Whanganui River

Whanganui River

The Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand.

Known for many years as the "Wanganui River", the river's name reverted to Whanganui in 1991, according with the wishes of local iwi. Part of the reason was also to avoid confusion with the Wanganui River in the South Island. The city of Wanganui at the river's mouth has kept the shorter spelling.


With a length of 290 km, the Whanganui is the country's third-longest river. Much of the land to either side of the river's upper reaches is part of the Whanganui National Park, though the river itself is not part of the park.

The river rises on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, one of the three active volcanoes of the central plateau, and close to Lake Rotoaira. It flows to the north-west before turning south-west at Taumarunui. From here it runs through the rough, bush-clad hill country of the King Country before turning south-east and flowing past the small settlements of Pipiriki and Jerusalem, before reaching the coast at Wanganui. It is the country's longest navigable river.

In the 1970s a minor eruption from Mount Ruapehu spilled some of the contents from the Ruapehu Crater Lake (the same root cause of the Tangiwai disaster). This toxic water entered the Whanganui River and had the effect of killing much of the fish life downstream. In the aftermath of the poisoning eels as large as 8.2 kg and trout as large as 2.3 kg were washed up dead along the banks of the river.



Māori legend explains the formation of the river in the Mount Taranaki legend. When Mount Taranaki left the central plateau for the coast, the land was split open, and the river filled the rift. According to Māori tradition, the river was first explored by Tamatea, one of the leaders of the original migration to the new land, who travelled up the river and on to Lake Taupo. Many places along the river are named in his honour.

The Whanganui river has always been an important communication route to the central North Island, both for Māori and for settlers. It is, however, also a difficult river, with many stretches of white water and over 200 rapids. Despite this for many years it was the principal route to the interior.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area around the Whanganui was one of the most densely inhabited in the land. Unsurprisingly, with the arrival of the colonial settlers, the area near the river's mouth became a major trading post.

Although it was already a significant route to the interior, the major development of the river as a trade route was by Alexander Hatrick, who started the first regular steam-boat service in 1892. The service eventually ran to Taumarunui where rail and coach services connected with points north. [http://www.riverboatsnz.com/files/RiverboatMix/Riverboat_Mix_03.jpgRiverboats at the Pipiriki Landing] One of Hatrick’s original boats, PS Waimarie, has been restored and runs scheduled sailings in Wanganui. Another of the Hatrick boats, MV Wairua has also been restored and can be seen on the river.

During the early 20th century, the Wanganui River, as it was then called, was one of the country’s top tourist attractions, its rugged beauty and the Māori kainga (villages) which dotted the banks attracting thousands of tourists per year.

With the completion of the North Island Main Trunk railway, the need for the steamboat route to the north greatly diminished, and the main economic activity of the river area became forestry. During the 1930s, attempts were made to open the river valley up as farmland, but they were not successful. One legacy of that time is the Bridge to Nowhere, built to provide access to settlements long since abandoned.

The settlement of Jerusalem is of particular note. Jerusalem was home to two famous New Zealanders, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, whose Catholic mission is still located at Jerusalem, and New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, who established a commune at the settlement in 1970.

River Boat Landings

The Whanganui River was the supply artery for the early communities along the its banks. River boats used to ply the river, and also into the Ohura River and Ongarue Rivers unless these routes were log jammed after floods.

It is said that Taumarunui was the highest reach of the Whanganui River that was navigable by river boat. The river flow was managed by the "Wanganui River Trust Board" which built containing walls to direct and deepen the rivers channels for river traffic. Even so, river boats sometimes found it necessary to winch themselves up the more difficult rapids.

Taonga and Māori land claims

The river is of special and spiritual importance for Māori, who also refer to it as "Te awa tupua" - it was the home for a large proportion of Māori villages in pre-European times. As such, it is regarded as taonga, a special treasure. In recent times, efforts have been made to safeguard the river and give it the respect it deserves.

For the same reason, the river has been one of the most fiercely contested regions of the country in claims before the Waitangi Tribunal for the return of tribal lands. In fact the Whanganui River claim is heralded as the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history [http://www.teara.govt.nz/NewZealanders/MaoriNewZealanders/WhanganuiTribes/3/en] with petitions and court action in the 1930s, Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the 1990s and land occupations such as the ongoing Tieke Marae occuption since 1993 and the highly publicised Moutoa Gardens occupation in 1995.



The flow of the river has been altered with the diversion of water from the head waters into Lake Taupo. This may have been a contributing factor to the demise of the raft race (see below).
*Whanganui National Park
*The Whanganui Journey is managed by the Department of Conservation under its Great Walks programme.
*Hiking (north/south and east/west trails cross on the Whanganui River)
**Te Araroa Trail [http://www.teararoa.org.nz/trail_stories.php?story_id=34] - The hiking trail the length of New Zealand and the Whanganui.
**East Cape to Cape Egmont Traverse East Cape to Cape Egmont - 80 day traverse of the North Island, 1997, Author: Salisbury, Raymond, Publisher: Word for Word Publishing
**Matemateaonga Tramping Trail (and others)
*Canoeing - lots of historic aspects and sites to visit.
*Annual Raft Race, Piriaka to Taumarunui - Last run in the 1970s
*Annual Jet Boat Race, Taumarunui to Wangaunui - Last run in the 1980s


Despite being NZ's longest navigable river, the Whanganui has surprisingly few road bridges. Only two are located on the 290 km stretch between Wanganui and Taumarunui.
* SH 47 Bridge near Tongariro National Park
* Taumarunui (x4) (including Victory Bridge)
* New Te Maire Bridge (1954)
* Jerusalem, derelict swing bridge.
* Wanganui (x3 - Dublin Street Bridge, City Bridge & Cobham Bridge)The most infamous bridge over the Whanganui was to be located near the Bridge to Nowhere and would have connected Raetihi to Taranaki via Mangaparua. Basically the suggestion turned out to be an election promise and both bridges were abandoned after the election.

External links

* [http://www.riverboats.co.nz Whanganui Riverboat Centre]
* [http://www.riverboatsnz.com The history of the Hatrick Riverboat Service.]
* [http://www.uniquelynz.com/whanganui.htm The story of the river]
* [http://www.destinationwanganui.com/8riv.html Destination Wanganui]
* [http://www.wrmtb.co.nz/riverupdate.htm Whanganui River Māori Trust Board]
* [http://www.rivers.org.nz/whanganui_guide/ Whangaunui Guide - Booklet by New Zealand Recreational Canoeing Association Inc]
* [http://www.teara.govt.nz/NewZealanders/MaoriNewZealanders/WhanganuiTribes/1/ENZ-Resources/Standard/4/en Map including Major Pa Sites on the River]

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