Manawatu-Wanganui – Guide for Backpackers
New Zealand’s most kiwi towns!
Once you’ve seen the towns of the Manawatu district within the Manawatu-Wanganui region, you can’t deny that Kiwis have a sense of humour. Whether you are road-tripping or taking the bus, it’s worth stopping in the town of Bulls to see the town of puns, and Taihape to throw some gumboots – just to give a couple of examples.
Visit Palmerston North, the hub of Manawatu, always lively with events and affordable city living. Just check it out in our Accommodation Guide to Palmerston North.
The Manawatu region also follows the New Zealand ethos of adventure. Adrenaline activities in Manawatu mean surrounding yourself with stunning river gorges as you bungy, canyon swing, white water raft, and hike. It’s definitely worth travelling to the “wop-wops” (NZ slang for away from civilisation) to experience adventure in tranquillity.
Things you can’t miss in Manawatu
- Throw a gumboot in Taihape
- Raft, bungy jump and canyon swing along the Rangitikei River
- Mingle with the locals and bike in Palmerston North
- Hike in the forests of Manawatu Gorge
- Kayak and canoe up the Whanganui River in Wanganui
- A get a picture of every single bad pun in Bulls!
Taihape has achieved a status that all towns wish they could own: “Gumboot Capital of the World!” Commemorated by a giant gumboot statue, the town also has gumboot throwing competitions on Gumboot Day held in March. Gumboots are even waiting to be thrown in the Taihape Gumboot Throwing Lane. All this madness was created to get Taihape out of a depression that most small towns in New Zealand were facing in the 1980s. Holding Gumboot Day gave people the perfect reason to visit the town. Since then, the giant gumboot is just one reason why people stop here. Adventure is the other!
More things to do in Taihape include walking in the Mt Stewart Reserve. The entrance to the reserve is just next to the giant gumboot off State Highway 1. The Paengaroa Scenic Reserve is 3km north of Taihape. Just before reaching Mataroa School turn right and cross the railway bridge and straight ahead lies the carpark. Take a short stroll along a boardwalk and across a swing bridge to a scenic picnic area.
Adventure activities near Taihape
The highest bridge bungy jump in New Zealand, a canyon swing, and a flying fox can all be found in the North Island adventure playground, Gravity Canyon. About 20km east of Taihape, the adventure centre is along the Rangitikei River. [Update, Gravity Canyon is currently closed for renovation].
Continue the Rangitikei River further down the long and winding roads, you will reach the middle of nowhere. But nowhere is a good place to be because it is where one of New Zealand’s best white water rafting can be done! River Valley offers day trips rafting on the Rangitikei River, horse treks and backpacker accommodation. This is a great experience of true New Zealand wilderness.
This university city is the heart of the Manawatu region. Not only does it make a great base for exploring the region, but it has a few charms of its own to keep you hooked.
With heaps of dining options and bars, this is an ideal place to find hospitality work if you’re on a working holiday. You can also experience the hometown feel here too, with locals enjoying the Lido which is a swimming complex with hydroslides, swimming and diving pools, the Esplanade gardens, and the cinema.
The top tourist spots for Palmerston North are the New Zealand Rugby Museum, the 30.5m clock tower standing right in the middle of The Square, and the Te Manawa Museum showcasing art, history and science. Plus, if you have ever wanted to see an extensive clock collection, which of course you have, then visit Colyton Clocks. Friday and Saturday nights are mostly worth sticking around for in The Square with the Food Truck Feast and the Village Night Market.
Cycling in Palmerston North
As a flat city, which is quite rare in New Zealand, getting around by bike is a breeze. You can easily bike from the city to something more challenging and exciting in Arapuke Forest Park or do the Windfarm Ride. Otherwise, the Manawatu River Pathway is a great option for exploring the city and soaking up the views of the Manawatu River. There are many access points to the Manawatu River Pathway, including Riverside Drive (off Te Matai Road), Napier Road, Ruamahunga Crescent, Ruahine Street, Ayr Place, Waterloo Crescent, Albert Street, Fitzherbert Avenue, Victoria Esplanade Drive (Esplanade access), Dittmer Drive, Buick Crescent, and Maxwells Line. When cycling in New Zealand’s cities, be sure to follow the City Cycling Rules in New Zealand.
For more activity inspiration in Palmerston North, check out 12 Free and Cheap Things to do in Manawatu.
