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.
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.