The emerald-green Whanganui River tumbles from the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro to the Tasman Sea at Wanganui, passing through the WHANGANUI NATIONAL PARK, a vast swathe of barely inhabited and virtually trackless bush country east of Taranaki. The park contains one of the largest remaining tracts of lowland forest in the North Island, growing on a bed of soft sandstone and mudstone (papa) that has been eroded to form deep gorges, sharp ridges, sheer cliffs and waterfalls. Beneath the canopy of broad-leaved podocarps and mountain beech, an understorey of tree ferns and clinging plants extends down to the riverbanks, while abundant and vociferous birdlife includes the kereru (native pigeon), fantail, tui, robin, grey warbler, tomtit and brown kiwi.
The best way to explore the Whanganui National Park is on a multi-day canoe trip into the wilderness mostly stopping at riverside campsites. The most popular exit point for canoe trips is the small settlement of Pipiriki, where jetboat operators run trips upstream to the Bridge to Nowhere.
If you’re not taking a river trip, you can explore the roads that nibble at the fringes of the park: the Forgotten World Highway (SH43) provides limited access to the northwest, but only the slow and winding Whanganui River Road stays near the river for any length of time.
At 329km, the Whanganui is New Zealand’s longest navigable river. It plays an intrinsic part in the lives of local Maori, who hold that each river bend had a kaitiaki (guardian) who controlled the mauri (life force). The mana of the old riverside settlements depended upon the maintenance of the food supplies and living areas: sheltered terraces on the riverbanks were cultivated and elaborate weirs constructed to trap eels and lamprey.
European missionaries arrived in the 1840s, traders followed, and by 1891 a regular boat service carried passengers and cargo to settlers at Pipiriki and Taumarunui. In the early twentieth century tourist-carrying paddle steamers plied the waters to reach elegant hotels en route to the central North Island.