The Whanganui River Section

How are northbound hikers to tackle what is by definition a south-bound experience: paddling down the Whanganui River? Below are my speculative thoughts. I would be interested in hearing what NoBos have done in practice about this section. Following the outline of possible alternatives is a guide for the first option below. I have not walked this route, so it is a reworking of the official notes into NoBo order, but I have a passing knowledge of certain points along the way.

Road walk Whanganui to Pipiriki and jetboat to Mangapurua

The simplest option that still allows you to stick to the trail is to walk or cycle 78k on the road from Whanganui (aka Wanganui) 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 Mangapurua 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 peace and quiet of the river. 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 Mangapurua landing because of the difficulty (or expense) of getting a canoe dropped off there for them to begin paddling. So you can turn a disadvantage into an advantage.

Road walk Whanganui to Ohakune

Or you could always continue road walking from Pipiriki to Ohakune. The traffic is not heavy on the first part of 27 km Pipiriki to Raetihi and the next bit from Raetihi to Ohakune is only 11 km. 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 tramping going around the mountain. There are backpackers, cottages and campgrounds to stay at Raetihi and Ohakune.

Flip-flop the section

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.

Paddle upstream

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.

Walk west of the river

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 from the Mangapuroa landing, as above. You could call the Bridge To Nowhere Lodge for advice on this idea.

Walk the Ruahines

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 hard-core 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 took 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. They had laid food depots on the route earlier.

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 walk north on State Highway 1 (probably not much fun) to Waiouru and then to Ohakune, or continue along the Desert Road from Waiouru. 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 (for much of it contact Helisika for permission). 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.

Road walk Palmerston North to Ohakune

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.

The Guide: Bulls to Tongariro National Park

3D WhanganuiClick on 3D map to enlarge, click again to zoom

13. Bulls to Koitiata: 31 km (maps 63, 62)

From the centre of Bulls head south-west on High St for almost 2 km to where it becomes Parewanui Rd. Continue on in the same direction, then turn right into Raumai Rd and right again into Santoft Rd. Turn left straight into a forest road heading west after crossing a bridge. Continue through the cutting in the dunes and then go north-west along the beach for 8 km, crossing Koitiata Stream half-way. Stay on the inland side (east) when you come to the long lagoon. There is a camp ground in Te One St at the small holiday settlement of Koitiata.

14. Koitiata to Whanganui City Bridge: 29.5 km (maps 62, 61)

From here head inland along Wainui St, which then becomes Turakina Beach Rd, taking you 8.5 km to SH3 and Turakina village (400m to the right). There is a hotel at Turakina (no accommodation?) and a homestay. Turn left onto the highway and walk about 21 km to Whanganui. This is a rather unpleasant walk along a stretch of very busy road. If you can ford the Turakina River at Koitiata you could continue along the beach further to the next holiday settlement of Whangaehu, and take the road there to SH3, thus saving 5.5 km of highway walking. And if you can cross the Whangaehu you could make your way into Whanganui by various routes. Another option would be hiring a bicycle from a Whanganui operator to cycle from Turakina to Whanganui.

When you get to the Whanganui River, rather than cross the first bridge you see, it is preferable to turn right into Putiki Drive to cross at the second bridge (City Bridge) if you want to get to the centre of town around Victoria St.

  • The Old Coach House homestay backpacker and b&b – 52 SH3, Turakina – 06 327 3972, 021 780 855.
  • Koitiata Camp Ground – End of Te One St, Koitiata – 06 327 3770. Campsites only, no cabins.
  • YHA Whanganui (Braemar House) – 2 Plymouth Street, Whanganui. Slightly north of the city centre, close to the river, just below the Dublin St bridge. 06 348 2301. The hostel offers in-house massage and Reiki healing treatments by appointment.
  • College House – (BBH) 42b Campbell St, Wanganui, slightly closer to town centre than YHA. 021 852100. Dorm rooms and private rooms. Also hire bikes for those who wish to cycle from Turakina.
  • Tamara Riverside Lodge – BBH backpackers, 24 Somme Parade, Wanganui, opposite Kowhai park on west bank of river, slightly closer to town centre than YHA, 06 347 6300.
  • Hikurangi Stayplace – 1 Mount View Rd, Wanganui, adjacent to the river/Kowhai Park on the east bank. 06 3433333 or 027 4992729. Very affordable dorm rooms and private rooms.
  • Whanganui River TOP 10 Holiday Park – 460 Somme Parade, Whanganui, about 5 km up river from town centre and on bank opposite to TA route, some distance from nearest bridge. 06 343 8402 or 0800 272 664. Cabins and camping.
  • Countdown supermarket, cnr Taupo Quay and Wilson St, just south of City Bridge.
  • New World and PaknSave – Victoria St, about 1.3 km from City Bridge.

