Novice canoeist Diana Clement satisfies a long-held ambition to paddle the mighty Whanganui River - and all in one easy weekend.
It has been a long-standing dream of mine to paddle the Whanganui River. But finding the time for six days on the river and a day travelling in each direction seemed an impossibility.
That was until the email came from Wades Landing Lodge asking if I'd like to spend a weekend there and experience paddling in one of New Zealand's most remote regions.
It turns out that canoe operators offer everything from one day self-guided paddling trips to the full five-day journey - 145km from Cherry Grove in Taumarunui through the Whanganui National Park to Pipiriki.
The plan was to motor down to Raurimu - about five minutes short of National Park, on Friday evening, paddle on the Saturday, mooch around the Central Plateau on the Sunday, and then drive home. The other option would be to paddle a longer distance over two days, returning late on Sunday and take a day off work on Monday to return.
Either way, it's organisationally easy. Other than packing suitable clothing, there was no planning needed.
We arrived from Auckland to a homely dinner of home-cooked venison stew at the lodge, followed by a good night's sleep.
Knowing we liked our coffee, the staff recommended we nip 70m down the road the next morning to the excellent Spiral Cafe on the corner of State Highway 4 and Raurimu Rd. For a pair of greenhorn canoeists about to hit one of our biggest rivers, it offered a great start to the day.
Then it was a matter of trying our lifejackets to check they fitted and boarding the Wades Landing Lodge bus, already loaded with two-person canoes, to be driven to Whakahoro, which must be one of the North Island's most remote locations - one hour's drive inland from Raurimu.
The canoes were lowered into the water 100m up the Retaruke River and after a safety briefing we were on our way down toward the mighty Whanganui.
The utter breathtaking beauty of the river hit us in the face - as soon as we'd negotiated the first piddling 1.5 grade rapid, which did seem a bit heart-stopping at the time.
At the river's edge, the sheer banks rose almost straight out of the river and the bush clad mountain tops towered above us. The landscape looked almost primordial.
We saw volcanic rock formations, pumice and papa, as well as shell rock, which had once sat below the ocean's floor. Green moss, almost luminescent, clung to the sides, dripping water, and nikau and ponga were common along the 27km stretch we paddled.
Every 100m or so, a waterfall shot over the edge and fell into the river. Tui and other birds including the blue duck made their presence known.
The only sign of human habitation we saw was a handful of green and yellow DoC signposts marking campsites - which are spaced two to three hours' easy paddle from each other.
The second one, Ohauora Campsite, marked the end of our day's paddling. From there, we would be picked up in a speedboat and returned to Whakahoro, and then by car to Raurimu.
Unless you're in a tearing hurry to get somewhere else, the day ends in the newly renovated, eclectic bar on a deck at the Wades Landing Lodge, sharing a glass of wine. It's very good wine at that - marketing and events manager Kelli Simpson spent several years as food and beverage manager at the Chateau Tongariro and knows a good tipple.
The thing that really struck me about this trip was how reasonably priced it is for the experience. Our one-day outing was $125 per person, and a three-day trip costs a little over $200 per person, including the DoC campsite fees. You'd spend more in most tourist destinations without the adventure and life experience of paddling the Whanganui River.
Verdict: I plan to return within the next couple of years to do at least the three-day journey. This is a trip into some of the best wilderness that New Zealand has to offer, and anyone of average fitness would be up to it.
Getting there: Auckland to Raurimu driving distance: 316km (632km return).
Where to stay: Wades Landing Lodge offers budget accommodation ranging from $18 to $30 per person per night. The life-sized garden sculptures made out of driftwood by the lodge's "in-house artist", Jack Marsden-Mayer, are a sight in themselves. Ph (07) 895 5995.
Where to fuel up: Spiral Cafe, on the corner of State Highway 4 and Raurimu Rd, ph (07) 892 2690, open Saturday 7.30am-9pm, Sunday-Monday and Thursday-Friday 7.30am-3pm.
Things to do:
Canoe down the river: Wades Landing Lodge Lodge runs a 1-day canoe trip with jetboat return, a three-day canoe trip and a five-day trip.
Walk beside the river: The Whanganui Journey is part of New Zealand's Great Walks network. Distances between campsites and huts vary from 8km-22km.
Further information: See doc.govt.nz.