It’s not readily apparent to me why I haven’t spent more time in Whanganui. After all, it’s only a couple of hours away from Wellington — easily manageable after work on a Friday or early on a Saturday morning. Once you get past Bulls, the road is pleasantly unfamiliar and the landscape suitably undulatory and verdant — at least at the beginning of the summer.
Whanganui also has a town centre that still boasts a healthy retail presence as it remains mercifully unafflicted by shopping malls. And, of course, there is the river — historic, beautiful, majestic… and a subject we will hear more of later.
The prompt for this visit came from unexpected quarters: a phone call out of the blue from the nice people at Mercedes-Benz public relations offering me the loan of their new E300 sedan for a week. This executive vehicle features plenty of whistles and bells, but also a thrifty hybrid engine they call BlueTEC (implying to my literal mind that it runs on water, but evidently if I had needed to top it up I would have used the diesel nozzle).
In my experience, the five-minute daily commute to the FishHead office isn’t enough to get to the heart of a serious vehicle like this, so I pitched the idea of a weekend away to the two prospective passengers — one adult, one not so much — and arrangements were made almost instantly, amusements were sought, itineraries organised and diaries marked.
Many towns and cities have Saturday morning markets — Whanganui is far from unique in this regard — but I feel certain that few are as pleasant, as complete or as sympathetic to their location as The River Traders, situated in a delightful riverbank park straddling tracks that are occasionally used by the nearby Tram Shed museum. Amongst the usual art, craft and second-hand book stalls, there’s an impressive dedication to food and drink, with locally roasted coffee, wood-fired pizza (including a version sprinkled with serious chilli flakes) and a local delicacy called floaters, essentially a variety of deep-fried dough, like a doughnut or a churro, with an impressive array of heart-threateningly sweet accompaniments.
We attempted to walk off some of that indulgence by exploring inland a little. UCOL (the Universal College of Learning) is a major presence in the city and has been restoring some of the fine old buildings from Whanganui’s colonial past, but at least one of those grand old edifices has been given new artistic life of its own. Space Monster is a live-music venue with a tremendous local and international reputation housed in the 100-year-old former home of the Wanganui Chronicle, and even in daylight it presents a funky frontage opposite a traditional tree-lined avenue.
The river has been a tourist attraction for Whanganui for well over 100 years. In the late 1800s visitors travelled from all over the world to journey up river as far as Taumarunui. It’s now possible to re-create at least some of that experience by taking a two-hour cruise on the paddlesteamer Waimarie, painstakingly restored over a three-year period leading up to the millennium celebrations and now in regular service for tourists and holidaymakers.
Our host for the journey was the indomitable and indefatigable Peter Hardy, in costume and character for the most part as Alexander Hatrick, Edwardian riverboat entrepreneur. While the paddles propel you gently upstream and then back again, Peter periodically takes to the PA to tell entertaining stories of the golden age of steam. There are two saloons inside the vessel if you want to sit down away from the elements, one of those operating as a licensed tea room selling sandwiches, tea, coffee, wine (if you prefer), and glorious home-made jam and cream scones.
It isn’t just about the river views, though, as young travellers have the opportunity to visit the engine room and shovel coal into the boiler. Actually, not just young travellers. I confess, I too left the ship with a limited-edition stoking certificate. There was plenty of opportunity to chat to the impressively top-hatted Mr Hardy, not just about the boat and its history, but also about the owners of the fine gardens we could see as we floated past.
He also provided a reminder of what communication must have been like in those days, as a couple of youngsters were asked to write a note to be sent back to the city by carrier pigeon and we would see whether the boat would beat them back to the dock (which, of course, it didn’t). All in all, our trip on the Waimarie was a splendid excursion for young and old.
Space Monster isn’t the only former Wanganui Chronicle building with a new and creative life. After lunch, we visited Chronicle Glass Studio, situated in the remains of the art deco printing factory for the newspaper. It’s perfect for them — concrete and industrial with a terrific street-level viewing platform so interested parties can watch the blowers crafting their exquisite pieces. It’s an extraordinary process — you find yourself wondering how it was that anybody looked at sand and decided that with just the right amount of temperature you could coax it into useful shapes and decorative colours, and yet we’ve been doing just that for thousands of years.
I find watching people work hypnotic at the best of times, but this was something else, something mystical. It would take more willpower than we could muster to leave without some of the finished examples, available at the shop above the furnaces.
The next item on our agenda was a visit to the Whanganui Regional Museum. Now, not everyone has a mate who is a curator of natural history and who can take you behind the scenes of a museum, into the bowels of the usually unseen collection, but I can thoroughly recommend it if you do. Dr Mike Dickison is a great science educator and a passionate advocate for the moa, New Zealand’s long-lost giant flightless bird. He’s in the process of putting every moa bone in the museum’s collection on display so we can more fully understand what they were like — and how the met their demise.
On the Sunday we arose early(ish) and headed to the Whanganui River Top 10 Holiday Park for some kayaking. After the previous day’s paddlesteamer trip, we were very keen to see the river from a much closer vantage point. Despite how early it was in the season, we were a little bit surprised to be the only ones heading out on the water, and we were given the option of travelling with the incoming tide or against it.
Now, none of our small party seems keen on owning up to choosing the ‘against the tide’ option, but I do recall one voice suggesting they wanted “the full experience” and it wasn’t mine. Anyway, the 5km kayak trip that was supposed to take an hour actually took considerably longer and resulted in very sore arms and hands and some blisters. In retrospect, it was an enormous amount of fun but didn’t feel quite like it at the time. I guess I’m just not built for ‘adventure tourism’ (of which this was a very minor example).
In fact, if I’m honest, I’m much more at home in the front seat of a brand-new Mercedes than a plastic kayak, and it was there where we headed — after towelling off — for our journey home. On the way back we discussed our different impressions of the vehicle. The youngest passenger was extremely taken by all the kit and went exhaustively through every option on the flat-screen entertainment and control device. His mother enjoyed the Sound System of National Significance and we all appreciated the multiple cup-holder options.
For the driver it was an unusual experience, because the E300 goes to such extraordinary lengths to keep you safe and keep your fuel consumption down, it is almost as if it would rather do the driving for you. The radar-assisted cruise control keeps you a predetermined distance away from the car in front, so it feels like you don’t even need to brake. In that mode the car even assists you with steering, using the lines on the road as a guide (although it will scold you quite firmly if you take your hands off the wheel).
Once you add the automated parallel-parking computer, and you seem to have a car that would prefer to drive itself. We even started calling it Nana, after the child-minding St Bernard in Peter Pan.
This is actually the future of motoring, I can see it now. Almost self-driving cars with downloadable firmware driving profiles, available as in-app purchases. “I’d like the Schumacher upgrade, please,” you’ll say to the trip computer and then, once your credit card goes through, you get to experience something closer to Formula 1.
Although Nana will still be in the background, making sure you don’t hurt yourself.