Mountains to the Sea (nearly) Cycle Trip – Whanganui River & The Flying Fox

We awoke on day three to a mist shrouded river although it didn’t take long for the cloud to burn off.  The plan today was to canoe for a couple of hours down the Whanganui River and then cycle approximately 33km also down the river to the Flying Fox Lodge.

We got transported across the river on the jet boat to where our double canoes awaited us.  I had suggested putting everyone’s names in a hat and drawing out canoeing companions in order to avoid potential domestics between husbands and wives or partners.  This didn’t get any traction so we all canoed with our beloveds and yes there was varying degrees of domestic unrest : 0

We had two local canoe guides – Charles and Waiwai. They gave us some paddling instruction and warned us that at least one boat would capsize in the larger rapid that we were going to go over later in the morning.  Steve, not being a water sports fan was freaking out and so I took control and said I would go in the back – the person in the back effectively steers and controls the boat.  This was going against the logic of the heaviest person being in the back but I thought we’d be fine.  It didn’t quite turn out that way and I just couldn’t get the jist of the steering – I’m going to blame the fact that there was too much weight in the front : ). The guides suggested we swap and it was a good decision – the weight imbalance was fixed and Steve was pretty good at this steering lark.

We went over a couple of smaller rapids and all was fine.  We stopped off in one of the arms of the river and Charles and Waiwai shared their knowledge of the history of the river as well as some personal stories given they had grown up on the river.

With a length of 290 kilometres (180 mi), the Whanganui is the country’s third-longest river. Much of the land to either side of the river’s upper reaches is part of the Whanganui National Park, though the river itself is not part of the park.

The river rises on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro, one of the three active volcanoes of the central plateau, close to Lake Rotoaira. It flows to the north-west before turning south-west at Taumarunui. From here it runs through the rough, bush-clad hill country of the King Country before turning south-east and flowing past the small settlements of Pipiriki and Jerusalem, before reaching the coast at Whanganui. It is the country’s longest navigable river.

Maori legend explains the formation of the river in the Mount Taranaki legend. When Mount Taranaki left the central plateau for the coast, the land was split open, and the river filled the rift. According to Māori tradition, the river was first explored by Tamatea, one of the leaders of the original migration to the new land, who travelled up the river and on to Lake Taupo. Many places along the river are named in his honour.

The Whanganui River has always been an important communication route to the central North Island, both for Māori and for settlers. It is, however, also a difficult river, with many stretches of white water and over 200 rapids. Despite this for many years it was the principal route to the interior.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the area around the Whanganui was one of the most densely inhabited in the land. Unsurprisingly, with the arrival of the colonial settlers, the area near the river’s mouth became a major trading post.

Although it was already a significant route to the interior, the major development of the river as a trade route was by Alexander Hatrick, who started the first regular steam-boat service in 1892. The service eventually ran to Taumarunui where rail and coach services connected with points north. One of Hatrick’s original boats, paddle-steamer PS Waimarie, has been restored and runs scheduled sailings in Whanganui. Another of the Hatrick boats, MV Wairua has also been restored and can be seen on the river.

During the early 20th century, the Wanganui River, as it was then called, was one of the country’s top tourist attractions, its rugged beauty and the Māori kainga (villages) which dotted the banks attracting thousands of tourists per year.

With the completion of the North Island Main Trunk railway, the need for the steamboat route to the north greatly diminished, and the main economic activity of the river area became forestry. During the 1930s, attempts were made to open the river valley up as farmland, but they were not successful. One legacy of that time is the Bridge to Nowhere, built to provide access to settlements long since abandoned.

In 1912–13 the French filmmaker Gaston Méliès shot a (now lost) documentary film The River Wanganui about the river, calling it the Rhine of New Zealand.

The settlement of Jerusalem is of particular note – see below for more information. Jerusalem was home to two famous New Zealanders, Mother Mary Joseph Aubert (Suzanne Aubert), whose Catholic mission is still located at Jerusalem, and New Zealand poet James K. Baxter, who established a commune at the settlement in 1970.

