Monday, November 15, 2010

The Whanganui River and the Bridge to Nowhere 13 November

The Whanganui River was once a major highway to the sea, serving numerous tree milling and farming communities up and down its banks.  After World War I, many returning soldiers took advantage of a government offer to establish farms over a hundred kilometers up river from the city of Wanganui.  Farming required felling the native forest and replacing it with grass for sheep to eat.  The bright future these optimistic pioneers expected was rudely destroyed by three factors: the removal of the forests on the sides of the hills caused massive erosion, and the resulting mud slides destroyed the farm land.  A railway was built through the central North Island, opening up land there but replacing the river highway to the point that traffic on the river slowed dramatically, isolating the farmers from contact with the world.  Third, these "farmers" were not necessarily farmers; many (or most) opted to move back to towns.

Meanwhile, a road bridge was being constructed inland to connect the farms on opposite sides of the Mangapurua Stream, a tributary of the Whanganui River, over a very steep ravine.  This would be part of road system connecting these farms with the town of Raetihi to the east and the Taranaki area to the west. By 1936, when the concrete bridge was completed, the area was almost entirely deserted and the road was never completed.  The remaining farms were finally abandoned over the next few years, new forests replaced the grassland, the valley became known as the “valley of abandoned dreams,” and the bridge became reknown as "The Bridge to Nowhere."

In recent years, the bridge has taken on a new life as a hiking destination for tourists.  Some hike in (a three to four day tramp); others boat along the Whanganui River to the mouth of the Mangapurua Stream, then hike in 3K to the bridge.  We opted for the jet boat from Pipiriki, a small village some 70K upriver from the city of Wanganui and 31K from the Bridge to Nowhere.

Getting to Pipiriki was no mean task: it involved a hairy ride along a narrow, winding road, 15K of which was unsealed and a large amount of which was essentially one lane.  Erosion along the road can be treacherous, with the inevitable slips and washouts.  Not for the weak of heart!

Along the road is Jerusalem, In earlier days, Jerusalem or Hiruharama  (its Maori name), was one of the largest settlements on the Whanganui River.  Today, it is a small settlement of houses clustered around the Patiarero Marae.  Suzanne Aubert came here at the invitation of the Maori people in 1883.  Here the Sisters of Compassion came into being, and were formally recognised by the Catholic Church in 1892.  There has been a continuous presence of sisters in the local community ever since.  The Sisters (of which there are now three) are privileged to have the status of tangata whenua (native to the area).  A famous New Zealand poet, James K Baxter lived in Jerusalem in the 1970’s.  He was joined by a number of followers and a spiritual commune developed "to recover values New Zealand's Pakeha urban society had lost."  See his Jerusalem Sonnets (1970) and Jerusalem Daybook (1971).  (Hemi) Baxter is buried at Jerusalem.

At Pipiriki, we boarded, appropriately suited up (one  needs proper safety gear) for the 30K jet boat ride up to the Bridge to Nowhere.  (Roger and Amy are getting used to looking like twits!).  The journey took us through some spectacular scenery.  As we were the first jet boat of a group, the water ahead was quite calm, and acted as a mirror for the surrounding forest and hills. 

The hike into the Bridge to Nowhere took us through more spectacular forest growth, on a track maintained by the Department of Conversation (DoC).  The track got a lot rougher than the early part shown in the first picture, and included traveling over a lovely swinging bridge.

We finally reached what we thought was to be the highlight of the trip: the Bridge to Nowhere!  The three of us, however, decided that perhaps the bridge was inappropriately named.  Having listened in the car to dramatizations of two of the books in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series, we decided this was really  the Bridge to Narnia.  But where is Aslan?

Grace going Nowhere

Did someone say "Narnia"?

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of our Whanganui River ventures!


  1. Not narnia! Tarabithia!

  2. We read (or listened to) six of the seven books in the Narnia series on our trips with Gracie! Guess I better find her Terabithia!