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|Touring New Zealand 2005 - part 6|
In Wanganui we stayed at The Riverview Motel which last time gave a discount for cash reducing it to under $60 with free washing machine - very helpful and pleasant and right opposite the river. It is now under new management who have increased the price by 50% to $89, the washing machine is no longer free and at the suggestion we had previously had a discount and the prices had increased just suggested we could go elsewhere - we probably will next time. They are no longer on our recommended list not for the price which may be correct as they were fairly full but the attitude. We have never had the reaction as regular customers asking for a discount we had been freely offered in the past to go elsewhere.
We were pleased that the Waimarie had not changed when we came to our evening trip. They have done a magnificent job of restoration and the crew are still very proud of her. Before describing the Valentine's day cruise it is appropriate to give a bit of background on the Waimarie and the riverboat trade on the Whanganui.
The Waimarie started life just over 100 years ago as the Paddle Steamer Aotea. She was commissioned for the Wanganui Settlers Steamship company, a brand new competitor to the established boats run by the Hatrick company which was to be largely responsible for opening up the Whanganui for transport and tourism. At the time Hatrick already had three steamers serving the Maori villages and tourists. The Aotea was built by Yarrow of Poplar London and shipped out in 64 crates with the boiler. Once in Wanganui the bolts used for initial assemble were replaced by rivets and it was in service within three months on the run to Pipiriki.
This started a fierce freight and passenger price war. To Hatrick, by now Mayor of Wanganui, a fight like this was like food and wine. The price war combined with low water levels making the run to Pipiriki close to impossible quickly took their toll on the new company. Within two years Hatrick was making offers to buy the Aotea for 3200 pounds which were declined as derisory - three months later an offer of 2000 pounds was accepted as by the Settlers Company which could not longer pay the wages of its staff. The Aotea was promptly renamed Waimarie, the Maori for "Good Fortune", prices returned to normal levels, as did the river and Hatrick's fortunes rose.
Hatrick's objective was to push the service further and further upstream to reach Taumarunui, which would soon become the Southern terminus of the new Northern Main Trunk Railway. The journey upstream to Taumarunui involves 144 miles of rapid strewn and ever shallower waters. In total 237 rapids had to be tamed by removing snags, blasting channels and construction of training walls to scour away silt and stones, not to speak of the development of the special "tunnel drive" boats. Tunnel drive boats were the precursors of jet boats and drew less than 12 inches and were shorter and narrower beam than an English narrowboat with powerful kerosene engines and winches to pull them through the worst rapids. The Ongarue reached Taumarunui in December 1903 coinciding with the arrival of the main railway from Auckland and established a world famous scenic route from Auckland to Wanganui and thence to Wellington confounding all the sceptics.
The Waimarie served on the first stretch up to Pipiriki where passengers spent a night in a new luxury hotel Hatrick built - it had electric before most NZ towns. They then transferred to one of the smaller boats for the next days trip to "The Houseboat" where again there was a transfer for the last stage to an even smaller tunnel boat.
It might be thought that the first stage where paddle wheelers were used would be easy but there were still a large number of rapids and at many the engines were augmented by men with long manuka poles punting the boat or by cables in the river which were picked up and attached to the winch to pull the boats through the rapids - we are not talking small boats either - the Waimarie was 100 ft long and 22 ft beam over the paddlewheels but with a draft of only 4 inches. The 55 miles to Pipiriki involved negotiating 42 rapids.
The Waimarie remained in service on the run up to Pipiriki, combined with various shorter tourist trips, until 1949 when she was due for her second boiler replacement. Whilst awaiting a change to a kerosene engine there was a tragic accident - a motor launch moored along side drifted under one of the paddle housings on a falling tide and tipped her over and she sank. Before she could be re-floated a flood filled her hull with silt making salvage uneconomic.
She remained sunk, but safely preserved under a layer of silt, for 40 year until a group of volunteers started a salvage operation. After the town had been scoured for every oil drum and plastic container for flotation she was pumped clear of the silt and reluctantly the mud released its grip and she was afloat again. After 7 years of restoration involving 67,000 hours of volunteer work and nearly $1.5M she cast off for her inaugural cruise exactly as the Millennium arrived with most of Wanganui's population of 40,000 watching.
She carried 25,000 passengers in her first year back in service and the lovingly restored engines are still as good as new after 100 years, 40 of them under water. The hull is now replated with thicker steel to satisfy modern regulations - probably not a good change as the original galvanised plate was designed to give. Regular replacements of rivets with temporary bolts was a feature of operation as the boats were dragged through the rapids and the flexing and denting usually prevented more serious damage. The occasional more serious hole was blocked with a sack of flour wedged in place which set to give a repair sometime good for three months! The Waimarie is now only used for trips an hour or two upriver in the tidal stretch so changes will probably never be fully tested and we forgot to enquiry if sacks of flour are still carried.
