a city, a river and a national park.
Travellers to New Zealand will often take the travel agents’ word as gospel and accept the five day Tourist Diamond tour of Auckland - Bay of Islands- Rotorua/ Taupo - Queenstown with, maybe, if time permits a stop over in the country’s lively, visually exciting capital Wellington.
What Travel Agents don’t tell travellers is that New Zealand is not a small country - represented as it is on maps as two or three insignificant looking dots at the bottom of the Earth. New Zealand is, in reality, a long country with vastly different climates and landscapes. You can place the northern most point of the country at Calais, Maine and the southern most point at Mrytle Beach, South Carolina for distance, about 1600 kilometres, then flip them upside down so the northern tip is on Mrytle Beach and the Southern tip is on Calais to give you an indication of the climate range within the country.
In terms of width the Eastern most point of the country could be on the Eastern seaboard of North Carolina while the Western most point would be about 103 kilometres within Tennessee.. a distance of 400 kilometres. Incidentally, New Zealand’s coastline is only 4790 kilometres less that that of the USA. Within this area are rugged mountainous landscapes, tussock deserts, snow covered active and dormant volcanoes, geysers, mud pools and heavily bush clad hills and valleys that both appeal to and challenge the traveller willing to escape the secure comfort of a packaged tour.
Forgotten, or ignored by the Travel Agent, are the cities, townships and National Parks scattered across the North and South Islands of New Zealand. The central North Island city of Wanganui / Whanganui (both spellings are used) with its river, once billed as the Rhine of the South Pacific, and surrounding National Park is worthy of a lengthy stop-over, particularly over the southern hemisphere summer when you can take the opportunity to take a leisurely canoe trip down the river from its headwaters in Tauramanui to the small, riverside village of Pipiriki just out of Whanganui and then stay over in the city with its vibrant and interesting arts community and Victorian and Edwardian architecture.
One of the great pleasures of a holiday can be escaping from the city and relaxing in the bush or paddling a canoe down a river watching the birds flitting among the trees along the banks.
A five day canoe trip down the Whanganui river (Grade III) can be booked with any number of Canoe hire companies along the river. The trip can be reasonably challenging or moderate to easy depending on where you choose to enter the river.
If you go in at Tauramanui, near the headwaters, you will hit the more challenging of the rapids which will test your skills as a budding canoeist. We took the easier option of a three - four day trip and went in at Retaruke just down the road from the Department of Conservation accommodation at Whakahoro.
Here, at the confluence of the Whanganui and Retaruke rivers the water flows relatively quickly but does give you plenty of time to adjust to paddling a canoe before hitting the rapids. In the past, Retaruke had been the last stopping point of the Hatrick Riverboats as they hauled their way upriver from Wanganui to the rail terminus at Tauramanui and had boasted a houseboat which served as an hotel for travelers as well as another hotel- Lacy’s and a school which is now an overnight hut for canoeists.
We stayed overnight in the Retaruke Hut along with a group of boy scouts doing the river trip from Tauramanui. They arrived at the hut mid afternoon wet and bedraggled after falling from their kayaks and canoes at every opportunity the rapids had given them. Come the dawn, we breakfasted, loaded up our canoes and, with the help of the Scouts, launched ourselves onto the river and the beginning of our adventure.
Once we’d sorted out the protocols of paddling (necessary when you haven’t been canoeing before!) we were away. The first set of rapids were easily passed - the mantra of “aim for the V of the rapid and keep paddling” proving to be all we needed to know.
Soon we were alone, the silence of the bush clad hills and river enveloping us as we headed down river to our first stop off at the DoC John Coull Hut some six hours paddling away.
This was our longest day on the river, partly because it was our first day and partly because the temptation to idle along punctuating the day with frequent stops for photographs, listening to the call of the native birds, (the Tui has a really magical call.) or to pull into the remains of moorings left from aborted attempts to farm the river valleys was all too easy to succumb to.
We arrived at John Coull late afternoon. Pulled our canoes up onto the river bank, unloaded and carried our supplies up the short track to the hut where we were met by the “hut warden”, a volunteer DoC officer whose task it was to act as custodian, adviser and welcoming committee to the groups, who, like us, escape the city for a few calming days on the river.
The evening passed pleasantly chatting with other canoeists and learning the history of the river from its pre-European times - when it was an important trade route for the local Maori from the Central North Island to the coast.
The next day took us through a series of rapids and on to the Bridge to Nowhere. We set up camp on the DoC campsite and paddled across the river to the remains of the Mangapurua Landing and the beginning of the 45 minute walk up the track into the bridge.
The bridge is all that remains of a farming settlement created after WWI by an optomistic government which had seen the upper reaches of the river as having potential for settling the servicemen returning from the battlefields of The Somme and Gallipoli. Unfortunately, with the only sustainable access being the river the viability of the farms was always going to be questionable and, eventually, the Government decided to close the valley and stop funding the track maintenance in 1942 with the last families leaving the valley by the end of that May.
Now the bridge, the remains of the orchards and the occasional crumbling chimney are all that remain amid the regenerating bush.
Another day’s gentle paddling took us to Tieke Marae where, depending on the number of Maori living on the site you are welcomed, entertained and given lessons in Maori protocol. There is, on the opposite bank, The Bridge to Nowhere Lodge that offers camping and accommodation as well.
