The river moves on, but time stands still on the Whanganui. As your canoe is carried on by the steady, effortless flow, past small falls and broad eddies into dark inaccessible reaches, you are aware of slicing through geological history that reaches back 25 million years; back to a time when the North Island was still being periodically submerged beneath the waves; long before the river’s birth.
In its gorges the river’s silver surface, drawn taut as silk, reflects its own history in sheer rock faces of moss and liverwort and the filigree etchings of the lap-tide line. The river banks carry the memory of tribes so venerable as to be almost forgotten. Under the mantle of wilderness, Maori struggles and battles leave the visiting canoeist with not just their pa (fortified villages) and wahi tapu (sacred places) but with the sense of their presence still on the water.
Myth and legend still work the misty reaches of the Whanganui. Legend tells of the warring brother volcanoes Taranaki and Tongariro locked in deadly combat over the lovely maiden volcano Pihanga. Of Taranaki’s defeat and anguished flight to the west, gouging a deep scar in the earth as he passed. Of the stream of clear water which sprang from Tongariro’s side to fill and heal the earth, becoming the Whanganui River. Oral tradition names the many taniwha, or spiritual guardians of the water, who still reside in deep places known to few, and in the quiet reaches phantom canoes are still paddled by their phantom crews.
Centuries of Maori habitation have left little mark on the river itself: only the round holes of toko (canoe poles) stamped in the papa cliffs beside wild waters. But in recent history the European steamboats and settlers made more forceful demands. The remains of their endeavours are still to be seen: a ring-bolt secured in rock above a rapid, used to winch a boat up through white water; a retaining wall that wrestled the river into another pathway; the shadowy outline of a riverboat wreck — brief glimpses of an era when the river was known internationally as ‘The Rhine of New Zealand’.
But no matter how much it reveals, even on the sunniest day, the river’s cloak of mystery remains. To many Maori this ‘river of great waiting’ is more than a waterway; it is a pathway of destiny — and that destiny now hangs in the balance.
Thirty years ago the New Zealand Electricity Department set about taking water from the Whanganui’s volcanic plateau tributaries to drive the Tongariro Power Scheme. Now Electricorp, who inherited the planning decisions of its predecessor, is arguing for its rights to continue taking that water. Opposing the scheme in its present form are conservation and recreation groups, and the tribes of the Whanganui.
Last year a hearing recommended that about 50 per cent of the flows be restored. Electricorp appealed, and the issue is to be examined again in a further hearing in September. On the surface, the debate is between a profit-oriented State-Owned Enterprise, Electricorp, which supplies the New Zealand electricity consumer, and those who argue in recreational, ecological or Maori terms that electricity production is denying the river far too much of its volume. At a deeper level, the hearings are providing a forum for perspectives that have never been permitted an airing before.
The Whanganui River enjoys considerable fame for its unique combination of history — natural and human — and the wilderness-like recreation which it provides on trips undertaken by canoe, raft and even jetboat. It has been argued that taking a trip down the river is one of those uniquely ‘Kiwi’ endeavours, like walking the Milford Track or reaching Cape Reinga, that have become almost a prerequisite for being a New Zealander. Last summer some 18,000 recreational canoe days were spent on the river.
Though the Whanganui is not New Zealand’s longest river (that distinction belongs to its close cousin the Waikato) it is the longest continually navigable river — a fact which has determined much of its human history.
The usual put-in point for canoeists is Cherry Grove, Taumarunui, just below what used to be the riverboat landing. Here the novice has to adjust to handling a flighty craft in the rip which surges into the river from the Ongarue, unsettling the paddler’s stomach, if not his balance. Having recovered aplomb, the canoeist still faces a somewhat perilous path, but only for a few more hours. This was the section of river that riverboat magnate Alexander Hatrick would have preferred his passengers to cover by road — despite the best efforts to clear a channel, there were just too many boulders in it for easy passage.
Paddling below Taumarunui one is never far from roads and paddocks. History beckons from lines of poplar marking the sites of former pa, and from battle and grave sites on many promontories. Frequently the bones of the dead were laid in cliffs above the river, and T.W.Downes, an old chronicler of the river, noted that there were chiefs lying in carved wooden caskets here even into this century.
Few regular canoeists ever knowingly pass `Taniwha Rock’ without laying upon it a placatory sprig of green. Local Maori delight in telling the story of a jetboat racer who sneered at the taniwha and the superstition attached to the rock, and miles later found himself beached immovably on a lonely river reach. After being stranded long enough to despair he was pushed back into the water by a couple of Maori who appeared from nowhere and vanished just as quickly.
