The Whanganui area has a unique and interesting history. For Māori and early European settlers, the river was an important thoroughfare. Māori cultivated sheltered terraces and built pa (fortifications) on strategic heights. There were well over 100 Māori settlement sites along the river banks.
The first major European influence arrived with missionaries in the 1840s. In 1891 a regular riverboat service began carrying passengers, mail and freight to the European settlers on the river between Taumarunui and Pipiriki and thriving tourist trade soon began between Mt Ruapehu and Whanganui. The main riverboat trade ceased in the 1920s due to better roads, a main trunk railway and other tourist attractions, although riverboats were still operating in the late 1950s.
Erosion has created spectacular gorges, bluffs and a maze of intricate ridges and V-shaped valleys. This complex landscape is covered in the largest tract of lowland forest in the North Island. Tree ferns and plants cling to the steep riverbanks, the area is full of birdlife and the river is rich in eels, native trout and koura (freshwater crayfish).
The Whanganui River is New Zealand’s longest navigable river, canoeable for over 200 kilometres. There are huts and campsites along the river. Tieke Hut is run as a marae by local Māori and traditional customs are observed. It is a relatively easy river to canoe or kayak and is suitable for novices. Jetboating is also popular. Jetboat and canoe tours are available. You can cycle down from Ruatiti (near Raetihi) to the Bridge to Nowhere through the Mangapurua Valley, to the Whanganui River, to be picked up by jet boat for a ride down to Pipiriki. Alternatively, they will take your bikes while you canoe the stretch of river. The Bridge to Nowhere has its own fascinating history: it was built as part of a WWI returned soldiers’ settlement that was later abandoned, but the concrete bridge still stands, surrounded by native bush.
You can jetboat up the river from Pipiriki to the Mangapurua Landing, to walk into the Bridge to Nowhere and return the same way. Other short walks and longer tramping trips are all possible in the park. The Matemateonga Track is one of the most popular longer trips (3-4 days one way). It follows an old Māori trail and settlers’ dray road. Hunting pigs, goats and fallow deer in the Park is encouraged – contact the Department of Conservation for information.
If you are planning a trip down the river, make sure you are properly equipped. Contact the Department of Conservation for more information, or one of the guided tour companies.