Whanganui National Park is an area covered in dense lowland forest of mainly podocarp, broadleaf and black beech trees and is very sparsely populated. The area is known for its ravines, canyons and gorges that have been cut into the soft rock by the winding streams and river. The Whanganui River runs all the way to the Tasman Sea and is the longest navigable river in New Zealand. It is used by hundreds of people who enjoy canoeing. A five-day canoe trip can be taken down the Whanganui River. This trip is known as the ‘Whanganui Journey.’ The park provides campsites and huts along the way for this trip. Shorter trips can be taken as well. Visitors to the park can also enjoy Day walks, and longer hikes. The parks habitat supports a large variety of wildlife including birds, and 18 species of native fish some of which are endangered.
The area was once a major transportation route for the Maori people. This is known because of the numerous defensive forts, or pa, old villages, churches, and war and peace poles that line the river. The Maori people have a legend that explains the Whanganui River’s existence. The legend says that where the river now starts there was once four mountains, Tongariro, his wife Pihanga, Taranaki and Ngauruhoe. Taranaki wanted the beautiful Pihanga for his own and a battle followed between Tongariro and Taranaki. Tongariro won and Taranaki left in anger towards the sea and now stands in isolation at Mt. Taranaki (Egmont). He left a deep gorge in his tracks and Tongariro filled it with water to heal it. This according to the Maori was how the Whananui River was born.
Major European influence began in the 1840’s with missionaries. Until the 1920’s European settlers also used the river as a part of their trading and tourist system. 12,000 tourists a year made there way down the Whanganui in riverboats. Tourists stayed in remote hotels along the way and enjoyed such lavish treats as electricity. Much of the land was used a farmland between World War I and World War II, and evidence of this can still be seen including abandoned mills and the famous “Bridge to Nowhere.” The bridge was built in the 1930’s as part of a roadway to the farms being settled in the Mangapurua Valley but the farms failed and were abandoned. The bridge is the only indication that any settlements ever existed there.
The area is rich with history and to learn more about it you can visit the Whanganui Regional Museum. Where they run an exhibit called “Where there is a body of water, people settle, and where people settle, legends unfold” that gives history and background on the area that no one should miss.