Other settlements are Tieke Kāinga, Pipiriki, Rānana, Matahiwi, and Koriniti.

The river is of special and spiritual importance for Māori, who also refer to it as Te awa tupua—it was the home for a large proportion of Māori villages in pre-European times. As such, it is regarded as taonga, a special treasure. In recent times, efforts have been made to safeguard the river and give it the respect it deserves.

For the same reason, the river has been one of the most fiercely contested regions of the country in claims before the Waitangi Tribunal for the return of tribal lands. In fact the Whanganui River claim is heralded as the longest-running legal case in New Zealand history with petitions and court action in the 1930s, Waitangi Tribunal hearings in the 1990s and land occupations such as the ongoing Tieke Marae occupation since 1993 and the highly publicised Moutoa Gardens occupation in 1995.

On 30 August 2012, an agreement was reached that entitled the Whanganui River to a legal identity, a first in the world. According to the New Zealand Herald, the river “will be recognized as a person when it comes to the law—in the same way that a company is, which will give it rights and interests”.

For many years it was known in some records as the Wanganui River, however the river’s name officially reverted to Whanganui in 1991, according with the wishes of local iwi. Part of the reason was also to avoid confusion with the Wanganui River in the South Island. The city at the river’s mouth was called Wanganui until December 2009, when the government decided that while either spelling was acceptable, Crown agencies would use the Whanganui spelling.

After successfully navigating a couple of small rapids, Charles and Waiwai primed us up for the last and largest rapid of the day.  They kept reiterating that at least one of us would capsize.  The rapid didn’t look too bad but we tried to do everything they told us as we approached and entered it – we got past the white water OK and were then heading for the bank.  I kept telling Steve to turn the canoe so that we would continue pointing forward – to no avail – we were going down backwards : 0

Meanwhile we had heard a “yee haa” as Rachel D and Jim’s boat capsized.  All I could see was Jim hanging onto the upturned canoe floating down the river – Rachel D was nowhere in sight.  In the midst of yelling at Steve to turn the canoe around I was also saying “where’s Rachel D, she must be trapped under the canoe, we need to help her.”  Steve was saying “we can’t help her, we just need to get down this rapid.”  What I didn’t realise was that he had seen that she was safely on an island in the middle of the river.  Jim, however, was continuing to float down the river attached to the upturned canoe.

We eventually turned the canoe around and enjoyed the last bit of the rapid looking forward.  This was to be the end of our canoeing so we made our way to the river bank.  The jet boat that was there to take us down to Pipiriki went and rescued Jim and the canoe.  Hilary and Graham had picked Rachel D up in their canoe – they were the most competent in the canoe so it was fortunate they had decided to traverse the rapid last.

Once we were all safely on the river bank we took a team photo before getting on the jet boat to be reunited with Ted and our bikes at Pipiriki.  We had spent about three hours canoeing and it was a good introduction and I think enough in the scheme of things.

We were then taken by jet boat down to Pipiriki where Ted met us with the bikes in tow.  This was our lunch stop – the weather had really heated up so we were in for a hot afternoon on the bike.  We had 33km to bike to get to our accomodation for the night.  The first 8km was uphill so 9 of the team decided to take the van option that Ted offered.  Five hardy soles including myself decided to grind the 8km  out.  To be honest I quite enjoyed to, it was a slow steady climb and in the lowest gear you just had to sit there are turn the pedals.  The view up the river at the top was awesome.

Along River Rd you pass through a series of Kainga, the unfortified settlements along the coast that replaced the original series of fighting Pa on the hilltops known as the necklace of fire. The Kainga settlements at the riverside were the results of the missionaries influence and in many cases the Maori asked the Rev Taylor for suggests for their names and what remains is the Maori pronunciations of his suggestions. You pass through Atene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Ranana (London) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem).