Whanganui to Pipiriki: 78 km

This is along a winding, narrow road that follows the river and poses some risk of being hit by a car. An alternative is hiring a bicycle. This also presents a risk of being hit, but the time on the road is less.

The small settlements going up river are, with distances from the centre of Whanganui, Parikino, Atene (36 km), Koroniti (46.4 km) Matawihi (c.53 km), Ranana (58.8 km), Jerusalem (66 km), Pipiriki (78 km). For sights along the way see The Curious Kiwi site

15. Whanganui to Atene: 36 km (maps 61, 60, 59)

  • Rivertime Lodge – self-contained cottage (sleeps 4), plus 3x two-bedroom cabins, $50-$60pp self-catering, 1569 Whanganui River Rd (the farm is marked ‘Omaka’ on the gate), located about 3km south of Atene and 33 km north of Whanganui centre. 06 342 5595. Food parcels can be arranged in advance and pre-booking is advised.

16. Atene to Jerusalem: 30 km (maps 59, 58)

  • Te Punga Homestead – 2929 Whanganui River Rd, 06 3428239. Self-contained cottage ($150/double) or camping ($25/site). Located 7 km north of Atene, 2 km south of Koroniti and 43 north of Whanganui. Food parcels can be arranged in advance.
  • The Flying Fox – Eco friendly cottages, glamping and camping. Access from road is via aerial cableway ($5 charge). 10 km north of Atene, 500m downstream from Koriniti, 46 km north of Whanganui. Camping from $15, glamping $120 or $60/couple. Bush setting. Camping often may be exchanged for work instead of cash. 3081 Whanganui River Rd, RD6, 06 927 6809.
  • Kauika Campsite – Ranana, behind the marae, 06 342 8061 (Terry).
  • Matahiwi Gallery and Cafe – Whanganui River Rd, 06 342 8112 – Coffee, cold drinks and plenty of local knowledge and information. Also associated with the gallery and cafe, Matahiwi Roadside Cabins $34 (or $45) per person. Book on Airbnb.
  • Jerusalem Convent / Backpackers – Whanganui River Rd, Jerusalem, 06 342 8190. Backpacker standard accommodation.
  • Ruth Baisley at Jerusalem welcomes campers – 5038 Whanganui River Rd – P: 06 342 8284. $15pp/night with toilet and a small shop with hot food, drinks and icecream.

Jerusalem to Pipiriki: 10.5 km (map 58)

  • Whanganui River Adventures (Pipiriki Camping ground & Cabins) & Jetboat/Canoe transfers – 2522 Pipiriki Village, Pipiriki, 0800 862 743 freephone or 06 385 3246. Bunkroom sleeps 6. Jetboat tours to Bridge to Nowhere depart 10.30 daily.
  • Whanganui River Canoes – 0800 408 888 or 06 385 4176.
  • Pipiriki – public shelter with cold water, picnic and camping areas, toilets & parking Amenities between Pipiriki & the southern end of Whanganui River Road including accommodation.

Mangapurua Landing to National Park Railway Station: 89 km, 4 days

Bridge to Nowhere, Whanganui National Park, Evan Goldberg photo, Creative CommonsBridge to Nowhere

This section begins on the Mangapurua–Kaiwhakauka track, along valleys that were offered to resettle soldiers returning from WWI. At a peak there were 46 farms in the two valleys. The settlers cleared the forest to create farm land, but poor access, erosion and falling prices for farm stock during the Depression caused many to abandon their farms. The last few had to leave in 1942 when the government refused to maintain the storm damaged road. Today you can see a few remains of the farm house sites in the form of chimneys and exotic trees and hedges. The Bridge to Nowhere was constructed in the mid-1930s to provide access to the Mangapurua Valley farms from the river, but by the time it was finished the valley was deserted and construction of the road down to the river was abandoned.

