Western North Island Travel Guide

The Western North Island is wetter than the east, the prevailing westerlies dropping rain on a lush land that’s dense with bush in more remote areas and put to work raising dairy cattle on flatter country. Moisture seeps into cracks in limestone to dissolve out gorgeous caverns around Waitomo, falls as snow on the high peak of Taranaki, and works its way to the sea through the roadless tracts along the Whanganui River. The region’s rivers spill out into the Tasman Sea where huge rollers create magical surf breaks and have gradually carved a coastline of rugged headlands and sea stacks.

Much of the region’s appeal is tied to its extraordinary history of pre-European settlement and post-European conflict. It was on the west coast, at Kawhia, that the Tainui people first landed in New Zealand; the Tainui canoe in which they arrived is buried here, and the waterside tree it was moored to lives on. Kawhia was also the birthplace of Te Rauparaha, the great Maori chief who led his people from here down the coast to Kapiti Island and on to the South Island, to escape the better-armed tribes of the Waikato.

Approaching the region from the north, the farming country of the Waikato centres on the workaday provincial capital, Hamilton, which won’t detain you long, but has enough to soak up a couple of days’ exploration in the immediate vicinity. The nearby surfers’ paradise of Raglan has world-class surf as well as some great places to stay, eat or just unwind. Southeast of Hamilton on SH1, there’s a genteel English charm to Cambridge, while at Matamata, Hobbiton tours are an essential stop for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film fans.

South of the Waikato, the highlight is Waitomo, where fabulous adventure trips explore otherwordly glowworm-filled limestone caverns. The adjacent King Country took its name from the King Movement, and was the last significant area in New Zealand to succumb to European colonization. Further south, the giant thumbprint peninsula of Taranaki is dominated by the symmetrical cone of Mount Taranaki, within the Egmont National Park. At its foot, New Plymouth warrants a visit for its excellent contemporary art gallery and access to a multitude of surf beaches.

Inland from Egmont National Park, the farming town of Taumarunui is one of the main jumping-off points for multi-day canoe trips along the Whanganui River, through the heart of the verdant Whanganui National Park. The river bisects Wanganui, a small, gracious and creative city whose river-port past can be relived on a restored paddle steamer. Some 60km to the southeast, the university city of Palmerston North lies at the centre of the rich farming region of Manawatu. A cluster of rural communities lines the highway south to the Kapiti Coast, where laidback beachside Paraparaumu is the launch point for boat trips to the paradisiacal bird sanctuary of Kapiti Island.

Around Hamilton

As the hub for the region, Hamilton makes a good base for exploring the Waikato region and its cluster of modest sights. Heading south from Auckland, the first place of real interest is the important Maori town of Ngaruawahia, though if you are headed for Raglan you may skip Ngaruawahia and follow the back roads past Waingaro Hot Springs. Art-lovers will want to nip east to the Wallace Gallery while Hobbit fans shouldn’t miss Hobbiton, on the outskirts of Matamata. Southeast of Hamilton, Cambridge and Tirau are really just waystations on the route to Taupo, while to the south, Te Awamutu celebrates its Maori, Pakeha and Finn brothers heritage.


CAMBRIDGE, 24km southeast of Hamilton, was founded as a militia settlement at the navigable limit of the Waikato River in 1864, and today is surrounded by stud farms. Mosaics of Cambridge-bred winners are embedded in the pavements along the town’s Equine Stars Walk of Fame. The town’s collection of elegant nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings is mapped on a heritage trail brochure, making for a pleasant hour-long stroll.


The dairy-farming and racehorse-breeding town of Matamata, 63km east of Hamilton, shot to prominence just after the millennium as the location of Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Lifelike Lord of the Rings character statues have since been installed in the town centre but the only way to visit the Hobbiton location (on a working sheep farm 15km southwest of town) is on a tour.

Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours

Between the filming of Peter Jackson’s three Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s and the master’s return a decade later to shoot the two films of The Hobbit (due for release in December 2012 and December 2013), there really wasn’t much to see at Hobbiton. The set was mostly dismantled and early visitors just got to see a handful of hobbit-hole facades amid the rolling hills of a working sheep farm. Interiors for all films were done in Wellington.

