The Whanganui River Section
How are northbound hikers to tackle what is by definition a south-bound experience: paddling down the Whanganui River. These are my speculative thoughts. I would be interested in hearing what NoBos have done in practice about this section.
The simplest option that still allows you to stick to the trail is to walk or cycle 78k from Whanganui to Pipiriki. There are various accommodation options along the way, including campgrounds at Ranana and Pipiriki and the convent at Jerusalem. Then you could take the jetboat to the Mangapuroa landing (Bridge to Nowhere). The ‘Bridge to Nowhere’ jet boat company seems to have a $95 fare for this. It is in fact cheaper than hiring canoes and going downstream, though rather less respectful of the environment. This option also stays closer to the TA trail in that you can continue walking north from the landing, whereas it seems most people going SoBo don’t actually do the official route of walking to the Mangapuroa landing because of the difficulty (or expense) of getting a canoe dropped off there for them to begin paddling.
Or you could always continue road walking from Pipiriki to Ohakune. The traffic is not heavy. It is 27 km Pipiriki to Raetihi and 11 km Raetihi to Ohakune. And from there you can take a road up Mt Ruapehu to join the Round-the-Mountain track and get to Whakapapa, joining up with the TA there. There is some great (and sometimes rugged) tramping going around the mountain. There are backpackers, cottages and campgrounds to stay at Raetihi and Ohakune.
An alternative is temporarily going SoBo, and this may be the most common approach. This involves getting from Whanganui to a point such as Ohakune where you can depart to go down river. For example, Intercity buses depart daily on the route at 11.15am from Whanganui, costs about $20, and take 1 hr 30 mins. Yeti Tours are based in Ohakune. They drive you to the river, set you off, and come down to pick up the canoe in Whanganui, so you could get a ride back up with them after you have finished paddling.
More challenging options include padding upstream on the river. In mid-summer the river is pretty slow moving for long stretches. Maybe it is possible to paddle upstream. There are only a couple of gentle rapids that I recall from doing the journey ten or so years ago. Maori used to get their large, heavy canoes up these sections by polling, pulling them up with ropes, or jumping out and pushing and pulling the vessels. Perhaps some of these techniques are still feasible?? The river level is lower than it was in the 19th century, but I don’t know if that makes it easier or harder.
Walking up west of the Whanganui River could be another possibility, but you will need to get across the river at some point and there is a fair bit of road walking, but no more than the distance some do from Pipiriki to Whanganui. For example, you could road walk from Whanganui to Taumatatahi 78 km to the northwest, beginning on the main road to Watotara 34 km to the west of Wanganui and then up the Waitotara River on back roads. You continue north on tramping tracks, through the Waitotara Forest, and meet up with the ancient Maori Matemateaonga track going east to Ramanui. There is a private camp ground with cabins there and it is close to the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, both on the west bank of the river. These places will have jetboats pulling in for supplies, so they could probably get you across the river to the Mangatiti Stream track more or less opposite, from where you join up with the Bridge to Nowhere track, or go direct to the Bridge to Nowhere track. You could call the Bridge To Nowhere Lodge for advice on this idea.
Avoiding the Whanganui River altogether by walking up through the Ruahines, Kawekas and Kaimanawas could be an alternative. It has the advantage that you end up actually walking the length of the North Island if you are a through-hiker, rather than floating down a river for a section, which seems to me a bit of a cheat anyway. However, this route through the mountains and bush will require carrying food for many days and is pretty rugged. The Ruahine section, ending at a spot called Kuripapango on the Napier–Taihape Rd, takes seven days alone according to this account, and you would need to add a day to that for walking from Palmerston North to the start of the track near Ashhurst. Ashhurst has a Four Square grocery store, but little in the way of accommodation except a campground at the Domain (showers and toilets), and a couple of cheapish Airbnbs. In a more recent account by Anthony and Fiona, they continued road walking past Ashhurst to the head of the Pohangina Valley and then a further 11 days, with some additional days to wait out rain and the extra one from Ashhurst to Pohangina. They continued on from there to the Napier–Taupo road, west of Taupo, which is further north than you want to go if you wish to catch up with the TA again at Ruapehu.
So how do you get from the Ruahines to Ruapehu? With difficulty. You could road walk or hitch hike out to Taihape or nearby on the Napier–Taihape road, and then go north on State Highway 1 (probably not much fun) to Waiouru and then to Ohakune or continue along the Desert Road. Or you could road walk for several days over back country roads from Taihape to SH49 near Tangiwai and get to Ohakune that way. There appear to be tracks and gravel roads running beside the rail line from Tangiwai to Ohakune, but I don’t know if they have public access.
If you want to press on through the Kaweka and Kaimanawa ranges a problem is that the ideal spot for exiting on the Desert Road to cross over into Tongariro National Park and ultimately meet up with the Tongariro Crossing via the round-the-mountain track is that the army live ammunition training ground is in your way. Fancy taking a bullet? Going south of this prohibited area really amounts to the road walking just mentioned. Going north around it is a long hike through rugged country to exit near the Rangipo powerhouse, not far south of Turangi and it will involve crossing private land. I don’t know how long this will take, but lets say five to seven days, and there is no marked track all the way, so you may have to bush bash, or walk up rivers, so now you have about two weeks in total without resupply through some remote and difficult terrain. However, once at Turangi you could easily catch a ride to Whakapapa Village on Mt Ruapehu and rejoin the TA. Taking a ride here wouldn’t prevent you from later saying you walked the length of the North Island because Turangi is further north than Whakapapa.
Finally, the above route suggests another option from Palmerston North that is very simple: go up the Pohangina Valley road and then along back country roads of your choice to Ohakune to avoid walking the main highway. It means a lot of road walking, with the only accommodation camping on farmland (permission required), but would be over country few see.
Header photo: Duane Wilkins, Creative Commons