Whanganui to Hawera Road Trip with a side trip up the Whanganui River Road

Whanganui River

North of Wanganui, the symmetrical volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki can be seen clearly on the horizon. Taranaki’s bulbous coastline is tucked firmly around two-thirds of this zen-like mountain, providing New Zealand’s most consistent surf conditions. Access is provided courtesy of SH45, the Surf Highway, which follows the coast road from Hawera to New Plymouth.

“Donna wake up,” Bob whispers urgently at some ridiculous hour of the morning. He awoke at 4 am and, not wishing to disturb me (until now) read a book about the River Road. But it seems he can wait no longer, we must go to Jerusalem – without delay! And so it is that we follow the emerald Whanganui River up a route that is more like a driveway, so friendly are its inhabitants. Near Koriniti we stop and chat to a group of pig hunters who heave a glossy black boar up the riverbank. “It’s a big’n,” says Tex, who invites us to share in the pig which will be cooked on a spit, in true Whanganui River style.

Sadly, we decline and leave tooting the horn. Bob comments on how welcoming everyone is. As we continue our drive Bob entertains me with an account of his early morning read including the Maori legend of the forming of the Whanganui River. Mt Taranaki lost a fierce battle with Mt Tongariro over the fair maiden Pihanga (a smaller mountain in the central plateau) and fled to Taranaki, carving the Whanganui River and filling it with his tears. Later, when Europeans set up farms, transport was required to get their produce into town so in 1891 the paddle steamer Wairere began a regular service on the river.

When we arrive in Jerusalem, St Joseph’s Church casts a mirrored image of its steeple upon the river. A Roman Catholic Mission was established here in 1854 and the late James K Baxter, an influential NZ poet, formed a community here in the 1960s and wrote the Jerusalem Sonnets. His grave is at St Joseph’s where Sisters Sue, Laboure and Anna Maria, the guardians of this church and its grounds warmly welcome us. Sister Sue makes us tea and then leads us to Baxter’s grave.

On our return to Whanganui, we stop again on the riverbank in Koriniti to watch canoes float past. Here we meet Ann Handley, who with all the usual friendliness of Whanganui River folk, invites us in for a hot cuppa with ninety-eight-year-old Granny who has lived on the river all her life. Her earlier days were spent at a huge farm station across the river from Jerusalem and once a year she would make the long journey by paddle steamer into town. Back then, it took one day to get there, one day to shop and another day to return. “They were the best days of my life,” Granny tells us.

After several cups of tea and slices of fruit loaf served with lashings of Ann’s homegrown manuka honey, mid-afternoon comes all too soon. We depart for Whanganui and rejoining SH3, drive through the townships of Waverley and Patea to Hawera where we check into a motel and order a takeout meal. Although tired from his early start, Bob’s jubilant. “I’ve never drunk that much tea or met such friendly people,” he says. “Is it all a dream?”