Where a river meets the sea is a place of great fascination to people all over the world. It’s usually a place of great abundance for fishing as well as gathering whatever interesting wrack gets washed down the river and cast up onto the shore. If the river is large enough it becomes an entrance for shipping or boating, with all the consequent dangers associated with channels, rips and sand-bars.
The Whanganui River entrance has been shaped and changed by major human intervention from its original form. When we at look at old photographs or paintings of the river-mouth, what we see is very different from what is there today.
The building of channel-protecting moles on either side of the river entrance completely transformed, not only the river mouth, but also the coastal area to the west. Interrupting the longshore current that flows from west to south east causes the suspended sand to gradually accumulate against the obstruction. This has created expansive sand-dunes at Castlecliff and has moved the shoreline steadily seawards.
One early image of the river mouth is a photograph of Castlecliff Beach by well-known Whanganui photographer Frank Denton. You can see beach visitors enjoying a stroll on the sand. The beach stretches around a natural curve at the river mouth and the sea-swell washes into the river. Ladies lift the hems of their long dresses over the wet sand while children play and paddle in the shallows at the edge of the river. In the far distance a line of surf marks the edge of the sea.
A set of three small watercolour paintings by itinerant artist Christopher Aubrey show the river mouth prior to the construction of the moles. Although the paintings are faded and damaged by long exposure to light and damp, all the details are still visible. Each painting depicts the curve of the river towards the entrance at different times of day. Looking closely, we can see that in 1894 there was a significant sandbar, indicated by a thick line of surf across the across the river entrance. The line of surf across the river-mouth ends at a sand-spit that stretches out from a large cliff on the Castlecliff bank of the river.
Along the river margin stretched a beach with a gentle sloping edge, forming a useful pathway for riding horses or for herding a flock of sheep to the freezing works in the background. The Wanganui Freezing Works were established in 1891 to process the farm animals produced in the surrounding rural areas and freeze them for transport out of the region by ship. The paintings also show ships berthed in the river adjacent to the freezing works, a large ship anchored just offshore and a small vessel crossing the sandbar.
Despite the better shipping channel created by the construction of the moles, the difficulty of negotiating the sand-bar and surf have resulted in a number of shipwrecks over the years, including the Port Bowen which, in 1939, ran aground on a sand-bank, fully laden with a cargo of mutton and lamb from Whanganui destined for export to England.
With the proposed development of Whanganui Port it will be interesting to notice and record further changes to the landscape of the Whanganui River mouth and see how future sea-going vessels manage the difficulties of “crossing the bar”.
Margie Beautrais is the Educator at Whanganui Regional Museum