NZ travel: Kayaking from Wenderholm to Pūhoi is an accessible must-do

Synchronize your kayak journey between Wenderholm and Puhoi with the rising then falling tide of the Puhoi River, and you get the current’s assistance in both directions. Photo/Getty Images

The darkness, when it finally comes, drapes over us with surprising swiftness. One minute we’re paddling along with the falling tide as the Pūhoi River returns to the sea, the next one of us is marooned on a small, mostly submerged tree on the side of the channel. I think her stern light is caught and poke it with my oar but it is her hull that is balanced on the underwater branch. A gentle shove from behind, though, and she is on her way again and our little convoy continues to Wenderholm.

We all stay towards the middle of the channel from here on in, our lights bobbing with our strokes. Fluorescent tape on my companions’ oars reveals their progress like flashing little semaphores. Having already paddled up the river, I remember the tangle of branches from a fallen tree at the bend near the massive new motorway bridge that will soon be taking Aucklanders and residents to locales north. Further down, I keep a straining eye out for a broken trunk I spotted protruding from the water on our first leg but I slip safely by without seeing it in the dark.

Earlier, heading up the river we paddled into the setting sun. We watched as the summer blue sky paled into shades of gold, and observed the riverside birds returning to their nests. Shags called from trees and ducks paddled home beyond the reach of our dipping oars. Occasional scents of fresh asphalt drifted on the light breeze as we glided beneath the Ara Tūhono road project. The incoming tide spooled beneath the mangroves, glugging and sucking. Lapping waters covered banks of gray sand and mud in water that, when I dipped my hand in, was surprisingly warm.

It’s about 8km from the wharf at Wenderholm to the wharf at Pūhoi. Sync the journey with the rising and then falling tide of the Pūhoi River, and you get the current’s language assistance in both directions. It’s about two hours each way, first through the wide open delta of the river mouth, then through the twisting channel made narrow by banks of mangroves. The trees grow more substantial as you near the pretty bohemian village of Pūhoi until large specimens shadow the final approach to the Pūhoi Domain.

A small pull-in area is an invitation to leave the river for a brief visit to the renowned Pūhoi Pub and a drink on its front lawn.

The local wildlife is surprisingly active on the river as we make the return paddle in the gathering darkness. Occasional nearby squawks and sploshes remind us we are not alone on the river. A large fish jumps close enough to my kayak to splash my face – and startles me into a squeal. Little families of white ducks speed home, but the nesting shags are silent.

A full moon emerges majestically from behind the Wenderholm headland, an excuse to rest my tired arms to watch its ascent. Its warm yellow glow lights our rippled path, a mesmerizing globe that distracts me from my now-aching shoulder muscles after nearly four hours of more or less steady paddling. It’s an unexpected but welcome companion for the last few hundred meters through the tide-narrowing channel as we approach the Wenderholm wharf.

It’s fully dark by the time we beach and pull our craft out of the sucking mud.

The Wenderholm to Pūhoi kayak trip is becoming an iconic but accessible must-do for anyone with even a mild yen for adventure. The river is mostly shallow – there would be few places where you couldn’t stand up if by some extraordinary circumstances you tipped out – and the current is gentle. Pūhoi Kayaks hire craft and instructions – plus shuttles to return you to base if desired.


Pūhoi Kayaks operate from September to June.

For more things to see and do in the region, go to