Mangapurua Landing to Mangapurua Trig Camp: 20.5 km, 6 hrs 40 (maps 57, 56, 55)

From the landing the track climbs up to the famous Bridge to Nowhere and continues along the old roadline, crossing numerous streams as the valley progressively opens out. It is easy walking and is popular with cyclists. The track climbs steadily up the valley along the true left side of the Mangapurua Stream to reach Mangapurua Trig, the highest point in the area (661m), with sweeping views on a clear day. About 2 km before the peak a track branches off down a ridge to the right. Stay left at this fork.

Along the 36.5 km route to Whakahoro are various basic camp sites. In order, with distances from Mangapurua Landing they are: Hellawells (7), Bettjemans (11 km), Johnsons (14.5), Mangapurua Trig (20.5), Mosley’s (27.5), and finally Whakahoro Camp. Mangapurua Campsite, at the beginning, is on the opposite bank from the landing, so of no use to you. DoC times for ‘leisurely walking’ are: Mangapurua Landing to Bridge to Nowhere 40 mins; Bridge to Nowhere to Hallawells 1.5 hrs; Hallawells to Bettjeman’s 1.5 hrs; Bettjeman’s to Johnson’s 1 hr; Johnson’s to Mangapurua Trig 2 hrs; Trig to track junction 30 mins; junction to Mosley’s 2.5 hrs; Mosley’s to Whakahoro 3.5 hrs (these times are for south-bound travel). By contrast, the TA notes give the time from the Mangapurua Landing to the trig as 12 hrs and from there to Whakahoro as 8 hrs. Total 20 hrs vs DoC 13 hrs! Sounds like you could do it in a long day (it is 36.5 km).

Mangapurua Trig to Whakahoro: 16 km, 6.5 hrs (map 55)

About 1.5 km after the trig the route branches sharply left down the Kaiwhakauke Track, following the stream on the true left bank all the way to the Whanganui River. Care should be taken not to disturb farm stock and to leave gates as you found them. A km or so upstream on the river is Whakahoro (aka Wade’s Landing) a popular starting point for canoeing down river.

Besides the campsite at Whakahoro there is a 10 bed bunkroom operated by DoC. You don’t have to book to stay, but you can book it nevertheless ($10) and it is commonly used by people setting off early in the day canoeing, so it may pay to do so. You can check how full it is online.

Whakahoro to Kura Rd: 37 km, 8-9 hrs (maps 55, 54, 53)

Now comes 24.5 km of road walking with few water sources along the Oio Rd (though Isabel at 2350 Oio Rd offers water and a rest stop to TA walkers). Keep right at the junction of Oio with Upper Retaruke Rd. There is a toilet here. Head south for 12 km on the Upper Retaruke Rd to the unsealed Kurua Rd.

Fisher Track, Kura Rd to National Park: 15 km, 5-6 hrs (maps 53, 52)

Turn left into Kura Rd and after 3.5 km this ends and becomes a tramping track of 7km, climbing 400m before joining another Kurua Rd (or maybe its the other end of one that was never joined up) which then becomes Fisher Rd, and enters the settlement curiously called National Park. This sits on the main trunk railway. Go east on Carroll St, then south on Ward to get to the railway station. There is a whole host of accommodation in National Park village and not much else besides the petrol station/4 Square store. You should be able to buy camping gas here, and if not, at Whakapapa village. But resupplying is a bit of a problem in this region as the only substantial supermarkets are in Ohakune and more especially Turangi. However, there are many shuttle bus operators associated with the Tongariro National Park (listed below) and you may be able to use them to get to one of these places, or hitch hike.

