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Whanganui River National Park

Was the first new national park to be created in NZ for 22 years when it was gazetted in 1986. It covers 74,231 ha in three sections of the scenic highpoints of the Whanganui River. It is the 11th national park, the fourth in the North Island, and one of the smallest with only Mount Cook, Egmont and Abel Tasman smaller.

Wanganui, a city on the west coast of the North Island near the mouth of the Whanganui River, became one of the most important and prosperous early European settlements in the country.

It was declared a city in 1924 and, at the 1926 census, was the largest provincial city in NZ with 26,521 people. It went into a long period of decline after that, and did not reach this total again until after World War Two.

Wanganui became the administrative centre for the Wanganui District in 1989 with a population of 41,200. The city is 200 km north-east of Wellington and serves a rich, sheep farming region.

It has limited port facilities at nearby Castlecliff, to the north of the mouth of the Whanganui River.

The Whanganui River - the second longest in the North Island at 290 km - rises on Mt Tongariro and winds in a long south-westerly curve through the central volcanic plateau to the Tasman Sea near the city. It was an important transport route for Maori over many hundreds of years, and for the early European settlers.

It was a major area of Maori settlement with a large number of easily fortified pa on the cliffs along its length, and it was the scene of many territorial wars among the tribes.

The first Europeans known to have spent any time in the area were a group of traders in 1831, led by a dealer in preserved Maori heads, Joe Rowe, whose own head was later cut off and preserved by Maori. Early European visitors were the missionaries Henry Williams and Octavius Hadfield, who visited there in 1840 to collect signatures from local Maori chiefs for the Treaty of Waitangi.

The NZ Company first showed interest in settlement on the site of Wanganui in 1840, when Edward Jerningham Wakefield negotiated the purchase of 16,000 ha for the establishment of a town first called Petre after one of the directors of the NZ Company, Baron Petre.

There was, however, a long dispute with the Maori landowners because of misunderstandings over the land purchase, but this was resolved in 1848 by Donald Mclean, the government land purchaser.

A full 32,000 ha with clearly defined boundaries passed into European hands. Wanganui became a borough in 1872, and was linked to New Plymouth and Wellington by rail in the 1880s. The town was not called Petre for long. In the mid-1840s residents petitioned for a change and the name became Wanganui in 1854.

There are two common explanations for the name Wanganui. The first is that it was originally 'Whanganui' meaning whanga a harbour, and nui large, in reference to the wide mouth of the river; but another possible translation is whanga to wait, and nui long and there is one claim that it was so called by a chief who had a long wait there before he could get adequate transport down the coast.

Although the spelling and pronunciation remains 'Wanganui River' in common currency, the spelling was officially changed to 'Whanganui River' by the National Geographic Board in 1991. The city remains 'Wanganui'.

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Gecko Guide comments:

Wanganui is my home town and the Whanganui River National Park is a very special place for me, there just seems to be a spiritual magic about it! Canoe-ing the long narrow gorges surrounded by dense native forest with only the sounds of the native birds breaking the magical silence.

The river is very important to the Maori people who still occupy villages along the river. Their hospitality is offered to all travellers along the river.

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