A brief history of
the Whanganui River
The Whanganui River, with its origins high on the slopes of Mount Tongariro, and it’s 243kms of navigable water, has resulted in an area which is rich in tradition and legend. One of these legends will tell of a great battle between Mount Tongariro and Mount Taranaki after Taranaki dared to make advances on the lovely maiden Mount Pihanga. This battle shook the very foundations of the earth and when peace finally came to the land, Tongaririo stood close to Pihanga’s side whilst Taranaki fled towards the setting sun. Once reaching the ocean he turned to the north where he still stands today gazing back from a distance at Pihanga. As he fled Taranaki tore a great wound in the earth’s surface but a spring welled from the side of Tongariro which filled the wound with clean, healing water. Forest and bird song soon grew on the banks of this newly formed river which is known today as Whanganui.
Tamatea, captain of the Takitumu canoe, part of the great migration of 1350, has long been given the title of the first explorer of the Whanganui River and many of the place names along the river bear witness to this. However, occupation of the river could well have started as long ago as 1100AD and people from the river trace their lineage back to the Aotea canoe. In these early times the Maori of the area were quick to realise the value of the sheltered valley and established kianga along the river’s length. The temperate climate and fertile soils provided a great place to grow crops with the river supplying an abundance of tuna (eels). The gentle gradient of the river made it an important access point from the coast to the interior of the North Island.
The first tangible European influence in this area came with the missionaries in the 1840s, the first of whom was the Anglican Reverend Richard Taylor in 1843. The Reverend Taylor is credited for the biblical nature of many of the place names along the River Road which are still in use today such as “Corinith (Koriniti), Athens (Atene) and Jerusalem (Hiruharama) and many others which have long since disappeared.
Following this the Roman Catholics arrived in 1852 and subsequently established, the now famous, mission at Hiruharama (Jerusalem) in 1883. The name Suzanne Aubert is one which is synonymous with the Whanganui river and as “Mother Mary Joseph Albert” she was instrumental in the establishment of the local church, school and orphanage which are still in existence today in various guises.
Another name synonymous with Hiruarama is James K Baxter, a well-known New Zealand poet who established a commune there during early 1970’s and who is today buried above the mission site.
Like the Maori before them, the Europeans soon saw the advantages of the river as an access route and the first commercial river boat service was started in 1886 and by 1903 there was an established steamer service all the way to Taumaranui. At the high of this service twelve river boats provided services to the people of the river settlements, a mail service, cartage for farmers and construction materials. These riverboats also started the tourism industry for which the Whanganui River became world famous as “the Rhine of New Zealand”. The decline of the tourist trade and the abandonment of many of the farms and villages saw the end of the streamer services in 1958. Relics can still be found along the length of the river in the form of forgotten landings and rock walls formed to make the channels for the steamers. If one ventures in from these landings the remains of the forgotten farms and shattered dreams can still be seen.
The Whanganui River Road was opened in 1934 and for most of its 79km length it winds its way alongside the river giving access to the local communities that were once serviced by the river boats. It is also a major access way to the Whanganui National Park which was Gazetted on 6th December 1986.
Due to extensive work by the Dept. of Conservation at the Bridge to Nowhere, and on tracks such as the Mangapurua and Matemateaonga, there has been a resurgence of tourists using the National Park. Coupled with the sealing of the River Road, the opening of the Mountains to the Sea Cycleway and the Te Araroa Walkway, this area is once again a popular destination for both New Zealanders and overseas visitors who want to experience the mystique and magic of the Whanganui River Valley.