The next day is a short and very easy paddle to the village of Pipiriki which was once the terminus for the first day’s riverboat trip up river on the Hatrick Riverboats. In its heyday Pipiriki had boasted a luxury hotel which was the place to stay for those heading up river . Unfortunately the hotel burnt down in 1959 and has never been replaced.
Pipiriki is now just a sleepy village which marks the end of the canoe trip down river and the end of the Wanganui River Road drive.
From Pipiriki the road winds along the river bank, through small Maori settlements or Pa whose names reflect the influence of the early missionaries as they moved up river from Wanganui... Atene (Athens), Koroniti (Corinth), Ranana (London) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem). For those who want to finish off the canoe trip with a half day tramp the Atene Skyline track offers spectacular scenery.
It is worth stopping off in the settlement of Hiruharama (Jerusalem) to pay homage to both the pioneering work done by the Roman Catholic order of the Sisters of Compassion and New Zealand’s most revered poet, James Kier Baxter.
The Catholic mission, initially established in 1854, became under Suzanne Aubert (Sister Mary Joseph) from 1883 an influential village along the river as the Sisters at Hiruharama, in addition to the usual customs of religious life, taught and nursed, farmed newly-cleared bush, tended an orchard, made and marketed medicines, sold fruit to tourists and raised homeless children. The convent and church are still cared for by the order of “The Daughters of our Lady of Compassion”.
The settlement is also the place where J.K.Baxter, a noted New Zealand poet, established a commune in the 1970s and where is died and is buried. His simple grave can be seen in the churchyard there.
Coming into Wanganui from the River Road the highway curls through the picturesque village of Ūpokongaro where you can stop for a meal at the local hotel or the cafe. Upokongaro has a unique Anglican church, built in 1877, with a triangular steeple which, local rumour has, was covered with metal from beaten out kerosene tins.
Watch out for the riverboat, The Waimarie, which sometimes brings excursion trips for lunch or dinner at the local hotel.
Stay over in Wanganui:
We never have a problem with accommodation in Wanganui, but that’s because we have family there. For travelers the city has a wide range of accommodation to choose from - the Youth Hostel Association has a very pleasant hostel right on the riverbank and close to the town centre while the central city can offer good mid range hotel and motel accommodation all within easy walking distance of the central city.
Wanganui was founded in 1840 by the New Zealand Company at the mouth of the river and access to the fertile hinterland. In its early years the city was under threat during the Anglo-Maori wars and, for some twenty three years, from 1848 till 1870, was the home of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment which was stationed there to guard against threatened attacks from Maori from Taranaki and from the upper reaches of the river.
Because of its early settlement and prosperity the city boasts some very attractive and unique Victorian and Edwardian buildings. All of which are within an easy and very pleasant walk.
We always enjoy, on a Saturday, a walk starting from the bustling farmers market that sprawls along the riverbank beside the old Wanganui Rowing Club building (1898)- now the home of the riverboat museum, the Tramways Trust and the Arts Centre. Here you can learn about the Hatrick Riverboats which carried passengers and freight up and down the river between 1891 and 1958 and watch the patient restoration of the 1920s trams at the Tramway workshop.
Take some time to explore the many art and glass making workshops along Taupo Quay and around the base of Queens Park.
From here you can walk through Moutoa Gardens and up to Queens Park where the Sarjeant Art Gallery (1919), the Regional Museum (1928) and the Alexandr Heritage and Research Library (1933) are worth a good morning’s browsing. The museum has some of the best exhibits of Maori and pioneer New Zealand artifacts in the region.
From the museum you walk across the courtyard of the War Memorial Hall which was built in 1960 to commemorate the fallen in the Second World War and is an outstanding example of mid-20th-century modern architecture.
It is worth walking across to St Hill Street to the Royal Opera House, which is the country’s oldest municipal opera houses built in 1899. The wooden building is still in use and hosts many local and touring shows.
After lunch, walk down Victoria Avenue and across the bridge to Durie Hill. Take the lift up the inside of the hill to the War Memorial Tower which commemorates the men and women from the city who died during World War I. From the tower you get a marvelous view over the city and the river out towards Taranaki (the cone of Mount Taranaki / Egmont can often been seen on the horizon) in the NW and to the north the volcanoes of the central plateau - Ruapheu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. Maori myth has it that the Wanganui River was the trail left after Taranaki, which was, at that time, living on the central plateau with the other mountains, fought with Tongariro over the beautiful Mt Pihanga and lost. In sorrow and anger Taranaki fled and finally found himself anchored where he is now.
From the hill either walk down the steps or take the lift back to the riverbank and amble along to the Red Lion Inn for a beer and a meal as you watch the rowers practicing their strokes, the riverboats, the Waimarie and the Wairua, coming in to moor for the night and just generally enjoy the sunset over the city.
The next day, especially if it’s a Saturday or Sunday, take the opportunity to idle the day away by either taking a trip up river to Upokongaro on the Waimarie or investigate a day trip to Hipango Park further upriver on the Wairua. (You will need to enquire and book the Hipango Park trip in advance).
The Captains of both vessels will give you a running commentary on the history of the riverboats, the local history and the sights to be seen along the river as you chug along in these unique, especially designed riverboats.
While in Wanganui, it is well worth taking a drive to visit the Putiki Marae and historic church and wandering around Virginia Lake on St Johns Hill before striking out either to the NW to Taranaki or heading South to the capital, Wellington, and take the ferry across to the South Island.