their cooler and waterproof barrels getting away from them, and kayakers paddling over to help bring them ashore — it reminded us that we could be next.
And we weren’t wrong.
We experienced the 50/50’s wrath just two minutes before our canoe journey ended, and it was definitely the most memorable part of the entire journey.
We steered ourselves right into the middle of the rapid, and paddled hard. And then the waves started coming.
And they just kept coming.
And then we were going down. Sinking fast.
So I grabbed the bail and started throwing water out as quickly as I could, meanwhile Diana kept paddling hard. At this point, we’d probably taken on about 30 gallons of water, and I did everything I could to get it out.
Unbelievably enough, we made it out of the rapid without sinking entirely – and had a quick celebration. But that didn’t last long, since there was one last rapid to grapple with right then.
I went to pick up my paddle, but it was gone.
I looked back in horror, realizing that I must’ve thrown it into the rapids, in my haste to grab the bail. And sure enough, there it was, swirling around in a whirlpool.
We had no choice but to take the next rapid head-on, with Diana paddling hard. Meanwhile, I tried to row and steer with our spare paddle which had been tied tightly onto the canoe with no mobility whatsoever. And of course, there was no time to untie it! It was a rough ride, but somehow, we made it.
When we pulled our canoe onto the riverbank for the final time, we turned back around to find our paddle floating slowly toward us.
Just like the rest of the journey, that couldn’t have been more perfect.
And then came the hysterical laughter and endless conversations about how incredible the entire experience was and all of our favorite parts. And of course, how we’d made it through the entire Whanganui River Journey without totally sinking or capsizing.
The Whanganui River Journey:
An Unforgettable Canoe Trip
To say the Whanganui River Journey was incredible would be a massive understatement. Everything about this experience was beautiful: the nature, the sense of adventure, working hard as a team, and trying something new and off the beaten path.
When you visit New Zealand, make sure to do the Whanganui River Journey. Like I said before, this was one of the coolest, most unique things I’ve ever done, and I know you’re going to love it!
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Quick & Helpful Facts About the Whanganui River Journey:
- The journey is 3 days, 2 nights and a combined total of about 18 hours of rowing.
- If the rapids are fast and rough, the Whanganui River Journey can be dangerous. Make sure you get travel insurance. We highly recommend using World Nomads — we use them ourselves.
- You will need to find a canoe hire agency, which will rent you your canoes, lifejackets, waterproof barrels, and take you to and from the starting and ending points of the journey.
- As always in New Zealand, make sure you’re prepared for rain. Bring a heavy-duty poncho such as this one, and make sure all of your clothing and footwear (sandals like this are best) will dry quickly.
- You should also bring hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen, should you have great weather.
- Camping in tents or staying at DOC huts are your two options, and you must book ahead of time.
- You will not have any cell service for the duration of the journey, and of course, no wifi.
- Since all of your things will be in barrels on your canoe, you can worry less about how heavy your food is. Score!
- It’s convenient to bring a 6-liter jug of drinking water with you — the water in the first hut must be boiled before drinking.
- Bring an extra day’s worth of food, for emergencies. This is often required by DOC anyway.
- There are sandflies on the riverbanks. Repellent is a must, and so are lightweight pants!