Whanganui: An introduction

Whanganui, pierced by the deep-flowing Whanganui River, is a place where art, culture and heritage thrive in a mystical landscape.

The city of Whanganui (sometimes spelled Wanganui) at the mouth of  Whanganui River is one of New Zealand's earliest settler towns and was once one of the country's largest cities. It remains an important centre for art, culture and heritage. A large collection of the city's buildings have been protected and preserved as evidence of the region’s important Māori and European cultural history.

The mighty Whanganui River served as a busy pioneer route through remote, impenetrable country and played an important part in shaping the development of early Maori and European settlement. Today, its lower reaches can be enjoyed from the decks of a coal-fired paddle steamer or vintage motor boat, or by canoe or kayak. The river's unique history is also shared on guided tours of the River Road.

Whanganui’s relatively untouched natural environment is one of the main attractions for visitors. The region’s extensive rainforests provide a safe haven for some of New Zealand’s most endangered native birds, including the kiwi and whio (blue duck).

Heritage

The Whanganui region has a long and interesting history linking Māori and European culture.

According to Māori legend, the great Polynesian navigator Kupe was the first to discover the Whanganui River. However, it was Tamatea – captain of the Takitimu canoe – who was the first to fully explore the region. Aotea canoe descendants settled in the region soon afterwards.

Local Māori built fishing villages and permanent pa sites (fortified villages) along the banks of the river, which became an important trade and travel route. The river still plays an important part in the lives of locals. A traditional Māori proverb, Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au or "I am the river, the river is me", sums up the spiritual connection Whanganui Māori have with their environment.

Māori culture

Many old Māori legends and traditions are based on the river, and a guided trip along its shores along the Whanganui River Road offers an experience of living Māori culture.   

Koriniti marae is close to Whanganui city, on the river's left bank. The marae can accommodate large groups for visits. Marae visitors may receive a powhiri welcome and participate in kapa haka (Māori performing arts), weaving and a hangi (a feast cooked in an earth oven).

Nature and wildlife

Efforts to protect and restore Whanganui’s natural environment and wildlife have earned the region a reputation for sustainability.

Bushy Park forest reserve, near Kai Iwi west of Whanganui city, is a predator-free bird sanctuary in 100 hectares (about 250 acres) of native forest. Maintained since the 1960s by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, Bushy Park is a haven for native New Zealand birds.

Bushy Park’s track network takes visitors deep into the forest to witness New Zealand as it was before the arrival of man. Spectacular sights include Ratanui, a rata tree aged between 500 and 1,000 years that stands 43 metres (140 feet) tall with a 11.5 metre (38 foot) girth and is New Zealand’s largest known rata.

Flying Fox eco-lodge, 45 minutes from Wanganui but only accessible by river taxi or aerial cableway, offers comfortable, sustainable accommodation as a base for visitors exploring the river. The two hand-built cottages with beautiful river views are surrounded by organic gardens and orchards. 

Art and culture

Whanganui Regional Museum highlights local Māori culture and Whanganui River history. It has the largest collection of moa bones on display in the world, as well as an intact moa egg, a substantial taonga (treasure) Māori collection and numerous works by Gottfried Lindauer, a New Zealand artist famous for his portraits of Māori subjects.

The Serjeant Gallery, commissioned by early settlers Henry and Ellen Serjeant, has a collection of more than 8,000 artworks and archival items spanning four centuries of European and New Zealand art history, and features regularly changing exhibitions.

Numerous other galleries showcase the works of recognised artists in media of all types, including the Quartz Museum of Studio Ceramics. Many of the region's 400 resident artists open their doors to share their skills in workshops, seminars and lessons. New Zealand Glassworks offers interactive public workshops, and the Glass School runs a programme of short courses.

Adventure / outdoors

Guided canoe journeys are a popular Whanganui River experience. The trip down the river is classified as a "Great Journey" and requires a pass for use of facilities during the October–April season. Along the river are Department of Conservation (DOC) huts and campsites, and privately owned accommodation. On shorter canoe trips, river guides share stories of the river's natural and Māori heritage, providing a memorable eco-indigenous experience.

A vintage paddle steamer lets visitors experience a leisurely form of travel once common in the region, while jetboats departing from the city explore the area's unspoilt beauty and colourful history, taking in historic sites, isolated picnic spots and bush sanctuaries.

Whanganui has some great short or multi-day walking / hiking tracks, including the Matemateaonga track. This three- to four-day 42 kilometre (26 mile) hike travels deep into the Whanganui National Park wilderness via an old Māori trail and early dray road.

Whanganui city's "Cemetery Circuit" motorcycle street race – known as the Southern Hemisphere TT Isle of Man – has been an annual fixture for more than 65 years and draws a line-up of international and world champion riders.

And by the way...

  • Whanganui River is New Zealand’s longest navigable river and a legal entity in its own right.
  • There is no road to the Bridge to Nowhere, built for pioneering farmers in the 1930s and now surrounded by native bush; the only way to get there is via jetboat, on foot or mountain bike.
  • Whanganui’s Durie Hill elevator, built in 1919, is one of only two earth-bound elevators in the world.