Te Apiti – Manawatu Gorge
While in the Palmerston North area, be sure to experience its scenic surroundings like Te Apiti – Manawatu Gorge. The gorge is a divide between two mountain ranges. With trees that are hundreds of years old making the perfect environment for birds, Manawatu Gorge is a great escape from the city.
Walk along the Manawatu Gorge Track, which is about 3 hours one way depending on how long you stop at the five viewpoints. There is also a shorter loop walk option to take. The gorge a rare environment in New Zealand, being made from dark greywacke rock. You’ll also see a sculpture of a Maori warrior nestled in the forest.
Local activity providers can take you on a jetboat ride on the river, kayaking and rafting. There are safe swimming spots at reserves on both ends of the gorge. You can also go horse trekking in the area.
To get to Manawatu Gorge, you can take the shuttle on weekends from Palmerston North or drive 12km east of Palmerston North on State Highway 3. For more information on the gorge, check out Tararua – Guide for Backpackers.
Another “quirky as” town in New Zealand! Named after the founder, James Bull, the town’s name has got a bit out of hand with puns everywhere!
As you go through Bulls look out for the name of the shops and services, for example, the police station is called “Const-a-bull” and the town’s slogan is “Unforget-a-bull” and “A town like no udder“. There is also a giant bull statue in the town for touristy photo opportunities.
Is it Wanganui or Whanganui? There’s a lot of confusion surrounding this name, as there is a river, city, national park and region named this. The river and the national park has kept “Whanganui” to respect the original Maori name given, and the city and district are named Wanganui. Glad we got that sorted out!
What many backpackers love about this city is navigating up the Whanganui River. Although it is not the start or end of the Whanganui Journey Great Walk (you’ll have to travel upstream for that), it is still a good snippet of this majestic river. From the city, you can take a steamship tour, canoe, kayak or a rural mail tour – delivering mail and supplies along the river.
The urban area itself has historical buildings. To name a few, there’s The Royal Wanganui Opera House, the Sarjeant Gallery, the War Memorial Centre, Durie Hill Memorial Tower and the Bastia Hill Water Tower. Sit and people-watch in the city gardens too.
Tongariro, Whanganui and Ruapehu
The northern part of the Manawatu-Whanganui Region is made up of two iconic national parks and the Ruapehu District.
Tongariro National Park
The home of Mt Ngauruhoe (Mt Doom from The Lord of the Rings) and the popular day walk, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, Tongariro National Park is well worth exploring to get your volcano fix while backpacking in New Zealand. There’s so much to do in the national park, including the Tongariro Circuit Great Walk, that we have dedicated a whole guide to the national park in Tongariro National Park – Guide for Backpackers.
Whanganui National Park
A national park dense with native forest and surrounding New Zealand’s longest navigable river provides a true wilderness experience. Mountain biking and the Whanganui Journey Great Walk are only a couple of highlights in the national park. Find out more in Whanganui National Park – Guide for Backpackers.
The Ruapehu District
The northernmost district of the Manawatu-Whanganui Region is the start of the Forgotten World Highway which is just as intriguing as it sounds. The district also sits around New Zealand’s largest volcano, Mt Ruapehu, which has three ski fields in winter. Find out more about Ruapehu in Ruapehu – Guide for Backpackers.
If you have more time in Manawatu…
- Visit Owlcatraz in Palmerston North. Ironically, the owls are not trapped in prison-like cages as the pun suggests. The centre has birds, farm animals, a historic jail and cave
- Head to the coast off Wanganui city to catch some “gnarly” surf breaks.
- Stock up on supplies and update the contents of your backpack by shopping in The Plaza Shopping Centre in Palmerston North
- Go to Himatangi Beach to make your own art out of driftwood, go kayaking and do general beach things
- Go swimming by the waterfall at Ruahine Dress Circle Scenic Reserve.
Where to stay in Manawatu-Wanganui?
- Rusty Nail Backpackers, Taihape
- River Valley Lodge, Taihape
- The Railway Hotel Backpackers, Palmerston North
- Backpack on Campus, Palmerston North
- 42b College House, Wanganui
- Braemar House (YHA), Wanganui
- The Tamara Riverside Lodge, Wanganui
More budget accommodation can be found in Accommodation Guide to Palmerston North and 11 Best Backpacker Hostels in Tongariro National Park.
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