Normally Maraekowhai is reached by the end of the first day. There is room to haul in canoes quite close to where the old houseboat, which provided accommodation for passengers on the river service, was first moored.
Maraekowhai was a considerable village which survived into this century. In the 1860s there was a mill house and a Catholic chapel here, but the site is now best known for its Pai Marire (Hau Hau) niu poles, that have brooded over the landscape since that time. Rongo niu’s outstretched beams called the Hau Hau braves to arms, and prior to battle they recited prayers around these totems. At the cessation of hostilities riri kore (`no more war’) was erected.
There were once at least another five niu on the river from Taumarunui to Pipiriki — emblems of Maori resistance to European advances into their territory, and perhaps also a defiant counter to the missionaries’ steeples. The poles still carry a sense of spiritual power today.
A little further down river is another, more extensive flat which marks the village of Tawaata, thriving in the 1890s and still inhabited in the 1920s. Only a small cemetery and a pataka (food house) remain, but Maori who have connections to this village still treat it with great reverence. While I was on a visit there with Hikaia Amohia, an elder who has campaigned for Maori interests in the Whanganui for 30 years, he insisted on a cleansing ritual at the river before we talked. It was hot, and the river, stretched like the inside of an animal skin over the gravel bed, was danced upon by a shower of dandelion heads. Hikaia said his karakia (prayer), threw some water over himself with the hook of his walking stick, and returned to the flats.
An hour’s hard work at the paddles from Maraekowhai brings you on to Whakahoro, site of another commanding pa, Makakote, where rests the great chief Topine Te Mamaku. He died a Christian in 1887, a veteran of five wives and many battles involving both tribal encounters and raids against the British. He fought troops with some success as far afield as the Hutt Valley in 1846 (Boulcott’s Farm) and at Wanganui in 1847. Mamaku, Pehi Pakaro Tama, who resided on many parts of the river, and Tuwharetoa chief Te Heu Heu Iwikau were all chiefs of the river district who were offered the Maori kingship.
Today sheep graze below the pa that was the scene of a number of early nineteenth century battles. In one of the most famous, the raiding Ngati Raukawa occupied the pa only to find themselves so effectively besieged by chief Pehi Turoa that they were entirely without food. In desperation, one of the besieged parents threw himself at the mercy of glum by lowering his child down to the awaiting warriors. “This is my son, Apanui,” he said. “Spare him and have a name for mercy.” Turoa took pity on them and called the siege to an end. Whakahoro is also thought to be the first place on the upper river where the Maori heard a reading from the Bible, given by the Rev. Richard Taylor.
On the southern promontory above this valley is the site of a gong that used to sound up and down the river in times of threat. Almost certainly the sound would have carried another 10km further to the ramparts high above Kirikiriroa which can still be reached today, affording dramatic views that also once gave warning of approaching foe.
Standing in sunshine on these cliffs, the river almost doubling back on itself far below, one feels the truth of the Maori belief that the past and the present are one. Wars took place on this very spot. Te Mamaku himself fled for his life from here. And the battle for mana (power, authority) of the river and its people is still central to river politics today.
By now the gorge is closing in on your craft. It will not open out for any length of time until Pipiriki, still a couple of days off and nearly 100km from Wanganui city. Human history is generally less conspicuous through the gorge, but geological history reaching back millions of years is written in the strata and fossils embedded in its walls, and the forest here becomes truly primeval. Rimu, totara, kahikatea, rata and even matai emerge from the cover of tawa, hinau and kamahi. By day the North Island black robin is about and by night you can hear the kiwi’s distinctive screech.
There is little challenge in the rapids, but the isolated beauty of the river rarely strikes the same response as burdened one early twentieth century settler. He worried about river boat travellers finding the “monotony” of the constant bush too tedious for them. The soaring cliffs of the gorge’s mossy faces, its coves and caves and cascading side streams, its mosses, festoons of kiekie, vines and forest are, in fact, endlessly varied.
Apart from the rare farm, almost all this country has been abandoned. Landings, ledges scraped out of papa rock, and tracks leading to the country beyond are all that remain. At Mangapurua, a World War 1 rehabilitation farm block, nearly 40 families struggled, some of them for 30 years, to make a living out of the rugged bush country — land where just one farm might have been economic. The Bridge to Nowhere, which completes a link between Raetihi and the Whanganui, is a striking monument to a hopeless dream.
Old Fred Bettjeman, who died in recent years aged almost 102, left me a poignant memory. “We’d waited years for telephones to be installed in the valley. Finally we got them delivered to the landing. That night a flood came and swept them all out to sea.” Some were later found near the mouth of the Rangitikei.
