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Touring New Zealand 2001
Part 3

We decided to once more return to a favourite area, the Taranaki National Park, on our way up to Auckland and rang ahead to book a couple of nights at Mountain House, one the few hotels in the park sited at the end of one of the only three access roads into the park.

Rather than try to make it in one day we decided to stop at Wanganui where the Whanganui River reaches the sea. The river used to be the main route into the central regions almost as far as Lake Taupo. The river boats had to battle in stages through 239 rapids up to Taumarunui, a journey of 144 miles. The boats were quite unique in design to cover the various stages and included steam driven paddle steamers on the lower reaches and the tunnel drive boats such as the Waireka, which we had the opportunity to have a trip on in 1997 when she was based at Huka falls and the paddle boat Otunui which replaced her at Huka falls which we went on in 1999 year. We had a look round the river centre where they have just finished restoring the pride of the old fleet, the Waimarie. I will not say more now as we will take up the story of the Whanganui when we return to the river after Mountain House.

We have been to Mountain House several times before - it is small but serves some of the best food we know in New Zealand. The rooms at Mountain House are simple but adequate and the price is moderate at circa $95 a night for a double room. The owners have run hotels in the area for twenty years, Keith is local and Berta came from Switzerland and they take great pride in the service they provide. Keith is also an artist and there are many of his pictures on the walls. The set up is very much a family affair and one very much feels a guest in their home - the lounge has their photo albums on the tables and their scrap books going back twenty years. The food is out of this world with a mixture of local specialities and Swiss dishes. We selected chopped Paua and Whitebait as starters the first evening, both are sea foods much exploited in the past by Maori. Whitebait is a local speciality and is very small, almost translucent fish and it was served in what is described as a fritter but one made so the Whitebait were on a base with more egg of the white and topped with more of the yoke. Paua is another local seafood like a Black Abalone - it needs to be beaten into flat sheets to soften it and then left to marinade in its own juices in fridge for three to four days after which it is tender enough to eat. At the Mountain House it is served minced in a cream sauce which is probably not the classical way of serving. The Paua shells are also very beautiful and are used for a lot of local jewellery.

The main courses served do not have any Maori connections, typical NZ and Swiss styles - we had Rabbit and Lamb shanks, both very good but both were European imports by the first settlers. Rabbit is now a pest although not in the class of Possums at present.

The wine list is almost entirely NZ and understates the wines - the 1999 Brajkovich Merlot we had was one of his signature series, hand picked grapes with an extended (3 week) fermentation on the skins followed by 9 months in French oak and natural finning with egg whites - "plum, earth, animal fur, leather, game, tobacco and coffee aromas with a rich and warm with a tannic finish" - how do the winemakers come up with these descriptions?. There were many other of our favourites on the list. They also have a special list as well which includes wines such as Cloudy Bay Sauvignon and Montana Reserve Merlot (but note the list varies rapidly so do not expect particular examples). For more details of the food and wine see the year before last years account at www.pcurtis.com/nz99-p1.htm .

Mountain House is rightClick for larger image in the middle of the walking areas in the Click for larger image Taranaki National and the walks from Mountain House cover a variety of different forests as one works up through the tree line. Perhaps the most interesting is the Goblin forest which is primarily Kamahi which began life perched on the trunks of other trees, developing distinctive gnarled, intertwined trunks as they grew around the branches of existing trees which have now been stifled. The Kamahi trunks and branches are covered in mosses, liverworts and ferns while other trees and shrubs grow perched on the Kamahi forming compound trees.

Click for larger image It is difficult to give a proper impression of what one gains from these walks through these spectacular rain forest Click for larger imagewhich surrounds Mountain House. Even the 15 minute circular Kamahi walk enables one to sample the goblin forests. We did a one hour Patea loop walk when we arrived. It takes one through the Goblin Forest past incredible moss draped fuchsias as you walk across the deeply dissected flanks of the volcanic cone. On previous years we have also done the Enchanted walk of a couple of hours taking us up to 1150 meters where the forest makes the transition to sub-alpine scrub - it has spectacular views of the mountain terrain below.

The second day started wet and we abandoned our plan to do the walk to Dawson falls which is described as a popular family tramp of about 4 hours. Click for larger imageIt would have taken us along the Waingongo Track to Dawson Falls, up to Wilkies Pools, back on the Round the Mountain Track before dropping down the Enchanted Walk back to Mountain House. We went over to Dawson Falls to the DOC Office and Visitor Centre and shortly after we got there the weather cleared sufficiently for us to do the Wilkies Pools loop track which gave us some lovely views of the pools which had plenty of water flowing through them before returning past the Twin Falls - it took us a bit over an hour.

