All you need to know to plan your road trip on the Whanganui River Road!
New Zealand’s North Island best kept secret road route!
The bag-carrier and I can’t believe that we have lived in New Zealand all of our lives and have only recently discovered the existence of this amazing road trip!
This 65 km trip along the Whanganui River Road to Pipiriki (en route to Raetihi and the Central North Island ) is a stunning off the beaten track route that follows the river
The Whanganui River Road trip is a fascinating 65 km detour off the main highway, following the river from the sea to the mountains, and steeped in history, beautifully presented marae (Maori meeting places), small rural communities and surrounded with stunning native bush, river views, and rural farmland.
Whanganui River Road opened in 1934. It took over 30 years to build. Prior to that, boat was the only way to reach the settlements along the river. In the early 1900s the river was a major tourist attraction and became known as the “Rhine of New Zealand.”
Missionaries arrived in the 1840s and gave interesting names to the areas on the river, e.g Athens (Atene), Corinth (Koroniti), London (Ranana), and Jerusalem (Hiruharama)
Today the Whanganui River Road drive showcases the history and culture of the area, as well as magnificent views of the river and the pristine wilderness. It’s a must-do to include in your North Island road trip.
TAKE NOTE- Before you go.
- Call into the Whanganui i-SITE at (31 Taupo Quay) if you want to pick up the Whanganui River Road brochure or if you are driving from the north there are i-SITES at Ohakune and Taumaranui.
- It took us about two hours to do the route with many short stops, so I would suggest that you allow at least two hours from the Whanganui River Road turnoff to Pipiriki – the finish of the Whanganui River Road. It was about another hour’s drive from Pipiriki to Raetihi to join up with the main state highway.
- The road is sealed but it’s narrow, hilly, and windy with some rockfall cliffs and several one-way bridges with limited visibility. You will not meet much other traffic, but be particularly careful to keep to the left on sharp blind corners.
- Be alert for cyclists as this is part of the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail and is also popular with local cyclists from Whanganui and be alert for farmers moving their sheep and cattle also.
- There are no petrol stations so fill up with petrol before you leave. In summer there may be a couple of places to buy food and drinks, but in winter you will need to take your own. There are some beautiful picnic spots along the way!
- It is not recommended to drive this route during heavy rain. Landslides can occur.
- Please ask for permission before entering maraes or private property
- Cell phone reception is very unreliable or non-existent throughout most of the route!
- Toilets can be accessed at the Otumaire campgrounds, Matahiwi Gallery, Ranana, Jerusalem and Pipriki.
1. LET”S GO! Whanganui to the Whanganui River Road turn off.
It is 14 km from Whanganui to the Whanganui River Road turnoff on State Highway 4 where there is informative signage about the route and its highlights.
Set your odometer to 0 km at this turn off.
The points of interest are listed below with an approximate odometer reding.
2. AROMOANA VIEWPOINT (3 km )
Breathtaking views here!
Drive about 3 km up the Gentle Annie to the Aramoana Viewpoint, the hilltop summit, (230 m/ 755 ft above sea level) which gives brilliant views over the river valley and on a very clear day you may even spot Mount Ruapehu in the distance!
Photo Credit- James Shook
3. PUNGAREHU (6.3 km)
The Maranganui meeting house was moved to its present position in the early 1900s. It was built by their Rangatira, Te RatanaTe Urumingi and esteemed carver Hori Pukehika and whānau in 1905. It was renovated by kaumatua and families in the 1980s and rededicated by then Governor-General Sir Paul Reeves in 1986.
This marae was also known as a place where traditional Maori tattoo art was practiced.
The people of the Pungarehu Marae celebrated 100 years of their meeting house in 2013. One of the last historical waka used on the Whanganui River is also stored here.
There are three modern pumice-block houses built by the Te Urumingi Trust Housing Project with support from the Maori Housing Network.