In the valley before Mangapurua a similar struggle was waged up the Mangatiti, a stream of great and sacred significance to the people of this district. Settlers living there were lucky to get out twice a year from their endless toil. One survivor, Ida Thompson, spoke recently of the hardships: young men who died alone, pinioned beneath the trees they were felling as they tried to clear their patch of land; and a horseback rider, her brother, who survived a plunge into the Mangatiti Gorge by letting his mount take the brunt of the fall.
“No sooner did we have a road than the darned thing slipped away again,” she said. “As rotting tree roots loosened their hold on the heavy soil rain would wash great gashes in the hillsides. Away went bridges, fences and culverts.”
A day’s paddling from here brings the canoeist to Tieke, an abandoned village located beneath a distinctive hillock. Despite the regenerating bush, one imagines the village inhabitants have not long left — indeed, its famed meeting house of outstanding traditional carving was still a going concern in 1922. Some stories say that a large sum of money (rumoured to be £35,000) paid over to local Maori for bush reserves by the Wanganui River Trust, is still buried in the vicinity.
Pipiriki itself has been a veritable crossroads in history, at least since European contact. It was from here that the Hau Hau launched their canoes to engage in ritualistic battle against the lower river tribesmen on the river island of Moutoa in 1864. An eight-year-old half-caste lad, H.D.Bates, in the care of Europeans but prised from them just before the battle, witnessed the impassioned, ritual build-up to the attack.
“The people, in their chanting and marching round the niu, got closer and closer until many of them, one after another, embraced it and revolved about it,” he recalled years later.
A short, bloody battle ensued, from which the ‘Friendly Maori’ narrowly emerged the victors. The mana of the river was intact, but the agonies of this essentially internecine warfare are not entirely forgotten — a jingoistic monument to the fallen Friendly Maori ensures that. It remembers the 16 who died with the citation that they fell “in defence of law and order against fanaticism and barbarism.” (That prompted a rebuke from Mark Twain during his visit here. He wanted to know how Maori defence of their own interests could constitute either fanaticism or barbarism.)
In just over 30 years Pipiriki changed from being a focus for frenzy to a place of festivity in famed Pipirild House, a luxury hotel which served river visitors until it burned down in 1959. Significantly, the last of the riverboat captains, popular ‘Andy’ Anderson had, like his father before him, drowned in the river just a year earlier.
Coming in to Pipiriki by canoe there are several unexpectedly bouncy rapids, capable of tipping the complacent paddler into the drink in front of his waiting pick-up. Though some trips continue down river by canoe, the majority end here, where the availability of the River Road, once a notoriously dangerous track, and still an adventure today, gets most people out of their craft and on to dry land.
Despite its stillness and picturesque beauty, Pipiriki remains a town whose history seems too close to the surface. There is a harsh, separatist aspect to the place that, if anything, is growing stronger.
From Pipiriki south the Whanganui’s Maori villages are still populated. Many have New Testament names, bestowed at the inhabitants’ request by the Victorian missionary Richard Taylor. Jerusalem (Hiruharama), a white steeple in a postcard of hills and river, is still under the spell of Suzanne Aubert, originally a Marist missioner whose compassion, drive and respect for the Maori improved their health and childcare not only on the river, but later in Wellington.
Mother Mary, as she was later known, set up a thriving business in Maori herbal medicine. Her formulas, the secrets of which she took to her grave, sold under a proprietary brand from which she later withdrew, after discovering that the strengths were being diluted by the supplying company.
Even the drive and charisma of this little Frenchwoman was insufficient to extinguish the Hau Hau flame, however. Florence Harsant, who early in this century worked as a Christian Temperance Worker, records that when she visited Jerusalem in 1914 some of the local Hau Hau tried to drown out her hymns with haka. But when she had quieted them and secured signatures for the pledge, she then had to contend with priests undoing her work.
Certainly it was the combination of Catholic and Maori spirituality that drew the self-styled prophetic poet James K. Baxter to Jerusalem. In the early 1970s he lived communally and controversially with a group of young people, spurning what he saw as the crippling materialism of New Zealand society.
Some of the marae in this lower river district have been beautifully restored under the direction of artist Cliff Whiting. Anglicanism, Catholicism, Ringatu and Ratana all are still to be found active on the lower river. Methodism in the 1850s and the Salvation Army in the 1890s also strove for custody of Maori souls, though with less enduring success. The history of Christianity on the river, for all its fire and its syncretism, had outcomes that were mild by comparison with the materialistic doctrines of the mid-twentieth century.
