With astounding scenery, ecological systems and natural features the Whanganui River (Te Awa Tupua) flowing from Mount Tongariro to the Tasman Sea became, in 2017, the world's second natural resource to be given its own legal identity. With a length of 290 kilometres Te Awa Tupua is one of the country's longest navigable rivers and home to one of New Zealand’s great walks.
Early Māori used the Whanganui River and its tributaries to facilitate trade and communication to the Wellington, Waikato, Taranaki, Taupō, and Bay of Plenty regions at least 600 years ago, before the telephone, before satellite mapping, before zoom meetings.
Māori were major traders and several flourmills were built between the 1840s and 1860s. In 1891 a riverboat service was established, carrying passengers, mail and freight to Māori and European settlers between Whanganui and Taumarunui and tourism flourished.
“Travellers are lured here by a world of constantly changing scenery packed into a comparatively small space: primordial forest; lakes; waterfalls; fiords; active volcanoes; hot-water springs; geysers; white- and black-sand beaches; alps and glaciers.” Ewan McDonald, BBC Travel, May 2020
Native plants and animals play a significant spiritual and cultural role here, with food, medicine and construction materials transported traditionally on “our major highway”. Undoubtedly the lifeblood of Māori, in 1843 100 canoes (Waka) were counted by a European Missionary at one small village alone.
“ The Māori named 239 rapids along the river, including Ngaporo, ‘the worst’; Paparoa, ‘the fastest’; Kiri-kiri-roa ‘a swift and tricky left-hander’; and Te Ohu, ‘the most feared’ because the taniwha Tutangatakino was reputed to live there.” The Jet Boat, The Making Of A New Zealand Legend.
With a guardian, or kaitiaki, at every bend or rapid to maintain the mauri (life force) of that stretch of the river it is still considered bad luck to pass Tutangatakino without an offering. Sophia Haugh, Sales Manager at Forgotten World Adventures explains that her grandfather, 1981 World Jet Boat Champion Max McKenzie “used to throw a willow branch as a peace offering every time he went past on the river, even when racing. The one day he forgot he had a stroke before he got out of the boat”.
But that is just one of the many tales passed on, visit Forgotten World Adventures and you may just hear a few more.