We then had a look at the Dawson Falls and it seemed a shame not to do the Kaponi loop taking us up through the bush and back past the Visitor Centre. The centre has been completely redone since we last visited and many of the most interesting boards have been replaced with new ones which are high on graphic design but almost impossible to read - I have taken some pictures to use as examples of how not to do things. They have added a new feature in an old Mountain hut giving a good impression of what huts are like. We also had a long, interesting and informative talk to the Ranger.

Once more we spent a lot of time trying to film the local birds and there calls, the Tui and Bellbirds which contribute to the outstanding dawn chorus, the Rifleman which is the almost as small as a Wren and the almost as small Silvereye. I hope we have got a few more pictures. The Taranaki forests have less bird life than we expected - this is largely because of the height and low temperatures which dramatically reduces the insect population and hence reduces the number of birds. It also means the birds tend to follow one in the hope one disturbs the insects.

The Potaema bog walk is also interesting as it takes one through a wide variety of different scenery as one approaches the edge. Click for larger image Swamps are areas where the normal sequence of vegetation is interrupted. The Taranaki swamps are, in effect, huge frost hollows, trapping cold air and creating completely different microclimates in the acidic conditions created by the high nutrient concentrations with abnormally cold temperatures for the height. The Potaema bog is surrounded by a forest of rimu, rata and Kamahi with kahikatea, New Zealand's highest growing tree growing at the edge. The forest quickly gives way manuka, lancewood, flax and large sedges with sharp cutting edges. The walk ends over the swamp on a boardwalk so one can see the rushes, sedges and blue flowered orchids.

All the walks, even the shortest, do need good footwear - both walking boots and insect repellent are desirable. Conditions can change very quickly and Mount Egmont is not forgiving and local recommendations need to be followed for all but the shortest walks.

We took the SH43 Heritage trail, rather than the main road, across to Taumarunui, the limit of navigation on The Whanganui river. It was a fascinating trip on one of the early roads cut across the grain of the countryside over a number of saddles giving commanding views. It is a road which is only 150 kms from end to end, some of it still unsealed, which merits (and takes) plenty of time. The first of the saddles the Strathmore Saddle can give superb views and on a clear day gives a vantage of the four main North Island mountains, Taranaki (Egmont), Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Shortly after is a side trip to Aotuhia (Bridge to Somewhere) which has a number of walks.

Click for larger imageOne then passes over two more saddles. The Pohokura Saddle, named after a Maori chief was settled first in 1880 - in those days the road was so bad it took three days to pack in supplies. As with many other points on the trip there are interpretation boards at the viewpoints.

The Whangamomona Saddle has a walk leading off from the viewpoint which looks sufficiently interesting we will schedule it for next time. Then comes a highlight, Whangamomona Village. Whangamomona, the Valley of Plenty, was first settled in 1885 and quickly reached it full size of about 200. It has always been controversial and had difficult access - in 1903 the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon was tipped into a pothole by the inhabitants as a protest at the road conditions and eventually improvements came.

The community spirit still survives, although to some it now looks little more than a ghost town. In 1989 the village declared itself an independent state in protest at changes in the regional boundaries which removed it from its home in Taranaki. Independence day celebrations are held every year on the Saturday closest to November 1st. There is a signposted walking trail round the village which we followed part of - much of the village is like a time warp which has led to it being used for several films.

The next high point is the Tahora Saddle where we found a cafe and "camp site" perched on the peak - a wooden platform on the peak doubles as a view point and helipad. There are several cabins and many slots for camper vans. The sheltered camping area is relative only to the exposure of the remainder of the hill top! The cafe is full of old pictures and information despite being only a few years old and we had an interesting talk last year to the lady who runs it who was Russian.

This year we did not take the side trip recommended by Anne and Mike down a gravel road to see the Mt Damper falls, which are one of the highest inland falls in New Zealand at 76 meters. We enjoyed the 20 minute walk and the falls are a narrow stream cut deeply into the side of a huge "bowl" eroded into the mudstone - quite unlike anything we have seen before as you can see in last years write up on the web site where there is a picture is with a fish eye lens the only way I could capture it. This time we decided we would do different side trips but it is very worth the slow trip down the gravel road on a first visit. Part way down the road is a large parking area for the Moki forest tracks. The Moki forest is the home of the endangered Kokako bird.

Our first side trip off the SH43 was to the Maraekowhai reserve. The site is of interest to us for several reasons. Historically it was a stronghold for the rebellious Hauhau warriors who in 1864 built a "rongo niu" with arms radiating in four directions to call the warriors to the cause. They danced round it chanting to make themselves invincible to musket fire. It and the later rere kore (peace pole) are still preserved in the reserve.

