Putting the H back into WHANGANUI

Whanganui – and you can spell this place with or with­out the “h” – has much his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance. LOR­RAINE THOM­SON vis­its what was one of New Zealand’s old­est towns and is spell­bound by the his­tory.

Travel Digest - - JERUSALEM - Lor­raine Thom­son was hosted by Visit Whanganui.

To get a good feel for this city – and it is very tempt­ing to still call it a town – the Her­itage Walk­ing Tour pro­vides the per­fect en­trée. My guide for the tour was Ge­off Fol­let from the re­tail business as­so­ci­a­tion Mainstreet Whanganui. This guy ap­peared to know ev­ery­one we came across in Whanganui and pro­vided an ex­cel­lent com­men­tary with much his­tor­i­cal anec­do­tal knowl­edge of the her­itage build­ings, clubs and the­atres we walked past and into. The first port of call was a bright red tram shed sport­ing a bright red 102- yearold re­fur­bished tram. This tram op­er­ates ev­ery Sun­day, tak­ing pas­sen­gers for a leisurely ride along the river­bank and is touted as the only work­ing her­itage tram in provin­cial New Zealand. Many of the stately build­ings we walked past were built in the late 1800s, like the Royal Whanganui Opera House, which was built in 1899 and is the only the­atre in New Zealand to have a Royal Char­ter. The Whanganui River­boat Cen­tre was built in 1876 and is now a river­boat mu­seum with mem­o­ra­bilia of the Whanganui River and its river­boat era. The cul­tural heart of the city is a hill, known to Maori as Puke­namu, that has been the site of both Maori and Euro­pean for­ti­fi­ca­tions. A tribal bat­tle in 1832 saw the Taranaki tribe Ngati Te Ati­awa at­tack the hill manned by Whanganui and Tuwhare­toa tribes. In 1882 the area was taken over by the

Coun­cil and re­named Queen’s Park in hon­our of Queen Vic­to­ria. The neo­clas­si­cal Sar­jeant Art Gallery with a 13- me­tre high cen­tral dome [ cur­rently un­der­go­ing ren­o­va­tions] oc­cu­pies the prom­i­nent site on the top of the hill, but the park also houses The Whanganui Re­gional Mu­seum, The War Memo­rial Hall, the Davis Li­brary, The Alexan­der Her­itage and Re­search Li­brary, as well as a col­lec­tion of mon­u­ments. Whanganui ac­tu­ally has a vast col­lec­tion of stately mon­u­ments, clubs, foun­tains, tow­ers and war memo­ri­als – dot­ted all around the city. Although the walk­ing tour takes one to two hours, it is worth­while go­ing back to some of the iconic places to spend more time. One such place is the Whanganui Re­gional Mu­seum and I par­tic­u­larly en­joyed a Be­hind the Scenes Tour by the cu­ra­tor of cul­tural his­tory Libby Sharpe. What this woman doesn’t know about New Zealand his­tory is not worth know­ing! Libby told me pre- World War One, Whanganui used to see 80,000 to 100,000 vis­i­tors go­ing up and down the Whanganui River on pad­dle steam­ers – like a wa­ter high­way. There were peo­ple from all over the world, as well as lo­cal church groups go­ing on a pic­nic. Libby took me down into the base­ment ar­chives where Maori and Euro­pean ar­ti­facts, cloth­ing, fur­ni­ture, taxi­dermy and paint­ings were stored and of­ten not brought out un­til there was an ex­hi­bi­tion. The mu­seum cur­rently has a World War I Ex­hi­bi­tion and also a Moa Ex­hi­bi­tion [ the largest per­ma­nent ex­hi­bi­tion of moa bones in the world]. Nine species of moa evolved in New Zealand and four species were found in Whanganui. In the 1930s the mu­seum ac­quired 2,000 of th­ese bones. One unique icon in the city, not in­cluded in the walk­ing tour, is the Durie Hill El­e­va­tor. It is the only one of its kind in the South­ern Hemi­sphere. The en­trance­way is di­rectly op­po­site the Whanganui City Bridge on Anzac Pa­rade and is marked by a tra­di­tional Maori carved gate­way. This is fol­lowed by a 213- me­tre long un­der­ground tun­nel and a 66- me­tre high lift staffed by a lit­tle old lady who presses the lift but­tons. If you don’t want to use the tun­nel and lift, you can take the 193 steps run­ning along­side to get to the top of the hill. Some keen fit­ness ad­dicts can be seen run­ning up and down th­ese steps and us­ing them like an out­door gym. Once you are at the top of Durie Hill there is a look­out tower with views over the city and up the river. There is also a much taller Durie Hill Memo­rial Tower. Opened in 1925 as a memo­rial to those in the area who lost their lives in World War One, there are 176