The downhill into Hiruharama or Jerusalem was fun.  We stopped off to explore the Church and accomodation.  The buildings were in great condition.  We met a young guy in the accomodation building who invited us upstairs – Di and I thought it was or lucky day : 0. Upstairs was a a big room full of beds that you can stay in for $25 per person per night.  The young guy and his mates had been hunting – he told us that the local gang run the hunting area and you pay them to be able to hunt – $250 for the first animal and $100 for each animal thereafter.  This guy hadn’t actually shot anything himself but his mates had so he was in a dilemma as to whether he should still pay – he was asking our advice – he didn’t want to get on the wrong side of the gang : )

See below for more information about Hiruharama.

After leaving Hiruharama we came across the Kawana Flour Mill.  The Kawana Flour Mill was one of several mills built last century and operated for 50 years. It has been completely rebuilt and is all in perfect condition, with its water heel. The millers colonial style cottage has also been restored and moved up above the potential flood level. The mill is unattended and open all the time to walk round.

Many Māori embraced the new opportunities offered by the international economy. They crewed whale ships, worked at whaling stations, grew crops, exported to Australia and also supplied much of early Auckland and Wellington’s meat and building materials. As well as paying 60% of the North Island’s customs duties by 1856, they also invested in major capital items such as trading schooners and flourmills.

But some of the flourmills, which also had a political function as symbols of mana, were more successful, at least around Whanganui. This mill was originally named Kawana Kerei (Governor Grey) in honour of the governor, who donated millstones. Millwright Peter McWilliam built it in 1854 at Matahiwi for Ngā Poutama iwi to take advantage of salvageable totara logs lying in the riverbed. The provident Whanganui also provided transport for Grey’s millstones and the English cast-iron machinery and brass bearings, as well as power once the waterwheel started turning inside the timber-framed weatherboarded three-storey mill house. The government appointed Richard Pestall miller, and expected him to train Māori as part of his duties.

Pestall was succeeded by his son and the mill ground away spasmodically until 1913 when it was abandoned. Members of the Wanganui Tramping Club kept the site clear of weeds but restoration only began in the mid 1970s when the threat of outsiders removing the waterwheel prompted local people and the former Historic Places Trust to act. The wheel and millstones are authentic, as is the (relocated) miller’s cottage. The mill building is not, because the top storey had been dismantled in the 1930s for the iron and most of the original weatherboard structure had rotted away. Architect Chris Cochran designed this replica. Trust and tramping club volunteers supervised work on the mill, which another ‘kawana’, Governor-General Sir Keith Holyoake, opened in October 1980.

We then came across the Matahiwi Cafe and Gallery which is in a converted schoolhouse.  Outside the cafe is the boat used in the movie River Queen.  

River Queen is a 2005 New Zealand-British war drama film directed by Vincent Ward and starring Samantha Morton, Kiefer Sutherland, Cliff Curtis and Temuera Morrison. The film opened to mixed reviews but performed well at the box office in New Zealand.

The film takes place in New Zealand in 1868 during Titokowaru’s War between the Māori and New Zealand colonial forces. Sarah O’Brien (Samantha Morton) has grown up among soldiers in a frontier garrison on Te Awa Nui, the Great River. Pregnant at 16 by a young Maori boy, she gives birth to a son. When, 7 years later, her son, Boy, is kidnapped by his Maori grandfather, Sarah is distraught. Abandoned by her soldier father, Sarah’s life becomes a search for her son. Her only friend, Doyle (Kiefer Sutherland) is a broken-down soldier without the means to help her. Lured to the ill rebel chief Te Kai Po’s village by the chance to see her child, Sarah finds herself falling in love with Boy’s uncle, Wiremu (Cliff Curtis) and increasingly drawn to the village way of life. Using medical skills she learned from her father, Sarah heals Te Kai Po (Temuera Morrison) and begins to reconcile with her son (Rawiri Pene). But her idyllic time at the village is shattered when she realises that she has healed the chief only to hear him declare war on the Colonials, men she feels are her friends, her only family. Her desperation deepens when she realises that Boy intends to prove himself in war, refusing to go back down river with her. As the conflict escalates Sarah finds herself at the centre of the storm, torn by the love she feels for Boy and Wiremu, anguished over the attachments she still has to the white man’s world, and sickened by the brutality she witnesses on either side. And when the moment comes, Sarah must choose where she belongs; will she be forced back into the white man’s way of life, or will she have the courage to follow the instincts that are telling her where she truly belongs?