The main reason for our diversion was that it was the site of the Houseboat which was provided the second overnight stop for the Whanganui river boats on their way to Taumarunui. Click for larger imageThe site was supposed to be only about 8 kms off the main road but it ended up being about 16 kms mostly a slow and narrow gravel track. When we eventually arrived we found we could not reach the poles or the site of the Houseboat mooring as a swing bridge was down but in exchange discovered there were a super set of waterfalls the Ohura Falls.

We stopped in an unpublicised DOC camp site which was just off the SH43 and forms part of the Whanganui Journey - although a river journey the Whanganui Journey is of New Zealand's network of "Great Walks", perhaps because of the huge number of shallows and rapids! The Whanganui Journey is a 145 km journey by Canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki taking about 5 days. We were at Ohinepane, one of the few camp sites on the journey accessible by land and about one day into the trip to Pipiriki. It had a big plaque say it was on land donated as a camp site for all New Zealanders. Normally the charges for a week for the journey are $25 for use of the huts and camps sites or $8 for a single night at those accessible by land as entry points. Ohinipane seemed to be free as there were none of the usual honesty boxes and registration forms, presumably as it was donated land.

Click for larger imageIt was quite large camp site surrounded by bush and with views down onto the river. There was only one other tent with three people with canoes and a supporting car and driver. It is a real shame that these marvellous sites seem to hardly be used. We had not intended to camp but it was just too good to miss and we quickly set up the tent and the Red Devil. We spent some time in the morning talking to the lady in the party who turned out be a farmer and we were introduced to the concept of WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms. This is an informal network which allows people to work for a few hours a day on an Organic Farm in exchange for food and accommodation - in most cases they become part of the family and gain insight into farming etc. It is not very well publicised as it is barely tolerated by the authorities - no money changes hands making it almost impossible to regulate. We understand information can be obtained from local backpacker accommodation. The lady we spoke to said three of their WWOOFers had subsequently emigrated and they kept in touch with many of them.

Finding the Whanganui Journey was the start of a completely unexpected change in our plans. We were fascinated by the bits of history at Ohinepane about the river and the new possibilities they offered to explore another bit of New Zealand heritage. We stopped and looked at the Aukopae and Otunui River Boat landings which are covered as part of the SH43 Heritage trail. Once at Taumarunui we went in search of further information at the Information Office in the Railway station. We gathered up information on the Whanganui River, the Whanganui Journey and the National Park. We also bought a lovely book "A Pictorial History of the Whanganui River" by Arthur P Bates published by Wanganui Newspapers Ltd ISBN 0-9597636-5-1. Between them we were inspired to investigate further - Chateau and the mountains can wait.

We headed back in the downstream direction this time on the East side and worked our way back in to the river down Click for larger imagethe Retaruke river valley to where the Houseboat was moved in 1929 Click for larger imageat Whakahoro where the Retaruke joins the Whanganui. The road was perhaps the worst we have found in New Zealand with a few bits full of holes and hanging perilously amidst a series of slips to the steep river bank. At the bottom we were glad to find another nearly empty DOC camp site and a DOC Hut complete with drinking water collected as at Ohinepane from a roof and left to mature in a large tank. We walked down to the river join and could imagine where the houseboat had been moored in its heyday with gardens and gangplanks to both banks. The books we have do not have maps but there was a good sketch on the wall of the hut.

Click for larger imageWe spent some time talking to the temporary warden who owned a farm upstream and came for the occasional week as a holiday. The hut had a big wood burning stove for the winter and a giant bunk capable of sleeping 5 or more on each level plus a cubicle for the warden.

It was a 100 metre walk from the hut to the long drops which were of a new design (by DOC committee with a female chairperson??) - they have no real source of light and a tiny hole in a flat wooden surface over which a seat can be lowered - the bolt is on the outside and the door is opened to get light to avoid disaster when in use and bolted shut to keep insects etc out when empty. We first found this new design at Gentle Annie and it seems to becoming standard in the whole area.

The small group who were camped when we arrived left with their jet boats and canoes at the end of the day and we were left alone in the camp site - there were 4 people in the hut waiting to canoe downstream in the morning - three days to Pipiriki the next road exit point. The warden came over to chat as the sun went down and we learned all sorts of the practical aspects of farming - she runs the farm entirely herself doing everything including castrating all the bulls when they reach 6 months, apparently they do not mind at all whilst it is a very different story with sheep. After these bedtime stories we slept well to wake to find a dull damp morning - we just got the tent down before the rain started.

