Wellington to Whanganui Road Trip


Fifty minutes’ drive north of Wellington, the Kapiti Coast is well known for its exceptional cheese and unique flora and fauna. Many of NZ’s most endangered birds reside on the coastline that leads north to Whanganui, a historic riverboat town. It once formed part of a thriving tourist route between Auckland and Wellington, and today this bygone era is recreated aboard New Zealand’s only coal-fired paddle steamer, the PS Waimarie.

After two days discovering the capital city of Wellington, Bob and I are eager to get “on the road again” and Bob throatily sings this well-known tune as we leave town, and travel north to Paraparaumu.

“Para para para – what?” he suddenly exclaims as he sees a sign. A quick language lesson follows – Maori vowels for dummies – before we come to a halt outside Lindale Animal Barn. Here we watch a shearing and milking demonstration but the highlight comes when Bob tries to master hand milking a cow.

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” he later moans, “I only got one squirt!”

Before leaving we visit the Kapiti Cheese Shop and Factory where we sample some of their cheeses and purchase blocks of gold medal winning Aorangi and Kikorangi cheese to lunch upon later.

In the meantime a creamy Kapiti ice cream keeps the hunger pangs at bay. I try the ginger nut – it’s scrumptious; Bob can’t decide between the fig and honey, lemongrass and ginger, or port and prune. So – in true Bob-fashion – he takes a scoop of each.

At Waikanae we debate whether to visit the bird sanctuary on Kapiti Island, then settle upon a visit to the Nga Manu Wildlife Sanctuary. Here we walk through huge aviaries and discover New Zealand’s unique flora and fauna in a variety of recreated habitats. Bob spots two North Island brown kiwi in the kiwi house as well as three prehistoric-looking tuatara basking in the sun.

We enjoy our picnic on an island surrounded by eels. “Here’s the great-grandmother,” says Bob, feeding a cracker to an enormous eel who looks like he’s enjoyed a lifetime of overindulgence. Replete we drive north on SH1 through numerous small towns: Otaki, Levin, Foxton and Bulls, where we take SH3 to Whanganui, a town nestled on the banks of the Whanganui River. Now somewhat out of the way, Whanganui was once a major tourist attraction forming part of a thriving route between Auckland and Wellington. Steamers plied the river transporting visitors from the central plateau town of Taumarunui to Wanganui; a stationary houseboat and hotel in Pipiriki accommodated guests en route. Plummeting tourist numbers in the depression years brought an end to the riverboat era, but memories of its heyday survive in the towns many original homes and historic buildings.

Visitors can also recreate the experience aboard NZ’s only coal-fired paddle steamer, the PS Waimarie. We arrive in time for the ‘Cruising on Friday’ departure and with a cheerful toot we’re off. Captain Barry Thorner is at the wheel and we join engineer, Kevin Holly, and stoker, Murray Greathead below in the engine room. Bob lends a hand to shovel coal but it’s excruciatingly hot, so I retreat to the comfort of the saloon leaving Bob to discuss the Waimarie’s original, fully restored engines.

Later we drive down Wanganui’s main street and admire its many beautiful buildings including the Opera House, built in 1899, and the Sarjeant Gallery, which features many notable artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries, before checking into a B&B nestled beside the river.

We finish the day watching the sunset over distant Mt Taranaki from the top of a 33.5 metre Memorial Tower constructed at the end of WWI. The 176-step staircase helps build an appetite and we dine at Vega on Taupo Quay upon salmon and ostrich steaks before returning to our accommodation, where I (at least) enjoy a sound sleep.