It was really hot so we thought a cool drink was in order. After leaving the cafe Steve Impey attracted one of the locals : 0

Next stop was our accomodation at the Flying Fox Lodge and you guessed it, the only way to access the place was by flying fox.  After locking our bikes up at the end of the steep driveway which we didn’t ride, we called up Kelly on the other side of the river.  Once we were all aboard Kelly started the flying fox and we traversed the river.  It was so cool.  What awaited us on the other side of the river was even cooler.  There are a collection of cottages and a permanent glamping tent set amongst the prettiest gardens.  All the cottages are built and function according to their environmentally friendly principles while offering well equipped kitchens, bathrooms and comfortable beds.

What a great spot.  We all milled around, had showers and got ourselves a refreshing beverage to enjoy in the various comfy locations around the property.  Jane and her german woofer prepared us a lovely three course meal.  After a few after dinner laughs we retired to our little pieces of paradise for a well deserved rest.

History of Hiruharama / Jerusaleum

Hiruharama is nestled beside the flowing waters of the Whanganui River. The houses in this settlement are clustered around the Patiarero Marae.

In earlier days, Hiruharama was one of the largest settlements on the Whanganui River. It was known as a meeting place for korero (discussion).

Suzanne Aubert came in 1883 at the invitation of the local hapu of the Whanganui iwi of Te ATI Haunui-a-Paparangi. The Sisters of Compassion came into being here, and were formally recognised by the Catholic Church in 1892. There has been a continuous presence of Sisters in this community ever since. The Sisters are privileged to have the status of tangata whenua (native to the area).

Hiruharama has featured in prose and poetry, been photographed and painted, admired by pre World War 1 riverboat tourists, sought out as a haven by young 1970s social refugees, and now visited by people from all over around the world. It’s isolation and its spiritual history make it a place of pilgrimage and retreat.

Patiarero is the original name for the settlement commonly called Hiruharama, a translation of Jerusalem.

The name is a legacy of the influence along the lower river of Rev. Richard Taylor who wrote out the final parchment copy of the Treaty of Waitangi. He was a Church Missionary Society minister who came south to the Whanganui region and established his mission station in 1843 at Putiki near the river mouth. In the first flush of Christian enthusiasm in the late 1840s , many rangatira (chiefs) along the Whanganui River consulted Richard Taylor and adopted for their kainga (homes) Maori forms of Blibical or European names. Atene (Athens), Koriniti (Corinth), Ranana (London) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem).

The home grown Catholic congregation – Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion – began on the Whanganui River.

In 1883 Father Soulas, Suzanne as interpreter and Maori cultural adviser, and Sisters Aloysius and Teresa of St Joseph of Nazareth from Whanganui – who were to teach in the school – came to live in Hiruharama to revive the Catholic Mission.

The Sisters straight away began learning Maori language and customs, and many children and adults came to the school and became converts. The two young Sisters of St Jospeph returned to Whanganui after a year. Suzanne was now appointed to set up and lead a branch of the Marist Third Order Regular of Mary. She recruited more teachers. Anne O’Rourke, Bridget Brownlie and Carmel Gallagher joined her in 1884 and became Sisters shortly after.

In 1885, the Sisters helped dig the foundations of a new church and Father Soulas set the first pile in place. The local people joined a Whanganui building firm in the construction work and the Sisters cross-stitched a carpet for the new church from patterns and wool ordered from France.

On Christmas Day 1885 Bishop Redwood blessed St Jospeh’s Church. Less than three years later, the building was burned down and Suzanne and Sister Magdalen set off on a year long collecting tour to raise money not only to replace the church, but to erect a convent as well. They returned with 1,000 pounds and the two buildings were built in 1893.

The Sisters, in addition to the customs of religious life, taught and nursed, farmed newly cleared bush, tended an orchard, made and marketed medicines, sold fruit to tourists and raised homeless children. The community grew and thrived in both Hiruharama and Ranana.

