Tales of the Whanganui: Rediscovering the 'Rhine of New Zealand'

September 12, 2020
Listen to the podcast

A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, New Zealand’s rivers were highways. Back then, the Whanganui River was called the Rhine of New Zealand. Goods were shipped up and down it as far as Taumarunui, 230 kilometres (140 miles) inland from the port of Whanganui.

That was one reason the river was compared to the Rhine. The other reason was the scenery.

Image for post
The “Drop Scene” Wanganui River, 1900–1910, Whanganui, by Frederick George Radcliffe, Brown & Stewart. No known copyright restrictions. Via the online collection of Te Papa, the National Museum of New Zealand, Wellington (O.031110, Purchased 2007)

Like the Manawatu and the Rangitikei, the Whanganui cuts through gorges. Except that in the case of the Whanganui, it’s pretty much gorges all the way.

The stereo image, above, shows a bend in the upper reaches of the river called Aratira or ‘path of the travelling party’ by Māori. Colonials called it the Drop Scene, because they thought it looked like a stage backdrop for an opera.

Image for post
The south-western part of the North Island of New Zealand, north of Wellington. Abbreviations are PN for the city of Palmerston North, and T for Mount Tongariro, N for Mount Ngāuruhoe and R for Mount Ruapehu. Green shows forested areas. North at top.

Here’s photo I first saw published in an article called ‘Smokestacks and Paddle-Wheels’, of a skittish horse being enticed onto a paddle steamer called the Wairere: an ambiguous Māori word meaning both river rapids and something that leaks!

Image for post
A horse being loaded onto the paddle-steamer Wairere, on the steep banks of the Whanganui River, around 1900. If the planks shifted suddenly the horse would panic, and the photographer, William Coates, has captured such a dramatic incident. Undated photograph, Whanganui Regional Museum, reference WR-C-159a.

Above Pipiriki, roughly halfway up the navigable portion of the river, there are well over two hundred rapids.

The rapids came to be plied by the tunnel boat: an early-1900s forerunner of today’s jetboats in which water was sucked up into a tunnel inside the vessel, given impetus by ducted propellors, and blasted out the back.

The Whanganui River also has the sites of a great many pā or Māori villages on it. Normally fortified and on a hilltop or crag, these were the equivalent of the castles of the Rhine.

A classic old documentary, beautifully photographed in black and white by New Zealand’s National Film Unit, is still worth viewing on this link.

A road called the Whanganui River Road runs up the east bank of the Whanganui River, as far as Pipiriki. After that, there’s no more road access to the river until you get much closer to Taumarunui. The Whanganui River Road is undoubtedly the premier, scenic, riverside heritage route in New Zealand.

Map by

It’s a bit wider now than it used to be!

Image for post
Group of Maori women on a road alongside the Whanganui River. Ref: 1/2–140017-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22339191

Here’s a close up detail: I think they look pretty cool!

Image for post

The Whanganui River had lately gained legal personhood, akin to a corporation, though not managed for profit.

Legal personhood makes it easier for local Māori to have a say in how the river is managed. That’s what’s driven the shift. Both the Urewera and the Whanganui River are hugely significant to Māori in cultural terms.

I went down the Whanganui River a while back, in open, Canadian-style canoes. I would paddle to the side rather than risk shooting the rapids, and even on a couple of occasions I lugged the kayak over shingle to avoid the rapids. I did it over three or four days, and it was just fantastic. There were quite a few goats on the side of the river, and it certainly was wild!

The river flows through a national park, but it is threatened by the intensification of farming all the same. It would be more at risk if the country around it wasn’t so hilly.

A hundred years ago, there was a plan to settle returned soldiers from World War One in this area and to ‘break in’ the land, but the scheme was eventually defeated by the sheer roughness of the terrain. Not, however, before the government constructed a bridge across one of the streams that feeds into the Whanganui River in what was before, and would soon be again, the middle of nowhere.

These days, you can walk to the Bridge to Nowhere, as it’s called. It carries no wheeled traffic apart from mountain bikes, perhaps, and never will.

Another famous spot on the river is Jerusalem, formerly known as Patiarero in Māori and then subsequently as Hiruhārama, which got its new name as a result of the activities of missionaries who moved up the river in the 1850s. Jerusalem later became the site of the French missionary Mother Suzanne Aubert’s activities.