Since the shooting of The Hobbit in late 2011, however, almost all sets have been left intact. You can wander over a hillside of 42 hobbit-hole facades, some small, some large (to help give the sense of perspective when filming) and all superbly rendered to look old and hobbit-like. Chimneys appear to have soot on them, the fake lichen on fences looks totally authentic and there’s an orchard of apple and pear trees (one of which was turned into a plum tree for the filming to satisfy a single line in the book). Across the lake the film-makers have created two of New Zealand’s very few thatched buildings, a water mill connected by a “stone” bridge to The Green Dragon inn. Die-hard fans will revel in the tour guides’ unexpurgated tales of the filming, but at ninety minutes the tour is a long one for the less ardent. The Shire’s Rest Café sustains.

The Forgotten World Highway

For a taste of genuinely rural New Zealand, follow the Forgotten World Highway between Taumarunui and Stratford (SH43), a rugged 155m road that twists through the hills west of Taumarunui. All but a 12km stretch through the Tangarakau Gorge is sealed, but allow at least three hours for the journey, and be sure to fuel up beforehand as there’s no petrol along the route.

Foxton and around

Horowhenua’s most interesting town is FOXTON, 38km southwest of Palmerston North, where the old-style shop facades line the broad main street bypassed by SH1.

Archeological evidence suggests that there was a semi-nomadic moa-hunter culture in this area between 1400 and 1650, predating larger tribal settlements. Europeans arrived in the early 1800s and settled at the mouth of the Manawatu River, subsequently founding Foxton on a tributary. It quickly became the flax-milling capital of New Zealand, the industry only finally dying in 1985. A historic walk tells the tale through 28 plaques around town.

By early 2013, look out for the proposed new cultural precinct next to the windmill. Known as Te Awahou–Nieuwe Stroom, it’s designed to celebrate local Maori and the strong New Zealand–Dutch heritage, along with a visitor centre and library.

The long, sandy Foxton Beach is 5km away on the coast, where there’s good surfing, safe swimming areas and abundant birdlife around the Manawatu river estuary.


On the banks of the languid green Waikato River, New Zealand’s fourth-largest city, HAMILTON, functions as a regional hub rather than a major tourist destination, but it’s within striking distance of some of the North Island’s top spots, such as the surf beaches of Raglan and Waitomo Caves, as well as Auckland, 127km north. It’s worth devoting some time to the excellent Waikato Museum and the tranquil Hamilton Gardens.

Everything of interest in Hamilton is either along or just off the main drag, Victoria Street, which parallels the west bank of the tree-lined Waikato River. One of more striking buildings is the 1924 Wesley Chambers (now Le Grand hotel) on the corner of Collingwood Street, influenced by the buildings of boomtime Chicago. Diagonally opposite, a small open space is graced by a statue of the English-born Rocky Horror Show creator, Richard O’Brien – decked out as Riff Raff, the role he played in the film of the show – who spent his teens and early twenties in Hamilton visiting science fiction double features.

In mid-June, the annual four-day Fieldays festival (w fieldays.co.nz) is held at Mystery Creek Events Centre just outside the city. The largest agricultural field day in the southern hemisphere, it’s a quintessentially Kiwi event with everything from sheep shearing to ploughing contests plus lots of entertainment, mostly with a rural tenor.

The Kapiti Coast

The narrow plain between the rugged and inhospitable Tararua Range and the Tasman breakers is known as the Kapiti Coast, effectively part of Wellington’s commuter belt, peppered with dormitory suburbs and golf courses. Still, it has sweeping beaches, a few minor points of interest and provides access to Kapiti Island, 5km offshore, a magnificent bush-covered sanctuary where birdlife thrives.

Kapiti Island

Kapiti Island is one of the best and most easily accessible island nature reserves in New Zealand, a 15min boat ride offshore from Paraparaumu Beach. This magical spot, just 10km by 2km, was once cleared for farmland but is again cloaked in bush and home to birdlife that has become rare or extinct on the mainland. Much of New Zealand’s bush is now virtually silent but here it trills to the sound of chirping birds – much as it did before the arrival of humans.

In 1824, famed Maori chief Te Rauparaha (original composer of the haka) captured the island from its first known Maori inhabitants and, with his people the Ngati Toa, used it as a base until his death in 1849. The island is considered extremely spiritual by Maori, and was designated a reserve in 1897.