steps lead­ing to the top of this tower. On clear days you can see the tip of the South Is­land from the look­out. The sec­ond way to see Whanganui is to take a ca­noe trip up the me­an­der­ing river the city is built around. My guide on this river trip was Ash­ley Patea from BA Pro­duc­tions. Ash­ley came com­plete with quite a col­lec­tion of his ex­tended whanau [ fam­ily] and this in­cluded a fair share of aun­ties. We went out on two ca­noes with five peo­ple on each. Ash­ley was the per­fect host for this river trip and I learnt a lot of his­tory tied into the river and the Maori tribes who lived and were buried at var­i­ous sites along the water­way. One of his rel­a­tives sung a se­lec­tion of Maori songs on the river trip back. This was a very mov­ing, spir­i­tual and peace­ful trip. The pad­dling it­self was easy once you got into a rhythm with the oth­ers on your ca­noe. Each Satur­day Whanganui puts on a River Traders and Farm­ers Mar­ket. I was lucky enough to have a per­son­al­ized tour by no other than the mayor of the city, An­nette Main. This woman is amaz­ing! Not only is she mayor, but she also has a stall at the mar­ket sell­ing home­made muffins, or­ganic honey muesli, rasp­berry vine­gar and other de­lec­ta­ble bak­ing. The macadamia ginger crunch looked par­tic­u­larly en­tic­ing. Then she also owns The Fly­ing Fox re­treat, which is a col­lec­tion of quaint self- con­tained / bed and break­fast cot­tages in a re­mote river set­ting up the Whanganui River. Ac­cess is by way of a cable­way across the river. For recre­ation there is a three- hour ca­noe jour­ney or a jet boat / ca­noe pack­age on of­fer. At the bustling river­side mar­ket An­nette in­tro­duces me to many of the lo­cal pro­duc­ers who have stalls. They all know and clearly re­spect An­nette and what she is do­ing to re­vive Whanganui. I sense the for­mer colour­ful mayor did not re­ceive the same ac­cord.

At the nearby Chron­i­cle Glass Stu­dio I take a hands- on ap­proach and learn how to make a de­light­ful multi- coloured paperweight. Whanganui has been mak­ing a name for it­self in terms of glass­blow­ing and this stu­dio was where all the glass for The Hob­bit movie was made. Wear­ing gloves and a pro­tec­tive pair of eyeglasses, I learnt how to mix colours and put twirls and bub­bles into the glass. You learn how to turn the glass in a very hot fur­nace, shape the glass, cut it and place it in another oven to cool down over night. My lit­tle gem of a paperweight was de­liv­ered to the lodge I was stay­ing in the next day. The Aotea Mo­tor Lodge is at the top end of the main street, Vic­to­ria Av­enue. It is a ten- minute stroll to the cen­tre of the city. There are 28 mod­ern and clean units and the unit I was stay­ing in had a dou­ble spa bath. I par­tic­u­larly liked a com­ment in the room com­pen­dium which said: “Nes­tled at the mouth of the Whanganui River, the unique­ness and charm of our city will change your way of think­ing, recharge your spirit and feed your pas­sion for a vi­brant and en­joy­able stay.” This city un­equiv­o­cally lives up to all of the above.

The Watt Foun­tain was built as a memo­rial to the first Mayor of Whanganui, Wil­liam Hogg Watt, in 1881.

Whanganui Mayor An­nette Main and her stall at the River Traders and Farm­ers Mar­ket.

This num­ber 12 tram is 102 years old and takes vis­i­tors for rides each Sun­day along the river­side.

The Bell Tower, built in 1891, houses a fire bell.

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