The 1960s and ’70s were years of expansive engineering in New Zealand. This was an era when “the best little country in the world” gritted its teeth in the face of power blackouts, believing that development would deliver a one-people, post-war paradise. The fuel of progress was energy, and where better to find it than in the rivers.
When the approval for the Tongariro Power Scheme was granted in 1958, it channelled 320 square kilometres of mountain catchment to the north of Mt Ruapehu into 16km of tunnels and canals and two dams .
In those days the meaning of the word ‘environment’ as we now know it was foreign to all but a few far-sighted individuals. As it was, some considerable efforts were taken to safeguard the world-status trout fishery of the Tongariro River. Fly-fishing, once the preserve of judges, politicians and knowledgeable locals, has some powerful advocates. They were not, alas, sufficiently influential to save the Whakapapa as well.
In the name of cheap, efficient hydroelectricity the Whanganui River lost 50 per cent of its normal flow as measured at Taumarunui. (Because it has many important tributaries below the railway town, the river gradually rebuilds its volume as it progresses to the sea.) Six of its headwaters, streaming off the cones of the central volcanic plateau, were diverted into Lake Rotoaira and then into Lake Taupo to augment flows through the Waikato hydroelectric stations. In those days there was no sense, and probably little awareness, of the issues of mana and tino rangatiratanga (chieftainship) that 30 years later have become so important in light of the Treaty of Waitangi.
This was not the only mixing of tribal waters that occurred. Streams and some rivers feeding the Waikato, Rangitikei and Whangaehu Rivers were diverted into the Rangipo system, on the eastern side of the volcanic plateau. The Whanganui’s tributaries enter Rotoaira more directly, joining these other waters to tumble down the penstocks on sacred Mt Pihanga, the maiden mountain fought for by Taranaki and Tongariro, and into the Tokaanu power station some 200 metres below. From the boiling tailrace the water enters Lake Taupo, eventually spilling into the Waikato power system.
Of all the tributaries, the Whakapapa became the sacrificial river. A turbulent blue glacial-fed stream rising on Mt Ruapehu, its waters were reduced by 95 per cent, and with them went much of its internationally acclaimed trout stock.
Had it been possible in those heady days of power development, the old New Zealand Electricity Department would also have thrown a large earth dam across the river near Parikino, 35km from Wanganui. This is an area of the river whose geology has been described recently by soil scientist Les Molloy as being of such distinction as to warrant special protection. Only the instability of the soil there averted the dam, which would have drawn a veil over much of the river’s history with a vast lake.
In 1983, ten years after the Tongariro Power Scheme was commissioned, agreement was reached with the canoeing fraternity that in summer and at Easter the river flow would not fall below 22 cumecs (cubic metres per second) at Te Maim, a point 17km below Taumarunui. For the rest of the year, the level would be held at a minimum of 16 cumecs. The idea was to ensure that there was sufficient recreational water in the river at times of greatest use. These flow minimums, the only real planning constraint ever imposed on the scheme, were to be reviewed in 1988 — hence the hearing.
But the compromise with recreational users did not take account of Maori values. For example, Maori regard the mixing of waters from different tribal jurisdictions as a serious spiritual offence, yet this is precisely what the Tongariro scheme did. As Professor James Ritchie pointed out at the hearing, “The purest part of the headwaters of the Whanganui has been diverted, mixed with headwaters from another spiritual domain, Tuwharetoa, emptied into their wai tapu (sacred water), Taupo nui a Tia, and diverted thence also to the spiritual jurisdiction of Tainui, the Waikato River.”
Last year’s hearing provided a forum in which all Maori concerns, as well as environmental values, could be fully stated for the first time. Both Maori and conservationist argued that the river needed to be treated as a totality; the Maori speaking of mana (authority, power), tapu (sacredness) and ihi (special affinity); the conservationists of Gaia (Lovelock’s postulation that the Earth is a self-sustaining organism), holism and ‘intrinsic values’ — the naturally-occurring qualities, habitats and wildlife of the river system. It was a blending of ideals New Zealand has so far seen little of.
In one sense it was odd that there had to be any defence mounted of the river, given that in 1987 the area had been declared New Zealand’s first river park. But because of a failure to reach a settlement with Maori over the ownership of the bed of the river, the park boundaries do not include the actual river, and the ownership question remained unresolved.