Late January and February are the best months to visit, when the birdlife is at its most active, but at any time of the year you’re likely to see kaka (bush parrots that may alight on your head or shoulder), weka, kakariki (parakeets), whiteheads (bush canaries), tui, bellbirds, fantails, wood pigeons, robins and a handful of the 300 takahe that exist in the world.

The North End of the island (about a tenth of its total area) is also part of the Kapiti Nature Reserve, though it’s managed and accessed separately. The Okupe Lagoon has a colony of royal spoonbills, and there are plenty of rare forest birds and kiwi.

A wedge of sea between Kapiti Island and Paraparaumu has been designated a marine reserve, and its exceptionally clear waters make for great snorkelling around the rocks (bring your own gear, or rent it from the Kapiti Nature Lodge). You’ll need your own gear for scuba diving, which is particularly good to the west and north of the island.


The burgeoning dormitory community of PARAPARAUMU (aka “Paraparam”), 7km south of Waikanae and 45km from Wellington, is the Kapiti Coast’s largest settlement. It is primarily of interest as the only jumping-off point to Kapiti Island, which faces the long and sandy Paraparaumu Beach, 3km to the west along Kapiti Road. With safe swimming, accommodation and a few restaurants, this is the place to hang out.

Walking around Kapiti

The island can be explored on two fairly steep walking tracks, the Trig Track and the Wilkinson Track, which effectively form a loop by meeting near the island’s highest point, Tuteremoana (521m). There are spectacular views from the summit, though the widest variety of birdlife is found along the lower parts of the tracks – take your time, keep quiet and stop frequently (allow about 3hr for the round-trip).


Far-flung KAWHIA, 55km south of Raglan and a similar distance northwest of Otorohanga, slumbers on the northern side of Kawhia Harbour but wakes up when its population of around five hundred people is joined by over four thousand holidaying Kiwis flocking to Ocean Beach, where Te Puia Hot Springs bubble from beneath the black sand. At peak time, many come to witness the annual whaleboat races (Jan 1), when 11m-long, five-crew whaling boats dash across the bay. The only other site of note is the modest Kawhia Museum, Kaora St (Oct–March daily 11am–4pm; April–Nov Wed–Sun noon–3pm; free), covering the region’s rich Maori heritage with some good carved pieces, a fine modern flax and feather cloak and an 1880s-era kauri whaleboat.

The village centre is strung along Jervois Street, where there’s a petrol station and a handful of combined shop/cafés.

Brief history

Legends tell of the arrival of the Tainui in 1350, in their ancestral waka (canoe), and of how they found Kawhia Harbour so bountiful that they lived on its shores for three hundred years. Tribal battles over the rich fishing grounds eventually forced them inland, and in 1821, after constant attacks by the better-armed Waikato Maori, the Tainui chief, Te Rauparaha, finally led his people to the relative safety of Kapiti Island.

When the original waka arrived in Kawhia, it was tied to a pohutukawa tree, Tangi te Korowhiti, still growing on the shore on Kaora Street, near the junction with Moke Street, 800m west of the museum, and reached along the waterside footpath. The Tainui canoe is buried on a grassy knoll above the beautifully carved and painted meeting house of the Maketu Marae, further along Kaora Street at Karewa Beach, with Hani and Puna stones marking its stern and prow. The arrival of European settlers and missionaries in the 1830s made Kawhia prosperous as a gateway to the fertile King Country, though its fortunes declined in the early years of the twentieth century, owing to its unsuitability for deep-draught ships.

The King Country

The rural landscape inland from Kawhia and south of Hamilton is known as the King Country, because it was the refuge of King Tawhiao and members of the King Movement, after they were driven south during the New Zealand Wars. The area soon gained a reputation among Pakeha as a Maori stronghold renowned for difficult terrain and a welcome that meant few, if any, Europeans entered. However, the forest’s respite was short-lived: when peace was declared in 1881, loggers descended in droves.

Tourist interest focuses on Waitomo, a tiny village at the heart of a unique and dramatic landscape, honeycombed by limestone caves ethereally illuminated by glowworms, and overlaid by a geological wonderland of karst. North of Waitomo is the small dairy town of Otorohanga, with a kiwi house and Kiwiana displays. To the south of Waitomo, Te Kuiti provided sanctuary in the 1860s for Maori rebel Te Kooti, who reciprocated with a beautifully carved meeting house.

