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The Whanganui River Story

This section of the site covers the history of the Whanganui River, the River Boats which served it and the Whanganui Journey, a 145 km journey by Canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki taking about 5 days. It includes details of the two riverboats which have been fully restored and are operating at Wanganui, the magnificent Steam Paddlewheeler the Waimarie and the smaller but superbly restored Wairua a gasoil driven tunnel drive boat. It also raises some interesting questions about the motorised wakas (canoes) used on the upper stretches. 

Introduction

Our introduction to the Whanganui was by chance, we decided to break what was becoming a long day and stop at Wanganui where the Whanganui River reaches the sea in 2001. Note the town and river have a different spelling! It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. 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 Otunui. We had a look round the river centre where they have just finished restoring the pride of the old fleet, the Waimarie but unfortunately were too late for a trip that day.

In fact our first encounter with the Whanganui River Boats had been with the Waireka, a tunnel drive boat. We had the opportunity to have a trip on the Waireka in 1997 when she was based at Huka falls. The next encounter was with the Otunui which replaced the Waireka at Huka falls and we had an exhilarating trip on her in 1999. The Otunui has had a very mixed history since she was built in 1907 - she started life as a tunnel drive boat on the Whanganui from Pipiriki or more often from the Houseboat to Taumarunui. She was then restored and converted to a side paddle wheel layout with a modern hydraulic drive and used for tourist trips out of Wanganui before being moved to Lake Taupo and then to below Huka falls. The new independent drives to the paddle wheels gives tremendous manoeuvrability as we found on our trip in 2000 at Huka falls.

Our appetite was wetted in the museum in the River Boat Centre in Wanganui and we started to go out of our way to learn more starting.  

The Maraekowhai Reserve

The Click for larger imageMaraekowhai Reserve was one of the first places we chose to investigate as it was the site of the Houseboat which was provided the second overnight stop for the Whanganui river boats on their way to Taumarunui.  It is also of great historic interest as 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. We have been told the area has a considerably wider history also involving a flour mill, a pakeha who was shot, missionaries, notional roads and inter-tribal fighting.

The site is about 18 kms off the main SH2 (The Forgotten World Highway which is a magnificent scenic drive to Tananaki) down a mostly a slow and narrow gravel track. When we eventually arrived the first time 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 we could reach a super set of waterfalls the Ohura Falls. 

We tried again in 2007  and found it even more difficult - we had to stop short of the car park as it was said to be too muddy for access and we found the whole track is now under threat of closure by DOC as it is not to modern standards and they say nobody visits it. The visitors book tells a very different story. We could still get to the falls but the walkway section was in a terrible state with many broken boards and we could still not get to where the poles were or to the site of the houseboat - there is no evidence now there ever was a swing bridge and most of the information boards have disappeared. We explored down some of the farmers tracks but could not find our way to the river and eventually gave up. We have since been told that the bridge into the Maraekowhai reserve was pulled down by DOC sometime in 2004. After a local disaster when a man was killed falling through an unmaintained bridge DOC got all cautious and advertised for some group of volunteers to look after the bridge but no one would take it on so they pulled it down. See below for how we got down the Tawata road on the opposite side of the river and at least got a good view across of the nui poles and the houseboat mooring.

We then searched around and found a route to the other side of the river where we hoped tobe able to see the junction of the Ohura River. We left Taumarunui on the SH2 and after about 11 kms we took the Paparoa road continuing past the turn of to the Te Marie Reserve and following signs to Tawata. This took us about 28 kms (about 11 unsealed) to reach the bark opposite to Maraekowhai where we could get a view across the river to the Nui Poles and the join of the Ohura river and the Whanganui River where the houseboat Makere was moored just below the lower falls. The two poles look well preserved and are in a well kept reserve with picnic tables and toilets - the only problem is that now DOC have removed the bridge and plan to close the track this important historic area can only be reached by canoe. The nui poles were erected by the Hau Hau followers of the Pai Marire religion and were local points for prayer, parades and chants. Spirits were said to radiate through the arms of the poles calling warriors to fight and giving them supernatural powers to resist musket fire.  The Rongo nui (War pole) was erected first in 1864 and the Ririkore (Peace pole) was erected in 1869 when hostilities ended.

The Whanganui Journey

After our first visit to the Maraekowhai Reserve we made an overnight stop at an unpublicised DOC camp site at Ohinepane which was just off the SH43. Here we learnt of the Whanganui Journey, a 145 km journey by Canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki taking about 5 days. 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!

Ohinepane has one of the few camp sites on the Whanganui Journey accessible by land and about one day into the trip to Pipiriki from Taumarunui. 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. Ohinepane however seemed to be free as there were none of the usual honesty boxes and registration forms, presumably because it is on land specifically donated as a camp site.

Click for Popup 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 - Château 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 Popup Imagethe Retaruke river valley to where the Houseboat was moved in 1929 Click for Popup 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 Popup 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. 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.

Other Whanganui Access from the SH43

We have since found other sections of the Whanganui are also accessible from the SH43 otherwise known as "The Forgotten World Highway" and we have made side trips or stops at the Otunui River Boat Landing has a new canoe landing below the picnic area. The old landing can not be seen any more although you can still get to the original location via a derelict style and a walk through the - I could see no trace other than signs of an old track down.

We looked for the Aukopae River boat landing down a side road first in 2003. There was no obvious sign at the roadside as promised and it was difficult to locate the location as everything is overgrown. We proceeded another 5 kms down the road (more a farmers track) to where the book said the Nukunuku Museum was located but all we could find was a cut down heritage trail sign and a few rusty relics in a field with nobody around, the only thing of interest was a bit of old Waka upright above an old tomb stone which we thought read the revered Richard Taylor. A few days latter we were reading one of the books on the Whanganui and realised it probably was a memorial to the famous Reverend Richard Taylor who did so much with Maori including helping them name all the Kainga (villages) with anglicised names such as Ranana (London) and Koriniti (Corinth). His mediation and influence was largely instrumental in allowing the Whanganui to be opened up. We wish we had taken a picture.

We returned in 2007 to have another look and we managed to clean it up a bit better this time and it does read Richard Taylor but we think it says "Richard Taylor camped near here on 8th?? August 1862". This time we have a couple of pictures but they will need some enhancement to read the inscription. We have since been told that Taylor was at Tawhitinui around the 8 August 1862, on the river but below Pipiriki, according to his biographer Mead - we have not checked that and if that is true it means the memorial has been moved. We also understand that Taylor's grave is in Wanganui and that the Historic Places Trust tidied it up last year but have not seen it

The River Road

Perhaps the most interesting way to explore the Whanganui by road is down what is called the River Road an old road running be side of the Whanganui river from Pipiriki to Wanganui. Raetihi is usually taken as the start from upstream although you do not join the river until Pipiriki. Click for Popup ImageThe River Road Scenic and Historic Drive is a partly gravel road which has had a few atrocious sections scattered with boulders up to 10cms in size on some of our trips. 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 where you can stop.

We suggest that the best direction is upstream 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 descriptive leaflets are well worth having as thet do help understand the features on the road. They are available in Wanganui and Taumarunui information centres and many other places. There are also a series of roadside boards at points of interest but some are in need of some tidying up and some are missing so the leaflets are important.

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).

Hiruharama (Jerusalem) has a very fine church which is worth a visit as you pass by. Jerusalem was once the largest Kainga on the river and was in the middle of a populous district. It was the meeting place many korero (discussions). The catholic mission was first established in 1854 and the current church, St Josephs was completed in 1892 replacing the original building which had burnt down four years earlier. It is up a side road signed as St Josephs's Church and also to the Convent where they do retreats - we parked on the grass beside the church but suspect we ought to have parked in a small layby below the Convent and walked up. The Sisters have been at Jerusalem since 1883 when Suzanne Aubert established a convent school and she founded the Congregation of the Sisters of Compassion in Jerusalem in 1892. The Sisters are kaitiaki (guardians) of the church, old convent and grounds which are all immaculate. It is reputed to be one of the most photographed churches in New Zealand.

Other features on the drive 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.

Click for Popup ImageClick for Popup 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.

There is a spectacular small and unmarked viewpoint at 70km. All distances from centre of Wanganui and Pipiriki is at 79km.

Pipiriki Click for Popup ImageHouse at Pipiriki used to provide the first overnight stop for boats going upstreamClick for Popup Image from Whanganui. Nothing remains of Pipiriki House which burnt down in 1959 but the old Colonial House next door used to hold a fascinating museum and information centre where we spent much longer than we expected. We gathered up several information sheets here covering the "River Road" on our first trip. On our last visit in 2009 it was empty and had becoming derelict.

At the time of our first visit and trip down river road the Ongarue, Click for Popup Imageone of the tunnel drive boats used on the upper reaches was on display out of the water. She not in good condition and was due for another round of restoration so it Click for Popup Imagewas no longer safe to walk round her and access has been removed. It is still interesting to look at the design below 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. She is now on display in the Riverboat Centre at Wanganui.

Wanganui

We stayed Click for Popup Imageon our first visit to Wanganui at The Riverview Motel which gave discount for cash reducing it to under $60 with free washing machine - very helpful and pleasant and right opposite the river. The next time we came we found it had changed hands and was much more expensive and the new owners were most offhand and since then we have used cabins at the Top Ten campsite which is also on the banks of the river. We however spent a long time in 2007 talking to the John Gray, the Historian in the River Boat Centre and discovered he has the Awapiko bed and breakfast a few minutes drive from town at 39 Riverbank Road which we plan to try.

We stayed two days to allow time for a trip the next day on the freshly restored Waimarie we looked at last time. They had 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. I have not covered Wanganui in the detail it merits as a town as this is primarily about the river and the riverboats.

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 Pipiriki 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 Waimarie story

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. As I explained above 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 Click for Popup ImageClick for Popup Imagewhere 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 paddle wheels 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 very 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 then 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.

We had our first of many of the regular two hour cruises in 2002 and enjoyed it greatly - the ride is very smooth and quiet with only the splash of the paddles to disturb the peace. 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 Wairua Story

Another of the riverboats, the Wairua, has also been restored and entered the water again on 3rd March 2006. Click for Popup ImageShe is much smaller than the Waimarie being designed for the middle reaches from Pipiriki to the Houseboat moored at Marakowhai,  a stretch involving 108 rapids and accomplished in a single day. She was a tunnel boat with a shallow draft. The restoration of the Wairua has been a task which has taken over nearly two decades since she was rescued from under the river mud in 1987. When we first went to the Riverboat Museum we were fortunate to find that Dave, one of the four carrying out the restoration, was behind the desk in his other role of manager of the museum and the magnificently restored Waimarie. He and the others involved with the Wairua also did much of the work on the Waimarie, one reason why the work on the Wairua has taken so long. We were priveledged  to see her during the final stages of her restoration in a specially constructed building during our visit in 2003. We first met Cameron McNeil during this visit - we had previously corresponded with as he has an excellent web site covering the Whanganui Riverboats with has lots of pictures, both historic and recent.

The Wairua was one of two identical boats Click for Popup Imagebuilt by Yarrow and Co of Poplar, London in 1904 and shipped out together in parts to be assembled in Wanganui. The twins, the Wairua and the Waiora, were steam driven with a compound engines by Simpson, Strickland and Co of Dartmouth providing 66 horsepower. Steam was from a Thorneycroft water tube boiler and propulsion was from a single screw mounted in a tunnel with a novel lifting Click for Popup Imageflap arrangement which allowed efficient use at low and high power. The vessels were 65 feet long and 8 foot beam with a maximum draught of only 15 inches They were mainly used on the Pipiriki to the Houseboat  section. The steam power plant on the Warua was replaced by a Thorneycroft oil engine of 70 horsepower in 1914. She was laid up in 1937 and used as a fender at Hatrick's Wharf where she sunk into the mud in the 1950s

She was rescued from the mud in 1987 and since then a dedicated Click for Popup Imagegroup of 4 people (David McDermid, Ian McMurray, Kevin Clark and Mark Campbell) have been gradually restoring her. Dave was already there when we had our first visit in 2003 with Cameron to look over the work and another of the owners Mark Campbell turned up shortly after. We were surprised how close to completion she was, only engine controls, some wiring and the fitting of a new hydraulic drive and winch were outstanding in major work, at the time  they were estimating perhaps only 250 hours work left to get her into the water. It had been a major effort to get so far, especially as the owners were diverted into doing much of the restoration of the Waimarie and by their work as trustees.

Almost the whole hull has had to be re-plated. The original plating was only 3 mm or less thick and heavily galvanised. It was then riveted in place with sealant between the plates - when they were removed the metals was still shiny and galvanised in the overlaps and on the frames. The original plating and structure was designed to give and dent if necessary in the rapids - repairs were easy and special bolts were carried to replace any 'popped' rivets. They have been forced to use thicker plating to satisfy the new marine standards with the bottom now being 5 mm steel and the sides similarly beefed up. Time will tell if this will lead to troubles as they hope to take her on trips through at least the lower rapids. She will also, of course, be considerably heavier and the addition plating thickness will increase her draught by over 10%. In the old days the boats were designed to be re-plated every 25 years so the replacing of plating would otherwise be counted as routine maintenance.

They have fitted a Gardner Diesel Click for Popup Image of an appropriate horsepower (80) - although built in the 1950s, it is to a 1932 design compatible with the operating life of theClick for Popup Image Wairua - Gardner diesels were fitted to other riverboats in the mid 1930s so it is an excellent and appropriate choice for a replacement engine. The standard of the work and the attention to detail is incredible with even the rope fenders being 'woven' as close as possible to the original designs using early photographs and drawings and sets of hardwood chairs and tables, all individually made, were waiting for the day when she starts operation. We took far too much of Dave and Marks valuable time talking and we learned a lot more about the riverboats, their restoration and their operation.

We followed progress closely and kept closely in touch with Dave but it was to be another three years before he emailed us to say that she was finally in the water, just too late for us to get down to see her that year. We had to wait until 2007 to finally get a trip up river on her. The restoration  has been an excellent blend of accuracy combined with a pragmatic approach to get a boat which satisfies modern regulations for passenger carrying and is maintainable. The fleet continually evolved and the boats continued development and she is very much what she would have been if she had continued in service. Engines were continually being replaced and the Gardiner now fitted was used to upgrade other riverboats, thicker plating and increased use of welding would have arguably taken place if she had remained in service and so on. The workmanship has been outstanding and she looks and handles magnificently.

We were present on one of her first trips after officially receiving  her 'safe ships ' certificate from the MSA. She is moored at a new floating pontoon a few tens of metres upstream from the Waimarie and is running a limited number of trips, mostly up to the old picnic area at Hipango Park about 32 kms upstream. As the river boat trade matured there was an increasing emphasis on tourist trips for summer picnics from Wanganui. Initially they were to farmers fields but they became so frequent that a special picnic area was created thanks to the gift of suitable land from the Hipango family. The site had originally been the fertile vegetable garden and kumara patch of a Maori Pa and is ideally sited about two hours upstream from Wanganui and just short of the first rapids. In the heyday of the river boats on a summer weekend there would be several riverboats moored and hundreds of people in the picnic area. The area still exists and has a shelter, many picnic tables, facilities and several barbecues. It has become a little overgrown and the path up from the mooring is being restored a little more every visit but it is still a perfect and very typical destination. It is also complementary to the regular daily two hour long trips on the Waimarie.

We enjoyed the trip upstream greatly, especially as it takes one through a section of the Whanganui which is inaccessible by road. You pass old Pas, the sites of the quarries which gave up the stone for the river protection at the entry to the sea and the stone used to build the Durie Tower. The Wairua cruised effortlessly at about 8 knots through the water and the channel is comparatively wide and deep compared to what she was designed for on the middle and upper stretches of the Whanganui.  In the old days there was a 4 ft deep channel not less than 80 ft wide, nowadays the snags are not cleared but there is still a good channel even in low water. The stretch all the way up to Hipango Park is in fact tidal and the day we went up there had been quite heavy rain in the hills and there was some 'fresh' raising the level a little more. 

The operation of a tunnel boat is slightly different to other boats as the propeller is only half in the water when the boat is stationary and the water is only initially picked up and fills the tunnel when the throttle is opened well up - you hear the engine speed up then the note deepen and the revs drop as the tunnel fills and a powerful jet of water emerges from the back between the twin rudders, after that the tunnel remains filled down to tick-over. Reverse has to be done equally carefully we are told as too long in neutral allows the tunnel to empty and a burst forward is needed to fill it again before reverse become effective. It must have been interesting in the days when she was driven by steam.

Dave gave a commentary covering some of the points of interest on the way upstream. One of the most interesting points of interest was a brief glimpse of Kemp's pole now somewhat overgrown. Te Keepa Rangihiwinui (Kemp)  had been involved at one point in organising sale of land to the crown by Maori. Land sales had always been contentious and for a period land could only be sold to the crown. This is not the place to go into details of the problems arising from land sales but most Maori land was owned by the community (tribe or iwi) but many sales were by individuals without the involvement or agreement of all interested parties. On the other side many of the deals seemed very advantageous to the buyer with small number of, for example, muskets purchasing vast tracts of land - the owners of the muskets however often expected to use them to quickly replace or regain the land. It was not just savvy commercial interests making these purchases but even the missionaries were using muskets and axes as the bargaining tokens for their acquisitions. The cultures were very different with the Maori having a very strong but very different morality with quite different concept of the ownership of land and trouble was inevitable. Ultimately  the problems led to what were known as the land wars in the mid 1860s and the impact continued long after they were over.

Major Kemp, as he had become known after his battles against Te Kooti in 1868, had became somewhat disillusioned with what had been going on and tried to persuade the other Maori to set aside a huge tract of land delimited by markers which became known as the Kemp's poles as a land trust in 1880. We saw the one remaining pole just below Hipango park at the mouth of the Kauarapaoa Stream and John Gray, the Historian and Archivist at the riverboat centre was good enough to send us  some information on the others that he found for us from a reference to Kemp’s Pole in a book by T W Downes, ‘The History of and a Guide to the Wanganui River’, 1923 edition. "The lands included in this trust he tried to form were defined by erecting a carved post at each of the four corners, viz: The one now standing at the mouth of the Kauarapaoa Stream, one at Te Reureu, one at a point near Moawhango, and a fourth on the Waitotara River."  Interestingly these boundaries were different from those of the Aukati Line which defined the King Country. That line intersected the upper Wanganui River in the area Utapu. 

The trip upstream took about two hours and we had a couple of hours at Hipango Park for our picnic before our return downstream. The park is available for camping and is mentioned in guide books for the Whanganui Journey. We had intended to do the short walk to the nearby Potakataka pa but we spent so long talking to Mal who runs Outlook Tours which provides Day Trips and Tours for senior citizens from the North Shore (Auckland) who was a fund of knowledge on almost every area and aspect of New Zealand - he had something to offer on almost every place we have visited. We tried to persuade him that the vast fund of information he has gathered ought to be written up on the web. 

On the way downstream we passed the Waimarie on her way upstream on the midday trip - she still looks magnificent and it was quite a sight to see her under full steam belching black smoke. It is definitely an excellent day out even if you do not start off with an interest in the riverboats and one which is complementary to a trip on the Waimarie - currently the Wairua is only doing a limited number of trips, many for pre-booked parties, and currently she is only certified for 32 passengers so planing ahead is essential. Dave hopes to do a few longer (overnight?) trips which would take her up through some of the rapids but they await the higher waters of winter and a learning curve of the lost skills of operating such boats through rapids. We just hope we can get the opportunity of such a trip at some future time.

