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Whanganui National Park
The Whanganui, New Zealand's longest navigable river, cuts its way through a vast remote wilderness, the single largest tract of lowland forest remaining in the North Island.
While the river itself is technically not within the national park, the two are integrally linked. The Whanganui's special characteristics—its often muddy appearance, fearsome floods, deep-cut gorges, bluffs, and waterfalls—all affect the easily eroded sandstones and volcanic soils in which the lowland forest thrives.
For centuries, Maori people have lived beside the river, its gentle rapids and deep gorges providing transport long before roads and rail were built. Maori still live along the lower reaches, some farming, some welcoming visitors into their villages or on river tours.
In the early 1900s riverboats carried thousands of admiring passengers through the river's gorges and forests. Now protected as national park, this wild landscape remains intact and today's tourists admire from canoe, kayak, or speedy jet-boat or drive themselves on a journey through history, culture, and a most scenic piece of backcountry New Zealand.
Best Time to Go
Anytime! Guided river trips generally operate during summer; however, the climate is mild and a winter journey, while a little cooler and possibly wetter, will be equally rewarding—and less crowded. The same applies for the two hiking trips through the park, and the historic Whanganui River Road is open all year-round.
Don't let the rain put you off. The waterfalls will be even more stunning and, if you're traveling by canoe or kayak, they'll make your paddling easier, with a faster flowing river carrying you along.
Canoe the River
The Whanganui is New Zealand's most canoed river, popular both for the wilderness it transects and its suitability for beginners. Although the river flows through long gorges and forested wilderness, its gradient is gentle and most of its 239 named rapids have little more than a meter fall. The river is suitable for all kinds of craft, from kayak to open-style Canadian canoes. Department of Conservation huts and campsites provide basic (but very scenic) riverside accommodations. Most people take a three- or five-day trip through the heart of the wilderness to Pipiriki, though paddling the lower reaches past historic Maori settlements is also rewarding.
Drive the Whanganui River Road
Drive slow—there's a heap of history, culture, wild river scenery, and a perhaps a little excitement here. The narrow winding road follows the river's lower reaches, climbing around bluffs and steep gullies and passing through historic Maori settlements that were established before the road was built, when the river was the only access. Heritage stops include an old flour mill, mission settlement, village churches, and traditional Maori marae (village)—check with a local before venturing into these. You can drive yourself, or take the daily mail delivery tour from Wanganui.
Two three-day hiking trails (one is also a mountain-bike trail) traverse the park. Each have their distinctive characters. Regenerating forests along Mangapurua-Kaiwhakauka Track tell the story of failed farm attempts last century in these remote valleys. The old farming road was upgraded in 2010 and is now popular with mountain-bikers. In contrast, the Matemateaonga Track passes through the heart of the park's most pristine, forested wilderness. Jet-boats can be chartered for access to the river end of each walk.
Take a Jet-boat Ride
New Zealand ingenuity pioneered the planing jet-boat, enabling fast, safe travel into the most remote, rapid-filled rivers. If your time is limited or the challenge of kayaking too great, take a scenic jet-boat trip into the heart of the national park. (You can also charter one to take you to the river end of one of the isolated three-day walking tracks that traverse the park.) Tours, mostly run by family operators who have long associations with the river people, depart from settlements in the upper, middle, and lower reaches, and last anything from one hour to one day.
Along the river's lower reaches, hosts Annette and John have built a piece of paradise to share with visitors. Their Flying Fox lodge is named for the cage-on-a-wire access across the river (you can take a boat if you prefer). Individual cottages are built from recycled timbers. The home is a certified organic property, with vegetable gardens and heritage fruit trees. Annette's amazing meals include this homegrown produce, baked bread, and preserves; she is also the driving force behind Wanganui River traders' market.
Bridge to Nowhere Lodge has come a long way since the former owner, a fur trapper and tourist jet-boat driver, extended what was then his family home. River access is the only way to reach the lodge, nestled on a small riverside patch of farmland. There's no electric power, but diesel generators, wood-fueled stoves, and hosts Jo and Mandy provide all the comforts of home. Jo also runs jet-boat tours from Pipiriki to the abandoned "Bridge to Nowhere."
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