Stephen Bailey
Canoe New Zealand's Whanganui River
Canoe New Zealand's Whanganui River
Stephen Bailey

The Whanganui River twists over a hundred kilometres through New Zealand’s North Island, connecting a volcano with the coast.

Along the way, there are no villages, no settlements, not even any roads.

Canoeing the Whanganui means embracing the silence, the solitude and feeling everything unwind as you drift down the river.

The classic Whanganui canoeing expedition takes five days.

It’s not a typically luxurious experience, as there are no roads, hotels, or lodges. All you have on the way are campsites in the wilderness, where you can have a very comfortable tent on the river and some washroom facilities.

Out there there are no phones, no wifi — nothing but the wild.

It’s a complete escape into nature.

There are some sections where you’ll go on the river for two or three days before you get to the next takeout point. You’re going deep and you’re going to be fully immersed in nature, in an absolutely wonderful serenity.

With the Whanganui River, when you go canoeing, the luxury is in the experience.

The luxury is how slow you travel.

It’s a languorous journey, waking up each morning and knowing there’s nothing to think about, there’s nothing to worry about.

All you have to do is get in the canoe and go down river. You can’t even get lost. You just go down river. (You can’t go up the river — well, you can try. You might struggle.)

There are some parts with rapids, where suddenly it gets thrilling.

You hear it coming from a long way, and then the rapids are here and you’ve got to navigate through them. You spin a bit — nothing too hard, even for a complete beginner, but it’s a little interruption in the day’s monotony.

You keep going and find a sandbank.

Why not? Let’s stop here in the sun, have lunch on the sandbank — on the edge of the Whanganui River, miles and miles from any road. Later on you keep going, then arrive at the campsite and just stop and relax.

And you feel how great it is to retreat fully into nature.

You wake up the next day and just paddle, just keep paddling.

I was looking forward to canoeing the Whanganui River, four years ago. And paddling down for five days was a real recharge.

I know as soon as New Zealand reopens to tourism, it’s an experience that will jump in popularity. We see now that people are starting to value more any opportunity to escape away from people, to do things where they can be completely alone rather than among the crowd.

So when New Zealand does reopen, I expect that there are going to be more canoes on the Whanganui River.

But the great thing is, you can’t have that many people there, because you have to stay at a designated camp spot — and that designated camp spot has to be booked in advance.

So at any one time, the number of people on the river is very well controlled.

When I was doing it with my girlfriend, we would go four or five hours without encountering another person, another canoe, another anything. And that was the appeal.

Granted, this is not for everyone.

Some people don’t like going so much into the solitude and relative discomfort of nature. Some people don’t like the idea of camping, so they won’t like such an expedition.

But if you are the sort of person who likes a real adventure and wants to be out in nature for more than half a day — if you want to be out where there is nothing but nature — this is a great thing to add to your bucketlist.

In the classic expedition, you will have a team of guides who go with you.

They go ahead, they set up camp, and make sure you are really comfortable. They also help with taking all the things you’ll need, because if you’ve never canoed for five days down a river, it’s really difficult to know what to pack.

Having guides who will take care of that for you takes all the stress away.

You can just turn up and get in your canoe. You don’t even need to paddle — you’ll drift down river anyway.

Leave your phone. Forget about wifi, because you’re not going to get it. But you are going to be comfortable and you are going to experience something that’s actually being lost from our world.

Wilderness is being lost from our world.

There is not much untouched wilderness left and the Whanganui river is one place where there is wilderness, where it is accessible and where you take off without needing to worry about anything else — until five days later, when you reach a road and see the sign on the riverbank that says, “this is where you get out”.

Canoeing down the Whanganui is an experience which will make you feel humbled and soothed by the power and beauty of the nature around you.

Story by Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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