  • YHA National Park– 4 Findlay St, National Park, 07 892 2870.
  • Howards Lodge (BBH) – 43 Carroll St, National Park, 07 892 2827.
  • Ski Haus – Cnr of Carroll and Mackenzie Sts, National Park, 07 892 2854, backpackers & tent sites.
  • Plateau Lodge – 17 Carroll St, National Park Village, 0800 861 861 freephone, or 07 892 2993.
  • 4 Square, combined with petrol station, main rd on corner with SH47, 7am to 7pm, 07 892 2879. Is a NZ Post outlet as well.
  • KiwiRail Northern Explorer train – departs National Park northbound Monday, Thurs, Sat at 1.15pm; southbound Tuesday, Friday, Sunday at the same time.
  • Intercity buses – depart 3pm for Whanganui and points south; 1.20pm for Waitomo and points north.
  • Tongariro Expeditions – Shuttle service to the Tongariro Crossing to/from Taupo, Turangi, Ketetahi, Whakapapa. 07 377 0435,  info@tongariroexpeditions.com. Multiple return times from the northern end of the track (6 kms from the Holiday Park).
  • Tongariro Alpine Hot Bus. 0508 468 287, bookings@alpinehotbus.cop.nz, http://www.alpinehotbus.co.nz
  • Mountain Shuttle – (door to door shuttle from Turangi, Tokaanu, Whakapapa & Ketetahi), 0800 11 76 86 freephone.
  • Matai Shuttles Transport – 61 Clyde St, Ohakune, 06 385 8724, mataishuttles@xtra.co.nz
  • Mountain Shuttle – (door-to-door shuttle from Turangi, Tokaanu, Whakapapa & Ketetahi), 0800 11 76 86 freephone.

Tongariro National Park

Mt Tongariro from Mt Ngauruhoe, A McCredie photo Mt Tongariro from Mt Ngauruhoe, showing Tongariro Crossing track in centre

National Park village to Whakapapa village: 20 km, 6.5-7.5 hrs (maps 52, 51)

Walk 6.5 km on the busy SH47 east of National Park village to the turn-off at right to the Mangahuia track and head 500m up to the Maungahuia camp site. Keep going up hill, crossing a number of streams that can be difficult after rain. Then turn right onto the Whakapapaiti track. This crosses open tussock and a bridge over the Whakapapaiti Stream before passing through groves of kaikawaka and cabbage trees amongst the beech forest. The track can be boggy when wet.

Whakapapa village is the gateway to skiing and hiking in the Tongariro National Park. Accommodation and resupply options are limited (these are mainly in Ohakune and National Park village, with the largest supermarket in the area at Turangi). For things to do see the DoC website. If you want to depart from the TA trail and do some hikes you could consider the two round-the-mountain routes (one around Mt Ngauruhoe – the Tongariro Northern Circuit (3 days) – the other around Mt Ruapehu (5 days) or the Tama Lakes (5-6 hrs return). Note that the Tongariro Northern Circuit takes in the Tama Lakes and part of it is on the TA route (but you will need to repeat the section of the TA because it is a circuit that brings you back to Whakapapa). Climbing Mt Ruapehu is also an option, but the route is not marked and you need to be prepared for walking in snow and for cold, windy conditions on the top. Having a favourable weather forecast is essential. DoC may offer a guided hike at times and if you are not skilled in alpine hiking then this is a  good option.

National Park Visitor Centre, Whakakpapa village, open 8 am to 5pm in summer. Good for daily weather updates.

  • Whakapapa Holiday Park – Bruce Rd, self contained cabins, cabins (sleep up to 6, $80 for cabin), bunkroom, campervan and tent sites. All very reasonably priced with good shared kitchen and bathrooms, and basic camp store. Note, it is alpine, so can be cold at night if camping. 07 892 3897.
  • Skotel Alpine Resort – Ngarauhoe Terrace, Whakapapa village. A hotel with a backpacker wing, including shared bathrooms, kitchen, lounge. Bunkrooms are sold on a room-only basis at $60, each sleeping 3 people. 0800 756 835; 07 892 3719.
  • Chateau Tongariro – Whakapapa village. A heritage hotel if you feel like splashing out on some luxury. Not as expensive as you might think, with rooms from $120 up to about three times this amount. Guests are generally very well heeled, so a certain standard of dress is expected.

