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|Touring New Zealand 2015 - part 2|
The last part of our write-up left us in Taumarunui and the next morning we set out on one of our favourite scenic roads from Taumarunui to Stratford, the SH43. We have written the journey up as part of Taranaki, Walks in the Mountain House & Stratford Area, and the Forgotten World Highway and Pete has spent a lot of time updating that to the latest standards and changing to 'Lightbox Style' overlay pictures. However that had the journey from Stratford to Taumaranui, our usual directions it all had to be transposed for this page - if the odd bits seem back-to-front you will know why! We obviously did not do every side trip this time but thee better ones are still refereed to for completeness.
The Forgotten World Highway (SH43) is a superb scenic road which was the subject of the first of the Heritage trails in 1990. It has more recently been labeled 'The Forgotten Highway' on many of the boards. We have the original Heritage Trail booklet 'Taranaki and SH43' covering the SH43 and a few other less memorable trails. They should be available at Information Offices but have often been in short supply possibly due to the renaming. There are however big introductory boards at either end and signs to further comprehensive boards at most of the main points of interest. It was a fascinating trip on one of the early roads and cut across the grain of the countryside over a number of saddles giving commanding views. It is a road which is only 150 kms from end to end, some of it still unsealed, which merits (and takes) plenty of time. We have done the journey a good number of times, most in the opposite direction from Stratford but we never tire of it and there are many side trips to select from - there is never time to do them all.
This visit we have put a lot of work into updating our Reference Guide to Taranaki and the Forgotten World Highway including going back to many of the old pictures and making the sets of larger images needed for the latest lightbox overlays and popups. That guide includes information gathered over all our visits over many years and we have now done almost all of the possible side trips although one only have time for a limited number each time. That work was then used as the basis for this page, suitably modified to reflect which options we took this time.
On the first stretch leaving Taumarunui one passes Herlihy's Bluff which consists of alternating layers of course sandstone and fine mudstone laid down to a total thickness of about 1.3 kms when the region was below the sea about 15-25 million years ago.
A recommended exploration off the main route is the Te Maire Reserve - we took a 10 minute walk on our first visit, with a nice river crossing on a small suspension bridge, to reach a loop walk which takes a further one hour forty minutes to complete. The initial section is in very good condition and makes an excellent forest walk through Podocarps but with so much undergrowth growing on and up all the trees it is reminiscent of the 'goblin forest' round Mountain House at Mt Egmont (Taranaki). We have made a note to allow time for the full walk on a future visit - we returned in 2007 and did the loop track which took us through some lovely stands of mature trees, some stretching 200 feet upwards with clean straight trunks, probably the tallest were kahikatea (white pine) along with rimu, totara and matai. The lookout was higher than we expected and the climb gave us some good exercise but the views were minimal as it was overgrown round the picnic table. We did it in sandals but got damp feet and boots would have better on the climbs and descents.
In 2007 we took the Paparoa road on past the turn of to the Te Marie Reserve following signs to Tawata. This took us about 28 kms (about 11 unsealed) to reach the bark opposite to Maraekowhai where we could get a view across the river to the Nui Poles and the join of the Ohura river and the Whanganui River where the houseboat Makere was moored just below the lower falls. The two poles look well preserved and are in a well kept reserve with picnic tables and toilets - the only problem is that now DOC have removed the bridge and plan to close the track this important historic area can only be reached by canoe. The nui poles were erected by the Hau Hau followers of the Pai Marire religion and were local points for prayer, parades and chants. Spirits were said to radiate through the arms of the poles calling warriors to fight and giving them supernatural powers to resist musket fire. The Rongo nui (War pole) was erected first in 1864 and the Ririkore (Peace pole) was erected in 1869 when hostilities ended.
We usually stop, and did this time, at the Otunui River Boat Landing is also on the Whanganui and has a new canoe landing below the picnic area. The old landing can not be seen any more although you there is a new board (2015) which shows with an arrow on a picture exactly where it was. One should still be able to get to the original location via a derelict style and a walk through the field. The last time I tried I could see no trace other than possible signs of an old track down. The grass was very long and wet so we did not try this time.
Next one passes a little publicised DOC camp site just off the SH43 at Ohinepane that forms part of the Whanganui Journey - although a river journey the Whanganui Journey is of New Zealand's network of "Great Walks", perhaps because of the huge number of shallows and rapids! The Whanganui Journey is a 145 km journey by Canoe from Taumarunui to Pipiriki taking about 5 days. Ohinepane is one of the few camp sites on the journey accessible by land and about one day into the trip to Pipiriki. It had a big plaque say it was on land donated as a camp site for all New Zealanders. Normally the charges for a week for the journey are $25 for use of the huts and camps sites or $8 for a single night at those accessible by land as entry points. Ohinepane seemed to be free the last time we visited as there were none of the usual honesty boxes and registration forms, presumably as it was donated land.
It is quite large camp site surrounded by bush and with views down onto the river. The first time we found it there was only one other tent with three people with canoes and a supporting car and driver. It is a real shame that these marvelous sites seem to hardly be used. We had not intended to camp but it was just too good to miss and we quickly set up the tent and the Red Devil. We spent some time in the morning talking to the lady in the party who turned out be a farmer and we were introduced to the concept of WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms. This is an informal network which allows people to work for a few hours a day on an Organic Farm in exchange for food and accommodation - in most cases they become part of the family and gain insight into farming etc. It is not very well publicised as it is barely tolerated by the authorities - no money changes hands making it almost impossible to regulate. We understand information can be obtained from local backpacker accommodation. The lady we spoke to said three of their WWOOFers had subsequently emigrated and they kept in touch with many of them.
