Whanganui – a river, a city, a national park and a region

Whanganui is a river that has given its name to an historic city, a treasured national park, an epic journey and a vast region.

Whanganui is a river that has given its name to an historic city, a treasured national park, an epic journey and a vast region. It also has its own ID.

Whanganui translates as ‘big bay’ or ‘big harbour'.

The city of Whanganui – sometimes spelled Wanganui – is one of the oldest towns in New Zealand’s North Island. 

It takes its name from the Whanganui River – New Zealand’s longest navigable river – which flows from the mountains to the sea through a vast wilderness region. 

Inland, Whanganui National Park is a wilderness region that stretches from the high volcanic peaks of the central North Island across rugged hills to the coastal plains. The river that flows through this vast wilderness offers access in and out of the park.

Whanganui – the city

Home to approximately 43,000 people, Whanganui is a two-hour drive northwest from Wellington, or two hours south of Ruapehu and Tongariro – the iconic volcanic peaks of the central North Island. The flight from Auckland is less than an hour. 

The city, which enjoys one of New Zealand’s sunniest climates, has a series of fine parks and significant gardens, including Virginia Lake. Bushy Park is a 100 hectare native forest and predator free bird sanctuary. Three iron-sand beaches are great spots for fishing, surfing, off-roading, family outings and wide open walks. 

New Zealand’s largest arts community - fine arts, mixed media and glass artists - live in Whanganui. The city is home to New Zealand’s only School of Glass, and the regional museum boasts a magnificent collection of Maori treasures and early New Zealand portraits by Gottfried Lindauer. 

The city’s collection of heritage buildings have been protected and preserved as evidence of important Māori and European history and culture. Prominent buildings include the Whanganui Opera House and the Sarjeant Art Gallery, and the curious earthbound elevator built in 1919 that runs to the top of Durie Hill. 

Notable annual events in Whanganui include the Motorcycle Cemetery Circuit Street Races, the Vintage Weekend, and the 270km Mountains to Sea Multisport race through remote spectacular scenery. The Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail is New Zealand’s longest and most diverse cycle trail.

Whanganui River

But the real heart of this place, physically and spiritually, is the deep-flowing Whanganui River. It was once known as the Rhine of New Zealand as from early times the river was an important transport route for both Maori and European settlers.

The river flows from the upper reaches of the central plateau meeting the Tasman Sea at Castlecliff. It links the highest points of the triple volcanoes - Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe - with the sea, the people along its banks and ensures this is a region of great beauty and diversity. 

Inland from the city, the Whanganui River pierces a mystical landscape of remote rainforests and mountains with spiritual, cultural and natural significance. This relatively untouched natural environment is a safe haven for rare New Zealand wildlife.

The Māori people of the Whanganui region, who belong to the Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi iwi or tribe, have a saying: Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au – ‘I am the river, the river is me’ – which refers to the spiritual connection they have with the river. 

This is the river that has been granted the unique status of ‘personhood’, recognised by the New Zealand Government as a living legal entity with the corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a legal person. The river was also royally recognised in 2015 when Prince Harry and his crew paddled a traditional Maori waka / canoe upstream to a royal welcome in the city.

Whanganui National Park

The Whanganui National Park is a place of river adventures navigable by jet boat or on the historic PS Waimarie – an authentically restored paddle steamer from 1899 which runs regular short cruises from Whanganui city. From Pipiriki, visitors can take a jetboat tour to the Bridge to Nowhere - built in 1936 for early pioneering farmers and abandoned in 1942.

Listed as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, the Whanganui Journey is a wilderness kayaking experience through remote bush-clad hill country and long narrow gorges. 

About The Whanganui River

Whanganui translates from Maori as ‘big bay’ or ‘big harbour'.

The deep flowing Whanganui River is the longest navigable river in New Zealand, and was an important transport route for early Maori and European settlers. 

The river passes through a relatively untouched natural environment that is a safe haven for rare New Zealand wildlife.

The Whanganui River flows through Whanganui National Park.

The Whanganui Journey is a wilderness kayaking experience through remote bush-clad hill country and long narrow gorges.