Driving the Whanganui River Road

The Whanganui River was first settled by Maori, this map shows the numerous marae and former pa sites (fortified villages). One of the most striking features of the *79km Whanganui River Road is the number of meeting houses you see along the river. There is protocol surrounding a marae visit so it’s respectful not to enter without an invitation.

Looking down over Whanganui River Road from Aramoana Summit (17km from Wanganui)

Looking down over Whanganui River Road from Aramoana Summit (17km from Wanganui)

Maranganui meeting house, one of the first meeting houses you will see at the Wanganui end of the road

Maranganui meeting house, one of the first meeting houses you will see at the Wanganui end of the road

We travelled from Wanganui to Pipiriki in the rain which added a moody feel to the landscape, and rain mixed with mud made a good reason to clean the car when we got home.The road is narrow and windy in places so take it slow and be prepared to give way.

River level marker (24kms from Wanganui) - top white mark shows 1904 water level, although the river rose higher in 1940

River level marker (24kms from Wanganui) – top white mark shows 1904 water level, although the river rose higher in 1940.

Around three kilometres after the river level marker look out for the Oyster Cliffs. This area was once under the sea and layers of fossillised oysters can be seen in the cliffs along the road.

One of the unusual letter boxes on the Whanganui River Road

One of the many unusual letter boxes on the Whanganui River Road

For a glimpse back in time, this photo shows a group of Maori outside Te Rangihekeiho meeting house (below), the photo was taken between 1874 and 1900. I’m not sure if all the meeting houses we saw along the river are original, but all of the marae are well looked after. A recent Whanganui River settlement ensures a healthy future for both the river and all associated with it.

Te Rangihekeiho meeting house at Atene

Te Rangihekeiho meeting house at Atene

The cute little Downes Hut is named after Thomas William Downes. Mr Downes worked for the Whanganui River Trust and used the hut as his headquarters in the 1930’s. The hut is now owned by the Department of Conservation and is used by canoeists and trampers.

Cute little DOC Downes Hut, located across the river

Cute little DOC Downes Hut, located across the river

Canoes are a popular way to get down the river today

Canoes are a popular way to get down the river today

The Flying Fox is an unusual accommodation option 42kms or so down the river road. Sadly one of the talented owners, Mr John Blythe, passed away suddenly in 2013 so the property was closed for a time. He had started another accommodation project which has now been completed and bookings can be made from September 2014. You can stay in a unique cottage or in the hand built cabin on wheels – The Glory Cart.

The Flying Fox Retreat, located across the river

The Flying Fox Retreat, located across the river

Koriniti Marae

Koriniti Marae

Kohu Cottage is another accommodation option.

Kohu Cottage accommodation in the background

Kohu Cottage accommodation in the background

A former school is now Matahiwi Cafe & Gallery. Outside the cafe is the wooden boat used in the movie River Queen which was filmed on the Whanganui River.

Snack stop at Matahiwi

Snack stop at Matahiwi

River Queen

River Queen

River King?

River King?

Taanewai meeting house on Matahiwi Marae

Taanewai meeting house on Matahiwi Marae

Kawana Flour Mill

Kawana Flour Mill

The Kawana Flour Mill operated from 1854 until 1913. The mill building is a replica but the water wheel and millstones are original, as is the relocated miller’s cottage. (The flour mill is 54kms from Wanganui).

Miller's cottage behind the mill

Miller’s cottage behind the mill

It’s worth going inside the mill to see photos of the river boats that graced the Whanganui River, once promoted as ‘The Rhine of the South’. The first regular steam boat service started in 1892, prior to the river road opening in 1934 river boats were the way to travel and were popular with tourists.

Today you can board the paddlesteamer Waimarie in Wanganui and travel up to Upokongaro. The boat was salvaged from the Whanganui River in 1993 after sinking in its berth in 1952. Restoration work was completed and the PS Waimarie started transporting passengers again on 1 January 2000.

Ranana Marae

Ranana Marae

Hiruharama (Jerusalem) from a distance

Hiruharama (Jerusalem) from a distance

We stopped briefly in Jerusalem (64kms from Wanganui) and walked around the pretty and peaceful garden at the Sisters of Compassion Convent. There is accommodation at the old convent in dormitory style rooms from $25pp. There’s also one double room with an ensuite. The accommodation is self catering and you need your own bedding.