We have also looked for the Aukopae River boat landing several times. It is supposed to be down a side road.We first tried in 2003. There was no obvious sign at the roadside as promised and it was difficult to locate the location as everything is overgrown. We proceeded another 5 kms down the road (more a farmers track) to where the book said the Nukunuku Museum was located but all we could find was a cut down heritage trail sign and a few rusty relics in a field with nobody around. We have since discovered that Joch Erceg had a farm and museum in that area but his son took over and now it is somewhat run down but visits can sometimes be arranged. The only thing of interest we have found was a bit of old Waka upright above an old tomb stone which we thought read the revered Richard Taylor. A few days latter we were reading one of the books on the Whanganui and realised it was probably a memorial to the famous Reverend Richard Taylor who did so much with Maori including helping them name all the Kainga (villages) with Anglicised names such as Ranana (London) and Koriniti (Corinth). His mediation and influence was largely instrumental in allowing the Whanganui to be opened up. We wish we had taken a picture.
We returned in 2007 to have another look and we managed to clean up the stone a bit better this time and confirmed it read Richard Taylor but we think it is inscribed "Richard Taylor camped near here on 8th?? August 1862". This time we have a couple of pictures but they will need some enhancement to read the inscription. We have since been told that Taylor was at Tawhitinui around the 8 August 1862, on the river but below Pipiriki, according to his biographer Mead - we have not checked that and if that is true it means the memorial has been moved. We also understand that Taylor's grave is in Wanganui and that the Historic Places Trust tidied it up last year but have not seen it
There is another side trip off the SH43 if you have plenty of time is to the Maraekowhai reserve. The site has been of interest to us for several reasons. Historically it was a stronghold for the rebellious Hauhau warriors who in 1864 built a "rongo niu" with arms radiating in four directions to call the warriors to the cause. They danced round it chanting to make themselves invincible to musket fire. It and the later rere kore (peace pole) are still preserved in the reserve. We have been told the area has a considerably wider history also involving a flour mill, a pakeha who was shot, missionaries, notional roads and inter-tribal fighting. At the time of our first visit we knew little of this and our main interest was that it was the site of the Houseboat which was provided the second overnight stop for the Whanganui river boats on their way to Taumarunui. The site is about 18 kms off the main road down a mostly a slow and narrow gravel track. When we eventually arrived the first time we found we could not reach the poles or the site of the Houseboat mooring as a swing bridge was down but in exchange discovered there were a super set of waterfalls, the Ohura Falls which are worth a trip in their own right
We tried again in 2007 and found we had to stop short of the car park as it was said to be too muddy for access and we found the whole track is now under threat of closure by DOC as it is not to modern standards and they say nobody visits it - the visitors book tells a very different story. We could still get to the falls but the walkway section was in a terrible state with many broken boards and we could still not get to where the poles were or to the site of the houseboat - there is no evidence now there ever was a swing bridge and most of the information boards have disappeared. We explored down some of the farmers tracks but could not find our way to the river and eventually gave up. We have since been told that the bridge into the Maraekowhai reserve was pulled down by DOC sometime in 2004. After a local disaster when a man was killed falling through an unmaintained bridge DOC got all cautious and advertised for some group of volunteers to look after the bridge but no one would take it on so they pulled it down. It is however possible to still get down the Tawata road on the opposite side of the river and at least got a good view across of the nui poles and the houseboat mooring.
It is worth a walk up to Nevin's Lookout, about five minutes, to a magnificent 360 degree view even with relatively low cloud base. With good visibility it is spectacular.
A side trip we first made in 2009 is down the Waro road which used to lead to the Tatu mines. The guide said it was a track not suitable for normal vehicles but the road had been upgraded and last time we made it to a kilometre or so of where the old Tatu Coal mine used to be sited although we eventually had to turn back when we got to major earth moving equipment and a working area we did not even feel it would be possible to safely walk through. We found some pictures of the Tatu coal mine at the Tawhiti Museum.
Next a side trip we like to carry out. It is a significant diversion down a gravel road to get to the Mt Damper Falls, which are one of the highest inland falls in New Zealand at 76 meters. It is well worth the drive and 20 minute walk to see the falls are a narrow stream cut deeply into the side of a huge "bowl" eroded into the mudstone - quite unlike anything we have seen before. Part way down the road is a large picnic and parking area for the Moki forest tracks with a few old steam boilers from the logging days. There is also a small caravan site just down the road - there seems to be no good place for a tent but there are three or four slots for caravans or campers. The Moki forest is the home of the endangered Kokako bird but we have never had the time to go in search.
The Tangarakua Gorge, carved by the river into sedimentary sandstone is very spectacular and redolent with luxuriant native bush but beware when driving through as this 15 km stretch of slippery gravel surface has led to State Highway 43 being ranked as one of the 10 worst highways in New Zealand by the Police.
