A Weekend around Westhaven – Whanganui Inlet
The top of the Tasman district is one of my favourite places in New Zealand, and the area around Westhaven – Whanganui inlet is like no-where else. I would hazard a guess that it’s also one of the less-visited corners of the country, being around 20 km south of Farewell Spit. It is a beautiful 13 km long tidal estuary sandwiched between spectacular limestone bluffs on the coast to the West and the Kahurangi National Park to the East. The inlet has been designated a marine and wildlife reserve – home to many different species.
We took the kayak and the tramping shoes and made a leisurely weekend of it, with just the right amount of adventure and relaxation.
Westhaven – Whanganui Inlet is around 2.5 hours to the North West of Nelson. From Nelson head to Takaka then Collingwood on the SH60 then continue on to Pakawau as if you were heading to Farewell Spit. Turn left just North of Pakawau and the road becomes unsealed (but manageable for all vehicles). After around ten minutes you reach the estuary and drive its length heading South via a series of raised causeways. The drive down the estuary to the Anatori river is up there as one of my favourite scenic drives in New Zealand.
This was my second visit to the area – having walked to the Kahurangi Lighthouse last year. This time we were only heading as far as Lake Otuhie past Mangarākau.
We got ourselves up at a reasonable time and were out the door by 8 am. As we were heading towards Takaka, we made the obligatory stop at the Ginger Dynamite cafe. We are slowly making our way through all the pies and pastries the Ginger has to offer. Today we sampled their award-winning fish pie, the berry and custard cruffin and took a cheese and relish scone for later. We demolished the pie and cruffin immediately (both very delicious) as we chatted with the friendly team.
Buzzing with a mild coffee-and-sweet-treat-high, and in anticipation of a great weekend ahead, we made our way to the Takaka hill. Usually, we manage to catch the full 12-minute wait for the traffic lights, but today we drove straight through!! I appreciate this is rather a non-event to those who don’t drive Takaka hill, but for me, it was a first, and we took it as a good omen.
It was another incredible drive down ‘Dry Road’ which skirts the Whanganui inlet. The tide was out, so it all looked completely different to last time. Past the inlet, we briefly called into the Mangarākau Swamp visitor centre. We have recently become friends of the swamp and would be camping overnight here later.
A few kilometres to the South and we joined up with the Paturau River, before crossing it to continue down Cowin Road. We marvelled at the towering limestone bluffs and watched tiny lambs frolicking around on the steep slopes.
It was midday when we pulled up at Kōwhai Creek, our gateway to Lake Otuhie. Just next to the gate on the road was an information board with a wildly inaccurate distance marker on the map. You can stroll the walkway through the paddocks or kayak the creek to Lake Otuhie which is at most, 2 km away – however, if you believe the distance marker on the board, you’ll be walking 10 km.
There was hardly a cloud in the sky as we got the kayak ready, so we liberally applied the sunscreen before getting on our way at around 12.45 pm.
My kayaking experience is somewhat limited, but it seems that every adventure we have is even more extraordinary than the last one! This time we paddled slowly upstream through the paddocks and flax bushes, taking in the limestone cliffs rising above us.
We arrived at lake Otuhie at around 1 pm and continued our slow journey down the Southern side of the lake, peering up at the caves in the cliffs and watching out for birds. The lake is around 2.5 km long and widened as we headed inland to the East.
By about 1.30 pm the wind was getting up, so we headed across to the Northern, more sheltered side of the lake. We drifted past the large reed beds and spotted some shags nesting in the tall trees. Our rumbling stomachs told us that it was time to eat, so we headed down to the end of the lake to look for a decent lunch spot. It had rained quite a lot the week before, so the lake level was pretty high, and the little beaches at the end of the lake were submerged.
Rich had remembered passing a tiny beach in the forest a short way back, so we headed there. The wind had continued to strengthen and little waves were whipping up on the lake, so we got a bit of a soaking. We bundled up and enjoyed a delicious lunch in the shelter of the forest, and by the time we finished, the squall was over and the wind had dropped again.
After lunch, we slowly headed back across the lake and drifted quietly back down Kōwhai Creek in the sun. It was perfect!
Mangarākau Swamp Westhaven – Whanganui inlet
After a quick visit to the beach at Paturau, we headed back to our accommodation for the night – tenting at the Mangarākau swamp. Having recently become “friends of Mangarākau” we were keen to have a look around. The swamp is the largest remaining wetland in the district and covers around 350 hectares. Half is owned by the Department of Conservation, and the Native Forest Restoration Trust owns much of the remainder. The area has seen mining prospecting, logging, flax milling and farming, and is now an important site for wetland birds. It is managed by Friends of Mangarakau Inc. who look after the tracks, weeding, planting and maintenance of the lodge/accommodation.
We had a look around the wonderful visitor centre and then went for a walk up to the far lakes. The information boards had told us to listen for the ‘boom’ of a bittern, but sadly we didn’t hear one. We did hear numerous bird calls that we weren’t familiar with and spotted lots of birds darting in and around the bush.