Mother Aubert founded the Sisters of Compassion, the only Catholic religious order founded in New Zealand, a country otherwise mostly colonised by Protestants, and is at present a candidate for canonisation.

Image for post
Portrait of the Venerable Suzanne Aubert (1835–1926), taken by Joseph Zacharia sometime before 1912, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Around the start of the 1970s a commune was also established at Jerusalem by the poet James K. Baxter, who died and was buried there in 1972. Here's a page link from the tourism organisation Visit Whanganui. I've included a video from Visit Whanganui on its own as well.

The upper reaches of the river were at one time the strongholder of the anti-British Pai Mārire movement, which means ‘good and peaceful’ though in reality it soon evolved a fighting warrior sect, more commonly known in that manifestation as Hau Hau (‘wind, wind’) after the movement’s battle cry.

Hau Hau were among the most hard-line of the various Māori groups opposed to colonists and the British in the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s. At that time Jerusalem, known as Hiruhārama to Māori, was on the boundary between the upriver area controlled by the Hau Hau and a downriver district in which local Māori were more friendly to the colonial regime and the missionaries.

At one time, the conflict actually came to Jerusalem in the form of a short battle on nearby Moutoa Island the 14th of May 1864, the one commemorated in Whanganui’s Moutoa Gardens, at Pākaitore.

According to an entry in Te Ara, the online encyclopaedia of New Zealand, about fifty Hau Hau and fifteen downriver Māori were killed along with a French lay brother from the Jerusalem mission. As was often the case with old-time battles there were hundreds of curious bystanders, and the brother seems to have been killed in the process of trying, perhaps, to keep them safe.

There is plenty of evidence of conflict still surviving in the Whanganui region. Along with various memorials, you can also visit the well-preserved Cameron Blockhouse, and the remnants of a number of other redoubts.

And even, up the river, still-standing niu poles erected by the Hau Hau: wooden poles that have a vertical staff and four cross members pointing to the four winds, spiritual antennae intended to radiate the spirit of war to all points of the compass.

Image for post
A section of the upper Waikato River shown the location of a Niu pole. Map date from Land Information New Zealand via, August 2020. Crown Copyright Reserved.

Here’s a photo of two more niu poles at Maraekōwhai Reserve a little further down the Whanganui River. One of these is the Riri Kore pole, erected when the Hau Hau decided to fight no more. Riri Kore means ‘No Anger’ or ‘No Battle’. This pole was intended to radiate the spirit of peace, and thus cancel the others out.

Image for post
Niu poles at Maraekōwhai. Photograph by Jock Phillips, CC-BY-NC 3.0 NZ, via a page by Judith Binney on Te Ara, the Online Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

According to the web page text by the late historian Judith Binney, as of the time of this post’s preparation (31 August 2020),

"These ‘niu’ (news) poles stand at Maraekōwhai reserve along the Whanganui River. Niu poles were raised by adherents of the Pai Mārire faith and were used in religious rituals. The pole called Rongo Niu (long pole, according to James Cowan) was erected in 1864 during the New Zealand wars. Hauhau warriors carried out final rituals at this niu pole before departing for the battle of Moutoa. The pole called Riri Kore (no war) was erected at the end of the war in recognition of peace."

(James Cowan was a historian remembered mainly for a two-volume work called The New Zealand Wars: a history of the Maori campaigns and the pioneering period, first published in the 1920s and re-issued in the 1950s.)

Here’s a close up of the four arms of one of the niu poles at Maraekōwhai.

Image for post
Photograph by Jock Phillips via a page by David Young on Te Ara, the Online Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Reproduced with permission.

An atmospheric 1981 film called Pictures captures the tensions of those times, through the lightly fictionalised story of a photographer from Dunedin sent north to document the conflict. He contends with the mists and rain that imperil his clumsy camera, the hazards of war, and his own doubts as to who is in the right. The film cuts back and forth between the seat of conflict in the North Island and Dunedin, eight hundred kilometres away down south in Otago where, as I’ve mentioned, it was almost another country. You can see ten minutes of Pictures on this site.

New Religions

After the wars, Pai Mārire evolved into Ringatū, a sect of which the name means ‘upraised hand’, a characteristic gesture of the Pai Mārire founder, Te Ua Haumēne and his followers.

Image for post
Te Ua Haumēne, from James Cowan, ‘The New Zealand Wars’, Vol 2 (1922), via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain image.