Next came Morgan's grave at the end of a bridge. Joshua Morgan was a well known surveyor who died in this remote area at 35 from peritonitis and is taken as a memorial to all the men who played a part in opening up this difficult country. The grave is well preserved and only about 700 metres from the small car park which now has a toilet brightly decorated by the local school.
On a couple of occasions, (the last in 2009) we have taken a side trip to the ghost village Tangarakau, 6 km from the main road. The village was set up in 1925 for railway workers and their families. It quickly grew to a population of 1200 with a full street of shops. It's life was extended for a few years by work on power lines but then it quickly declined and now there is nothing left to show - the current population in the area is 8 probably the owners of the adjacent and very deserted camp-site and a farm which looked busier than last visit.
We have now reached the first of the saddles which are all about 270 meters and one can see the terrain sp readout in every direction at about the same height with views through the saddles. This is the Tahora Saddle where the Kaieto café used to be. It has has now closed but they still seem to have the"camp site" perched on the peak - a wooden platform on the peak doubles as a view point and helipad.
Next comes a highlight of the trip, Whangamomona Village. We had first been recommended the trip and the village whilst in the Catlins by some people we met (Anne and Mike) and it had been reinforced by another suggestion from a chance meeting in Auckland with someone whose father had worked in the village. Whangamomona, the Valley of Plenty, was first settled in 1885 and quickly reached its full size of about 200. It has always been controversial and had difficult access - in 1903 the Prime Minister, Richard Seddon was tipped into a pothole by the inhabitants as a protest at the road conditions and eventually improvements came.
The community spirit still survives, although to some it now looks little more than a ghost town. In 1989 the village declared itself an independent state in protest at changes in the regional boundaries which removed it from its home in Taranaki. Independence Day celebrations are held every year on the Saturday closest to November 1st. One year as we passed there was a big sign saying the President was holding court in the Hotel. We were tempted to stop and seek an audience. Another year we found we had been standing next to him in the pub at lunch time but had not recognised him. There is a signposted walking trail round the village which we followed part of - much of the village is like a time warp which has led to it being used for several films.
We went into the hotel and had a look at the boards on the walls and saw they were serving some very sensible value food and we had their fish and chips - being Taranaki day and a bank holiday they added a 15% surcharge to the food and the local beer Pauline tried. There is a camp site sign posted in the village and we went down to have a look and it turned out to be based round the old school - now a communal village building - and is kept up by volunteers in the village. The costs were very reasonable and they had some basic PWD style cabins at $20 a night (2009) - the same price as pitching a tent, so next time through we may make it an overnight stop and do some of the side trips off the highway.
The Pohokura Saddle is named after a Maori chief from when it was settled first in 1880 - in those days the road was so bad it took three days to pack in supplies. As with many other points on the trip there are interpretation boards at the viewpoints. The Whangamomona Saddle has a walk leading off from the viewpoint which looks sufficiently interesting we will schedule it for a future trip.
Te Wera has a Forest and Recreational Camp which does not seem to be available for normal camping but there is an Arboretum which we have walked round a couple of times. When we passed by in 2007 the camp was closed for renovation and it was not clear if the Arboretum was still open.
One now passes over the last of the series of saddles. The Strathmore Saddle can give superb views and on a clear day it gives a vantage of the four main North Island mountains, Taranaki (Egmont), Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. It was a favourite site for Keith's paintings.
The final suggested stop is at an old Douglas Brick Kiln which is listed by he New Zealand Historic Places Trust. It is situated a couple of hundred metres off the main road then down a gated farmers track. It is in poor condition and protected by an external roof.
It was then only a short run to reach Stratford where we stayed in the Stratford Top Town Motor Camp. We first stayed there in 2009 - we booked in for a single night and stayed two which is a good recommendation. It is run by Doreen and one of the most memorable features is the flowers. We had a simple cabin which had a sink with cold water and a fridge - we had a huge Strelitzia outside which reached to the top of our window level and was covered in flowers, I have never seen one doing more than surviving before in New Zealand and every other flower bed was a similar riot of colour. There are also some much newer and more comprehensively fitted out cabins and some reasonable tent sites and some very sheltered looking camper van slots. Kitchens were on the basic side for a 4* and we got the impression she had to be a bit careful to avoid equipment evaporating which is rare in NZ but many of her visitors are likely to be younger foreigners seeking the challenge of climbing Egmont - the kitchens are locked overnight and pots and pans are available from the front desk. The site is only 600 meters from the main street and the Carrington Walkway which offers walks up to several hours long runs alongside. The main walks on Egmont start from Dawson Falls and Mountain House which are circa 20 kms away which is a shame but it a good solid friendly site we are sure we will return to - Doreen has been running it for over 30 years and like Berta is an icon in the area. We noticed that Doreen has won a major business award in Taranaki and had the certificate framed on the desk. We were upgraded to a self contained unit for the second night which was excellent especially as it rained the entire time we were there. It did mean that Pete made some progress writing up and Pauline got some work done.
