Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au [I am the river and the river is me)
These words embody the spiritual, cultural and historical relationship of Whanganui Maori with the river which holds their ancestry. This important saying traditionally used by local Maori has become increasingly relevant to locals of European descent whose lives and history have also become interwoven by the river.
The Whanganui River begins high up in the volcanic plateau of the central North Island at Mt Tongariro, and travels north towards Taumarunui before heading south towards Wanganui. Its journey to the sea passes through the native tree and fern clad hills of the Whanganui National Park.
Tree ferns and rare native plants cling to the steep riverbanks and morning mist clings to the surface of the water from dawn, rising slowly with the light of day.
This dramatic landscape opens out in the lower reaches of the river to follow farmland and open valleys to the coastal dunes which border the Tasman Sea.
How you can explore the river valley
The Whanganui River offers visitors the ability to take a remote and adventurous journey of discovery and understanding. It combines elements of both Maori and early European history with a recreational adventure along its 260km journey to the sea. The rapids offer a variety of challenges yet the river is still considered suitable for beginners.
A river journey by canoe through this remote scenic river valley is one of this country’s most lifechanging adventures.
Canoe tour operators offer tours of varying lengths, with both guided tours or freedom hire available.
Local maori operators add a cultural perspective to their guided tours, sharing their korero (stories) and taonga (treasures) and marae (traditional maori villages).
The Department of Conservation provides huts and campsites along the length of the river, and privately owned accommodation is available.
The ancestral lands of Whanganui Maori bordering the river include the largest tract of lowland forest in the North Island, and are preserved for all as the Whanganui National Park. This National Park enjoys a dual heritage from nature itself and from the forty generations of maori who have lived there.
Within its forested environment early Maori cultivated the sheltered terraces of the land and built their marae and kainga (villages) on strategic heights. Tieke in the middle reaches and Koriniti on the lower reaches are two marae which regularly provide travellers with a place to stay and the opportunity to participate in cultural traditions.
‘The Bridge to Nowhere’, constructed in the 1930’s to provide access to farms in the Mangapurua Valley is an unusual and fascinating feature, and is virtually the only surviving sign that the area has ever been a place of settlement. Access is by a forty minute walk along a wellformed track provides access from the river for canoeists. For those with less time to spare, jet-boat transport also provides access to the Bridge and the scenic and historical sites along the Whanganui River valley.
The Whanganui River and the road which follows the reaches of the river from Pipiriki to Wanganui are two inter-related journeys.
The road journey is intimate and adventurous, enabling travellers to visit isolated communities and a pace of life which is in contrast to the rest of the country.
Daily coach trips provide a comfortable way to visit the area, enabling visitors to view the stunning scenery and take photographs while hearing the varied stories of the valley’s history.
Many beautifully preserved Marae which are the family gathering places of local Maori are visible from the road. Permission must be obtained before visiting.
The village of Jerusalem which was once part of a larger village called Patiarero has been home to two famous figures from New Zealand history, Mother Mary Aubert, whose Catholic mission remains today, and highly recognised New Zealand poet James K Baxter, who established a community there in the late 1960s.
Accommodation options include the convent, farm-stays, selfcontained cottages, camping and campervan facilities.
These usually need to be booked ahead, as most are combined with the daily working life of locals.
Some have remote access by aerial cableway or by boat, which also needs to be arranged in advance.
In the urban reaches of Wanganui, where the river meets the sea, river trips travel daily upstream to the village of Upokongaro, where visitors can enjoy the riverbank setting and obtain refreshments.
The Whanganui Regional Museum in the centre of town has many exhibits which help enhance the understanding of the history of the Whanganui River and its place in the lives of the people of the Whanganui region.