Screw the canoe! Conal takes on rivers atop a stand up paddle (SUP) board. Her latest challenge was the epic Whanganui river in New Zealand, a colossal waterway that weaves through dense rainforest and ancient Māori culture.


  • Drifting into river time for 3 days on Stand Up Paddle Boards
  • Towering moss-covered cliffs and gorges, mini waterfalls to drift under and hidden caves
  • Maori welcoming onto a Tieke Kainga Marae
  • The “Bridge to Nowhere” walk
  • Isolation from power and WiFi, allowing you to live in the moment

Sizing Up The Whanganui River

SUP board supported river tripping is a different way to travel. It’s addictive, after doing it once you’ll be hooked and lining up endless adventure possibilities. The Whanganui River was top of my hit list for 2017, it carves through New Zealand’s North Island, guided by enchanted, towering moss-covered cliffs and boiling to the sound of seasonal waterfalls. This river had to be SUPed.

The Whanganui is New Zealand’s third biggest river and hit the headlines last year after being granted legal status as a person. The legislation challenges views of human dominance over the land and sees the river from an environmentally connected Māori perspective.

paul clark, PADDLE BOARDING THE WHANGANUI RIVER, conal hearps, SUP, stand up paddle board , NZ, North Island, waterfall

Day 1 – Whakahoro to John Coull Hut

37.5km / 5-7 hours

We loaded the last of the gear into dry bags, lashing them to the paddle boards with excitement.  My mate Paul Clark, an experienced river paddle boarder from the USA, had put faith in me that this river was a good idea.

“Don’t panic we’ve got this” I said to my worried mate before leaving. 3 days, 2 nights and 88km of river time. My instructions were simple, “if you’re paddling upstream you’re going the wrong way”.  Live simple.

We were no strangers to river SUP multi-day trips, but others were looking at us like kooks as we tightened the straps on our life jackets, helmets and gear rigging and hit the creek leading us into the mighty Whanganui river’s flow.

The first day was breathtaking as we drifted into river time. 37.5km goes way too fast and my camera had been abused by the time I saw the sign for John Coull Hut. It was time to unwind from the excitement, soak up the views and talk with other travellers about their journey. A good night sleep was also welcomed.

Camp if you wish, the hut is comfy though…

paul clark, PADDLE BOARDING THE WHANGANUI RIVER, conal hearps, SUP, stand up paddle board , NZ, North Island

Day 2 – John Coull Hut to Tieke Kainga Hut

29km / 5-7 hours

Day 2 called for a relaxed morning, waking to the rising sun and making travel coffees for the river. 29km of paddling lay ahead.

We began by winding through the gorge, spotting animals, watching birds – excitement was around every bend. By now we were moving with the river, playing in its boils and eddies, splashing through waterfalls and embracing its flow. A picnic lunch and walk to the Bridge to Nowhere (it’s a thing) set us up for an afternoon of  board napping letting the river float us away.

Tieke Kainga Hut is perched high on the river bank and is part of a Maori Marae. The traditional welcoming ceremony (powhiri) is a special experience deep in the New Zealand wilderness. Another night of great conversation followed – others were intrigued by the boards and asked about their speed, stability and our ability to move freely on the decks.

paul clark, PADDLE BOARDING THE WHANGANUI RIVER, conal hearps, SUP, stand up paddle board , NZ, North Island

Day 3 – Tieke Kainga Hut to Pipiriki

21.5km / 4-5 hours

We started heading into farmlands, the cliffs changed and the river widened, but it was still a magnificent sight. Fun came in the form of a few small ‘splash and giggle’ rapids.

We explored creeks that lead to large waterfalls and climbed through caves on our way to our pickup. And then it was over and were standing at the take out point, “Where else could SUP Boarding could take us?”

Essential gear

  • A mate…
  • An  inflatable SUP – we paddle HALA boards designed for rivers and adventures that require a durable board with good rigging points.
  • Tent and sleeping gear for the huts or camping
  • Food and cooking gear – light and simple is the key (+ sneaky wine)
  • Safety gear – the river flow can change and create rapids, bring life jackets, helmets and quick release leashes
  • Clothes for all climates and of course, swimmers
  • Poo Kit
  • Dry bag rigging straps

How To Get There

We had Taumarunui Canoe Hire take us to the put-in at Whakahoro and ferry our vehicle to the take out at Pipiriki. They have other options like a return trip to their base in Taumarunui. There is also camping there for the night before so you’ll be ready for the 7am start.

You will also need DOC hut camping passes printed out.


  • Paddling
  • Swimming
  • Chasing waterfalls
  • Photography
  • Bird watching
  • Short walks
  • Welcoming onto the Tieke Kainga Marae
  • Exploring freely

Skill Level

Intermediate. Confident on water and able to paddle the distance. The river flow and steady paddling pushed us along at around 8-9km/h but the river can change, wind may affect you and rapids may arise at different flows. Be aware of river hazards.

Distance Covered

88km in 3 days 2 nights – this aligns with the shuttle times for the outfitters.

Day 1 – 37.5km / 5-7hrs paddling + travel time to the river

Day 2 – 29km / 5-7hrs

Day 3 – 21.5km / 4-5hrs

1-2 o’clock take out depending on arrangements.

Photos By Paul Clark | @suppaul_pics