Whilst we were staying at Stratford we rang David McDermid who owns and runs the vintage Whanganui river boat, the Wairua, whose restoration we had followed over many years but had only had one opportunity to travel on. We were in luck as he is now doing many more trips and we booked for the following week, hoping the weather would improve and that the heavy rains would not have put the Whanganui into flood. Parts of Taranaki had already had over 4 inches of rain with another 3 inches predicted. The story of the river and the riverboats is a fascinating one and again Pete spent many hours updating our existing write-up to the latest standard and adding more pictures. The following background before our description of this years visit is only part of The Whanganui River Story page on our site and covers the history of the river and the riverboats and a little about the two boats which have been restored and are running from Wanganui town (yes the spelling is different)
As many of our readers know we have a narrowboat and have explored most of the navigable canals and many of the rivers in the 'connected' system in the United Kingdom. It is interesting to contrast New Zealand where we spend several months each year to the United Kingdom where we have many thousands of kilometres of navigable canals and non tidal rivers all using locks and weirs to aid navigation and control the flow. In early days some of the locks did not exist and flash weirs were used to control the river depth and boats were 'flushed' down when they were opened briefly or hauled up through when going upstream. The Thames, our longest navigable river has a non-tidal navigable length of 200 kilometres and 45 locks. In contrast I do not know of any navigable canals in NZ with locks - their are major canals in South Island but they are solely for transferring water for hydroelectric power.
The Whanganui was the only river which had significant commercial navigation and it does not have a single lock. It does however have 239 rapids in its navigable section of 234 kms and the methods of navigation and the boats used have developed in a completely different way to narrowboats and barges on the UK system. Its importance was arguably greater to NZ than the UK waterways to the UK as many areas were only accessible by boat and for a period it formed part of the main route between Auckland and Wellington for passengers - it formed a crucial link in the favoured rail, river and sea route. Even now there are only two bridges in the 230 km stretch from Taumaranui to the first Wanganui Bridge. Sadly it is now largely an exciting one way canoe trip but many of the hardy old river boats, now a hundred years old, still survive and we have been on three and seen more.
I will now try to give a short account of the history, culture and exploitation of the river which became, in its heyday just after the turn of the century, one of the most important tourist attractions in New Zealand. The adverts called it the Rhine of New Zealand or the Rhine of Maoriland and 12,000 tourists a year were being transported by river through the 239 rapids in its navigable length (234 kms from Taumaranui to Wanganui Town Bridge with a drop of ~150 metres). There were stops at a Pipiriki at a magnificent hotel isolated in the backblocks, lit by electricity, which few cities in the world could then boast, and at a similarly appointed Houseboat.
The Whanganui river runs from the coast south-east of Taranaki (Egmont) and on past Lake Taupo to its source on Mount Tongariro. It has always been an important communication route to the interior, initially for Maori canoes and latter for the famous series of river boats run by Hatrick & Co. The river was one of the most challenging in the world for regular navigation with the river boats traversing 239 rapids in the journey from Whanganui to Taumarunui in King Country. It was also an important route for the Maori and it was first explored by Tamatea, the captain of the Takitumu canoe which was part of the great migration in 1350. He first sailed up the river to Putiki and the settlement name is the result of that visit. It was originally called Putiki-wharanui-a-Tamatea-pokai-whenua which translates as "the place where Tamatea tied his topnot with flax". Many other place names are associated with his voyage up the river and eventually on to Lake Taupo. Tangahoe is "the place where he cut paddles" Tamateas's cave in the middle of the beautiful gorge area is well know - by tradition Tamatea sheltered there in his voyage of exploration and it still provides welcome shelter for present river users, mainly canoeists. Following his explorations it became the main route from the sea to the central regions for Maori.
Maori legend explains the formation of the Whanganui. Their tradition is that there was that there were original four mountains in the central peaks, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Taranaki. The mountains were male and female and Tongariro had as his wife the enticing Pihanga. However Taranaki tried to seduce he beautiful Pihanga and a mighty battle of the mountains followed. When it cleared Tongariro had won and Taranaki fled in grief and anger to the sea and inland to stand forever in isolation as Mt Taranaki (Egmont). His track to the sea became a deep rift and the beautiful gorge was filled with gushing fresh water from Tongariro to heal the rift - the Whanganui river was born.
Why it is called the Whanganui is also explained by legend. Hau set off from Patea following an erring and absconding wife Wairaka along the coast. The first obstacle Hau met was a great river flowing westwards to the setting sun. He sat to consider the best way to cross the vast expanse of water and uttered these thoughts - "Too wide to swim, too deep to wade, I will wait for the tide to turn" from these thoughts he named the river Whanganui - literally the big wait.
The term King Country comes from the trouble in the 1860s when there was some dissent over the way the Treaty of Waitangi was working out and the Maoris elected their own King in the area which became virtually a no-go area for Pakeha until late in the century. By the time the river was opened up for navigation by Pakeha there were over 3000 Maori along the river banks - they were considered a great tourist attraction on "The Rhine of New Zealand".
The development of the river is largely attributed to one person, Alexander Hatrick who started the first regular steamer service in 1892 and by 1903 had services running right through to Taumarunui where they would eventually connect with the rail services and with coaches to Rotorua and on to Auckland. At the height of the riverboat service there were 12 steamers and motor vessels as well as motorised canoes for times of very low water levels.
Although much of the credit for the development of the river services is due to Alexander Hatrick it would not have been possible without the work of the Whanganui River Trust and their predecessors to improve the navigation of the river. They pulled out the snags (fallen trees etc.,) cleared the large boulders, blasted channels and built training walls to divert the flow and scour deep water channels through the major rapids from tiny working punts. By 1892 an open channel not less than 80 feet wide existed to Pipiriki 88km up stream.