The grand old man of the river, tohunga Titi Tihu, passed away only a couple of months before the hearing, aged over 100 years. His mana on the river had been unequalled for many years. Almost all his working life had been spent on or about the river, starting as a boy deckhand on Hatrick’s riverboats. From the 1930s he had fought for the river in the nation’s courtrooms, following the thoughts and prophecy of his grandfather, Te Kere Ngataierua, who maintained steadfastly that the river was his people’s and that they were entitled to a say over its destiny, and to a share of its wealth. With motives more spiritual than monetary, his grandfather had said: “There’s money for me in the metal, there’s money for me in the sand, there’s money in the water.”
Titi’s relative and close ally for many years, Hikaia Amohia, kaumatua of Taumarunui, told the hearing, “When you interfere with the river, you are interfering with nature. Carried out intentionally, you break the law of tapu; you break the ihi or sacred affinity of our Maori people with the river; you reduce the mane and soul of the Whanganui River.
“The taking of an excess of any resource is a squandering of the resource, is a manifestation of greed and selfishness. This is how the Maori people see the taking of the headwaters of the Whanganui River.”
Another elder, Taitoko Rangiwhakateka, spoke of the river’s life-force and the danger to the taniwha, the guardians of this sacred entity.
To these Maori the issue was clear: the mana of the Whanganui had been trampled for 30 years and the time had come for restoration.
Most Motorists’ Perception of the Whanganui is that of a slow, broad, brackish (to put it politely), mud-coloured old river easing its way thankfully under the Cobham Bridge on the southern approach to the town that bears its name. The other common view is of a slightly cleaner version rising in Tongariro National Park, soon to be soiled by intakes from its muddier western tributaries and discharges of secondary sewage from Taumarunui, as seen from State Highway Four.
Yet there are old people — 83-yearold Jack Harris, who arrived in Taumarunui in 1906, and Taitoko, now in his late 70s — who remember when the Whanganui was clear and sweet to drink. One hundred years ago its waters were of such quality that thousands of salmon smolt were liberated just above Pipiriki, and four years later records show their natal waters drew them back as mature hens and cocks.
Some salmon still ran the river in the 1920s but between then and the 1960s something profound occurred on the river. It was the task of the Tribunal to decide to what extent these changes were precipitated by the hydro scheme diversions, and to what extent they were pre-hydro scheme.
There was no question that changes had started much earlier, even before plucky “Scotch Jock” Nicol took a canoe laden with gunpowder up the river in 1834 — the first European on record to pass willingly beyond its tidal reaches. Though few travellers apart from missionaries travelled above Pipiriki until the late 1880s, some that did noted that the 40km stretch below Taumarunui was without the magnificent standing forest of tawa, kamahi, rimu, rewarewa and matai that frame the classic tourist photographs of the river. Clearly it had been fired by Maori, probably a number of times.
But it was not until the last 15 years of the nineteenth century, and particularly the first quarter of this one, that deep ecological changes were wrought. These were European in impulse and they came suddenly, in the form of riverboats and railways. The steel age literally changed the face of the river.
Despite its gentle fall to the sea, the river passage needed modifying if the boats were to make it upstream. As a youngster Titi Tihu worked in the River Trust gangs, blowing up boulders, snagging and clearing the channel. The gangs worked in deep water through the severe winters, fortified by draughts of proof spirit — this in a prohibition area.
The farmers the paddle-wheel and screw-driven boats carried in and kept in supplies ‘broke in’ the back country of the Whanganui and its tributaries, far later than most other settled areas of New Zealand, changing the water table, perhaps even the climate, forever.
Pre- and post-World War 1, trees were felled and fired all over the recently settled catchment of the Whanganui. Apart from breaking many of the farmers who tried, this activity trammelled the land, silted the river and even its harbour.
Though the legacy of the River Trust’s hard labour remains to be seen in wreaths of water ‘knotting’ over long groynes, it was the deforestation that was to have the most dire effects. It resulted in floods such as the old-timers had never seen before, dislodging a loamy run-off that eventually silted the upper reaches of the river, staining it from its confluence with the Ongarue (at Taumarunui) to the sea.
Jack Harris remembers one flood about 1914 when so much water came down the Whanganui that it forced the Ongarue to run backwards.
At Pipiriki it was not unknown for the Whanganui to rise 18 metres above its normal flow. In one great flood in the 1860s a river taniwha is said to have been washed up dead on the beach at Castlecliff.
The technological changes of the colonial Victorians were to have unexpected effects on the river and its population. Every village and most hapu (sub-tribes) had their own eel weir, or pa tuna, standing upright in the current, so as to catch the prized tuna heke, or migrating eel — one of about 70 varieties the Maori had named. These elaborate structures, veritable thickets of poles, ran parallel to the river’s flow, and in pre-European times carried detailed carvings on their heads. The actual flax-woven nets, or hinaki, were attached to these carvings.
