Exploring Whanganui River & Whanganui National Park

The Whanganui River has its origins high on Mount Tongariro. There the river is a mere alpine stream, but it gathers water from Mount Ngauruhoe and Mount Ruapehu as it descends through the Central Volcanic Plateau, toward Taumarunui, Wanganui, and finally the Tasman Sea.

There are 239 listed rapids along the Whanganui, but it is a Grade II river and therefore popular with canoeists of all levels. Many begin their river adventures at the Taumarunui end, making their way south to Wanganui. This trip can take 5 to 6 days, and the Department of Conservation maintains huts along the way for overnight stays.

In 1987, the huge, largely inaccessible, and remote bush areas surrounding the middle reaches of the Whanganui River were designated a national park, becoming the second-largest tract of native bush on the North Island. Several of the original routes for the early Maori and European inhabitants have been cleared, providing some of the country's most isolated wilderness tramping - the 3-day Mangapurua and Matemateaonga tracks are accessible only by canoe or jet boat.

One of the most popular spots in the park is the Bridge to Nowhere, which was built in 1935 deep in the bush across the Mangapurua Gorge to give access to the last pioneering settlement of the New Zealand government. The isolated settlement failed in 1942, but the bridge remains. You'll need to travel upstream and then walk 40 minutes along some steep sections and narrow tracks to reach the bridge.

If you'd like to spend the day picnicking, head to Hipango Park Reserve, 26km (16 miles) upriver from Wanganui. The .8-hectare (2-acre) native bush reserve with recently upgraded barbecue pits and toilets is a popular destination for boat tours. For details of Journeys on the Whanganui, a collection of river packages, visit www.whanganuiriver.co.nz.

There are a number of exciting ways to experience the Whanganui River and Whanganui National Park. Following are a few examples.

By Aerial Cableway -- The Flying Fox (tel./fax 06/342-8160; www.theflyingfox.co.nz) is a unique river experience 45 minutes from Wanganui. A little patch of civilization in the middle of nowhere is accessible by an aerial cableway, or "flying fox." Once you've negotiated this awesome swing across the river, you can enjoy charming cottage accommodations or bush campsites. To reach it, take a jet-boat tour or drive up River Road and cross the river on the aerial cableway. Several tours stop here. They offer a half-day canoe journey for NZ$90 per person and a half-day jet boat trip for NZ$120.

By Bus-- If a 14-seat air-conditioned bus is your style, you can join the popular Whanganui River Road Mail Tour. Call Whanganui Tours (tel. 06/347-7534; www.whanganuitours.co.nz). The tour runs from 7:30am to 2:30pm and covers 190km (118 miles), delivering mail to remote farms, schools, and marae. The mail tour costs NZ$75. You can also meet up with the Bridge To Nowhere Jet Boat Tour (tel. 0800/480-308; www.bridgetonowhere.co.nz) and you can stay overnight at the Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, the Flying Fox, or at Jerusalem Backpackers, where Catholic nuns put you up for the night.

By Canoe -- Wades Landing Outdoors, RD2, Owhango (tel./fax 07/895-5995; www.whanganui.co.nz), offers a number of 3-, 4-, or 5-day trips canoeing the river from Taumarunui to Pipiriki. They're based at the Taumarunui end of the river. Bridge to Nowhere Jet Boat & Canoe Tours also offers canoe trips.

By Jet Boat -- Bridge to Nowhere Jet Boat & Canoe Tours, Ramanui Landing, Whanganui River (tel. 0800/480-308 in NZ, or 06/385-4622; www.bridgetonowhere.co.nz), operates in the most beautiful part of the river. Its most popular 4-hour tour to the Bridge to Nowhere costs NZ$120 per person and is suitable for all ages. There is also a jet boat/canoe option, which allows you to enjoy a leisurely paddle downstream. Whanganui River Adventures, 2513 RD6, Pipiriki (tel. 0800/862-743 in NZ, or 06/385-3246; www.whanganuiriveradventures.co.nz), also runs Bridge to Nowhere jet-boat rides for NZ$120 per person. Its 45-minute ride through deep, moss-covered ravines to the home of the endangered native blue duck costs NZ$125 for adults and NZ$63 for children 4 to 15.

By Riverboat -- The Waimarie Paddle Steamer was built in 1890, sank in 1952, and was salvaged in 1993. Since then, it has been painstakingly rebuilt at the Whanganui Riverboat Centre & Museum, 1A Taupo Quay (tel./fax 06/347-1863; www.riverboats.co.nz). Daily cruises (summer at 2pm, with reduced cruises in winter) travel 13km (8 miles) up the Whanganui River to Upokongaro, then return to the city. The cost is NZ$40 for adults and NZ$15 for children 5 to 15. They also offer lunch and barbecue packages. The center is open Monday through Friday from 10am to 4pm, and weekends 10am to 2pm (free admission). Call for winter sailing times.

On Foot-- Contact the Department of Conservation, Whanganui Area Office, 74 Ingestre St. (tel. 06/345-2402; www.doc.govt.nz), for information on a range of walks. In brief, the Skyline Walk requires 6 to 8 hours and affords views of Mount Ruapehu and Mount Taranaki. The Matemateaonga Track takes 3 to 4 days; the 3-day Mangapurua Valley Walk includes the Bridge to Nowhere. Whanganui River Jet, Wades Landing Outdoors, RD2, Owhango (tel. 07/895-5995; www.whanganui.co.nz), offers a complete charter service for trampers wanting to use either of these tracks. It will drop you off and pick you up at prearranged times on the riverbanks. Costs vary depending on which track you choose. Bridge to Nowhere Jet Boat & Canoe Tours also offers a track transport service.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.