Hatrick commissioned his first steamer from Yarrow & Co of Poplar London, who specialised in river steamers. It was the side paddle wheel steamer Wairere. She was fabricated in London, the plates numbered and dismantled for shipping in cases to New Zealand. She was launched five weeks after the first cases arrived and only a month latter the first passage to Pipiriki was attempted and successfully reached 11 hours latter, including intermediate stops. Even after this outstanding performance on the first run Hatrick was not content and she was lengthen by 15 feet to 95 feet largely to reduce her draught from 24 to 18 inches. A contract was struck with Thomas Cook and there was no looking back.
The next big step was one of technology - the tunnel drive steamers for the upper reaches, the first being the SS Ohura. Instead of side or stern paddle wheels the Ohura used a new and novel tunnel drive with four propellers on twin shafts in tunnels. The draught was reduced to only 12 inches and the propellers were protected from damage in the tunnels which had flaps to help keep the water in the tunnel when stationary, without the flaps the propellers were only half submerged.
The Ohura was the model for the middle run from Pipiriki to the yet to be made Houseboat and was 86 feet long and 12 foot beam. Smaller vessels such as the Waiora and Wairua were designed for the final stage, again tunnel drive steamers but only 65 feet long and 8 foot beam, similar in overall size to an English narrowboat.
Hatrick bought out Pipiriki House in 1902 and turned it into the magnificent accommodation with the highest levels of cuisine. He designed the houseboat Makere, which was always just called the Houseboat. This was lowered stern first the 46km down from Taumarunui, a considerable feat as the river had not been finally cleared of rocks and snags so it could only be moved in half flood.
The Waimarie has been restored and has been operating from Wanganui since 2000. She started life over 100 years ago as the Paddle Steamer Aotea. She was commissioned for the Wanganui Settlers Steamship company, a brand new competitor to the established boats run by the Hatrick company which was to be largely responsible for opening up the Whanganui for transport and tourism. At the time Hatrick already had three steamers serving the Maori villages and tourists. The Aotea was built by Yarrow of Poplar London and shipped out in 64 crates with the boiler. Once in Wanganui the bolts used for initial assemble were replaced by rivets and it was in service within three months on the run to Pipiriki.
This started a fierce freight and passenger price war. To Hatrick, by now Mayor of Wanganui, a fight like this was like food and wine. The price war combined with low water levels making the run to Pipiriki close to impossible quickly took their toll on the new company. Within two years Hatrick was making offers to buy the Aotea for 3200 pounds which were declined as derisory - three months later an offer of 2000 pounds was accepted as by the Settlers Company which could not longer pay the wages of its staff. The Aotea was promptly renamed Waimarie, the Maori for "Good Fortune", prices returned to normal levels, as did the river and Hatrick's fortunes rose.
Hatrick's objective was to push the service further and further upstream to reach Taumarunui, which would soon become the Southern terminus of the new Northern Main Trunk Railway. As I explained above the journey upstream to Taumarunui involves 144 miles of rapid strewn and ever shallower waters. In total 237 rapids had to be tamed by removing snags, blasting channels and construction of training walls to scour away silt and stones, not to speak of the development of the special "tunnel drive" boats. Tunnel drive boats were the precursors of jet boats and drew less than 12 inches and were shorter and narrower beam than an English narrowboat with powerful kerosene engines and winches to pull them through the worst rapids. The Ongarue reached Taumarunui in December 1903 coinciding with the arrival of the main railway from Auckland and established a world famous scenic route from Auckland to Wanganui and thence to Wellington confounding all the skeptics.
The Waimarie served on the first stretch up to Pipiriki where passengers spent a night in a new luxury hotel Hatrick built - it had electric before most NZ towns.They then transferred to one of the smaller boats for the next days trip to "The Houseboat" where again there was a transfer for the last stage to an even smaller tunnel boat.
It might be thought that the first stage where paddle wheelers were used would be easy but there were still a large number of rapids and at many the engines were augmented by men with long manuka poles punting the boat or by cables in the river which were picked up and attached to the winch to pull the boats through the rapids - we are not talking small boats either - the Waimarie was 100 ft long and 22 ft beam over the paddle wheels but with a draft of only 4 inches. The 55 miles to Pipiriki involved negotiating 42 rapids.
The Waimarie remained in service on the run up to Pipiriki, combined with various shorter tourist trips, until 1949 when she was due for her second boiler replacement. Whilst awaiting a change to a kerosene engine there was a tragic accident - a motor launch moored along side drifted under one of the paddle housings on a falling tide and tipped her over and she sank. Before she could be re-floated a flood filled her hull with silt making salvage uneconomic.
She remained sunk, but safely preserved under a layer of silt, for 40 year until a group of volunteers started a salvage operation. After the town had been scoured for very oil drum and plastic container for flotation she was pumped clear of the silt and reluctantly the mud released its grip and she was afloat again. After 7 years of restoration involving 67,000 hours of volunteer work and nearly $1.5M she cast off for her inaugural cruise exactly as the Millennium arrived with most of Wanganui's population of 40,000 watching.