Garden at Sisters of Compassion Convent

Garden at Sisters of Compassion Convent

Jerusalem is also the resting place of poet James K Baxter who established an alternative community nearby in 1969. I’ve always liked his words on the Wellington Writers Walk, the rest of the poem can be read here.

Accommodation at Sisters of Compassion old convent

Accommodation at Sisters of Compassion old convent

The Whanganui River Road ends at Pipiriki, the gateway to Bridge to Nowhere (tours and accommodation).  It’s a unique journey the river road, with its twists and turns alongside farmland, Maori meeting places, and reminders of early European settlement. It’s likely you’ll encounter a typical rural traffic jam – farmers and their dogs moving sheep or cattle. Travelling well under the speed limit is the safest way to complete the 79km journey. Allow 1.5 – 2 hours including stops.

Rural traffic jam

Rural traffic jam

We drove from Pipiriki to Raetihi and on to Taupo. You can drive the Whanganui River Road as a round trip, from Raetihi follow the twisty Paraparas (State Highway 4) back to Wanganui.

Road to Raetihi

Road to Raetihi

*Some tips for the trip:
Visit the Wanganui i-SITE at 31 Taupo Quay and pick up the Whanganui River Road brochure. (There are also i-SITES in Taumarunui and Ohakune).
It’s a rural road with no petrol stations or shops, fill up with petrol and stock up on food if you intend to stay the night.
The road is now completely sealed but it’s narrow and windy in places so take it slow and be prepared to give way to traffic (even if you think you’ve got right of way), also watch out for farmers moving stock.
If you don’t have your own transport you can take a Whanganui River Road Mail Tour, they offer other tour options as well.
More about Whanganui River.

Ratana Church at Raetihi

Ratana Church at Raetihi

 

12 thoughts on “Driving the Whanganui River Road

  1. Hi
    A group of us doing a motorcycle trip up the River road on Dec 27th . Are there any cafe’s on the road we can plan stops at?
    Kim

  2. Greetings, Kia Ora,
    Is there anyone who has knowledge of the where abouts on the Whanganui river is Tauwhitinua Pa? I would be grateful if someone could advise me.
    Regards MikeOB

    • Kia Ora Mike
      No, not personally, however if you click the map link on the first line of the post you will see Tawhitinui (also known as Tauwhitinui), I note you spelt it Tauwhitinua, maybe the a should be an i? If you Google Tawhitinui quite a few mentions come up, this one about Hori Pukehika who carved the panels for the Tawhitinui meeting house opposite Moutoa Island, the panels are now in the Whanganui Regional Museum – http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3p35/pukehika-hori

  3. My friend and I intend on visiting the River Road in April. This article has helped us both heaps! We are nervous but eager to visit – I actually have land to my name that we want to go and explore. We are also studying James K Baxter in school, so it will be great to visit Jerusalem.

    Thanks!

    • Hi
      Sorry for the delay in replying but I’m overseas and have had trouble accessing email and the blog.

      Glad to be of help, it’s special to have land on the Whanganui River and it will be exciting for you to stand on it for the first time. It’s great timing to be studying James K Baxter, it’s easy to see why he chose Jerusalem as a place to settle, it’s so serene there. Happy trails to you both on the River Road.

  4. Thanks for the heads up. The Matahiwi cafe and gallery was spectacular. The only food place up this magical road, and in a perfect location, definitly needed a pit stop and the host Marlene was so inviting and full of knowledge of the area. A wonderful experience

    • Hi Pauline
      You’re most welcome, and thank you, it’s always good to know that a post has been useful. We didn’t stop at Pipiriki but I believe there’s a small food stop there if the Matahiwi Cafe & Gallery is closed and you want to take a break before continuing on the rood to Raetihi. Happy trails.

  5. Lucky I came across your blog today – I am going on a retreat to Jerusalem in November (again), just love the atmosphere there. Great to know the road is now sealed.

    • Hi, We just stopped in Jerusalem briefly but it was so lovely and peaceful, I can imagine it would be a perfect place for a retreat. If it’s a public retreat and there are still places available, feel free to post a link. I’m curious myself as to what sort of retreat it is. Cyclists especially will appreciate the new seal I’m sure, it would have been hard, slow going after a lot of rain.

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