Whanganui River

Not to be confused with Wanganui River in the South Island of New Zealand..
Whanganui River

The Whanganui River. Mount Ruapehu can partly be seen at the top right of the scene.

The Whanganui River system
Country New Zealand
Main source Mount Tongariro
River mouth Tasman Sea
0 m (0 ft)
Basin size 7,380 km2 (2,850 sq mi)
Physical characteristics
Length 290 km (180 mi)

The Whanganui River is a major river in the North Island of New Zealand. It is the country's third-longest river, and has special status owing to its importance to the region's Māori people.


With a length of 290 kilometres (180 mi), the Whanganui is the country's third-longest river. Much of the land to either side of the river's upper reaches is part of the Whanganui National Park, though the river itself is not part of the park.

The river rises on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, one of the three active volcanoes of the central plateau, close to Lake Rotoaira. It flows to the north-west before turning south-west at Taumarunui. From here it runs through the rough, bush-clad hill country of the King Country before turning south-east and flowing past the small settlements of Pipiriki and Jerusalem, before reaching the coast at Whanganui. It is the country's longest navigable river.[1]

The river valley changed in the 1843 Wanganui earthquake.

In the 1970s a minor eruption from Mount Ruapehu spilled some of the contents from the Ruapehu Crater Lake (the same root cause of the Tangiwai disaster). This toxic water entered the Whanganui River and had the effect of killing much of the fish life downstream. In the aftermath of the poisoning eels as large as 8.2 kilograms (18 lb) and trout as large as 2.3 kilograms (5.1 lb) were washed up dead along the banks of the river.


Tributary name Length (km) Km from mouth Confluence coordinates Altitude
Mount Tongariro River source 290 km 39°07.91′S 175°37.95′E / 39.13183°S 175.63250°E / -39.13183; 175.63250
Whakapapa River 38°55.92′S 175°24.50′E / 38.93200°S 175.40833°E / -38.93200; 175.40833
Kakahi Stream 38°55.94′S 175°22.00′E / 38.93233°S 175.36667°E / -38.93233; 175.36667
Ongarue River 38°53.54′S 175°15.27′E / 38.89233°S 175.25450°E / -38.89233; 175.25450
39°02.34′S 175°03.89′E / 39.03900°S 175.06483°E / -39.03900; 175.06483
Retaruke River 39°06.65′S 175°03.98′E / 39.11083°S 175.06633°E / -39.11083; 175.06633
Ohura River
Mangapurua Stream
Manganui o te Ao River 39°24.30′S 175°2.69′E / 39.40500°S 175.04483°E / -39.40500; 175.04483
Tangarakau River
Tasman Sea River mouth 0 km 39°56.89′S 174°59.22′E / 39.94817°S 174.98700°E / -39.94817; 174.98700 0 m


Kawana flour mill, 1854 (restored), Matahiwi

Māori legend explains the formation of the river in the Mount Taranaki legend. When Mount Taranaki left the central plateau for the coast, the land was split open, and the river filled the rift. According to Māori tradition, the river was first explored by Tamatea, one of the leaders of the original migration to the new land, who travelled up the river and on to Lake Taupo. Many places along the river are named in his honour.

The Whanganui River has always been an important communication route to the central North Island, both for Māori and for settlers. It is, however, also a difficult river, with many stretches of white water and over 200 rapids. Despite this for many years it was the principal route to the interior.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area around the Whanganui was one of the most densely inhabited in the land. Unsurprisingly, with the arrival of the colonial settlers, the area near the river's mouth became a major trading post.

Although it was already a significant route to the interior, the major development of the river as a trade route was by Alexander Hatrick, who started the first regular steam-boat service in 1892. The service eventually ran to Taumarunui where rail and coach services connected with points north. One of Hatrick’s original boats, paddle-steamer PS Waimarie, has been restored and runs scheduled sailings in Whanganui. Another of the Hatrick boats, MV Wairua has also been restored and can be seen on the river.

During the early 20th century, the Wanganui River, as it was then called, was one of the country’s top tourist attractions, its rugged beauty and the Māori kainga (villages) which dotted the banks attracting thousands of tourists per year.