Pipiriki and the River Road to Whanganui

We returned down the road following a grader which was rapidly restoring the surface to a level acceptable state. Once back on the main road we went down as far as Raetihi before we could turn Click for larger imageback towards the River to join it at Pipiriki where Pipiriki House used to provide the first overnight stop for boats going upstream from Whanganui. Nothing remains of Pipiriki House which burnt down in 1959 but Click for larger imagethe old Colonial House next door holds a fascinating museum and information centre where we spent much longer than we expected. We gathered up several extra information sheets covering the "River Road" an old road running all down the side of the Whanganui river to Whanganui.

Click for larger imageBefore leaving we looked at another of the old river boats, the Ongarue, one of the tunnel drive boats used on the upper reaches and now on display out of the water. She is due for another round of restoration latter in 2001 as it no longer safe to walk round her and access has been removed. It is still interesting to look at the design Click for larger imagebelow the water line for use in very shallow water with a single screw hidden in a tunnel with twin long rudders either side hanging out the back and the winch at the front to pull her up the worst rapids. She only had a draft of 12 inches although 60 feet long and carrying 45 people at an average of 7.5 mph. She was designed for the upper reaches from Pipiriki to the Houseboat and on to Taumarunui and was built by Yarrow of Poplar, London and sent out in sections to be assembled at Wanganui. She entered service in 1903 and was the last of the riverboats still in service in 1958.

Click for larger imageWe then started down the River Road Scenic and Historic Drive - it is a partly gravel road which has currently has a few atrocious sections scattered with boulders up to 10cms in size. Even so it is a must if you are interested in the history of the Whanganui and the culture of the area. You need to allow plenty of time and it is worth knowing there is another largely unpublicised DOC camp site at Otumaire beside the road at exactly the halfway mark between Wanganui and Pipiriki.

We suggest that the best direction is from Wanganui to Pipiriki as the information sheets have all the distances from that direction and most of the tiny parking areas for viewpoints are more easily accessed as they are on the river side. The only disadvantage is that you would not have the advantage of the background available in the Museum and the descriptive leaflets which do help understand the features on the road. They ought to be available in Wanganui but we did not look there, our initial sheet actually came from Taumarunui.

If you go upstream you first pass through a series of Kainga, the unfortified settlements along the coast that replaced the original series of fighting Pa on the hilltops known as the necklace of fire. The Kainga settlements at the riverside were the results of the missionaries influence and in many cases the Maori asked the Rev Taylor for suggests for their names and what remains is the Maori pronunciations of his suggestions. You pass through Atene (Athens at 35.5km), Koriniti (Corinth at 47 km), Ranana (London at 60km) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem at 66km). Other features are the Oyster Bluffs at 28 km - towering mudstone cliffs embedded with giant oyster shells and the Kawana Flour Mill at 56km which is well worth a stop. There is a spectacular small and unmarked viewpoint at 70km. All distances from centre of Wanganui and Pipiriki is at 79km.

Click for larger imageClick for larger imageThe Kawana Flour Mill was one of several mills built last century and operated for 50 years. It has been completely rebuilt and is all in perfect condition, with its water heel. The millers colonial style cottage has also been restored and moved up above the potential flood level. The mill is unattended and open all the time to walk round - a contrast to what one could do in the UK - and has lots of interesting information boards.

We stayed at The Riverview Motel which Click for larger imagegave discount for cash reducing it to under $60 with free washing machine - very helpful and pleasant and right opposite the river. Recommended. We stayed two days to allow time for a trip the next day on the freshly restored Waimarie we looked at last time. They have done a magnificent job of restoration and the crew were very proud of her. We were allowed into the engine room and even ended up shovelled coal into the boiler - hot work. The trip unfortunately did not reach the section with rapids but still very enjoyable. More of the Waimarie and the river boats in the Whanganui River Story which follows.

The Whanganui River Story

I will try to give a short account of the history, culture and exploitation of the river which became, in its heyday just after the turn of the century, one of the most important tourist attractions in New Zealand. The adverts called it the Rhine of New Zealand or the Rhine of Maoriland and 12,000 tourists a year were being transported on river through the 239 rapids in its navigable length. There were stops at a magnificent hotel isolated in the backblocks, lit by electricity, which few cities in the world could then boast, and at a similarly appointed Houseboat.