From Te Kuiti, SH4 runs south to Taumarunui, with access to the Whanganui River and the start of the Forgotten World Highway.

The King Movement

Before Europeans arrived, Maori loyalty was solely to their immediate family and tribe, but wrangles with acquisitive European settlers led many tribes to discard age-old feuds in favour of a common crusade against the Pakeha. Maori nationalism hardened in the face of blatantly unjust treatment and increasing pressure to “sell” land.

In 1856, the influential Otaki Maori sought a chief who might unite the disparate tribes against the Europeans, and in 1858 the Waikato, Taupo and other tribes, largely originating from the Tainui canoe, chose Te Wherowhero. Taking the title of Potatau I, the newly elected king established himself at Ngaruawahia – to this day the seat of the King Movement. The principal tenet of the movement was to resist the appropriation of Maori land and provide a basis for a degree of self-government. Whether out of a genuine misunderstanding of these aims or for reasons of economic expediency, the settlers interpreted the formation of the movement as an act of rebellion – despite the fact that Queen Victoria was included in the movement’s prayers – and tension heightened. The situation escalated into armed conflict later in 1858 when the Waitara Block near New Plymouth was confiscated from its Maori owners. The fighting spread throughout the central North Island: the King Movement won a notable victory at Gate Pa, in the Bay of Plenty, but was eventually overwhelmed at Te Ranga.

Seeing the wars as an opportunity to settle old scores, some Maori tribes sided with the British and, in a series of battles along the Waikato, forced the kingites further south, until a crushing blow was struck at Orakau in 1864. The king and his followers fled south of the Puniu River into an area that, by virtue of their presence, became known as the King Country.

There they remained, with barely any European contact, until 1881, when King Tawhiao, who had succeeded to the throne in 1860, made peace. Gradually the followers of the King Movement drifted back to Ngaruawahia. Although by no means supported by all Maori, the loose coalition of the contemporary King Movement plays an important role in the current reassessment of Maori–Pakeha relations, and the reigning Maori King is the recipient of state and royal visits.


Some 16km southwest of Otorohanga (8km west of SH3), WAITOMO is a diminutive village of under fifty inhabitants with an outsize reputation for incredible cave trips and magnificent karst features – streams that disappear down funnel-shaped sinkholes (Waitomo means “water entering shaft” in Maori), craggy limestone outcrops, fluted rocks, potholes and natural bridges caused by cave ceiling collapses. Below ground, seeping water has sculpted the rock into eerie and extraordinary shapes. The ongoing process of cave creation involves the interaction of rainwater and carbon dioxide from the air, which together form a weak acid. As more carbon dioxide is absorbed from the soil the acid grows stronger, dissolving the limestone and enlarging cracks and joints, eventually forming the varied caves you see today. Each year a further seventy cubic metres of limestone (about the size of a double-decker bus) is dissolved. Many of the caves are dazzlingly illuminated by glowworms.

The bulk of the caves are in (or visited from) Waitomo: for DIY limestone scenery sightseeing in any weather, head west to Mangapohue Natural Bridge and Piripiri Caves.

Brief history

Local chief Tane Tinorau introduced Waitomo’s underground passages to English surveyor Fred Mace, in 1887. The pair explored further, building a raft of flax stems and drifting along an underground stream, with candles their only source of light. Within a year, the enterprising Tane was guiding tourists to see the spectacle. The government took over in 1906 and it wasn’t until 1989 that the caves were returned to their Maori owners, who receive a percentage of all revenue generated and participate in the site’s management.


Glowworms (Arachnocampa luminosa) are found all over New Zealand, mostly in caves but also on overhanging banks in the bush where in dark and damp conditions you’ll often see the telltale bluey-green glow. A glowworm isn’t a worm at all, but the matchstick-sized larval stage of the fungus gnat (a relative of the mosquito), which attaches itself to the cave roof and produces around twenty or thirty mucus-and-silk threads or “fishing lines”, which hang down a few centimetres. Drawn by the highly efficient chemical light, midges and flying insects get ensnared in the threads and the glowworm draws in the line to eat them.