The Society of Mary in France, however, was not happy with the direction the Sisters were taking. Archbishop Redwood intervened and on 14 October 1892 appointed Suzanne as Mother Superior of the newly established Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion.

“Never forget that we were first instituted for the Maori, that we began in the bush, that by our vows we are consecrated to their service.” Suzanne wrote later “They have the first claim on our love, on our care, never abandon them.”

By 1904, both the original missioners Soulas and Aubert were no longer living at Hiruharama and by 1907 the orphanage children and the novices had also gone to the new Home of Compassion in Wellington. Hiruharama settled back to purely ‘the Maori Mission’ in the eyes of the archdiocese and most of the Society of Mary.

When Suzanne Aubert ran away from home to join a mission to the other side of the world she began a New Zealand adventure that would last 66 years.

Small in stature but large in heart and spirit, she devoted her life to helping others. Her work took her from France to Auckland then to Hawke’s Bay, to the Whanganui River and finally to Wellington. Along the way, she founded a new Catholic congregation, cared for children and the sick, by skilfully combining Maori medicine and Pakeha science, and wrote books in Maori, English and French adding significantly to our cultural understanding and literary heritage.

Throughout her life, she stood firm believing that everyone deserved equal respect and was undeterred by obstacles. When challenged by authority in New Zealand, she travelled to Rome where she gained permission to continue working for those who most needed her help – children and the sick.

Determined and charismatic, Suzanne Aubert had the knack of making things happen, and remained steadfast in her belief in herself, the people she served and her God. Today, her mission continues through the dedicated work of the Sisters of Compassion .

The spirit of Suzanne Aubert lives on in the work of the Sisters of Compassion. The Sisters of Compassion continue to work actively towards the relief of human suffering. Their work extends throughout New Zealand, Australia, Fiji and Tonga. They are engaged in social work, pastoral care, prison and hospital chaplaincies, education, working with refugee and disadvantaged migrant communities, residential and home care of the sick and the elderly. The leadership team of the Home of Compassion is located at Island Bay, Wellington.

 The Community of Hiruharama Today

At present there are three sisters in the community at Hiruharama: Sisters Anna Marie Shortfall, Sue Cosgrove and Margaret Mary Murphy.

The sisters offer hospitality to those who come to visit and stay, and are actively involved with the local communities of the river. They have a particular commitment to the Ngati Hau people at Jerusalem and Ngati Ruaka people of Ranana.

The Sisters of Hiruharama strive to live in a sustainable way. Seasonal fruit, from very old trees on the site is made into jams, jellies, chutney and relish and sold locally as well as at the River TRaders Market in Whanganui. The Sisters live in a house built in 1990, near the church.

The land on which the St Joseph’s Church and the Old Convent sits, belongs to local Maori families. The historic buildings belong to the Catholic Diocese of Palmerston North. Both buildings are classified with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. Some believe that St Joseph’s Church, with the interesting mix of Maori and European influence, is the most photographed church in Aotearoa / New Zealand.

The original school building was situated in what is now a paddock on the other side of the driveway.

Under the facilities of a combined school and teacher’s accomodation, the Sisters set up their community. The schoolhouse served as a school and Covent for eight years and was also used as a church over part of this time.

The convent building was never purely a convent for Sisters. From the very beginning it took in the school and the first of the children came to live in the growing family there. To accomodate both school and orphanage the building was almost doubled in size in 1897. This crammed building and hum of life continued until 1907 when the Pakeha children went to live in Wellington.

Only in the 1950’s when boarders came was it again used almost to this full extent. From that time the convent building did not change much. IN 1969 the school at Hiruharama was closed and the one at Ranana was taken over by the Education Department.

Today Hiruharama remains a centre for support for the local communities. Sisters still live at Hiruharama and are kaitiaki, or guardians of the pilgrimage site where guests frequently stay in the old convent built by Suzanne Aubert.


This blog was originally set up to share our 9 month adventure around Europe and the USA with friends and family in 2014. On returning to NZ in January 2015 I decided to carry it on so I could continue to share any future travel adventures - it has become my electronic travel diary. I hope you enjoy and get inspired to visit some of the wonderful places we have visited.
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