The Whanganui river runs from the coast south-east of Taranaki (Egmont)and on past Lake Taupo to its source on Mount Tongariro. It has always been an important communication route to the interior, initially for Maori canoes and latter for the famous series of river boats run by Hatrick & Co. The river was one of the most challenging in the world for regular navigation with the river boats traversing 239 rapids in the journey from Whanganui to Taumarunui in King Country. It was also an important route for the Maori and it was first explored by Tamatea, the captain of the Takitumu canoe which was part of the great migration in 1350. He first sailed up the river to Putiki and the settlement name is the result of that visit. It was originally called Putiki-wharanui-a-Tamatea-pokai-whenua which translates as "the place where Tamatea tied his topnot with flax". Many other place names are associated with his voyage up the river and eventually on to Lake Taupo. Tangahoe is "the place where he cut paddles" Tamateas's cave in the middle of the beautiful gorge area is well know - by tradition Tamatea sheltered there in his voyage of exploration and it still provides welcome shelter for present river users, mainly canoeists. Following his explorations it became the main route from the sea to the central regions for Maori.

Maori legend explains the formation of the Whanganui. Their tradition is that there was that there were original four mountains in the central peaks, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Taranaki. The mountains were male and female and Tongariro had as his wife the enticing Pihanga. However Taranaki tried to seduce he beautiful Pihanga and a mighty battle of the mountains followed. When it cleared Tongariro had won and Taranaki fled in grief and anger to the sea and inland to stand forever in isolation as Mt Taranaki (Egmont). His track to the sea became a deep rift and the beautiful gorge was filled with gushing fresh water from Tongariro to heal the rift - the Whanganui river was born.

Why it is called the Whanganui is also explained by legend. Hau set off from Patea following an erring and absconding wife Wairaka along the coast. The first obstacle Hau met was a great river flowing westwards to the setting sun. He sat to consider the best way to cross the vast expanse of water and uttered these thoughts - "Too wide to swim, too deep to wade, I will wait for the tide to turn" from these thoughts he named the river Whanganui - literally the big wait.

The term King Country comes from the trouble in the 1860s when there was some dissent over the way the Treaty of Waitangi was working out and the Maoris elected their own King in the area which became virtually a no-go area for Pakeha until late in the century. By the time the river was opened up for navigation by Pakeha there were over 3000 Maori along the river banks - they were considered a great tourist attraction on "The Rhine of New Zealand".

The development of the river is largely attributed to one person, Alexander Hatrick who started the first regular steamer service in 1892 and by 1903 had services running right through to Taumarunui where they would eventually connect with the rail services and with coaches to Rotorua. At the height of the riverboat service there were 12 steamers and motor vessels as well as motorised canoes for times of very low water levels.

Although much of the credit for the development of the river services is due to Alexander Hatrick it would not have been possible without the work of the Whanganui River Trust and their predecessors to improve the navigation of the river. They pulled out the snags (fallen trees etc.,) cleared the large boulders, blasted channels and built training walls to divert the flow and scour deep water channels through the major rapids from tiny working punts. By 1892 an open channel not less than 80 feet wide existed to Pipiriki 88km up stream.

Hatrick commissioned his first steamer from Yarrow & Co of Polar London, who specialised in river steamers. It was the side paddle wheel steamer Wairere. She was fabricated in London, the plates numbered and dismantled for shipping in cases to New Zealand. She was launched five weeks after the first cases arrived and only a month latter the first passage to Pipiriki was attempted and successfully reached 11 hours latter, including intermediate stops. Even after this outstanding performance on the first run Hatrick was not content and she was lengthen by 15 feet to 95 feet largely to reduce her draught from 24 to 18 inches. A contract was struck with Thomas Cook and there was no looking back.

The next big step was one of technology - the tunnel drive steamers for the upper reaches, the first being the SS Ohura. Instead of side or stern paddle wheels the Ohura used a new and novel tunnel drive with four propellers on twin shafts in tunnels. The draught was reduced to only 12 inches and the propellers were protected from damage in the tunnels which had flaps to help keep the water in the tunnel when stationary, without the flaps the propellers were only half submerged.

The Ohura was the model for the middle run from Pipiriki to the yet to be made Houseboat and was 86 feet long and 12 foot beam. Smaller vessels such as the Waiora and Wairua were designed for the final stage, again tunnel drive steamers but only 65 feet long and 8 foot beam.

Hatrick bought out Pipiriki House in 1902 and turned it into the magnificent accommodation with the highest levels of cuisine. He designed the houseboat Makere, which was always just called the Houseboat. This was lowered stern first the 46km down from Taumarunui, a considerable feat as the river had not been finally cleared of rocks and snags so it could only be moved in half flood.

The above can only be a brief summary of a fascinating part of New Zealand's history and some of the people who made it happen. We found our journeys to some of the places very interesting and will look seriously at the possibility of a canoe trip down the Whanganui but this year we must travel on towards Auckland and Northland.

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