The Whanganui River
Māori legend explains the formation of the river in the Mount Taranaki legend. When Mount Taranaki left the central plateau for the coast, the land was split open, and the river filled the rift. According to Māori tradition, the river was first explored by Tamatea, one of the leaders of the original migration to the new land, who travelled up the river and on to Lake Taupo. Many places along the river are named in his honour.
The Whanganui river has always been an important communication route to the central North Island, both for Māori and for settlers. It is, however, also a difficult river, with many stretches of white water and over 200 rapids. Despite this for many years it was the principal route to the interior.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area around the Whanganui was one of the most densely inhabited in the land. Unsurprisingly, with the arrival of the colonial settlers, the area near the river's mouth became a major trading post.
Although it was already a significant route to the interior, the major development of the river as a trade route was by Alexander Hatrick, who started the first regular steam-boat service in 1892. The service eventually ran to Taumarunui where rail and coach services connected with points north. One of Hatrick’s original boats, paddle-steamer PS Waimarie, has been restored and runs scheduled sailings in Whanganui. Another of the Hatrick boats, MV Wairua has also been restored and can be seen on the river.
During the early 20th century, the Wanganui River, as it was then called, was one of the country’s top tourist attractions, its rugged beauty and the Māori kainga (villages) which dotted the banks attracting thousands of tourists per year.
With the completion of the North Island Main Trunk railway, the need for the steamboat route to the north greatly diminished, and the main economic activity of the river area became forestry. During the 1930s, attempts were made to open the river valley up as farmland, but they were not successful. One legacy of that time is the Bridge to Nowhere, built to provide access to settlements long since abandoned.
The settlement of Jerusalem is of particular note. Jerusalem was home to two famous New Zealanders, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert, whose Catholic mission is still located at Jerusalem, and New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, who established a commune at the settlement in1970.
On 30th August 2012, an agreement was reached that entitled the Whanganui River to a legal identity, a first in the world. According to the New Zealand Herald, the river "will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law - in the same way that a company is, which will give it rights and interests.