The six- to nine-month larval stage is the only time in the glowworm life cycle that it can eat, so it needs to store energy for the two-week pupal stage when it transforms into the adult gnat that has no mouthparts. The gnat only lives a couple of days, during which time the female has to frantically find a mate in the dark caves (the glow is a big help here) and lay her batch of a hundred or so eggs. After a two- to three-week incubation, they hatch into glowworms and the process begins anew.

Palmerston North and around

One of New Zealand’s largest landlocked cities, PALMERSTON NORTH (as opposed to Palmerston near Dunedin, and known as “Palmy”) is the thriving capital of the province of Manawatu, with around 80,000 residents, including a lively student population attending Massey University. After the arrival of the rail line in 1886, Palmerston North flourished, thanks to its pivotal position at the junction of road and rail routes, reflected today by some fine civic buildings, notably an excellent museum and gallery and a stunning library. Nonetheless, an unimpressed John Cleese famously claimed, “If you want to kill yourself but lack the courage, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick.” The town responded by naming the local rubbish dump after him.

The city’s main cultural event, the Festival of Cultures (w foc.co.nz), takes place around The Square in March (22nd & 23rd in 2013) with a Friday-night lantern festival and a Saturday craft, food and music fair. Artists who recently played at WOMAD in New Plymouth often turn up on the bill.


Visitors often linger far longer than they intended to in RAGLAN, 48km west of Hamilton, which hugs the south side of the large and picturesque Whaingaroa Harbour. They’re lured by the town’s bohemian arts and crafts tenor and the laidback spirit of the surfing community – the waters here feature some of the best left-handed breaks in the world.

Cafés, banks and pubs line palm-shaded Bow Street, whose western end butts against the harbour, spanned by a slender footbridge where kids are always egging each other to jump off. Apart from wandering the foreshore, there are few sights as such, so you’ll soon want to head 8km south of town to the surf beaches.

There’s good hiking and horse riding both here and further south at Bridal Veil Falls. Sweeping views of Raglan Harbour and along the coast unfurl from the summit of Mount Karioi (755m), reached on a winding gravel-road loop around the Karioi Mountain.

Brief history

The horizon to the south is dominated by Mount Karioi, which according to Maori legend was the ultimate goal of the great migratory canoe Tainui. On reaching the mouth of the harbour a bar blocked the way, hence the name Whaingaroa (“long pursuit”). The shortened epithet, Whangaroa, was the name used for the harbour until 1855, when it was renamed Raglan after the officer who led the Charge of the Light Brigade.

The Taranaki Peninsula

The province of Taranaki (nicknamed “The ’naki”) juts out west from the rest of the North Island forming a thumbprint peninsula centred on Maunga Taranaki (a.k.a. Mount Egmont), an elegant conical volcano rising 2500m from the subtropical coast to its icy summit. Taranaki means “peak clear of vegetation”, an appropriate description of the upper half of “the mountain”, as locals simply refer to it.

The mountain remains a constant presence as you tour the region, though much of the time it is obscured by cloud. The summit is usually visible in the early morning and just before sunset, with cloud forming through the middle of the day – the bane of summit aspirants who slog for no view.

Taranaki’s vibrant provincial capital and largest city, New Plymouth, makes a good base for day-trips into the Egmont National Park, surrounding the mountain. It is also very convenient for short forays to the surfing and windsurfing hotspot of Oakura.

Rural Taranaki’s attractions, including the Surf Highway, are best sampled on a one- or two-day loop around the mountain.

Brief history

According to Maori, the mountain-demigod Taranaki fled here from the company of the other mountains in the central North Island. He was firmly in place when spotted by the first European in the area, Cook, who named the peak Egmont after the first Lord of the Admiralty. In the early nineteenth century few Maori were living in the area as annual raids by northern tribes had forced many to migrate with Te Rauparaha to Kapiti Island. This played into the hands of John Lowe and Richard Barrett who, in 1828, established a trading and whaling station on the Ngamotu Beach on the northern shores of the peninsula.

In 1841, the Plymouth Company dispatched six ships of English colonists to New Zealand, settling at Lowe and Barrett’s outpost. Mostly from the West Country, the new settlers named their community New Plymouth.