She carried 25,000 passengers in her first year back in service and the lovingly restored engines are still as good as new after 100 years, 40 of then under water. The hull is now re-plated with thicker steel to satisfy modern regulations - probably not a good change as the original galvanised plate was designed to give. Regular replacements of rivets with temporary bolts was a feature of operation as the boats were dragged through the rapids and the flexing and denting usually prevented more serious damage. The occasional more serious hole was blocked with a sack of flour wedged in place which set to give a repair sometime good for three months! The Waimarie is now only used for trips an hour or two upriver in the tidal stretch so changes will probably never be fully tested and we forgot to enquiry if sacks of flour are still carried.
We had our first of many of the regular two hour cruises in 2002 and enjoyed it greatly - the ride is very smooth and quiet with only the splash of the paddles to disturb the peace. The fit out is impeccable but probably completely different to that of her working life when settlers would have fought for space with bales of wool, cans of kerosene and livestock on the open decks. Some things however do not change - passengers were still welcome in the engine room and even more welcome to shovel coal into the new boiler. Restoration in NZ can be a bit pragmatic - it is a case of the original axe with three new heads and four handles. Why not, the boats were changed from steam to kerosene and back, lengthened and shortened etc when in service as well as the extensive replacement of parts as one would expect when traversing hundreds of rapids every week on a fickle river capable of changing from being too low for navigation to floods of up to 60 feet on the upper reaches. We had a second even more enjoyable Valentine's day special evening cruise where all the guests received red roses and there was an excellent buffet meal served.
The Wairua was one of two identical boats built by Yarrow and Co of Poplar, London in 1904 and shipped out together in parts to be assembled in Wanganui. The twins, the Wairua and the Waiora, were steam driven with a compound engines by Simpson, Strickland and Co of Dartmouth providing 66 horsepower. Steam was from a Thorneycroft water tube boiler and propulsion was from a single screw mounted in a tunnel with a novel lifting flap arrangement which allowed efficient use at low and high power. The vessels were 65 feet long and 8 foot beam with a maximum draught of only 15 inches They were mainly used on the Pipiriki to the Houseboat section. The steam power plant on the Wairua was replaced by a Thorneycroft oil engine of 70 horsepower in 1914. She was laid up in 1937 and used as a fender at Hatrick's Wharf where she sunk into the mud in the 1950s
She was rescued from the mud in 1987 and since then a dedicated group of 4 people (David McDermid, Ian McMurray, Kevin Clark and Mark Campbell) have been gradually restoring her. Dave was already there when we had our first visit in 2003 with Cameron to look over the work and another of the owners Mark Campbell turned up shortly after. We were surprised how close to completion she was, only engine controls, some wiring and the fitting of a new hydraulic drive and winch were outstanding in major work, at the time they were estimating perhaps only 250 hours work left to get her into the water. It had been a major effort to get so far, especially as the owners were diverted into doing much of the restoration of the Waimarie and by their work as trustees.
Almost the whole hull has had to be re-plated. The original plating was only 3 mm or less thick and heavily galvanised. It was then riveted in place with sealant between the plates - when they were removed the metals was still shiny and galvanised in the overlaps and on the frames. The original plating and structure was designed to give and dent if necessary in the rapids - repairs were easy and special bolts were carried to replace any 'popped' rivets. They have been forced to use thicker plating to satisfy the new marine standards with the bottom now being 5 mm steel and the sides similarly beefed up. Time will tell if this will lead to troubles as they hope to take her on trips through at least the lower rapids. She will also, of course, be considerably heavier and the addition plating thickness will increase her draught by over 10%. In the old days the boats were designed to be re-plated every 25 years so the replacing of plating would otherwise be counted as routine maintenance.
They have fitted a Gardner Diesel of an appropriate horsepower (80) - although built in the 1950s, it is to a 1932 design compatible with the operating life of the Wairua - Gardner diesels were fitted to other riverboats in the mid 1930s so it is an excellent and appropriate choice for a replacement engine. The standard of the work and the attention to detail is incredible with even the rope fenders being 'woven' as close as possible to the original designs using early photographs and drawings and sets of hardwood chairs and tables, all individually made, were waiting for the day when she starts operation. We took far too much of Dave and Marks valuable time talking and we learned a lot more about the riverboats, their restoration and their operation.
We followed progress closely and kept closely in touch with Dave but it was to be another three years before he emailed us to say that she was finally in the water, just too late for us to get down to see her that year. We had to wait until 2007 to finally get a trip up river on her. The restoration has been an excellent blend of accuracy combined with a pragmatic approach to get a boat which satisfies modern regulations for passenger carrying and is maintainable. The fleet continually evolved and the boats continued development and she is very much what she would have been if she had continued in service. Engines were continually being replaced and the Gardiner now fitted was used to upgrade other riverboats, thicker plating and increased use of welding would have arguably taken place if she had remained in service and so on. The workmanship has been outstanding and she looks and handles magnificently.
We were present on one of her first trips after officially receiving her 'safe ships ' certificate from the MSA. She is moored at a new floating pontoon a few tens of metres upstream from the Waimarie and is running a limited number of trips, mostly up to the old picnic area at Hipango Park about 32 kms upstream. As the river boat trade matured there was an increasing emphasis on tourist trips for summer picnics from Wanganui. Initially they were to farmers fields but they became so frequent that a special picnic area was created thanks to the gift of suitable land from the Hipango family. The site had originally been the fertile vegetable garden and kumara patch of a Maori Pa and is ideally sited about two hours upstream from Wanganui and just short of the first rapids. In the heyday of the river boats on a summer weekend there would be several riverboats moored and hundreds of people in the picnic area. The area still exists and has a shelter, many picnic tables, facilities and several barbecues. It has become a little overgrown and the path up from the mooring is being restored a little more every visit but it is still a perfect and very typical destination. It is also complementary to the regular daily two hour long trips on the Waimarie.