The pa piharau, weirs to catch the highly prized lamprey or blind eel, were seldom found on the river much above Pipiriki, and stood at right angles to the bank. The piharau were haute cuisine, usually reserved for special hospitality at a hui (gathering). Between them the eel and the lamprey, together with waterfowl and pigeons in season, supplied vital protein to the river people. Like the canoes that plied the river, fishing was a ritual activity that bound the tribe to their river. River people, living by its banks, harvesting its fish and its birds, learning its currents, its moods and petty treacheries, and open to the supernatural powers worked by spirits, came to see the river as having a life of its own, of being life-giving. Its wairua (spirit) infused the river people, making them inseparable from their river for mana and life. Blood and water became one.
The traditions of the old pa tuna have not died out completely. As your canoe sweeps you round the last bend to Pipiriki several pa wrought from modern materials stand at the banks. Maori villagers and jetboat operators like Jumbo Henare still set their hinaki (eel nets) regularly to supplement their food, and in places the ancient fishing techniques are still taught.
Philip Firmin, of Wanganui, is one who is keeping alive the old ways. Through his ACCESS training programmes, young unemployed Maori youth learn skills as diverse as making traditional flax nets and bobbing for eels with glow-worms as bait.
At the hearing Firmin spoke of the decline of all fish stocks, especially eel, whitebait and freshwater shellfish (kakahi). “The blackwater shellfish across from where we lived there were three well known beds — were fished for generations,” he said. “They were taken fresh and threaded on flax to dry. I recently taught a module on this, but when we went to the kakahi beds there was not a kakahi to be found. The low flow had exposed the beds.”
In addition to being a fishery, the river was a critical corridor in a web that linked the central North Island. The river’s own traffic from top to bottom was augmented by a feeder system of tracks from east to west, north and south of the river. Yet a warparty would have had great difficulty in penetrating its inner reaches, known with the aptness of tradition as koura puta roa, the crayfish’s lair, with their steep, sometimes 80m cliffs.
On parts of the river, notably above Pipiriki, the local villagers could withdraw their vine ladders, securing themselves from attack and exposing their enemies to the terror of tumbling boulders. At least one such ladder, at Arawhata, survived in the 1890s to be photographed.
Despite the river’s importance as a thoroughfare, the canoes — on legendary occasions being large enough to accommodate 400 paddlers — did not interfere with the eel weirs. There was always the ara waka, the canoe pathway, through which the traffic could pass.
This state of affairs was to change radically in early 1886 when the first riverboat struck out for Pipiriki. Locally assembled and locally financed in Wanganui, the underpowered but ambitiously named Tuhua (a name for the Taumarunui region) saw a couple of years of fitful operation before it came to grief in 1890 on a vagrant reef at Karatia, where its bones still rest today.
Though this accident sank the company that operated it, the idea remained afloat, to be picked up in 1891 by a brilliant young Australian entrepreneur, Alexander Hatrick. Under Hatrick’s management the riverboat fleet grew in numbers and importance, and it wasn’t long before European technology and Maori tradition clashed.
The problem was eel weirs, jutting out into the current where the boats needed to pass. The solution was to shift them or get rid of them.
So, up and down the river, first on the lower reaches, then the middle and finally on the stretches up as far as Taumarunui, the eel weirs were destroyed, sometimes to be replaced in a more convenient position, often not rebuilt at all. It was the beginning of the end of a tradition that reached back hundreds of years — beyond collective memory. When in the early 1900s a great flood carried away a bank at Rurumaiakatea, site of a Kingite pa just below Taumarunui, it exposed in the alluvial shingles the remains of an eel weir that none of the old people knew anything about.
Soon most pa on the river would go the same way.
It took time. As if to prove how close the river and its people were, both the Whanganui and its indigenous occupants became more intractable the nearer the hardy snagging barge crew got to Taumarunui. This was the interior, the southern Kingite frontier where even after the agreement for the railway had been arranged, attitudes to pakeha penetration remained either hostile or at best resentful. By the time the boats reached Tawaata, home of Titi Tihu’s hapu, in 1901, resentment was high.
The upper river’s boulder-strewn bed was equally obdurate. It was another five years before Hatrick had a regular river service operating right to Taumarunui and this lasted only 12 years until the death of his lively manager, Joshua Harris, and his own death the same year.
Even in the second decade of this century the Maori at Tawaata were found by one skipper, Captain Tarry, to be unfriendly to the riverboats. Police had to be called on a number of occasions to settle protests where local Maori were disrupting efforts to clear the river. It was these Maori who raised the first petition in 1887 alleging loss of fishing, and the argument over ownership of the river and compensation has been running ever since, along legal channels more convoluted than the river bed itself.
