There’s an old-fashioned charm to WANGANUI, the slow pace mirroring the speed of the river that bisects it. Founded on the banks of the Whanganui River, New Zealand’s longest navigable watercourse, Wanganui is one of New Zealand’s oldest cities and was the hub of early European commerce because of its access to the interior, and coastal links with the ports of Wellington and New Plymouth. The river traffic has long gone and the port is a shadow of what it was, leaving a city that feels too big for its 42,000 people – it even has a small opera house. Still, it’s a manageable place that exudes civic pride, both for its quality museums and well-tended streetscape.
The cultural heart of Wanganui beats around Pukenamu, a grassy hill that marks the site of Wanganui’s last tribal war in 1832. Now known as Queens Park, it contains three of the city’s most significant buildings.
The low cost of living has seen a thriving arts community spring up here, and it’s a pleasant place to idle away some time in the renowned art gallery, watch a glass-blowing demonstration or take a class, and to ride on a restored river steamer.
When Europeans arrived in the 1830s, land rights quickly became a bone of contention with the local Maori population. Transactions that Maori perceived as a ritual exchange of gifts were taken by the New Zealand Company to be a successful negotiation for the purchase of Wanganui and a large amount of surrounding land. Settlement went ahead regardless of the misunderstanding, and it was not until the Gilfillan Massacre of 1847 that trouble erupted – when a Maori was accidentally injured, his tribesmen massacred four members of the Gilfillan family. Further violent incidents culminated in a full-scale but inconclusive battle at St John’s Hill. The next year the problems were apparently resolved by a payment of £1000 to the Maori. In the 1990s, the central Moutoa Gardens became the focus of renewed tensions, while the spelling of the city’s name also creates divisions – For more information, see Wanganui or Whanganui?.