We enjoyed the trip upstream greatly, especially as it takes one through a section of the Whanganui which is inaccessible by road. You pass old Pas, the sites of the quarries which gave up the stone for the river protection at the entry to the sea and the stone used to build the Durie Tower. The Wairua cruised effortlessly at about 8 knots through the water and the channel is comparatively wide and deep compared to what she was designed for on the middle and upper stretches of the Whanganui. In the old days there was a 4 ft deep channel not less than 80 ft wide, nowadays the snags are not cleared but there is still a good channel even in low water. The stretch all the way up to Hipango Park is in fact tidal and the day we went up there had been quite heavy rain in the hills and there was some 'fresh' raising the level a little more.
The operation of a tunnel boat is slightly different to other boats as the propeller is only half in the water when the boat is stationary and the water is only initially picked up and fills the tunnel when the throttle is opened well up - you hear the engine speed up then the note deepen and the revs drop as the tunnel fills and a powerful jet of water emerges from the back between the twin rudders, after that the tunnel remains filled down to tick-over. Reverse has to be done equally carefully we are told as too long in neutral allows the tunnel to empty and a burst forward is needed to fill it again before reverse become effective. It must have been interesting in the days when she was driven by steam.
Dave gave a commentary covering some of the points of interest on the way upstream. One of the most interesting points of interest was a brief glimpse of Kemp's pole now somewhat overgrown. Te Keepa Rangihiwinui (Kemp) had been involved at one point in organising sale of land to the crown by Maori. Land sales had always been contentious and for a period land could only be sold to the crown. This is not the place to go into details of the problems arising from land sales but most Maori land was owned by the community (tribe or iwi) but many sales were by individuals without the involvement or agreement of all interested parties. On the other side many of the deals seemed very advantageous to the buyer with small number of, for example, muskets purchasing vast tracts of land - the owners of the muskets however often expected to use them to quickly replace or regain the land. It was not just savvy commercial interests making these purchases but even the missionaries were using muskets and axes as the bargaining tokens for their acquisitions. The cultures were very different with the Maori having a very strong but very different morality with quite different concept of the ownership of land and trouble was inevitable. Ultimately the problems led to what were known as the land wars in the mid 1860s and the impact continued long after they were over.
Major Kemp, as he had become known after his battles against Te Kooti in 1868, had became somewhat disillusioned with what had been going on and tried to persuade the other Maori to set aside a huge tract of land delimited by markers which became known as the Kemp's poles as a land trust in 1880. We saw the one remaining pole just below Hipango park at the mouth of the Kauarapaoa Stream and John Gray, the Historian and Archivist at the riverboat centre was good enough to send us some information on the others that he found for us from a reference to Kemp’s Pole in a book by T W Downes, ‘The History of and a Guide to the Wanganui River’, 1923 edition. "The lands included in this trust he tried to form were defined by erecting a carved post at each of the four corners, viz: The one now standing at the mouth of the Kauarapaoa Stream, one at Te Reureu, one at a point near Moawhango, and a fourth on the Waitotara River." Interestingly these boundaries were different from those of the Aukati Line which defined the King Country. That line intersected the upper Wanganui River in the area Utapu.
The trip upstream took about two hours and we had a couple of hours at Hipango Park for our picnic before our return downstream. The park is available for camping and is mentioned in guide books for the Whanganui Journey. We had intended to do the short walk to the nearby Potakataka pa but we spent so long talking to Mal who runs Outlook Tours which provides Day Trips and Tours for senior citizens from the North Shore (Auckland) who was a fund of knowledge on almost every area and aspect of New Zealand - he had something to offer on almost every place we have visited. We tried to persuade him that the vast fund of information he has gathered ought to be written up on the web.
On the way downstream we passed the Waimarie on her way upstream on the midday trip - she still looks magnificent and it was quite a sight to see her under full steam belching black smoke. It is definitely an excellent day out even if you do not start off with an interest in the riverboats and one which is complementary to a trip on the Waimarie - currently the Wairua is only doing a limited number of trips, many for pre-booked parties, and currently she is only certified for 32 passengers so planning ahead is essential. Dave hopes to do a few longer (overnight?) trips which would take her up through some of the rapids but they await the higher waters of winter and a learning curve of the lost skills of operating such boats through rapids. We just hope we can get the opportunity of such a trip at some future time.
