Skip to main content

Whanganui River - roadside stories

For the Māori tribes of the Whanganui River, the river was vitally important for transport, food and spiritual well-being. Māori caught eels by building ingenious eel weirs in the river – but these structures were removed by European settlers to allow access for steamboats. Boat trips up the river became popular with tourists in the late 19th century.


Archival audio: Rangi Pohika, elder of Ngāti Pomoana, talks about the importance of the Whanganui River to local Māori.

Narrator: At nearly 300 kilometres long, the Whanganui River is New Zealand’s second longest river. Its tributaries are located high on the Volcanic Plateau in the middle of the North Island and the river flows out to the Tasman Sea at the city of Whanganui.

The river has spectacular scenery in its middle reaches, north of Pipiriki, where it passes through a series of narrow gorges set amidst lush native forest.

The river is of huge importance to local Māori who used it as a highway, a food source, a playground, and a spiritual home. There is a well-known whakataukī (proverb) which ends: ‘Ko au te awa ko te awa ko au.’ This means, ‘I am the river; the river is me.’

Māori built settlements – some of them fortified – the length of the river, and paddled up and down on waka (canoes). This included large waka taua (war canoes) that could carry up to 40 warriors.

The river used to contain an abundance of eels, which Māori caught with ingenious pā auroa (eel weirs). A pā auroa was a single fence built almost parallel to the current at the top of a rapid. As eels came downstream, the fence guided them into a net attached to the end post and another post opposite.

Many river weirs were removed by Pākehā or Europeans in the 19th century in order to let steamboats travel the river, and the diversion of water for hydro-electric power in the 20th century saw water levels fall and eel numbers decline.

The first European settlers arrived in Whanganui in the early 1840s, but they led a fearful existence for some years as they occupied land where Māori disputed the sale. However, by the late 19th century, Māori opposition had largely been circumvented, and paddle steamers plied the river, deep into the interior. Hotels were built on the riverbank and tourists also stayed in riverboats moored to the shore. A trip up the Whanganui became a celebrated tourist attraction, drawing visitors from around the world.

However, the extensive clearance of the bush-clad interior caused eroded land to fill the river and it soon became impassable to large vessels. Today visitors can enjoy a riverboat ride on the restored Waimarie, the country’s only operational paddle boat. It travels the still navigable lower reaches of the river from its mooring near the city’s ‘Town Bridge’.

Across the road, Moutoa Gardens occupies the site of an old Māori market, Pākaitore. Issues about ownership of the river and relations between local Māori and Pākehā came to a head at Moutoa Gardens in 1995. About 150 Whanganui Māori occupied the gardens for 79 days to protest delays in the settlement of historic land grievances. The dispute attracted national attention and infuriated many Pākehā locals. However, these issues have come to the fore again in recent debates over whether there should be an ‘h’ in the name of the city, Whanganui. 

Today, few people live on the banks of the Whanganui River, but it is a popular tourist attraction, especially for trampers, jetboaters and kayakers. The stretch of river between Whakahoro and Pipiriki, with a gentle gradient yet lots of rapids, is particularly popular with canoeists and kayakers.


Manatū Taonga - Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2011. Part of the Roadside Stories series

Archival audio sourced from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives, Sound files may not be reused without permission from Radio New Zealand Sound Archives (Reference number: TCDR5112).

How to cite this page

Whanganui River - roadside stories, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated