Whanganui River. Photo by Felix Engelhardt on Flickr

Water flowed like chocolate milk, brown and opaque, obscuring what lay beneath. While it made swimming less than appealing, the hue increased the vibrancy of the New Zealand vegetation. Clinging and crawling, plants snaked upward, coating the steep cliffs with green wallpaper.

Hidden within sat the occasional nikau, the southernmost species of the palm tree, its fronds standing upright, as if reaching to touch the sky. The chirps of various bird species wafted through the valley, at times overpowered by the gargling of impending rapids.

Whanganui River Photo Credit: Flickr/ Shellie Evans https://flickr.com/photos/flyingkiwigirl/

Whanganui National Park

Entering the heart of Whanganui National Park in New Zealand, you leave civilization behind. You bid farewell to the stream of tourists encountered along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing or sailing the Bay of Islands. On the Whanganui River, a place often left off tourist itineraries, you immerse yourself in the surrounding landscape, something for which New Zealand is famous.

But you also sense the constant, if not subtler, the influence of the Maori. In a place that has always held an important position in their culture, you can’t help but learn how they lived on and continue to appreciate the Whanganui.

It is the intersection of these two elements that define the Whanganui. It is the appreciation of its natural beauty that allows you to truly feel both the magic of the Whanganui’s history and the power of its present.

We set off on our adventure down the Whanganui River. Photo by Alison Spencer
We set off on our adventure down the Whanganui River. Photo by Alison Spencer

Maori legend: formation of formidable Whanganui River

Ancient legend maintains that the river came into existence after a dispute between two mountains. According to the Maori, there lived four original mountains – Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu, and Taranaki.

Tongariro, the Ariki, or master, had a wife named Pihanga, whose beauty drew the attention of everyone, most notably Taranaki. Upon attempting to seduce her, a battle between the two mountains ensued, from which Tongariro emerged victoriously.

Taranaki, grief-stricken and embarrassed at the defeat, set off toward “the setting place of the sun.” His track to the sea created a deep rift in the earth, which came to be filled with either Taranaki’s torrential tears or healing waters sent by Tongariro. Thus was born the Whanganui River.

As we navigated, clouds that had covered the sky since morning dropped lower, engulfing the hillsides. Masking our surroundings, we now moved blindly, putting our faith in the Whanganui and its current. A light mist began to fall, sprinkling our skin and adding to the air of mystery. With each paddle stroke, the drizzle grew heavier, eventually transforming into a torrential downpour.

While that might have frustrated some, it instead felt magical. Knowing the Whanganui’s history, it was as though Tongariro himself were once again supplying curative waters to the river and those who traveled down it, fixing whatever internal rift its visitors might hold.

Whanganui from above: The Whanganui River surrounded by lush vegetation. Photo by Alison Spencer

Guardian protected every turn along the Whanganui, Maoris believed

During pauses in the deluge, we learned more about the river and its importance to the Maori. Early tribes used the Whanganui to support both trade and communication among themselves and throughout New Zealand’s North Island.

With expert canoeing skills, they fished extensively, using traps and eel weirs until the arrival of the Europeans changed customary practices. The Maori procured medicine from the plants and animals living along the Whanganui’s bank and used trees for houses or carved columns.

They believed every turn, and each rapid along the Whanganui possessed a guardian, known as kaitiaki in the native language, who protected the life force and essence of that stretch of water.

Despite few tribes living along its banks, the river continues to hold a sacred position within the culture. So much so that the Maori desired to have it not only protected by law but legally recognized as a person. Understanding the Whanganui to be an ancient ancestor, and that all creatures live within the same universe, the Maori turned to the government to ensure that the river would be viewed and treated as a human being.

Whanganui from water: The Whanganui flows past as we prepare to paddle downstream. Photo by Alison Spencer
Whanganui from water: The Whanganui flows past as we prepare to paddle downstream. Photo by Alison Spencer

The Whanganu River a Living Entity

After years of conversations and action, the river, by law, earned just that – all the rights and responsibilities of a human, a title previously given to only one other natural feature (Te Urewera National Park, also on New Zealand’s North Island). In 2017, the Whanganui was named and now is considered a living entity, equal to all others on earth.

Speedboat on the Whanganu River

With this knowledge ruminating, not quite understanding how a river could be alive, we reached our turn-around point and disembarked to wait for a speedboat. After what felt like an hour, the faint rumble of an engine could be heard in the valley, and knowing a warm shower awaited, we hustled to the river bank. Loading the kayaks and canoes onto the boat, we nestled together for the much-shorter return trip.

Moving far faster than previously, the wind through our damp clothing created a chill that made maintaining a smile difficult. Goosebumps took up permanent residence across my skin. No amount of friction created enough warmth to overpower the chill. I counted the seconds until we arrived home.

Right when I thought I’d freeze, we pulled over. Approaching a shallow section of the Whanganui, we needed to lighten our load. Positioning the nose of the boat perpendicular to the shore, we filed off onto a small beach to allow a few kayaks to be offloaded.

Stepping onto the shore, gritty muck instantly engulfed everyone, suctioning our feet far below. The wiggles, pulls and tugs in an attempt to free ourselves dropped us even deeper, the mud swallowing like quicksand. Clinging to branches, leveraging off rocks, these efforts erased any memory of cold, bringing unabated smiles to each of our faces.

As thick brown paste covered our bare legs, arms and even faces, the river’s present context clicked. Laughing uncontrollably, it was hard not to sense the Whanganui’s personhood.

It was as though it had sent this diversion to help us forget our cold. It had brought the rain to help us better understand its history. Moving down the river, the Whanganui had become a fellow traveler, creating memorable moments we would carry well beyond our time in New Zealand.

There are many ways, beyond kayaking, to learn about and appreciate the magic that is the Whanganui. From accommodations to excursions, you can find the right way to enjoy this less-frequented national park on New Zealand’s North Island.

Where to Stay when visiting Whanganui National Park:

  • Blue Duck Station: Located on the banks of the Whanganui River, this eco-lodge offers a plethora of outdoor activities. From a bush safari to horseback riding to hunting, your days will quickly fill with fun.  Its mission to preserve the surrounding environment also ensures that you will learn a good deal about the park and the flora and fauna within.
  • Bridge to Nowhere Lodge: Only accessible by jet boat or canoe, this lodge is very remote and fully immersed in the landscape. Choose between family bunk rooms or double/twin accommodations and feel free to prepare your own food or partake in the provided buffet. The lodge can help organize any tours you might want while staying in the park.
  • Campsites: Whanganui National Park has numerous campsites along the river, many of which are only accessible by boat. Check out the Department of Conservation’s full list to find the one that’s right for you.

 What to Do at Whanganui National Park:

  • Walks/Tramps: There is a wide range of hikes that take you through Whanganui National Park. Depending on the rigor and duration you desire, try the Atene Viewpoint or The Bridge to Nowhere Walk. Visit the Department of Conservation to see a full list of options.
  • Fishing: Brown and rainbow trout live in the waters of the Whanganui. Depending on what part of the river you fish, there are different regulations. Be sure to know what’s allowed before you cast.
  • Kayaking and canoeing: One of the best ways to explore the river. Whether you rent your own equipment or book a guided tour, expect beautiful scenery.
  • Mountain biking: If you are a seasoned cyclist, try tackling the portion of the “Mountain to Sea Cycle Trail” that runs through Whanganui National Park. The Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka tracks are both a full-day ride.
  • Heritage Sightseeing: Wander through the Mangapurua and Kaiwhakauka valleys looking for evidence of early settlers, including the famous Bridge to Nowhere and old chimney stacks.
  • Tour operators: Hoping to kayak, hike or bike with a guide (they can help coordinate equipment, transportation, etc.)? There are plenty at your disposal.

 How to Get to Whanganui National Park

Located on the North Island of New Zealand, Pipiriki, Ohinepane and Whakahoro provide the main entrance points to the river. There are regular buses to Taumarunui (a town located on the upper end of the river) and Wanganui (where the river empties into the Tasman Sea), with tour operators offering shuttle service to the start of many of the park’s main hikes. If you are staying inside the park, contact your accommodation to find the best route.

Author Bio: Spencer, a teacher, first discovered her love of adventure in high school and now uses every spare moment to explore and uncover what awaits beyond her doorstep. Travel to her is about the experience, about fully immersing oneself in a new place, surrounded by new people. Follow her adventures at amcstravel.com

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