Whanganui River

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Whanganui River
Whanganui River.jpg
The Whanganui River. Mount Ruapehu can partly be seen at the top right of the scene.
NZ-Whanganui R.png
The Whanganui River system
Origin Mount Tongariro
Mouth Tasman Sea
Basin countries New Zealand
Location Manawatu-Wanganui Region
Length 290 km (180 mi)
Mouth elevation 0 m (0 ft)
Basin area 7,380 km2 (2,850 sq mi)

The Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand. On 30 August 2012, an agreement was reached that entitled the Whanganui River to a legal identity, a first in the world. According to the New Zealand Herald, the river "will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law—in the same way that a company is, which will give it rights and interests".[1][2]


For many years it was known in some records as the Wanganui River, however the river's name officially 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 at the river's mouth was called Wanganui until December 2009, when the government decided that while either spelling was acceptable, Crown agencies would use the Whanganui 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 Whanganui. It is the country's longest navigable river.[3]

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.

The Whanganui River basin contains a variety of flora species, much of which can be characterised as a Broadleaf and Podocarp forest;[4] understory species include Crown Fern, Blechnum discolor, and a variety of other ferns and shrubs.[5]


Tributary Name Length (km) km From Mouth Confluence Coordinates Altitude
Mount Tongariro River source 290 km 39°07.91′S 175°37.95′E / 39.13183°S 175.63250°E / -39.13183; 175.63250
Whakapapa River 38°55.92′S 175°24.50′E / 38.93200°S 175.40833°E / -38.93200; 175.40833
Kakahi Stream 38°55.94′S 175°22.00′E / 38.93233°S 175.36667°E / -38.93233; 175.36667
Ongarue River 38°53.54′S 175°15.27′E / 38.89233°S 175.25450°E / -38.89233; 175.25450
39°02.34′S 175°03.89′E / 39.03900°S 175.06483°E / -39.03900; 175.06483
Retaruke River 39°06.65′S 175°03.98′E / 39.11083°S 175.06633°E / -39.11083; 175.06633
Ohura River
Mangapurua Stream
Manganui o te Ao River 39°24.30′S 175°2.69′E / 39.40500°S 175.04483°E / -39.40500; 175.04483
Tangarakau River
Tasman Sea River Mouth 0 km 39°56.89′S 174°59.22′E / 39.94817°S 174.98700°E / -39.94817; 174.98700 0 m


Kawana flour mill, 1854 (restored), Matahiwi

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. One of Hatrick’s original boats, paddle-steamer PS Waimarie, has been restored and runs scheduled sailings in Whanganui. 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.

In 1912-13 the French filmmaker Gaston Méliès shot a (now lost) documentary film The River Wanganui about the river, calling it the Rhine of New Zealand.

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[edit]

One of the many maori marae along the Whanganui River

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.

Between 1891 to 1958, the Alexander Hatrick Riverboat service operated on the Whanganui River. The paddle-steamer Wairere ordered from London and shipped in sections then assembled in Whanganui in late 1891.

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.

Landing Name Community Serviced Distance from Mouth Travel Time Up/Down Coordinates
Taumarunui Landing Taumarunui
Kirikau Landing Kirikau
Te Maire Landing Te Maire
Otumangu Landing Otumangu
Lacy's Landing
Wades Landing Retaruke Valley 39°6.65′S 175°3.98′E / 39.11083°S 175.06633°E / -39.11083; 175.06633
Maungaparua Landing Maungaparua Valley
Tangahoe Landing Tangahoe
Mangatiti Landing Mangatiti
Parinui Landing Parinui
Ramanui Landing Ramanui
Pipiriki landing Pipiriki
Lower Pipiriki landing Pipiriki
Hipango Park Landing ?
Up-river Landing
Wanganui Wharves Whanganui

Taonga and Māori land claims[edit]

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[6] with petitions and court action in the 1930s, Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the 1990s and land occupations such as the ongoing Tieke Marae occupation since 1993 and the highly publicised Moutoa Gardens occupation in 1995.



Kayaking is a very popular sport on the river

The flow of the river has been altered with the diversion of water from the headwaters into Lake Taupo. This may have been a contributing factor to the demise of the raft race and the fact river boats can no longer make the entire trip to Taumarunui during the dryer months (see below).


Despite being NZ's longest navigable river, the Whanganui has surprisingly few road bridges. Only two are located on the 230 km stretch between Whanganui and Taumarunui.

  • Taumarunui (x4) (including Victory Bridge)
  • SH 47 Bridge near Tongariro National Park
  • New Te Maire Bridge (1954)
  • Jerusalem, derelict swing bridge.
  • Whanganui (x3 - Dublin Street Bridge, Whanganui City Bridge & Cobham Bridge)

A bridge over the Whanganui to connect Raetihi to Taranaki was to be constructed in the Mangaparua area (where the Bridge to Nowhere) is located, but this plan was never implemented.

River Boat[edit]

In 1892 Alexander Hatrick was contracted by Thomas Cook & Son to carry tourists to Pipiriki[7] on the paddle-steamer PS Waimarie, the journey was "The Rhine of Maoriland" tourist route into the interior of New Zealand. The river boat subsequently carried mail, passengers and cargo.

Until recently PS Waimarie operated on the lower stretches of the river, including dinner cruises to Avoca Hotel at Upokongaro and trips to Hipango Park for overnight camping.[8]

On 18 June 2010 the Adventurer 2 river boat embarked,[9] attempting to make the 230 kilometre voyage to Taumarunui. The first voyage to Taumarunui in 82 years. The Adventurer 2 now offers this trip to tourist as an historic alternative to jet boating and canoeing the river.[10] Though in low water flows it can't make it all the way to Taumarunui.


  1. ^ Shuttleworth, Kate (30 August 2012). "Agreement entitles Whanganui River to legal identity". New Zealand Herald. 
  2. ^ Fairbrother, Alison (18 September 2012). "New Zealand's Whanganui River Gains A Legal Voice". Huffington Post. 
  3. ^ "Manawatu and Whanganui Region". Jasons Travel Media. 
  4. ^ Jim DuFresne. 2006. Tramping in New Zealand, sixth ed., published by Lonely Planet, 392 pages ISBN 1-74059-788-5, ISBN 978-1-74059-788-3
  5. ^ C. Michael Hogan, 2009, "Crown fern; Blechnum discolor", GlobalTwitcher.com
  6. ^ Whanganui Tribes teara.govt.nz
  7. ^ "Hatrick, Alexander, 1857–1918" dnzb.govt.nz
  8. ^ Whanganui Riverboat Centre
  9. ^ "Riverboat embarks on Whanganui voyage". One News. 18 June 2010. Retrieved 3 December 2011. 
  10. ^ http://www.adventurer.net.nz

External links[edit]