The evening Valentine's day cruise was very good with an introductory glass of sparkling wine and gift of Roses chocolates for the females followed by a huge hot and cold buffet which even defeated Pete all for $45 a head. The ride is very smooth and quiet with only the splash of the paddles to disturb the peace - everyone was so busy with their glass of wine that many failed to notice when we left the wharf. . The fit out is impeccable but probably completely different to that of her working life when settlers would have fought for space with bales of wool, cans of kerosene and livestock on the open decks. Some things however do not change - passengers are still welcome in the engine room and even more welcome to shovel coal into the new boiler. Restoration in NZ can be a bit pragmatic - it is a case of the original axe with three new heads and four handles. Why not, the boats were changed from steam to kerosene and back, lengthened and shortened etc when in service as well as the extensive replacement of parts as one would expect when traversing hundreds of rapids every week on a fickle river capable of changing from being too low for navigation to floods of up to 60 feet on the upper reaches.
The following day we drove up the river road from Wanganui to Pipiriki - There are a lot of places of interest on the road which are covered in information sheets available at the Information offices at Taumarunui, Pipiriki and Wanganui - there are also boards at either end and signs to further comprehensive boards at most of the main points of interest. We have done the journey before so we mainly looked for things we had missed last time round. It is worthwhile trip but the roads are not in good condition so it takes quite a long time especially if you look at everything and 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 stopped there for lunch and Pete got stung by a wasp.
We suggest that the best direction to drive 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 at Pipiriki and the descriptive leaflets which do help understand the features on the road. They ought to be available in Wanganui but we have only found them readily in Pipiriki - 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 are from centre of Wanganui and Pipiriki is at 79km.
The 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.
When we reached Pipiriki we were disappointed to find the deterioration of the Ongarue has continued - we have heard rumours that any work has been stalled by specious objections by Maori activists which DOC do not have the guts to confront. We have been told similar disputes, in that case between Maori tribes, have led to the defeat of all attempts to rebuild the Pipiriki Hotel - we can confirm that it is now an empty and vandalised concrete shell. And the house next door which houses the Information Centre was closed. On the way out of Pipiriki the air was crystal clear and we had a super view across to Ruapehu and the central Alps capped with snow and a little cloud.
We stopped the night at a campsite at Raetihi we found a couple of years ago. The site which is owned by the Ruapehu District Council has been recently upgraded with new cabins and a very comprehensively equipped kitchen block going with them, everything one needs and even digitally controlled hobs. It justifies far more than a **+ rating it had last visit and we were pleased they now have a *** rating although they deserve more. The rates are good - cabins at $35 with everything one needs to go with them including pots, pans crockery and cutlery in the kitchen block. One major feature is that they have a glow worm walk just below the site on the edge of their big tent area - some of the glow worms were so bright that you could still see the green light when shining a torch on them last visit - this time we went down a little earlier and they were only just turning on. They also have a short bush walk of about 20 minutes. We used the tent for the first time for over a week and had a barbeque on the Red Devil. Sadly from the managers point of view the site was virtually empty, one cabin, one campervan, ourselves in a tent and someone more permanent in a caravan.
In the morning it was initially overcast but the skies were clearing so once the tent had dried we thought we would travel round the central mountains, a round trip of about 150 kms offering good views and keep the load off Pete's stung leg. We had some excellent views as the day cleared and we wished we could have done one of the walks across the top from the Whakapapa cable car. The day was by now clear and glorious and we were in no hurry so we thought we would take the slow road out of Taihape towards Napier a 140 km Heritage Trail, partially gravel, going over Gentle Annie. We first heard about it several years ago from some other campers at Tutira who sent us some information sheets to England. It is now one of a network of Heritage Trails which are sponsored by the New Zealand Visitor Network and the local District Councils. They all have information sheets and the main features are numbered and often have display boards on the ground giving something of the history etc. Their markers use cream/pale yellow letters on a, usually very faded, teal green background so are easy to recognise as are their information sheets which have a similar colour scheme.
The route which we know as "Gentle Annie" is officially known as the Inland Patea Heritage Trail and crosses the Dividing Range through an area of great natural beauty and historic interest where earth movements have created unusual mountains with limestone scarps with natural forest. It started as the route of an old Maori Trail from the East coast to the centre of North Island. In the 15th century one of the most famous Maori leaders Tamatea Pokai Whenui (Tamatea means he who explored the land) arrived in NZ on the Takitumu canoe and travelled the trail with his son Kanungunu. Many of the place names near the trail are called after the animals he carried in his basket.
