W(h)anganui – Big Harbour of History and Hospitality

Joe Paul


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A century ago the city of Wanganui would have been counted among one of the five major centres in New Zealand. Not any more, but it’s still vibrant, pretty, and before all, has preserved many fine historic sights. The residents show much hospitality and have many history enthusiasts in their midst. This is the impression our group from the Historic Places Trust gained on a visit there in February 2010.


In the Whanganui Riverboat Centre have a good look at the photos . Some of them show the wreck of the Waimarie as she was taken from her muddy resting place. It is almost beyond belief that this faithfully restored paddle steamer is the same vessel. The man at the ticket counter smiled: “We Kiwi have been isolated from the rest of the world so long, that we’ve learnt to make the unimaginable possible.”


Not far from the Riverboat Centre the large Tram Shed houses another gleaming example of restoration: a No 12 tram that carried locals around until early in the 20th century. Photos of the totally dilapidated vehicle before a band of enthusiasts took it over astound.

“There are quite a few keen persons that join me in my efforts,” proudly replied the tall grey-haired man tending the place, when I enquired about the way the work was done. “Many parts had to be fashioned from scratch. But we hope to put the tram on rails again. Look at the Christchurch historic trams; what a tourist attraction they are – and money spinners too, I believe.”


After a stroll through the colourful River Traders Market we waited to board the Waimarie for an outing upriver. The steamer arrived carrying a wedding party which received a Maori welcome. The pretty Maori bride walked arm in arm with a groom in Scottish attire whose intriguingly tattooed legs my wife unsuccessfully tried to record digitally.


Whanganui has always been a meeting place of the indigenous and European cultures, not always as friendly as demonstrated here. While returning to Wellington, Heather would let us inspect the Cameron Blockhouse, one of the fortified huts from which settlers shot at attacking Maori warriors.



But now it was our turn to retrace the voyages of the Waimarie when she steamed up and down the river carrying cargo, river dwellers and tourists until she sank at her berth in 1952. Wendy from the local branch of the Historic Places Trust had joined us. At the upriver destination Upokongaro she took us to the beautiful St Mary’s Church, dating from 1877, with its unusual triangular spire. The vicar there had been waiting for a wedding party, but a little bemused, got us instead. Wendy and the vicar took turns explaining the somewhat quirky history and the precious stained glass windows. They were quite a contrast, these two, the tall slim affable vicar and short stocky lively Wendy. We immediately liked her, her enthusiasm and articulate commentary, and eagerly followed the trail of her broad-rimmed floppy hat.


There is something about these old wooden churches that goes beyond architecture and historic facts. They have a special atmosphere. I can feel the good vibes that appear to pervade parishioners and visitors. We had been fortunate to experience this already in the beginning of our trip in the historic All Saints Church of Foxton. We had found great food laid out for morning tea. Our hostesses had been disappointed when we had been able to eat only part of it. “Take some with you for lunch”, the dear ladies had pleaded.


After enjoying the hospitality of the Wanganui RSA at dinner, we checked into the Grand Hotel which reeks of history and presents past glamour. Efforts to catch up with present times have been meagerly successful, as I found out, crashing to the bathroom floor, having misjudged the half metre(!) high step out of the shower box, and munching stale muesli at breakfast. However, would you disappoint the charm of the receptionist or of the waiter, when they ask whether everything was alright?


On Sunday morning Wendy guided us to the Royal Wanganui Opera House. We passed Cooks Gardens where I climbed up to the Bell Tower for the view, not knowing that our bus would take us, later on, to Durie Hill which can also be reached by a public elevator. From the platform topping it we would enjoy an unobstructed vista. This includes the enormous bright orange sign of Mitre 10’s Megastore. Talk about visual pollution!


On its centennial in 1999, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth honoured the Opera House by granting it a Royal Charter. The building is a masterwork by Wellington architect G. Stevenson, opened only thirty years (!) after its world-famous sibling, the current Vienna State Opera House. Many stories surround the theatre, among them a most compelling one, how enthusiasts banded together as the Friends of the Opera House in 1989 to save it from demolition, when the City Council had found it had “outlived its purpose”.


I’d like to come here sometime in the future to enjoy a performance in this beautiful auditorium with its superior acoustics. I’d pay particular attention to the stage managing, having climbed up to the catwalks where the stage manager has a lectern to follow the staging score and where curtains, stage sets and lights are controlled manually. I gripped one of the inch-thick ropes to lift one of the battens that reach across the entire stage. I had to prop my feet against the catwalk balustrade and used all my body weight to perform the task.


The upper entrails of the theatre include a fascinating collection of old paraphernalia. Their nature and usage would now make an OSH (Office of Health & Safety) inspector shudder. Even the present-day methods may eventually be replaced by pressing buttons or programming computers, although the stage manager assured me that the young stagehands still find the manual operations fun. However, there is no guarantee for the future and I plead that historic methodology is just as valuable as buildings. Already now, the Royal Wanganui Opera House is only one of perhaps three places worldwide where such time-honoured arrangements survive.


Not only Durie Hill allows panorama views; the strategically important hill, now shouldering Queens Park, does too. Little wonder, it was once a Maori fortified Pa and afterwards the site of the British Forces Rutland Stockade. It was deemed so secure, that the soldiers were allowed to let their wives and children stay with them. Sadly, child mortality was high and I marvel at the defiance and tenacity of the pioneer women of all kinds. Would present-day malcontents please familiarise themselves with pioneering history!


In contrast to the lush green surroundings gleams the beautiful near-white Oamaru limestone of the neoclassical Sarjeant Art Gallery. We were fortunate to see there examples of glass sculpture, testifying to the flourishing glass movement of the region. The Gallery’s abundance of natural light bestowed to the decorative exhibition halls an almost ethereal impression.


Descending the Veteran Steps, you may discover also an architectural lightness about the modern War Memorial Hall. It has been described as a “clean-lined floating block,” on its slender pillars and with its curtain-glass wall framed with concrete grilles. It creates a rather pleasant antithesis to the Whanganui Regional Museum founded in 1892.


When we arrived at our last destination within the City limits, the historic Craig House, we gladly took immediate advantage of the lunch offered in the sunny garden setting. Wendy guided us in small groups through this gracious home which Mrs and Mr Craig had opened for viewing especially for us. Love of the arts was noticeable in every room and corner, apart from a certain ambience of care that we also sensed in the manner how this pleasant couple dealt with us visitors.



© Joe Paul 2010


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