New Zealand's greatest gifts: Bridging time on the Whanganui River

The view from Tamatea's Cave  reveals the wild, brooding nature of the Whanganui River.
Sean Martin

The view from Tamatea's Cave reveals the wild, brooding nature of the Whanganui River.

The Whanganui is New Zealand's longest navigable river so perhaps not surprisingly, it's got a rich history of humanity's interactions with it - some spectacular, some inglorious.

Prior to European colonisation the area along the river was one of the most densely settled parts of New Zealand and because of this is regarded as sacred by Maori.

There were once more than 100 Maori villages along the river banks which gave birth to a network of trade and communication on the Whanganui and its tributaries stretching back at least 600 years and reaching as far as Wellington, Waikato, Taranaki, Taupo and the Bay of Plenty.

Whanganui River Adventures owner/operator Ken Haworth is one who has recognised the river's ongoing attraction.
SIMON MAUDE / FAIRFAX NZ

Whanganui River Adventures owner/operator Ken Haworth is one who has recognised the river's ongoing attraction.

With the introduction of a riverboat service in 1891 the river began to flourish as a thoroughfare for tourism and trade.

By the 1920s this activity began to fade with the advent of a main trunk railway, better roads and new tourist attractions.

But in more recent decades the fascinating natural and human history of the river - and the creation of a national park centred on its upper reaches - has brought the tourists back to discover the stories along its brooding course.

The improbable Bridge to Nowhere.
SIMON MAUDE/STUFF

The improbable Bridge to Nowhere.

On a nearly five hour, 64-kilometre jetboat jaunt, Whanganui River Adventures' owner/operator boat driver Ken Haworth gives an account of the Whanganui River's rich history.

For centuries Maori had the treacherous Whanganui figured, sbefore Pakeha ambitions arrived, eventually overtaking commonsense.

Haworth says waters can raise 5 metres in just 20 minutes on parts of the 237km river.

From the comfort of the jetboat the Whanganui River's tortuous recent history makes for an exciting history lesson.
SIMON MAUDE / FAIRFAX NZ

From the comfort of the jetboat the Whanganui River's tortuous recent history makes for an exciting history lesson.

Above sits land just as tricky and cruel as the waters below.

Ad Feedback

After World War I, the government offered returning soldiers resettlement on the banks of the Whanganui, breaking in steep bush and carving out farms.

It was hoped a road bludgeoned  through bush to reach a few dozen farms in the Mangapurua Valley would turn into a highway through the district, linking economically and socially isolated families to the outside world.

Today what remains of this vision is the "Bridge to Nowhere", a concrete memorial to the government planners' hopes and the settlers' eventual nightmares.

Straddling a sheer gully, it looks like it should be arching over  Auckland city's Grafton Gully, not on an impossibly isolated Whanganui tributary.

As Haworth describes it, it took just a few decades before the hardships of trying to make a living here drove the newcomers out, leaving the bridge as a lasting monument to their folly.

There is much more to see than an eerie testament to a lost struggle against the elements however, and the enormous significance of Whanganui to the local iwi is an essential element of visiting here. The myth behind the river's creation illustrates its connection between the North Island's great volcanoes: it is said to be the path that Taranaki gouged after fleeing from a battle with Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe. 

As Te Ara, the New Zealand encyclopedia, explains, the river's most spectacular scenery is in its middle reaches, between Whakahoro and Pipiriki. Here the surrounding rainforest is now protected by the Whanganui National Park, and remains one of the most popular stretches for visitors.

There's no shortage of businesses offering various ways to travel the river, and a recommended diversion in Whanganui city is the regional museum, which holds a significant collection of Maori heritage and insights into the history of the river valley.

 

 - Stuff

Comments

Ad Feedback
special offers
Ad Feedback