New Zealand: Rivers rule

Elisabeth Easther appreciates our riverscapes - from thundering rapids to delightful little springs.

Canoeing on the Whanganui River. Photo / Elisabeth Easther
Canoeing on the Whanganui River. Photo / Elisabeth Easther

New Zealand is threaded with rivers and waterways, most of them teeming with botanical wonders and fascinating stories. Many of these waterways were once primary transport routes, before motorways penetrated every corner of the land, but today they make wonderful playgrounds. Here are some of the waterways we love.

The Whanganui River

The country's third-longest river is very popular for canoeing, especially the 87km leg from Whakahoro to Pipiriki, a three day/two night expedition. Confident campers can hire their gear and navigate it independently but my son and I were lucky enough to have Charles Ranginui (Ngati Ruru) as our captain and commander. He was everything we could have hoped for in a guide - knowledgeable, fun and capable. Charles' whanau have been on the river as long as history relates and he peppered our trip with tales of the past, stories passed down from generation to generation.

With our belongings secured in waterproof barrels and strapped into Canadian-style boats, our first day we paddled from Whakahoro to John Coull Hut, a decent 37.5km.

Despite working against a headwind, we were distracted by the stunning scenery. Waterfalls, caves and tales of the legendary warrior and explorer Tamatea made the hours fly by. Where the water met the banks, the river became a mirror: what was beautiful on land played out in reverse on the water's surface.

Charles' amazing catering made the other campers living on astronaut food stare with envy. Everywhere we stopped, Charles would have the billy on before you could say "you're the man".

We shared our first campsite with longtail bats and fantails, and the night-time calls of morepork, shining cuckoo and kiwi (and a bit of snoring).

The Bridge to Nowhere. Photo / Visit Ruapehu
The Bridge to Nowhere. Photo / Visit Ruapehu

Day two's 29km paddle to Tieke Marae passed Mangapurua Landing, where the old riverboats used to tie up. It was fascinating imagining what a hive this place was in its heyday as we trotted along the pretty bush path to the Bridge to Nowhere, a welcome stretch for the legs. Enormous chunks and trunks of driftwood lined the river banks like dinosaur fossils, the bones of ancient forests.

Tieke Marae is one of the most idyllic spots you'll ever find, and we felt truly welcomed.

The final day, 21km to Pipiriki, included a couple of good rapids, including the mighty Otapu. But when you're in the bush with no showers, capsizing in cool river is a welcome baptism. There are 239 named rapids along the Whanganui, each one representing a step down as the river winds its way from the mountains to the sea.

Details:

Whanganui River Canoes: The equipment was brilliant, the food outstanding and thanks to Charles Ranginui, we couldn't have felt safer or been better looked after.

Ranfurly Cottage Raetihi: Book-end a river trip at the comfortable Ranfurly Cottage for clean sheets, hot showers and modern conveniences.

As well as the canoe trip, Whanganui River is one of DoC's Nine Great Walks so has well-maintained paths, shelters, water and toilets.

Waikato River

At 425km long, the Waikato River is New Zealand's longest, running from the eastern slope of Mt Ruapehu down to where it merges with the Tongariro River before plunging into Lake Taupo. From there, the water unloads at the mighty Huka Falls, before its run through the Waikato region to the Tasman Sea at Port Waikato.

The Waikato is very popular with rowers - many of the country's top sportspeople have trained here and later won gold. Lake Karapiro, an artificial reservoir off the river, is home to events including the national rowing champs, the Maadi Cup and, this weekend, the Festival of Speed.

If you don't fancy getting wet, cycle along the banks on the Waikato River Trail. This super cycle path, shared with walkers, is 100km of well-kept trails through farmland, native bush and forests, taking in dams, lakes and the picturesque villages of Whakamaru, Mangakino and Arapuni - where a stop at Rhubarb Cafe is essential.

Or, if you can't be bothered propelling yourself, there are houseboat holidays. There's a self-drive cruise from Karapiro Lake and dam all the way up to the Arapuni dam 21km away. This tranquil adventure can also include water skiing, kayaking with glow-worms or catching a trout and cooking it on the barbecue.

Or for a luxury Murray River-type experience (a skipper, catering and staff if you wish), join the Riverlands Discovery luxury houseboat, which runs from Tuakau and covers the serene northern stretches.

Hamilton's Waikato River Explorer, based at Mystery Creek Events Centre, hosts scenic cruises, wine tastings and events along the city reaches of the river, in true old-time style.

Waiuku River

Despite being called Waiuku River, this is actually an arm of the Manukau Harbour, so technically it's an estuary, but let's not quibble over details. Forty kilometres south-west of Auckland, Waiuku translates as "muddy or discoloured waters", but don't let that put you off.

Stress Free Adventures has outings for all ages and levels of fitness. The Weka (Waiuku Estuary Kayak Adventure) departs from the Kentish Hotel and paddles 2.5km upstream to Waitangi Falls - daring local kids jump off the falls - and returns via Waiuku's Sandspit beach.

If it's open, pop into the Waiuku Museum, which puts what you've seen into perspective. From April to September, royal spoonbills come to the Waiuku Estuary; you'll be treated to a fine plumage display if they're feeling amorous. With herons, kingfishers, South Island pied oyster catchers, fantails, welcome swallows and ducks, it's not surprising this region is popular with wildlife photographers.

If you're craving a sleepover adventure, the Freedom Overnighter hosts you in a duck shooters' hut (with bunk beds and flush toilets) on a route from Tuakau Bridge to Hoods Landing in Waiuku Forest. All just 30 minutes from Auckland.

Tongariro River

This prodigious river pushes into the southern end of Lake Taupo and is known as one of the best places for trout fishing in the world. If you want to know more, the National Trout Centre on the banks of the Tongariro is full of fascinating information about these fish and all sorts of other fresh water creatures. Trout are reared here then put in ponds for visitors to catch and there's also a museum filled with everything trout related.

Rafters and canoeists love this river. Tongariro River Rafting offers everything from family trips a three-year-old could go on, to 13km of grade-three fun - (you can even stop and fish).

Great programmes on this river support the endangered whio (little blue duck) and this is also a wonderful spot for glimpsing other waterfowl - dabchicks, pied stilts, shags and hundreds of swans from the walking tracks.

Kerikeri River

It is not be enormously wide or particularly long, but the Kerikeri River is a little sweetheart and the 3.5km (7km return) walk along the banks from the Stone Store to Rainbow Falls is delightful. Keep your eyes peeled for stands of young kauri and totara - come back in a few hundred years and they'll be majestic. This track also takes you past the remains of an historic powerhouse that was part of a hydro-electric power scheme charging the area from 1930s. The Wharepuke Falls, and the Fairy Pools a little further along are perfect swimming spots.

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