We headed back for some dinner. As the lodge was booked, we had paid to camp for the night on the lawn of the visitor centre. We enjoyed a glass of wine at the picnic bench with the last of the sun.
The next day we woke at a reasonable hour, slowly packed up the tent, and headed back to the Whanganui Inlet. The mission today was to paddle the Wairoa River which heads inland from the inlet.
We had chosen this weekend for this particular adventure because the tidal range was high. We wanted to catch the incoming tide to paddle upstream, which would enable us to explore further up the river. Then we would catch the outgoing tide as we paddled downstream back to the sea. As it turned out the tide was too far out when we got to the inlet, so we made a couple of mini-detours.
The Kohi is an old vessel which spent its final days at the Mangarākau wharf as the base for a Crayfishing operation. It has fallen into disrepair but makes for an interesting history lesson.
We had just enough time to squeeze in a quick walk part-way up Knuckle Hill (and kicked ourselves for not getting up earlier to do the whole thing!). Knuckle Hill is a pleasant walk up a four-wheel-drive track for around 6 km with a short climb to a great view at the end. It can also be a side-trip to the longer Kaituna Track day walk from the Kaituna River on the Collingwood-Bainham Road to the Whanganui Inlet.
We only had time for a quick forty-minute return but got far enough for a couple of nice viewpoints. On the minus side, the drop-off just by the Knuckle hill car park is a bit of a dumping ground for the Tasman district’s unwanted rubbish. It was disgusting.
The Wairoa River
When the time was right, we headed back to the Whanganui Inlet, parked the car and jumped in the kayak for today’s main event – which was paddling up the Wairoa River. The tide was rushing in under the causeway and although it was still pretty low, it was deep enough to paddle the main river channel. We were in the water at around 10.45 am.
It was another marvellous and very different experience, paddling through the unspoilt forest, drifting on the incoming tide looking out for birds and steering clear of fallen trees. About twenty minutes in, we heard the dreaded roar of a jetboat, and our hearts sank. Thankfully they took a small tributary and didn’t follow us downriver.
Water was dripping off the mud-flats and banks as we drifted past rocky outcrops, open reed beds and little side streams. We saw a couple of goat families at close quarters on the riverbank, who eyed us with suspicion before crashing back into the forest. The forest closed in around us about 3 km downstream, and the debris in the river prevented us from exploring any further.
We lunched at midday for twenty minutes or so, as we watched the water slowly creeping up the river bank. When there wasn’t any bank left to sit on, we headed back downstream. On the way back the tide was high enough to explore down one of the tributaries. As we paddled in, flashes of colour caught our eye in a narrow section – kingfishers! Several were flitting around and diving into the same spot just ahead of us.
When we paddled out towards the Whanganui Inlet it was like we were on a different river. The river appeared much wider with the high tide and it was a beautiful blue, where it had been a muddy grey-brown when the tide was out.
It was another beautiful Spring day, so we took our time getting our belongings together and back into the car. The Wairoa river was a wonderful experience and one which I would love to do again.
Puponga Hilltop Track
It was such a great day, and we had plenty of daylight left. It seemed a bit too early to head home, so we drove to the Farewell Spit end of the Puponga Hilltop Track. We had walked the section from Wharariki beach to the Pillar Point Lighthouse about a year ago, so I was keen to complete the track.
We parked near the road entrance of the former Farewell Spit cafe on the Freeman Access Road and headed up the rolling green hills. The information board told us that Pillar Point was 4 km away. There were lots of sheep and lots of tiny lambs, so I checked the DoC website just in case we had missed any signage for lambing. But everything was in order, the track was open and we enjoyed watching the lambs bounce around in the warm sun.
As the photos suggest, it was a walk of many ups and downs. The track was marked and pretty easy-going.
After a couple of km of farmland, we broke out into the bush of the Old Man range. It was quite sandy and eroded underfoot in some places and steps were cut into the track. After a bit of a climb, we came out onto the beautiful rock outcrop. The views were spectacular.
When we reached the trig marker, we looked across at the track towards Pillar Point. We figured we had about one km left to walk to where we had left the track last time. We wanted to squeeze in a visit to the beach and come back via the Fossil Point – Triangle Flat loop, so we left the 1 km mid-section on the ‘to-do’ list. It’s the perfect excuse to come back another day.
Fossil Point and Triangle Flat
We headed back the way we came and when we hit the farmland again, swung a left at the signposts to take us downhill to the beach. The tide was still going out, so we spent some time exploring the rock platforms at Fossil Point.
By about 4 pm we thought we’d better head back as we still had a couple of hours drive home. The 2 km walk via Triangle Flat was nice and easy, and as the name suggests – flat.
What an excellent weekend! There is so much to do in this beautiful corner of the Tasman that we will definitely be back to explore some more. We rounded off our weekend with some well-deserved junk food on the way home, at the Sprig & Fern in Motueka 🙂