With the completion of the North Island Main Trunk railway, the need for the steamboat route to the north greatly diminished, and the main economic activity of the river area became forestry. During the 1930s, attempts were made to open the river valley up as farmland, but they were not successful. One legacy of that time is the Bridge to Nowhere, built to provide access to settlements long since abandoned.

In 1912–13 the French filmmaker Gaston Méliès shot a (now lost) documentary film The River Wanganui about the river, calling it the Rhine of New Zealand.

The settlement of Jerusalem is of particular note. Jerusalem was home to two famous New Zealanders, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, whose Catholic mission is still located at Jerusalem, and New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, who established a commune at the settlement in 1970.

Other settlements are Tieke Kāinga, Pipiriki, Rānana, Matahiwi, and Koriniti.

Taonga and Māori land claims

The river is of special and spiritual importance for Māori, who also refer to it as Te awa tupua—it was the home for a large proportion of Māori villages in pre-European times. As such, it is regarded as taonga, a special treasure. In recent times, efforts have been made to safeguard the river and give it the respect it deserves.

For the same reason, the river has been one of the most fiercely contested regions of the country in claims before the Waitangi Tribunal for the return of tribal lands. In fact the Whanganui River claim is heralded as the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history[2] with petitions and court action in the 1930s, Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the 1990s and land occupations such as the ongoing Tieke Marae occupation since 1993 and the highly publicised Moutoa Gardens occupation in 1995, refer to Moutoa Island.

On 30 August 2012, an agreement was reached that entitled the Whanganui River to a legal identity, a first in the world. According to the New Zealand Herald, the river "will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law—in the same way that a company is, which will give it rights and interests".[3][4]


For many years it was known in some records as the Wanganui River, however the river's name officially reverted to Whanganui in 1991,[5] according with the wishes of local iwi. Part of the reason was also to avoid confusion with the Wanganui River in the South Island. The city at the river's mouth was called Wanganui until December 2009, when the government decided that while either spelling was acceptable, Crown agencies would use the Whanganui spelling.

Flora and fauna

A wide variety of flora and fauna can be found in the Whanganui River.


Whio (Blue Duck) at Staglands, Akatarawa, New Zealand

Blue duck/Whio populations can be found at the junction of the Whanganui River and the Mangatepopo and Okupata streams.[6] The Nankeen night heron established roosts along the Whanganui River in the 1990s and is breeding in New Zealand only in this location.[7]


The Whanganui River provides the habitat for eighteen species of native fish as well as lamprey and black flounder.[8] Native fish species present include Cran's bully, Upland bully, Kōaro, Pouched lamprey, Short-jawed kōkopu, Torrentfish and New Zealand smelt.[9]

Although not present in high numbers Brown and Rainbow trout are found in the river and there have also been reports of catfish being present.[9]

Other aquatic species

Other aquatic species present in the river include Longfin and Short-finned eels and koura.[8] New Zealand freshwater mussels are also present in the river, although these have been shown to be in decline.[10]

Invertebrate fauna

The Whanganui river and its tributaries are also home to a variety of invertebrates such as mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies.[9]


The Whanganui River basin contains a variety of flora species, much of which can be characterised as a broadleaf and podocarp forest;[11] understory species include crown fern (Blechnum discolor), and a variety of other ferns and shrubs.[12]

River boats

In 1892 Alexander Hatrick was contracted by Thomas Cook & Son to carry tourists to Pipiriki[13] on the paddle-steamer PS Waimarie, the journey was "The Rhine of Maoriland" tourist route into the interior of New Zealand. The river boat subsequently carried mail, passengers and cargo.

Until recently PS Waimarie operated on the lower stretches of the river, including dinner cruises to Avoca Hotel at Upokongaro and trips to Hipango Park for overnight camping.[14]

On 18 June 2010 the Adventurer 2 river boat embarked,[15] attempting to make the 230-kilometre (140 mi) voyage to Taumarunui. The first voyage to Taumarunui in 82 years. The Adventurer 2 now offers this trip to tourist as an historic alternative to jet boating and canoeing the river.[16] Though in low water flows it cannot make it all the way to Taumarunui.

River boat landings

One of the many Māori marae along the Whanganui River

The Whanganui River was the supply artery for the early communities along the its banks. River boats used to ply the river, and also into the Ohura River and Ongarue Rivers unless these routes were log jammed after floods.

