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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.