Egmont National Park

Taranaki (Mount Egmont), a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1755, dominates the entire western third of the North Island. Often likened to Japan’s Mount Fuji, its profile is a cone rising to 2518m, though from east or west the profile is disturbed by the satellite Fantham’s Peak (1692m). In winter, snow blankets the mountain, but as summer progresses only the crater rim remains white. The mountain is the focal point for EGMONT NATIONAL PARK, the boundary forming an arc with a 10km radius around the mountain, interrupted only on its north side where it encompasses the Pouakai Range and Kaitake Range, older, more weathered cousins of Taranaki.

Surrounded by farmland, the mountain’s lower slopes are cloaked in native bush that gradually changes to stunted flag-form trees shaped by the constant buffeting of the wind. Higher still, vegetation gives way to slopes of loose scoria (a kind of jagged volcanic gravel) – hard work if you’re hiking.

Three sealed roads climb Taranaki’s eastern flanks, each ending at a separate car park a little under halfway up the mountain from where the park’s 140km of walking tracks spread out. North Egmont is the most easily accessible from New Plymouth but you can get higher up the mountain at East Egmont, and there are particularly good short walks around Dawson Falls. The i-SITE in New Plymouth has extensive information on the park.

All three trailheads are under an hour’s drive from New Plymouth, but with accommodation close to all of them, avid hikers may choose to base themselves inside the park. Gung-ho hikers go for the summit (not a trivial ascent by any means:; deaths do occur). If you want to spend longer than a day on the mountain, the varied Pouakai Circuit or the testing Around the Mountain Circuit might fit the bill.

Len Lye

All of a sudden it hit me – if there was such a thing as composing music, there could be such a thing as composing motion. After all, there are melodic figures, why can’t there be figures of motion?

- Len Lye

Until fairly recently, New Zealand-born sculptor, film-maker and conceptual artist Len Lye (1901–80) was little known outside the art world, but his work is now earning well-deserved recognition. Born in Christchurch, Lye developed a fascination with movement, which expressed itself in his late teens in early experiments in kinetic sculpture. His interest in Maori art encouraged him to travel more widely, studying both Australian Aboriginal and Samoan dance. Adapting indigenous art to the precepts of the Futurist and Surrealist movements coming out of Europe, he experimented with sculpture, batik, painting, photography and animated “cameraless” films (he painstakingly stencilled, scratched and drew on the actual film). Lye spent time working on his films in London, but towards the end of World War II he joined the European artistic exodus and ended up in New York. Here he returned to sculpture, finding that he could exploit the flexibility of stainless-steel rods, loops and strips to create abstract “tangible motion sculptures” designed to “make movement real”. The erratic movements of these motor-driven sculptures give them an air of anarchy, which is most evident in his best-known work, 1977’s Trilogy (more commonly referred to as Flip and Two Twisters), three motorized metal sheets that wildly shake and contort until winding down to a final convulsion.

Lye envisaged his works as being monumental and set outdoors, but was always aware of the technical limitations of his era and considered his projects to be works of the twenty-first century. Just before his death in New York in 1980, friend, patron and New Plymouth resident, John Matthews, helped set up the Len Lye Foundation, which brought most of Lye’s scattered work to New Plymouth’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The foundation has been instrumental in furthering Lye’s work. The Wind Wand is the most visible and largest product of their work though the foundation has also been instrumental in creating Lye’s Water Whirler on the Wellington waterfront.

New Plymouth

The small but bustling city of New Plymouth, on the northern shore of the peninsula, is the commercial heart of Taranaki and renowned New Zealand-wide for its concerts and arts festivals. Port Taranaki, at the edge of the city, serves as New Zealand’s western gateway and is the only deep-water international port on the west coast. There’s a strong arts and gardens bias to its attractions, though it is a pleasure just to be in.

Just offshore is the Sugar Loaf Islands Protected Area, a haven for wildlife above and beneath the sea.

New Plymouth festivals

Festival of Lights (mid-Dec to Jan nightly dusk–10.45pm; free; wwww.festivaloflights.nz). On summer evenings, stroll the gorgeously lit pathways of Pukekura Park between illuminated trees, then rent a rowboat festooned with lights. There’s live music most nights.

Taranaki Garden Spectacular (late Oct to early Nov; wtaft.co.nz). Ten-day celebration of the region’s fine gardens, timed to when the rhododendrons are at their best.