In 1950, after a series of cases heard in the Maori Land Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, a Royal Commission confirmed that the Whanganui tribes had owned the river at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, but that the 1903 Coal Mines Amendment Act had deprived them of it. The Commission went on to state that the tribes were entitled to compensation, if not for the destruction of eel weirs, then certainly for metal extraction from the river bed.
The government failed to act on the Commission’s recommendations, and the Maori remained unsatisfied. Their claim went beyond mere compensation; they wanted ownership. Although further appeals ensued in the 1960s, the Maori gained no satisfaction. The Court of Appeal held there could be no title given for the river bed to the Maori. Titi Tihu, with Hikaia Amohia, then tried direct appeals to Parliament, citing the Treaty of Waitangi.
When the Whanganui National Park was established a Maori Trust Board was created to provide for a Maori input into the management of the park. Though this trust does not allow for as much control as some Maori would like, it does assist in the protection and enhancement of Maori values on the park sections of the river.
Prior to the creation of the park the Government made a one-off, without prejudice settlement of $140, 000 on the Trust Board in recognition of their unresolved claims — claims which still engender considerable passions among some river Maori. Indeed, as recently as this year Hikaia Amohia has appeared on television in a jetboat proclaiming Maori ownership of the river under the Treaty of Waitangi.
So last year’s hearing concerning minimum flows, and the Planning Tribunal hearing this September, are historic in that they represent the only judicial opportunity — apart from 1983 — that the river Maori have had to discuss the water as well as the bed of the river.
Because the river has been altered so much in its channel and in its catchment over the last hundred years, the question as to what specific changes the diversion has wrought was one the Tribunal kept returning to in the hearing. The failure by Electricorp or any other Government agency to monitor changes scientifically post-1973 means that hard scientific evidence is almost non-existent.
In putting the case for the environmental lobby, the Department of Conservation (DOC) had to rely on the memories of old-timers like Jock Erceg, an honorary ranger whose farmhouse and river museum stand on a peaceful ledge on cliffs above the sinuous river at old Nukunuku, and whatever scientific material they could muster.
DOC’s central argument was that a lack of natural flow down the river was disturbing the entire river system at every level, hydrological to spiritual.
Erceg could remember prior to the diversion that the trees beside the river were hung with hundreds of shags; now the birds are almost solitary creatures. What has changed, he argued, is the availability of fish, and that is dependent on the river’s rate of flow and water quality. “I can no longer go down with my fly rod and stay there in the evening because of the stink,” he said in a briefing to DOC. “I can put up with a lot of smell, but I can’t stay there all evening and enjoy the trout fishing.” Where once the riverbed was clean grey stones and sand, now the stones are yellow and slimy and “you can’t walk through the river without stirring up a great sea of mud.”
DOC scientists confirmed his observation that it was the combination of a lack of water and of sand in the river that was responsible for its deterioration. They reported that almost all of the sand — roughly 55,000 tonnes — which used to travel down the Whakapapa River is now trapped in intake systems and is denied the river system. So when a fresh or moderately-sized flood is permitted to run the river, it no longer carries sand’s cleansing properties. Instead of being scoured away, the finer sediments remain where they are in the low-flow, sluggish sections of the upper river, polluting water, air and visual impressions, and making it a much less attractive place for fish and other life forms.
Long periods of low water flow have meant increased exposure of the ‘papa shelves’ of the river bed, and a claim that the actual structure of the bed might be changing. Five years ago Taumarunui DOC ranger Ken Hunt, who handles a jetboat the way a card sharp deals a hand — always cheating the river — used to touch on critical rapids at 22 cumec flow; now he scrapes them at 25.
DOC scientists argued that sporadic and fitful releases of water down the Whakapapa were not helpful to aquatic life. Indeed, it seemed that increasing the flow in summer in order to maintain minimum flows caused increases in the kind of periphyton (algae, bacteria and inorganic particles) that gave rise to discoloured water and slippery rocks.
Keith Chapple, a resident of Kakahi, the now dwindling milling town on the banks of the Whakapapa, fired up much of the local pakeha opposition for the hearing by reminding people of what they had lost. Appearing for the New Zealand Forest and Bird Society, he and consultant David Pike described how the blue duck habitat had been altered, leaving isolated colonies — a classic symptom of the species in decline.
