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It would be presumptuous for us to tell the stories of the Whanganui River from an iwi perspective. However, we recognise that there is a genuine desire by visitors to know and understand what the river means to Maori and their history on the river.

There is a common understanding that the Whanganui River was formed in Maori mythology when Mounts Tongariro and Taranaki clashed over Mount Pihanga, the Whanganui River trench was carved as Taranaki retreated to the sea.
In more modern times, the Whanganui River has been a battleground in more ways than one. The following web links provide a basic understanding of how we came to be at the point we are today, and what the future may hold.
Te Ara – The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand
Waitangi Tribunal decision on the Whanganui River claim

Wanganui or Whanganui?
In the local accent, Maori say wh as w followed by a glottal stop, and the name as something like “W’anganui”, hard to reproduce by non-locals. Until recently it was generally written as “Wanganui” and pronounced with a w by non-speakers of Maori and a wh by those Maori speakers from other areas who knew its derivation.
Following an article about the river in the New Zealand Geographic magazine by David Young that used “Whanganui” throughout, in accord with the wishes of the local iwi, the spelling of the river’s name reverted to Whanganui in 1991. The region’s name is now often also spelt “Whanganui”, but the city has kept the spelling “Wanganui”. As a result, many people from outside the area now take pains to pronounce the river and the region as “Whanganui” and the city as “Wanganui”, though the variant spellings do not reflect any difference in the underlying name. Source: Wikipedia.com


Alexander Hatrick stands alone as the major European influence on the Whanganui River. An Australian, he arrived in Whanganui in 1875 as a trader and entrepreneur. Recognising the potential of the Whanganui River he imported a 250-passenger paddle steamer called the Wairere from the United Kingdom. The Wairere began service in 1891 and over the next decade Hatrick increased his fleet to 12, including the 400 passenger Monowai and several motorized canoes used on the upper reaches of the river. He established a terminus at Cherry Grove in 1903 and operated from there until 1927 when the road opened to Kirikau. In 1904 he ordered the construction of the Houseboat, which was a 36 bed floating hotel that was originally moored at Maraekowhai by the Ohura Falls, and later in the Retaruke River at Whakahoro, where it burnt to the waterline in 1933. Hatrick also established Pipiriki House, which also burnt down twice, first in 1909 and the last time in 1959. He died in 1918 before the river empire he had established began to crumble.

Whanganui river boats

Between World War I and II, returning soldiers were granted blocks of land in the Mangapurua Valley, to carve farmland from the bush. A road was constructed, and a bridge completed about five kilometres from the Whanganui River in 1936. Low land fertility, poor returns and increasing costs resulted in most of the settlers walking off their farms and by 1943 there was only a handful left. Following a huge storm, the Government gave the remaining settlers a hopeless choice - leave the valley or pay for the upkeep of the road themselves from then on. Today the Bridge to Nowhere remains an iconic reminder of those days of dashed hopes and is a popular place to visit by canoe or kayak, or by tramping in from Whakahoro and being transported out by jetboat.

There are still a number of the old river boats operating – the best known being the Waimarie and Wairua at Wanganui, but the Otunui is operating on Lake Maraetai – check them out at www.paddleboat.co.nz.

Wikipedia’s take on the Bridge to Nowhere

The last river boat operated on the upper river in 1957, just as talented inventor, Bill Hamilton unveiled his masterpiece on the Whanganui – the jetboat, traveling from Wanganui to Taumarunui. There is a tale that it was the Whanganui River that gave him inspiration for the jetboat. His wife had apparently expressed a desire to replicate a journey she had made by riverboat as a child and the jetboat was Bill Hamilton’s means of fulfilling that desire. 

Wikipedia on Bill Hamilton and the jet boat

Notable Films

There’s something about the Whanganui River and its environs that attracts the film industry. No less than 14 feature films have been shot on the river or other parts of the Ruapehu District since 1978, including such Kiwi icons as Goodbye Pork Pie and Smash Palace.
Vincent Ward’s troubled River Queen premiered in Wanganui in January 2006, following on from the Deliverance spoof Without A Paddle in 2005.
Movies that were filmed on or beside the river that you will visit on your canoe or kayak trip include River Queen, Bridge to Nowhere and Pictures, while the Tongariro National Park was used for Willow, Lord of the Rings, Strata and No Ordinary Sun. The Tongariro National Park was used again for scenes from Peter Jackson’s latest Hobbit trilogy.
Other movies made in the district were Skin Deep, Wild Horses and Pikowae.


There’s a wealth of books available about the Whanganui River and its history.

The following should be able to be sourced through your local library or good book stores if they are currently in print:
  • Bridge to Nowhere, by Arthur Bates, published by the Friends of the Whanganui
  • The Wanganui River – A scenic, historic and wilderness experience, published by the Department of Lands and Surveys
  • A Pictorial History of the Wanganui River by Arthur P Bates, published by Wanganui Newspapers Ltd
  • Rapids and Riverboats on the Wanganui River by Robert D Campbell, published by Wanganui Newspapers Ltd
  • Paddlewheels on the Wanganui by Alec Reid, publisher unknown.
  • Paddle Steamer Waimarie – a short booklet on the Waimarie by the Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust Inc, publisher unknown
  • Now and Then – Recollections of life on the Whanganui River compiled by Jo Robinson and produced by the Ruapehu Bulletin
  • Guide to the Whanganui River by the NZ Recreational Canoeing Association, published by the NZRCA.
  • Te Awa: Historic Maori Photographs, by William Partington
  • Myself, by Sylvia Ashton Warner
  • In The Hills Of The Waimarino by Elizabeth Allen
  • In The Wake Of The Riverboats by Jim Parnell