Ringatū was founded by Te Kooti, another prophet-warrior inspired by Te Ua Haumēne, who clashed with the colonists, but on the east coast of the North Island this time.

I’ve written write about Te Kooti in an earlier blog post about New Zealand’s outlying Chatham Islands, where he was imprisoned for a time.

Interestingly enough, the 1995 Moutoa Gardens occupation spokesperson Ken Mair is a direct descendent, via a Māori line, of Gilbert Mair, a nineteenth-century settler ‘Indian fighter’ who was Te Kooti’s existential nemesis, the one stalking the other in a manner lightly fictionalised in the 1983 film Utu (‘just deserts’). You can see a trailer of the remastered version on Youtube here, or the whole pre-remaster film here.

New Zealand’s not such a big place, and in spite of what I’ve written about social divisions and generations of disadvantage, it’s surprising who’s related to who and on what sides they pop up a few generations later.

A quite separate Māori religion and social movement which took root later on, in the 1920s, and soon became hugely influential, was Rātana, named after its founder Tahupōtiki Wiremu Rātana. Rātana actually became a force to be reckoned with in mainstream twentieth century Parliamentary politics. An electoral alliance between Rātana and the New Zealand Labour Party was sealed in 1935 with four deeply symbolic gifts to Labour’s leader Michael Joseph Savage, plus a Rātana badge. Rātana had won its first seat in New Zealand’s House of Representatives in 1932, contesting four seats reserved for Māori at that time. Rātana won two seats at the 1935 general elections, merging with Labour soon after. Under the banner of Labour, the Rātana-approved candidates gained three Māori seats in 1938, and all four Māori seats in 1943 and again in 1946, a win that was vital for Labour on the second occasion.

Today, the base of the Rātana movement is the Rātana Pā, some twenty kilometres south-east of Whanganui.

Image for post

Image for post

It was July, the middle of winter, when I was in the region. And so at Rātana I also saw cows sunbathing in front of a red brick house — they obviously knew what spot was warmest!

Image for post

The Fascinating City of Whanganui

As for the city of Whanganui, what is it famous for? Well lets think of the thing you might least expect perhaps in such an out-of-the-way, somewhat wild locality: the Serjeant Gallery. First opened in 1919, it’s the most significant art gallery in provincial New Zealand.

The Serjeant is shaped like a cross, with four sub-galleries branching off a central dome with an oculus (sky hole) at the top, like the Pantheon in Rome. It is clad in white stone from Oamaru, and sits on top of a hill called Pukenamu in an inner city hilltop park called Pukenamu / Queen’s Park.

Here’s a photo of the Serjeant Gallery from, which shows Mount Ruapehu, some 80 km inland, behind several ranges of forested hills. Every town has its magic spots, and I think Pukenamu is one of Whanganui’s.

Image for post
Reproduced with the permission of Visit Whanganui

The development of the Serjeant Gallery was championed by the World War One-era mayor Charles Mackay, whose name would, however, soon become locally unmentionable for decades due to a scandalous court case. Mackay presents an appearance of wounded dignity in this 1920 mugshot, taken after he was arrested for shooting the poet D’Arcy Cresswell, who had threatened to expose him as a homosexual.

Image for post
Archives New Zealand reference J1W 2636 1920–31121 via Radio New Zealand

Cresswell recovered without too many ill effects. And so, the man who shot him was let out early on the condition that he leave New Zealand even though he’d been born there. Mackay moved to the less straitlaced metropolis of Berlin only to be shot himself, fatally, in the city’s 1929 May Day riots: the ones featured in the first series of Babylon Berlin.

The affair seems to have made the community less friendly toward the artists that the gallery was intended to support. One victim of the newly repressive climate was Edith Collier, nowadays regarded as a notable painter on the basis of the work she did while overseas but who met with a chilly reception on her return in 1922, and ended up living a quiet life till she died in 1964.

Image for post
‘Edith Marion Collier with a cello, photographed in 1913. Location, and photographer, unidentified. From the Alexander Turnbull Library (ref: 1/2–092970-F)’, Wellington, New Zealand, via Wikimedia Commons.

Most of the Serjeant Gallery’s collection of some 8,000 works, including a major Edith Collier collection, is now online.

Whanganui seemed like a really depressed city to me when I visited it some years ago, but it’s since revived tremendously in ways that the spruce-up of the Serjeant Gallery are a sign of.