4. PARAKINO (8.5 km)
ParikinoPa. Sketch by Rev Richard Taylor
The Parikino settlement is located on the site of a former village named Kaitangata. The original Parikino Pā was located across the river. Carvings from its old ancestral house are displayed in the Whanganui Regional Museum.
In March every year, Parakino Sports Club holds an annual Sports Day. This event has been held every year for 93 years and is a big event in the Whanganui area.
The 2021 event included -“Loads of fun & prizes for everyone, including pony, hack, shepherd events, wood chopping, high jump for pony & hacks with $100 prize money up for grabs, water slide, race uphill, with a hangi lunch available to purchase as well as tuck shop with ice creams/ pies, etc, bar, all cash ONLY, and free bbq in the evening. Free camping available from Friday 5th March.” Unfortunately in 2021 the event had to be canceled for the first time in 93 years due to the covid pandemic.
5. OYSTER CLIFFS (13.5 km)
The Whanganui area was once a sea bed that has been uplifted and you will notice the whitish cliffs on the right-hand side of the road.
There are layers and layers of fossilized oysters and other seashells that were living 2.5 million years ago. Stop and take a look! It’s an incredible sight to see these oyster shells up this far from sea level and far away from the sea!
6. ATENE (Athens) (21 km)
Atene is a small settlement and was named by the missionary Reverend Richard Taylor.
The Ātene meeting house was built in 1886. Just south of the Ātene settlement is the entry to the Whanganui National Park.
The “meander”-Atene Skyline Track By Michael Klajban Wikimedia
7. ATENE TRACKS (21.5 km)
Just past Atene is access to two walks with great views of the Whanganui River Valley.
The Atene Skyline Walk (6 to 8 hours return) rises to 523 m above sea level and features an unusual geographic feature called a “meander”. This is where the river once flowed in an almost complete circle in the valley and now has cut through to make a shortcut to the sea.
There are stunning views from vantage points along the track including ‘the meander’, the Whanganui River, Mt Ruapehu, Mt Taranaki/Egmont, the Tasman Sea, and the Whanganui River’s tributary valleys.
The Atene Viewpoint Walk takes 1 to 2 hours. It goes through native bush and farmland up an historic roadway formed in 1959 during investigations for a Whanganui River hydro-electric power generation scheme.
The viewpoint track ends on a black beech ridge with great views of Whanganui National Park and ‘the meander’ of the old Whanganui River bed.
8. DOWNES HUT (21.9 km )
Look closely at the riverbank on the opposite side of the road. You will see a small red hut that was built in the 1920s by Thomas William Downes who was the River Foreman of the Whanganui River Trust Board back in the day when grand river steamers plied the Whanganui. He was also a prolific author, writing books on local Maori and river history.
A magnificent Puriri Tree that he planted still flourishes!
The hut is now owned by the Department of Conservation and is used by trampers and canoeists.
9. HAND DUG CULVERT (26.6 km)
About 3 km past the DOC Otumaire Campsite you will see signs for the Whanganui River Road Culvert Walk.
A short walk through the native bush and down towards a small stream takes you to the culvert. This large hand-built culvert was built during the Whanganui River Road construction to minimise water flooding.
A perfect Instagram shot!
10. THE FLYING FOX
The Flying Fox buildings across the other side of the river caught our eye as we drove past and we stopped to take a closer look.
Apparently, the Flying Fox is a unique accommodation provider with three rustic self-contained, handbuilt cottages nestled in a garden and bush setting overlooking the river, two glamping tents, and a small number of campsites. Kayakers stop by casually for food and drink and to use the wifi.
Unless you arrive by boat it is only accessible by a flying fox, a kind of suspended cable car that hangs from thick wires high above the river that you call up by banging on a gong.
We wished that we had had more time to explore it further or stay for a night or two. It is definitely on our list for the next trip!
11. KORINTI (Corinth) (33 km)
Koriniti is one of the best examples of marae along the Whanganui River Road with three ancestral houses including two traditional wharenui (carved house) and a small museum. One of the sleeping houses was moved here from a site further upriver.
