The Story of Dories in New Zealand


A few years ago I was invited on a trip on the Whanganui River – The Whanganui Journey. This trip is classified as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, even though it is a 3 – 6 day canoe trip.

The river trip itself is beautiful. The native forest cloaked banks now hide much of the rich Maori and early European settlement history. However at one time as many as 10000 people may have lived along its banks.

It was a trip I had always wanted to do, so I seized on the opportunity.

What was the reality of this trip?

The reality I found was that the river lived up to my expectations, but canoeing did not. While I had canoed before and was quite comfortable in the boat, many of the other guests were not. In fact my overall impression was that they endured each day, were constantly challenged by the simple art of keeping their boat going in a straight line, and were physically exhausted by the time we made camp in the late afternoon.

The Grand Canyon

In 2011, my wife, Nicola, and I were part of a 21 day trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. This trip was my first introduction to river dories.

I still remember seeing and being intrigued by these elegant and beautiful craft as they cruised past us while we were at camp.

Pulling Threads Together

For quite some time I contemplated over what I had seen on the Whanganui River. From my observations, many of the canoeists endured rather than enjoyed their trip. They were not physically fit enough for the adventure. But not only that. Their food was pretty average at best, and their other equipment was often sub standard.

Then a light bulb moment!

What about river dories on the Whanganui?

In my mind’s eye I could see those elegant craft gliding through those beautiful pools, and handling the numerous small rapids with ease. All the while, the passengers would have a level of comfort simply not possible with canoes.

A Plan Put Into Motion

Once a decision was made to make this idea reality, we put a plan into motion.

There were three key elements.

  • Learn more about Dories
  • Source or build the boats
  • Apply for a Concession to operate on the Whanganui River


Learning More About Dories

After contacting friends in the USA, I headed back over and took part in several trips on the Salmon River in Idaho. One of these trips was with dories. Hands on at last!

These beautiful craft were everything I had imagined them to be – comfortable and responsive – and could they carry some gear!

I was also able to visit several boat builders in Oregon who shared their knowledge with me.

Source or Build the Boats?

Through reaching out to river running friends I was put in touch with boat builder Andy Hutchinson, and through him, author and wooden boat builder, Brad Dimock.

In the Spring of 2014 both these men and Andy’s partner, Kate, boarded planes and flew out from the USA to Taihape, New Zealand.

Over the next month, two very stylish wooden river dories, modelled after those used on the Grand Canyon, would take shape in a local farmers shed. Their names would be:

  • Te Whaiau – the current follower
  • Okupata – my mist of water


Applying For A Concession

No new concessions had been granted to operate any river craft on the Whanganui River for quite some time.

Undaunted and mustering plenty of enthusiasm, we set to the task.

Yes, there was a great deal of paper work, quite a few reviews, and more than a couple of meetings. However it was the meetings with Maori Iwi representatives that made me think the most. This part of the process that was probably the most challenging, but also the most rewarding. We came away with a heightened understanding of the place of the river in Maori lore, and a respect for the tikanga (customs and traditions) that we would embrace in our operations.

On The Water At Last

It had taken several years from the birth of the idea to reality. At last Whanganui River Dories was on the river.

Yes, the boats are so comfortable, yes, we do have great food, and yes, there is a definite style associated with undertaking the Whanganui Journey in a dory.

For those who just simply want to enjoy the trip, dories could be for you.

Brian Megaw