Between 1891 to 1958, the Alexander Hatrick Riverboat service operated on the Whanganui River. The paddle-steamer Wairere ordered from London and shipped in sections then assembled in Whanganui in late 1891.

It is said that Taumarunui was the highest reach of the Whanganui River that was navigable by river boat. The river flow was managed by the "Wanganui River Trust Board" which built containing walls to direct and deepen the rivers channels for river traffic. Even so, river boats sometimes found it necessary to winch themselves up the more difficult rapids.

Landing name Community serviced Distance from mouth Travel time up/down Coordinates
Taumarunui Landing Taumarunui
Kirikau Landing Kirikau
Te Maire Landing Te Maire
Otumangu Landing Otumangu
Lacy's Landing
Wades Landing Retaruke Valley 39°6.65′S 175°3.98′E / 39.11083°S 175.06633°E / -39.11083; 175.06633
Mangapurua Landing Mangapurua Valley
Tangahoe Landing Tangahoe
Mangatiti Landing Mangatiti
Parinui Landing Parinui
Ramanui Landing Ramanui
Pipiriki landing Pipiriki
Lower Pipiriki landing Pipiriki
Te Tuhi Landing Ahu Ahu River Valley
Hipango Park Landing ?
Up-river Landing
Wanganui Wharves Whanganui

Recreational use

Kayaking is a very popular sport on the river.

The flow of the river has been altered with the diversion of water from the headwaters into Lake Taupo. This may have been a contributing factor to the demise of the raft race and the fact river boats can no longer make the entire trip to Taumarunui during the dryer months (see below).


Despite being New Zealand's longest navigable river, the Whanganui has surprisingly few road bridges. Only two are located on the 230-kilometre (140 mi) stretch between Whanganui and Taumarunui.

A bridge over the Whanganui to connect Raetihi to Taranaki was to be constructed in the Mangaparua area (where the Bridge to Nowhere) is located, but this plan was never implemented.

Notable people


  1. "Manawatu and Whanganui Region". Jasons Travel Media.
  2. Whanganui Tribes teara.govt.nz
  3. Shuttleworth, Kate (30 August 2012). "Agreement entitles Whanganui River to legal identity". New Zealand Herald.
  4. Fairbrother, Alison (18 September 2012). "New Zealand's Whanganui River Gains A Legal Voice". Huffington Post.
  5. "Report for Altered District Name: Wanganui District to Whanganui District" (PDF). New Zealand Geographic Board. 29 April 2015. p. 6. Retrieved 13 June 2015.
  6. Whanganui Catchment strategy. (PDF). Palmerston North [N.Z.]: Horizons.mw. 2003. p. 5. ISBN 1-877310-29-8. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  7. Frost, P.G.H. "Nankeen night heron". New Zealand Birds Online. New Zealand Birds Online. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  8. 1 2 Jones, S. "Flora and fauna of Whanganui National Park" (PDF). Department of Conservation. Government of New Zealand. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  9. 1 2 3 "Whanganui National Park Management Plan - Freshwater Ecosystems". Department of Conservation. Government of New Zealand. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  10. Rainforth, Hannah Jane (2008). Tiakina Kia Ora – Protecting Our Freshwater Mussels (PDF) (Masters in Ecological Restoration). Victoria University of Wellington. Retrieved 14 November 2015.
  11. DuFresne, Jim (2006). Tramping in New Zealand. Sixth ed. Lonely Planet. 392 pages. ISBN 1-74059-788-5, ISBN 978-1-74059-788-3
  12. Hogan, C. Michael (2009). "Crown fern; Blechnum discolor", GlobalTwitcher.com
  13. "Hatrick, Alexander, 1857–1918" dnzb.govt.nz
  14. Whanganui Riverboat Centre
  15. "Riverboat embarks on Whanganui voyage". One News. 18 June 2010. Retrieved 3 December 2011.
  16. http://www.adventurer.net.nz
  17. http://www.teararoa.org.nz/trail_stories.php?story_id=34
  18. Salisbury, Raymond (1997). East Cape to Cape Egmont - 80 day traverse of the North Island. Word for Word Publishing.
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