Later Patea, a Maori living at Manawarakau travelled the trail. Legend says he went on a hunting expedition for a long time and returned with a poor bag to find his woman had filled his storehouse. Her incessant nagging on how poor a hunter he was led him to take her for a walk off a cliff. Rather than face her relatives he fled into the wild country west of the ranges where he remained in what came to be called Patea's Country, a huge tract bounded by the dividing Ranges, Mount Ruapehu and Taihape. The Name gained the Inland to avoid confusion with the town of Patea. For 50 years the Inland Patea's main port was Napier and everything was packed on horses over the ranges. By the 1870s the Inland Patea had vast Stations with Merino sheep and transport was a tremendous undertaking - typical stations could be sheering up to 75,000 sheep and packing the wool over the ranges. on strings of pack horses. The strings were hundreds strong with one man to each string of ten. Mules were also used and one in five animals carried provisions and fodder for the trip. Each pack animal carried 200 pounds (91 kgs) and riding ahead were hunters with dogs providing fresh food.
It was a dangerous job and it was not unknown for animals to lose they footing on the narrow rocky path over the precipitous "Gentle Annie" and plunge to their end in the Ngaruroro Gorge a hundred metres below. Panic could easily spread with the rest of the team following. They eventually returned with mail and supplies. This used to be the busiest and longest trail in New Zealand and remained so until Gold Fever struck and eventually in 1908 the railway was opened up to Wellington.
The day was clear and hot and the views all across were stunning. Our first pause was to look at the old Springvale Suspension Bridge over the Rangitikea river which had informal camping for anglers at the rivers edge beneath it. The bridge was built by William Salt in 1923 and traffic is now carried by by a modern replacement which takes traffic over the historic ford. We stopped for the night on Gentle Annie in one of the unpublished free DOC camp sites close to Kuripapango on the banks of the Ngaruroro River. Kuripapango is named after a Wanganui Maori warrior who was killed and eaten whilst trying to invade Hawke's Bay in the 17th century. There are several nearby sites and we have also stopped at Cameron a few hundred metres up stream - this time the site down by the river was deserted and we had it to ourselves. It was a lovely sunny evening and we had a barbeque on the Red Devil with a glass or two of wine - we finished the last of a bottle of Morton Estate 2002 Riverview Chardonnay which was excellent followed by a glass of Australian Shiraz from Yalumba, a winery we had visited in Australia. The night was disturbed by a shaking of the tent in the early hours by Pete's head followed by a more major disturbance above our heads - Pauline beat Pete out in time to see a Possum sitting right on the top of the tent glaring back at her in the light of the torch - they are completely fearless but it took off shortly before Pete could arrive with a camera. The delights of camping in the Bush.
In the morning we explored a number of DOC areas in the Kaweka forest. First we followed some signs for Lakes down Kuripapango Road, an unsealed logging road and after about 5 kms branched one way down Lakes road to the Lakes car park where there were a number of trails. We walked the 30 minute track to the one of the two small but very still and beautiful lakes on the map they are called the Kuripapango lakes but they also seem to be called the Kaweka lakes after the area - they seemed to be teaming with fish just leaping out of the water and asking to be caught. Fortunately the rods were back in the van reducing the urge for taking up poaching as a hobby. The lakes were formed many thousands of years ago by a massive landslip and were stocked in 1860 with Trout from Lock Leven, Scotland and are surrounded by unusual plants and rare orchids. We then followed the road the other way to the Mackintosh car park with again a number of longer tracks leading off. We did not have urge to do several hour walks so we returned to the main road and continued. Both of the car parks had a long drop and camping was permitted anywhere off the access roads but we could not see any easily accessible grassy patches for our tent.
The Mackintosh car park had a very fetching salmon pink long drop - maybe it is in the new DOC colours. The other long drops in the area were to the construction we described a couple of years ago designed, we allege, by a committee with a female chairperson. They have tiny holes and have no source of light to the inside so that they have to be used with the door open. There is no bolt on the inside however there is a bolt on the outside so the door can be shut when not in use - we have found one modified with a long piece of string so the door can be held shut whilst in use.
We again followed signs down Lawrence road to the Blowhard Bush Reserve, an area owned by the Royal Forest and Bird protection society which has a network of tracks through an interesting remnant of podocard-broadleaf forest which has escaped most of the fires which have decimated most of such forests. Intriguing rock formations of waitotaran limestone nestle among the trees - the huge rocks and boulders are weathered into fascinating shapes and there is a maze of narrow passages, tunnels and caves between them many so straight that they hardly look as if they could be natural. We did the short Troglodyte walk but there are many others taking 2 - 3 hours round trip. If we had continued the road would have taken us 8 kms to a picnic spot with a short walk down to the Tutaekuri river and swing bridge.
The road afforded more excellent views as we dropped down towards the plains and Napier where we stopped a day earlier than intended at the City Close motel, a favourite of ours. The walks had further inflamed Pete's leg which was still suffering from the wasp sting and had now reached an extra 2 inches diameter over the other leg.
Peter and Pauline Curtis
Most recent significant revision: 7th August, 2005