Whanganui River Mouth – Te Kai Hau ā Kupe

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.


1. Castlecliff photo

 Whanganui River Mouth, Castlecliff Beach; Frank Denton, 20th century.  Ref: 1802.1016

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


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.