We rented gear from Whanganui River Adventure for a 3-day freedom trip down the Whanganui River.
Email inquiries were answered promptly and fully. The price was reasonable. The gear we received was in reasonable shape for rental equipment. In addition to the canoe, life vests, paddles we received as many barrels as we needed to store our gear, an extra paddle, lashing straps to keep the gear inside the canoe, waterproof electronics boxes, paper maps in waterproof cases, a SPOT locator in case of emergency. Plus, we were provided with maps, a weather report, and general information. The shuttle service was on time for pick-up. They gave us juice and snacks upon return and allowed us to use the showers at the associated Reithi holiday park. The staff were friendly and helpful. It was a relatively small operator so the participants do not feel like 'cattle'.
To be there for the 8am departure necessary to complete the 7-hour paddle to the John Coull hut, it really is necessary to stay at the associated Raeithi Holiday Park. The park offers tent sites, camper sites, and basic cabin units. It is a fairly typical holiday park but not the place we would normally choose to spend the night. Thus, having to do so was a bit of an unavoidable 'con' associated with choosing our rental through this company. The drive to the start at Whakahoro is long, at 1.5 hours (but the return at the end of the paddle is much shorter). Some of the canoes have uncomfortable plastic seats (other have more comfortable mesh).
If you are an experienced paddler who can maneuver a canoe with relatively little difficulty - especially keeping it on a fairly straight line - you should be fine with a freedom rental. There are a large number of rapids on this river but they are not particularly scary. Unlike on other rivers in the world, these rapids are not generally caused by large obstructions, boulder fields, or snags. Instead, the rapids are created by large volumes of water being compressed into smaller passages and/or dropping very short distances. Thus, the rapids can sometimes be a bit swift but they are not particularly dangerous.
There are only 3 really fast rapids - class 2 perhaps - and they are all encountered on the 3rd day of paddling. There is a fairly obvious straight-line passage through these rapids (with some tips on navigation provided in the printout given to us by the rental company). The ride through them can be rough and wet but you should have no difficulty staying in your canoe if you keep paddling to ensure that your canoe moves faster than the water.
I am an experienced paddler with lots of flatwater experience and vanishingly little experience on moving water. I found the three large rapids a bit scary but not overwhelming - it's not whitewater rafting or anything like that! It really just required picking a line, keeping the canoe straight, and continuing to paddle even when waves got washed up and the ride was bumpy.
If you are an absolute novice canoeist who changes your paddle from side to side to try to maintain a straight line and/or who weaves across the water, a tour might be a better option if you want to stay in the canoe. Or you can work hard at mastering the skills you need on days 1 and 2 and take your chances with the bigger rapids on day 3!
The tent sites at the two hut locations are CRAMPED. There are a ton of tents allocated to very little space in an open field. There are no private campsites here.
The huts are comfortable. The John Coull hut is all in one building and so you will get to sleep after the last person comes to bed and be awake when the first person gets up. At the Tieke hut, the bunks are distributed across two separate rooms and the kitchen is in a separate building - more conducive to a better sleep. There are gas burners in the huts and running water; the water must be boiled at John Coull but is potable at Tieke. There are no pots/pans dishes; bring your own. You'll also need matches/lighter and a bit of dish soap. You'll also need to bring your own toilet paper, and hand sanitizer is not a bad idea. There is wood stove for heat in the John Coull hut but I don't remember one in Tieke; keep this in mind if you'll be traveling when the nights are cold.
The Tieke hut is the only camp/hut along the way that is NOT marked in advance. And there is a fairly big rapid on the other side of the landing so that if you miss the hut, you've got another 2 hours or so before you can land again. The River-To-Nowhere Lodge is right across the river from the Tieke hut; you can see the lodge for a short time as you approach, whereas the Tieke landing is hidden behind the corner. As soon as you spot the lodge up on the hill, slow down and get ready to land on the left of the river.
The 3-day paddle seemed about right to us. We are rugged outdoors people and found that the duration was sufficient to give us a great feel for the river but by the 3rd day we felt like we'd seen all there was to see of the river scenery (which was spectacularly beautiful!). For us, if we'd spent any less time on the river, we would have left wanting more; any longer and we'd have gotten bored.
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