Liz French paddles beneath the Whanganui River's Bridge to Nowhere.

"We generally lose about 50 per cent," announced Ken, our guide, while briefing us for the canoeing leg of a day trip on the Whanganui River.

Turns out he was referring to the capsize rate on the biggest rapid but it still wasn't a remark that inspired confidence in a bunch of fledgling paddlers taking on one of the country's most important waterways.

Once a busy thoroughfare for freight and passengers, the Whanganui River's traffic is now nearly all recreational: paddlers taking several days to savour the river or thrill seekers speeding along in jet boats.

We were combining both modes of travel in what Whanganui River Adventures calls their Onedayer Adventure.


On stage one, starting at Pipiriki, we climbed aboard our jet boat and headed up the Whanganui's deep gorge, zooming across murky green water flanked by brownish-green banks cloaked in fern and flax - all very primeval and remote.

At regular intervals we paused to inspect an inlet, admire a waterfall, or hear some local lore, the most significant being on the Bridge to Nowhere which, after years of neglect, has become a destination in its own right.

Getting to the bridge these days means stopping at Mangapurua Landing, a big lump of rock with a few iron stakes to tie boats to, and climbing up well-worn paths running high above the Whanganui River. Some of us detoured to a lookout above the bridge, while others took the direct route, rounding a corner to be surprised by the solid-looking concrete structure spanning a deep gorge literally in the middle of nowhere.

As we spread out across the structure to enjoy lunch Ken talked of its sad history. This bridge over a tributary of the Whanganui River was intended to provide access for World War I returned servicemen breaking in the bush. But the land was too tough.

As guide Ken put it poignantly, men who had fought for their country came home only to have their spirits broken by their own land.

Wooden plaques by abandoned ploughs provide a roll call of the families who failed to make a life in this inhospitable land. The government called a halt to road maintenance in 1942 forcing the three remaining farmers to leave. The bridge, completed in 1936, was rendered obsolete.

We could have continued across the bridge and arrived in civilisation a couple of days later. Instead we trooped back to the jet boats for a fast ride, including the obligatory spins and faces full of foam, until we reached the spot where our kayaks and canoes awaited us on the bank. The more stable kayaks were reserved for children to share with parents, so my partner and I took off in a fairly wobbly canoe.

Despite stopping to admire a waterfall inside a deep riverside cave, we were the first to reach that gnarly rapid known as the Standing Wave (which is a grade two in whitewater jargon). The trick to staying upright is to keep paddling as the rapid starts throwing your craft about. But as we hit the bouncing water I was so thrilled by the motion I completely forgot, and it was only some furious yelling from behind that got me paddling frantically in time to pop out, with a hull full of water, but still the right way up.

We slipped into an eddy, pulled the canoe onto a stony outcrop in the middle of the river and bailed out our water, then waited to witness the carnage.

Ken's average may have been exceeded but the water was warm and it appeared pretty easy to hang on to the upside-down kayak or canoe until it reached calmer waters. One kayak got through then went down like the Titanic, dad disappearing, daughter bellowing on the bow. Most people came out laughing.

The next few rapids were exhilarating but easy. Two hours of paddling was plenty to give us a feel for the serenity that the river can impart. The scorching afternoon sun meant we arrived back at Pipiriki hot enough to get wet all over again by throwing ourselves in the river.

Getting there: Pipiriki is 27km, mostly sealed, from Raetihi.

What to do: We arranged our trip through Whanganui River Adventures.