Our second journey on the Wairua was in 2105. The day was fine and sunny for our trip on the Wairua although it had a cold wind in exposed places. The Wairua was due to make three trips that week up to Upokongaro, not as far as our first trip to Hipango park but with a long stop for people to get a lunch at the Cafe 4 forty 4 and walk round the village. In contrast the Waimarie is now only running at weekends or when there are private trips booked. They had hoped to run a midweek trip for the Senior Games which were in Wanganui that week but could not get the required 30 whilst Dave had 35 out of his maximum capacity of 39 onboard. He gave his usual excellent commentary. The Wairua is still in impeccable condition. We sat up on the top deck under the shelter - the top deck is limited to 8 people these days because of the modern stability conditions and the maximum number of passengers to 39 plus crew, far less than she was designed for. Even then Dave had to go through all the old fashioned tests moving barrels of water round etc - the modern software failed completely on an old design and asked for many tons of ballast to be added (which would cripple a low draft riverboat) and even then allowed less than 20% of her original passenger capacity. As a research physicist and software engineer I wonder if the software or the parameterization used works properly at all if real tests and predictions are so different on a test case.
On the way up we passed what is believed to be the Southernmost Mature Kauri and shortly afterwards the Top Ten Holiday Park where we were staying. We had a snack lunch in the Cafe 4 forty 4 before exploring the village. Dave had recommended their home made pies and we had to agree and followed up with some of their large helpings of home made cakes, in fact everything is home made and all looks excellent and we will be tempted to stop even if we go by in the van. The owner took time to tell us all about the history of the cafe and the area when she saw us looking at the old pictures on the walls. Much of the furniture is also historic and and has been retrieved and restored from various local sources.
Upokongaro itself is an interesting village. The Maori words that form Upokongara mean 'concealed or hidden head' and according to local tradition refer to a female warrior who lived in the 19th century and was so greatly respected for her fighting prowess that her head was removed after her death and hidden to prevent desecration and to maintain her 'mana' or dignity. The village itself dates back to the early 1800s and was established to serve a growing local community by providing a blacksmith, creamery, church, school, community hall, hotel and general store. Access to the Whanganui hinterland was restricted to canoe, barge and riverboat until the early 1930s when the road was built. There was however a horse-coach service to Upokongaro started in the 1880s and one of their original milestones is visible in the village marking seven miles from Wanganui City Bridge. The Avoca Hotel probably dates back to those days but we could not find any information to confirm that. St Mary's church was opened in 1877 and is the oldest church on it's original site in Wanganui District. The stained glass windows are of particular beauty and the church has a Historic Places Trust Classification. We could unfortunately only look at the outside. The most unusual feature is the steeple which is triangular but set on a square base giving the illusion from the river that it is out of plumb - it seems to be made of recycled oil tins. The main jetty which served the riverboats has has been rebuilt and has a nice picnic area big enough for events and, on occasion it serves the Waimarie. The Wairua has her own jetty rebuilt, by Dave in partnership with the Cafe 4 forty 4.
The Ongarue is another of the tunnel drive boats used on the upper reaches with an even shallower draft and smaller size than the Wairua. She has recently been brought to the Riverboat Centre from Pipiriki where she had been on display in the open for many years and had got into a very poor state but she has now been stabilised and is on display looking very much smarter than when we saw her at Pipriki - have a look at the contrast to picture above that we took when we did the river road in 2001. In the longer term it is hoped to restore her also to a state where she can return to the water and after the miracles worked on the Waimarie and the Wairua it looks very feasible. She was designed for the upper reaches from Pipiriki to the Houseboat and, in particular for the stretch on from the houseboat to Taumarunui. Like many of the other riverboats she was built by Yarrow of Poplar, London and sent out in sections to be assembled at Wanganui. She entered service in 1903 and was the last of the riverboats still in service in 1958. She only had a draft of 12 inches although 60 feet long and carrying 45 people at an average of 7.5 mph. Designed for use in very shallow water, she has a single screw hidden in a tunnel with twin long rudders either side hanging out the back and a winch at the front to pull her up the worst rapids.
I hope this brief introduction to the Whanganui and her historic riverboats has been of interest to boaters on the canals and rivers at the opposite end of the world. I have also given permission for it to be published in the Pipeline.
There is also a new Adventure boat built to look like the original river boats which offers several trips per year upstream taking 2 - 3 days and going about 160 kms upstream to Whakahoro through some 135 rapids.
Coming back to the this years story we stayed at the Wanganui Top Ten Holiday Park which is just outside of Wanganui on the banks of the Whanganui River - one can watch the Waimarie steam by from the decking in front of the cabins which gives it a big advantage. We went into Wanganui and walked round, it is a nice town in its own right and much of the central area consists of Art Deco buildings which have been brought back to their original style. Pete spent some time in the museum whilst Pauline went to the Library which had one of the books she was looking for her research project. The section covering the trip on the Wairua has been moved up into the excerpt above from the Whanganui River Story.
From Wanganui we started South towards Wellington. We wanted to stop at Tokomaru where we know Colin and Esma who run the Tokomaru Steam Museum and needed a place to stay within a reasonable drive of Tokomaru.
Himotangi Beach: We have often stayed at Levin but a few years ago we had stayed at Himotangi Beach and we had noted it was well worth a return, and it was. We had a simple cabin this time whilst we had a kitchen cabin last time but everything was as good or better than we remembered. Everything was in very good condition and clean and tidy with a good kitchen etc. We used one of their many barbeques in the evening and there was the largest bed of herbs we have seen at a camp site alongside. It is definitely a place to go back to although the beach was not tenable in the high on-shore winds. The roads had sand building up as it blew over the dunes! The next part will continue at the Tokomaru Steam Museum.
| Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Spelling corrections: 8th January, 2016