12. MATAHIWI (40 km)
Matahiwi is the rural centre of a small farming community. A former school building is now Matahiwi Cafe and Gallery. In 1923, this building was transported by riverboat from Parinui, 46 kilometres upriver, to Matahiwi, and was used as the local school.
The Matahiwi Cafe is open in the summer and is an interesting place to take a look around at old photographs of the area and assorted memorabilia. Good classic food, coffee and souvenirs are available. The wooden boat used in the movie River Queen which was filmed on the Whanganui River is on display outside the cafe. .
The name ‘Matahiwi’ originates from a nearby hill (hiwi) where visitors would stop and light a fire to announce their imminent arrival.
13. KAWANA FLOUR MILL (41.5 km)
The Kawana Flour Mill was constructed in 1854 and operated for over 50 years until 1913 and was rebuilt in the late 1970s and opened open as a museum in 1980.
The mill building is a replica but the water wheel, grinding stone, and miller’s cottage are original. Wheat was an important early crop and the mill was built with the help of Governor Grey to grind the wheat grown by local Maori farmers. It was one of several flour mills built along the river around that time.
Upstairs, inside the mill, are several interesting photographic displays of the mill, the riverboats and the area over the time the mill was operating.
Alongside the flour mill is a late 19th century restored millers cottage. There are also some steps down to a srtream look out.
14. RANANA (London) (45 km)
Rānana (London) is the largest community along the Whanganui River Road. The local school that caters for the children of the Whanganui River valley is located here. It has a beautiful marae and a century-old Catholic church. More great Intagram opportunities!
15. HIRUHARAMA (JERUSALEM) (53.5 km)
Jerusalem By billiebop- Flickr
Hiruhārama (Jerusalem) is a picturesque and interesting community and is part of the religious Catholic pilgrimage circuit. It is home to a century-old catholic church and the Sisters Of Compassion convent built in the 1890s. In 1892, Suzanne Aubert (known as Mother Mary Joseph) established the congregation of the Sisters of Compassion. They became a highly respected charitable nursing and religious order. in 1886 Jerusalem Foundling was established -.an orphanage that housed and cared for abandoned children from around New Zealand. The convent currently hosts retreats and provides dormitory-style accommodation. The Rosary Way Garden is a serene and peaceful spot for a stroll or quiet meditation.
The New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, marijuana-inspired visionary, and guru to some, began a commune here in the 1970s structured around “spiritual aspects of Māori communal life “and inspired by the remote beauty of the place and the connection of the Maoritanga and Catholocism wrote three books while living here. The commune disbanded in 1972 after Baxter’s death. He is buried in Jerusalem.
There’s also a stunningly-carved wharenui and marae (Maori meeting house and ground). You will require permission to visit.
16. OMOREHU WATERFALL (59 km)
We love waterfalls but, unfortunately, we missed seeing the waterfall as it was starting to get late and we wanted to get to Raetihi before dark. Apparently, the Omorehu Waterfall Lookout is the highest point on the Whanganui River Road and has impressive views.
17. PIPIRIKI (64 km)
– The end of the Whanganui River Road
Pipiriki By Parehaywardhowie -Wikimedia.
Pīpīriki is the end of the Whanganui River Road journey and gives access to the Whanganui National Park. At Pipiriki you can arrange canoe and jet boat tours and a boat trip to the “Bridge to Nowhere.”
Pipiriki was an important part of the riverboat trade in the 1890s–1920s, marking a major stop for paddle steamers making the 11-hour journey from Whanganui.
DOC (Department of Conservation) has a shelter here with toilets, fresh water and a story-board display of the history and cultural significance of the Whanganui River.
Pipiriki is also the finishing point for the 3 to 5 day ‘The Whanganui Journey,’ labelled as one of the “10 Great Walks of New Zealand” even though it is mostly done by canoe.