The Ongarue

The Ongarue is another of the tunnel drive boats used on the upper reaches with an even shallower draft and smaller size than the Wairua. She has recently been brought to the Riverboat Centre from Pipiriki where she had been on display in the open for many years and had got into a very poor state but she has now been stabilised and is on display looking vey much smarter than when we saw her at Pipriki - have a look at the contrast to picture above that we took when we did the river road in 2001. In the longer term it is hoped to restore her also to a state where she can return to the water and after the miracles worked on the Waimarie and the Wairua it looks very feasible. She was designed for the upper reaches from Pipiriki to the Houseboat and, in particular for the stretch on from the houseboat to Taumarunui. Like many of the other riverboats she 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. She only had a draft of 12 inches although 60 feet long and carrying 45 people at an average of 7.5 mph. Designed for use in very shallow water, she has a single screw hidden in a tunnel with twin long rudders either side hanging out the back and a winch at the front to pull her up the worst rapids.

Where is the The Wakanui (Big Canoe)?

Hatrick had several large motorised canoes (Wakas), for use when the upper stretches of the river was low. We had been told that the biggest of the Wakas on display at the Whanganui Regional Museum had been one of the Canoes, used by Hatrick for the services on the upper reaches of the Whanganui. We went to the Whanganui Regional Museum, in particular, to look at the Canoes on display in 2003. It did not turn out to be quite that simple and we could not officially see the canoe which we had been led to believe had used by Hatrick and donated to the museum as the area was closed for new lighting to be installed.  Although we were not allowed to see the Waka, we did persuade the Archivist on duty to let us look at some of the records and after a couple of hours looking through the files we became convinced that the Te-Mata-O-Hoturoa was unlikely to be the Waka donated in April 1939 to the museum by Hatrick, as we had been lead to believe, but we did found reference in their archives to it having been leased to him at some point as a motorised canoe. This must have been before 1909 when the main museum records about it commence. It is most likely this was a trial before he purchased the similar sized Wakanui (in December 1905), which was ultimately donated, to the Museum in April 1939. Surprisingly we could find no written records of the donation in the comprehensive and appropriate collection of Wanganui Museum records we were provided. We however understand that there is confirmation in Wellington in the ship registries of its removal from commercial use in 1939 and the donation.

We returned in 2004 and had the chance to take a detailed look and personally confirm that the Te-Mata-O-Hoturoa that is exhibited as a 200 year old war Waka complete with bullet holes also has evidence on the underside of what are most likely to be propeller mountings and a hole for the shaft, exactly as on a picture which we have a copy of. Surprisingly none of the museum staff seemed aware of this modification underneath, perhaps because the restitution inside is so well done that one would never suspect unless one looked closely.

We spent a long time talking to Michelle, the curator, who was most helpful and recalled that she had seen some records of a donation by Hatrick and also noted that several Waka have been passed to other museums since the 1930s - one to Canes Bay on the Banks Peninsular and another to Opitiki? One called the Mangaone also left the museum in the 1980s and another; the Pueriki has deteriorated, and is in pieces in the museum archive stores.

The museum also have the Te Wehi-O-Te-Rangi in safe keeping and we were allowed to enter the archival stores and see her - she was the fastest Waka on the river and has always had great symbolic importance to the local Iwi (tribes) so is most unlikely to be the Wakanui or used by Hatrick, furthermore there was no evidence she had been motorised. The Te Wehi-O-Te-Rangi has a significantly different shape to the other Waka, narrower at the front and perhaps deeper at the back, which could account for her superior performance in Waka races. We must thank Michelle greatly for the opportunity to see such a great Waka and hope that she can be restored to her original glory and that the owners will allow her to be displayed before she deteriorates further out of the water.

This all still leaves some interesting questions of how you there can be any ambiguities about the whereabouts of a Waka 66 feet long, allegedly contributed to a major museum. We hope the evidence of the motorisation of the Te-Mata-O-Hoturoa will stimulate somebody to look further into an interesting phase in her history and in parallel there will be efforts to re-discovery the Wakanui. If positively identified it could then be restored to the state it was in when it played such an important part in the river services when the steamers were unable to run. It would provide the perfect contrast to the original warlike purpose and the eventual peaceful use - the classic swords re-forged into ploughshares.

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 are looking at a canoe trip down the Whanganui one year with Canoe Safaris who not only hire out canoes but organise suitable training.  

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Most recent significant revision: 3 rd February, 2009