Taranaki International Festival of the Arts (two weeks in early Aug; wtaft.co.nz) This biennial festival (odd-numbered years) features a wide range of music, films and plays in venues all over town.

WOMAD (mid-March; wtaft.co.nz) Superb annual three-day festival of world music that takes place in Brooklands Park. Hundreds of international artists performing on six stages, workshops and a “global village” market.


At the confluence of the Ongarue and Whanganui rivers, TAUMARUNUI, 83km south of Te Kuiti, is a little down on its luck. Still, it is well located at the northern end of the Forgotten World Highway (with its associated cycle trail) and is a base for canoe trips on the Whanganui River.

Taumarunui was one of the last towns in New Zealand to be settled by Europeans, who arrived in large numbers in 1908, when the railway came to town.


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.

Brief history

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?.

Wanganui or Whanganui?

Unlike the Whanganui National Park and Whanganui River, the city of Wanganui has long been spelt without an “h”. The pronunciation of both is the same, deriving from the local Maori dialect, pronouncing the “wh” prefix phonetically (as opposed to elsewhere in the country, where the “wh” is pronounced “f”). The spelling quirk results from a direct transcription of the Maori name (whanga nui translates as “big harbour”). Most locals opposed any streamlining of the spelling, but in 2009 authorities ruled that the “h” is optional. For consistency with the majority of current usage, the city spelling “Wanganui” has been retained in this guide.

Whanganui National Park

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.

Brief history

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.

The Whanganui River Road

The outlying sections of the park to the south can be accessed along the Whanganui River Road, from either Raetihi, a small town on SH4 near Ohakune, or Wanganui. The River Road hugs the river’s left bank from the riverside hamlet of Pipiriki 79km downstream to Upokongaro, just outside Wanganui. It’s a winding road, prone to floods and landslips (though by early 2013 the final 13km of gravel should have been sealed). Still, even in the best conditions the route will take a minimum of two hours.

Opened in 1934, the road is wedged between river, farmland and heavily forested outlying patches of the Whanganui National Park, and forms the supply route for the four hundred people or so who live along it. Facilities along the way are almost non-existent: there are no shops, pubs or petrol stations, and only a handful of places to stay. If you don’t fancy the drive, consider joining one of the Wanganui-based bus tours (see Whanganui River Road Mail Run).

The road is detailed in the free Whanganui River Road leaflet (readily available from i-SITE and DOC offices and downloadable from

w wanganui.com), which highlights points of interest and lists their distance from Wanganui.

Whanganui River trips

Canoes, kayaks and jetboats work the river, tailoring trips to your needs. The rapids are mostly Grade I with the occasional Grade II, making this an excellent paddling river for those with little or no experience. That said, the river shouldn’t be underestimated: talk to operators about variations in river flows before embarking.

Taumarunui to Whakahoro

The navigable section of river starts at Cherry Grove in Taumarunui, from where it’s about two days’ paddle to Whakahoro, essentially just a DOC hut and a boat ramp at the end of a 45km road (mostly gravel) running west from SH4. Between these two points the river runs partly through farmland with roads nearby, and throws up a few rapids that are larger than those downstream.

Beside the river, several kilometres southwest of Cherry Grove, a former stronghold of the Hau Hau is the site of a couple of nui poles. In 1862 the Hau Hau erected a war pole, Rongo-nui, here, with four arms indicating the cardinal points of the compass, intended to call warriors to their cause from all over the country. At the end of hostilities, a peace pole, Rerekore, was erected close by.

Whakahoro to Pipiriki

Downstream from Whakahoro most people take three days to get to Pipiriki. Along the way you’ll see the Mangapapa Stream Ravine, the Man-o-war Bluff (named for its supposed resemblance to an old iron-clad battleship) and the Tarepokiore Whirlpool, which once completely spun a river steamer. At Mangapurua Landing it’s an easy walk to the Bridge to Nowhere (1hr 15min return), a trail that becomes the Mangapurua Track. Further downstream you come to Tieke Kainga (aka Tieke Marae), a former DOC hut built on the site of an ancient pa that has been re-occupied by local Maori; you can stay or camp here or across the river at Bridge to Nowhere Lodge, a terrific base for river activities. The last stretch runs past the Puraroto Caves and into Pipiriki, where most paddlers finish.

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Rough Guides Editors

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 5.05.2021

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