Image for post

Here’s a picturesque transport museum.

Image for post

The i-Site is really amazing, with a café, and art exhibits upstairs, and is the perfect place to find out about everything to do in the region, including nearby lakes and beaches.

Image for post

e Keepa / Major Kemp continues to ferociously stand guard over Whanganui today, and all the other monuments.

Image for post

Across the river from downtown Whanganui, there’s the clifftop suburb of Durie Hill, from which you can have good views of the rest of the city. You can go even higher by ascending the Durie Hill War Memorial Tower, which commemorates the First World War in a most striking fashion (there’s also a more conventional cenotaph downtown). Here is a Visit Whanganui link, and video.

The other impressive thing about Durie Hill is that the easiest way to get there is on foot, via a public elevator, which involves walking into the cliff through a tunnel and then riding the elevator to the top. Here’s a link to a description of Durie Hill’s elevator on the website of Visit Whanganui, and a video.

Nearby is Pūtiki Marae, the main marae or meeting-place of Whanganui-area lowland Māori on the site of their ancestral village or pā which was also called Pūtiki, and another suburban hill called Korokota, Māori for Golgotha, because when the Reverend Richard Taylor arrived to perform missionary work in 1843 there were still bones lying arond the base of the hill from the hundreds who had lost their lives when the settlement was attacked in 1829 by the warlord Te Rauparaha: the one whom Horowhenua Māori had tried to assassinate in 1822 and suffered so mightily for failing to do so.

The Reverend Taylor arranged for the bones to be buried. Before acquiring its new missionary name, the hill had been known as Taumata Karoro. A plinth at the top of the Korokota hill honours Hoani Wiremu Hīpango, who appears in my post ‘Union Jacks and Grumpy Cats’ in a group photograph with the same Reverend Taylor.

Image for post
Photograph by Jock Phillips, CC-BY-NC 3.0 NZ, via a page by Ian Pool on Te Ara, the Online Encyclopaedia of New Zealand

A restored paddle steamer called the Waimarie, or peaceful waters, still plies the lower reaches of the Whanganui River for the tourists.

Image for post

Here’s an informative recent video about the still coal-fired Waimarie, subtitled ‘Queen of the Whanganui River’:

You can also go for a ride on a restored tunnel boat called the Wairua (‘spirit’). It’s smaller than the Waimarie, but faster, as you’d expect.

Travelling on the Wairua must be an almost unique technological experience in the 21st century, if not actually unique. Here’s a video about the Wairua, presented by its owner and skipper, Sam Mordey:

The fact that it’s powered by a Diesel these days doesn’t make the Wairua inauthentic. The original steam engine was abandoned early on as something that was too heavy for the rapids, along with the vast amounts of coal it consumed. For most of its career the Wairua ran on a more modern sort of an engine intended to lighten it up and make it more sprightly, as befitted its name, ‘spirit’. Truly, indeed, one of the first jetboats, developed by trial and error, if not the first .

Whanganui has vintage weekends in which the Waimarie and Wairua sail up and down the river while a steam train crosses the river’s railway bridge and biplanes flit about. They do the steampunk thing in Oamaru, but this is for real. Bring your goggles!

Some useful resources

Visit Whanganui. The official website of the Whanganui i-Site or information centre, which provides a lot of detailed information and visuals about Whanganui. ‘Journeys on the Whanganui River’. A really useful compendium of tour operators, places to stay and things to do on the Whanganui River. A very informative website about the Whanganui River with historical and cultural background, sponsored by the Māori-owned Owhango Adventures.


Some of the material in this post will be incorporated into my forthcoming book, A Maverick New Zealand Way: The North Island, about which details will appear on my website, A Maverick Traveller, when it comes out.

Sign up for my updates on and get a free electronic copy of my first book, A Maverick Traveller!


Subscribe to our mailing list to receive free giveaways!

Thanks for subscribing. You can expect to receive more information about Mary Jane, her top travel tips, free downloads of Mary Jane's award-winning books, and more, straight to your inbox!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Try again or contact us if you're still having trouble.

Share and subscribe

Share this post on Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to new posts with RSS.

Recent Blog Posts

April 14, 2021

Around Mount Taranaki by the Southern Side

Continue reading
April 13, 2021

'The Town of Light': Reefton and the Kirwans Track

Continue reading
April 11, 2021

There's more to Hanmer than Springs!

Continue reading