Rhine of the Antipodes

The houseboat  'Makere' moored at Marae Kōwhai on the Whanganui River.

The houseboat ‘Makere’ moored at Marae Kōwhai on the Whanganui River.

The Whanganui River has always enchanted those who have travelled its winding waters. Tangata whenua (people of the land) hold the river sacred and express their relationship with it in the saying: Ko te Maunga, Ko te Moana, Ko au te Awa, Ko te Awa, ko au; From the Mountain, To the Sea, I am the River, And the River is me. The later years of the nineteenth century opened up the Whanganui River to the rest of the world. Travelling for pleasure was fashionable and increasingly affordable. Tourists had explored and gloried in the long, winding Rhine that moves through the heart of Germany, with its towering precipices and picturesque castles. They had gasped at the Pyramids in Egypt and seen the Greek Parthenon. Now they started looking for other marvels.New Zealand with all its natural curiosities and exotic locations, such as the Thermal Wonderland in Rotorua, drew tourists from overseas in their thousands. The Whanganui River was marketed as the antipodes of the Rhine in Europe, its direct opposite on the other side of the world. New Zealanders also came from near and far to bask in its beauty, to picnic, to meander by canoe and to enjoy a pictorial paradise not seen by many before.

William Salt, his sister and a small party rowed down the river from Taumarunui, circa 1910.

William Salt, his sister and a small party rowed down the river from Taumarunui, circa 1910.

Visitors left a legacy of photographs and paintings to lure many more to Whanganui.  The photographs record a brief moment in history, but capture the magnificence and timelessness of the river.  North of Pīpīriki, ladders of vines that made Māori cliff top settlements accessible from the river were an exciting and awe inspiring subject for a photograph. Arawhata, the name of the area, actually means ladder. Variations on what was known as The Ladder Scene were created many times by different photographers and became a standard shot for publications and postcards.

The Drop Scene, taken early 20th century by FJ Denton

The Drop Scene, taken early 20th century by FJ Denton

Also upriver from Pīpīriki, voyagers come across what is known as The Drop Scene. There are several stories about how this place got its name. One is that the dramatic scenery looks like a theatre backdrop. Another is that as you look upriver through the gorge, an optical illusion gives the impression that the river is dropping away in front of you.

Alexander Hatrick, an astute and energetic businessman, built up a fleet of riverboats that were used for local freight and passenger transport and also for tourist travel.  He set up two hotels to support his river transport business and created a commercial kingdom on the Whanganui River.  In the busiest years Hatrick’s fleet was composed of 19 vessels, including paddle steamers and motorised canoes. The journey up the Whanganui River could be made in a pleasant three days. Hatrick linked up with Thomas Cook Travel, putting this region on the world map of scenic wonderland tours.

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