Places to eat include Fergusson’s café, open from 6am for great breakfasts; various eateries in the Chateau including high tea (no tramping boots allowed); the Skotel;  NZ’s highest café, Koll Ridge Café (2020m but you need to get up to the top of Bruce Rd at the base of the ski area (possible by shuttle) and then a ski lift, which operates some hours during the peak summer holiday season); Lorenz’s (also at top of Bruce Rd); and the Tussock bar and restaurant, downhill from the Chateau, with pub fare of pizzas, burgers, fish and chip meals (average price for each of these $25).

Whakapapa to Mangatepopo Hut (20 bunks): 9 km, 3-4 hrs (map 51)

The next section, on the Tongariro Crossing from Whakapapa to a camping ground on SH47, is a long walk for one day, though the Tongariro Crossing itself is a day walk. So you could consider staying at Mangatepopo Hut to begin with.

The track begins at the end of Ngauruhoe Terrace, above the Chateau Tongariro grounds, at Whakapapa. It crosses open tussock country. You could consider doing the side trip to the Taranaki Falls on the way (can be done as a loop if you take the upper track to the falls from Whakapapa). The hut is a Great Walks hut, and though not as expensive as some ($36), does require booking in the summer season (mid-Oct to end of April). Expect it to be fully booked over the Christmas holiday period well into January. It has gas cooking and a campsite ($15).

Mangatepopo Hut to Tongariro Holiday Park (Tongariro Crossing): 25 km, 8-9 hrs (maps 51, 50)

The Tongariro Crossing is a justly famous walk, traversing an active volcanic area with spectacular, Mars-like scenery and intensely coloured lakes. However, it is also an alpine zone, and the weather can turn bad quickly. Winter travel will require full alpine gear. Check the weather forecast at Whakapapa Visitor Centre before you begin. Note that water sources are highly mineralised and not fit to drink (it is ‘mineral water’ but not the sort that is good for you). The rainwater supply at Mangatepopo Hut is limited and really intended for those who stay there, so stock up at Whakapapa if you can. The other point to note that it is an extremely popular walk, in part because no overnight stay is required if doing it from Mangatepopo car park to Ketetahi car park. Expect to see hordes of people, but unlike SoBos you will at least will be going with the flow, as NoBo is the DoC recommendation here.

The route begins with a gradual incline to the base of the Devil’s Staircase. There is a short diversion to the soda springs here. The staircase (more or less literally these days) is a long, hard slog. Then you are on south crater. If you have the time and energy you could climb the active volcano Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies). It is a tough, 1 hour scramble. There are markers from the main track to the base of the mountain, but no marked route up. It is best to climb one of the rocky ridges, where there is solid ground, otherwise the loose scoria makes it like climbing in sand. One the other hand, a very fast descent can be made by taking giant running steps down the loose slopes (great fun if you have the nerve). Expect your shoes/boots to suffer some shredding from the sharp rocks in any case. Some recommend wearing tough gardening gloves to protect your hands too. Taking walking poles may or may not be a good idea.

Back on the track, it is then a steep climb to the highest point (1886m) on the crossing. You can detour up a moderate slope to the top of Mt Tongariro here. Next it is a steep descent on very loose material. As with climbing Ngauruhoe, expect your shoes/boots to fill with scoria unless you are wearing gaiters. You pass the amazingly coloured Emerald Lakes (former craters) and then the Blue Lake to sidle around North Crater to Ketetahi Shelter. This was formerly a hut, but it sustained damage in the 2012 eruption and you can no longer stay here, though there are toilets. Also now off-limits are the Ketetahi Hot Springs nearby. Please respect the landowners’ wishes. It’s downhill all the way from here to the car park, ending in a passage through forest.

SH46 is 1.5 km from the car park. Turn left into it, then after 6 km, left into SH47 and 300m down the road is Tongariro Holiday Park.

Header photo: Duane Wilkins, Creative Commons
Bridge to Nowhere photo: Evan Goldenberg, Creative Commons licence