“Full flows ought to be returned to the Whanganui River,” Chapple affirmed. “A minimum of 70-80 percent is required.” Fellow villager and artist Peter McIntyre, who has made the area famous with his paintings and his protests, which pre-date the construction of the power scheme, has had the bitter satisfaction now of seeing the full truth of his words. His article, “New Zealand’s disappearing heritage today — the nation’s playground tomorrow — the wasteland rampaging Philistine with bulldozer must be told, ‘Hands off!'” has proved prophetic.
Of course, there is always a bottom line for any argument of this kind, and it was costs that Electricorp argued — costs and critical energy planning. The Tongariro Power Scheme supplies 41 per cent of the North Island hydro output, one quarter of which comes from the Western Diversion. Though nearly 65 per cent of New Zealand’s electricity is generated in the South Island — making the Western Diversion a tiny portion of the total output — these flows are crucial to the total system, Electricorp’s production control manager Mike Turner explained.
Part of the problem is the lack of storage in Lake Rotoaira and the fact that the Tokaanu station is critical for delivery to North Island peak demand. It has a unique ability to vary generation over its full range and can also be used to compensate for unplanned loss and avoid or minimise oil-fired plant, he said.
“The Western diversion gives about half of the actual flows into Lake Rotoaira and a reduction would reduce Tokaanu’s maximum output. If inflows were reduced to that lake, then its peak generating capacity would be halved.”
With reduced flows into Lake Taupo as well, it would be necessary to hold that lake at higher levels, creating risks of flooding and lost storage. So as the hydro resource overall was reduced, the value of the water in the Tongariro scheme increased — exponentially. Turner concluded that the loss of water into the Tongariro and Waikato would have an impact on generating capacity, particularly in dry years when the scheme makes its greatest contribution to the North Island system as a whole.
Corporate development manager Dr Keith Turner emphasised “the overall system”. He estimated the annual loss of the western waters would be $10-$33m, a loss that would raise electricity prices up to two percent in the North Island, or, if it were charged to the Wanganui region, 15-20 percent. (Energy researcher Molly Mellhuish later challenged these figures as being highly exaggerated.)
Electricorp’s hearing figures were based on the costs of burning fuel in thermal stations and the necessary acceleration of power construction projects. Lurking behind the debates over hydroelectricity sources lie questions of where our power comes from, if not from “clean, renewable” hydro. The alternatives are exhaust-emitting thermal stations, belching their carbon wastes into the already overloaded CO2 atmosphere of the planet.
This is a powerful argument, but probably not one that Electricorp can make a great deal of. Under its charter it is in the business of supplying and marketing power at a competitive price to its consumers. So it actively promotes consumption of power, which can only encourage unnecessary waste. Its problem is that it can hardly urge prudent use of resources on one hand and on the other implore the public to burn up large on electricity as if there was truly plenty more where that came from. This is one of the many paradoxes of the State-Owned Enterprise system.
“I was very impressed by the methodology you used to introduce your calculations,” commented Tribunal member Wira Gardiner on Keith Turner’s evidence. “But nowhere in your evidence do I see any value placed on spiritual, cultural, environmental-type values.”
“There was no attempt made to put a price on raw material,” weighed in fellow member Dr Neil Algar. “The people of this area have suffered financially from the withdrawal of the water. You don’t appear to try to put a value on it.”
Turner replied, “I must value the water for the corporation. The community must put its value on it and it’s up to the Tribunal to reach its value.”
It is this juggling of values that is at the heart of the debate. After attempting for much of this century to find a legal framework in which to discuss their river, finally it seemed to be happening for the Maori.
Maori values were finally being recognised by a Catchment Board-appointed Tribunal to the extent that the mixing of tribal waters was considered to be, if not an offence against tapu, then at least worthy of consideration. And the question of compensation was raised. Tom Wells, appearing for an alliance of local conservation groups, was one who suggested that water taken from one catchment and dumped in another should be paid for at a rate similar to alternative fuels.
Because in 1958 there were no environmental protection and enhancement procedures, with requirements to measure baseline data and forecast outcomes, the engineers were able to take virtually what they wanted. Today, such a scheme would not be possible. So much has changed that even Electricorp, through its counsel, accepted that “the river has spiritual, physical and cultural values for the Maori people of the river.”
In ways like this the current case of the Whanganui stands for far more than how much water should run through its veins. It raises questions that go to the very heart of the way our society is structured and the kinds of values it holds. If the Tribunal’s recommendations, which were adopted by the Wanganui-Rangitikei Catchment Board, to return the full flows of the Upper Whanganui and the bulk of the Whakapapa River, are upheld at the Planning Tribunal hearing starting this September, then this will be the beginning of full health for the old river.
With more mountain water, better flow and associated better cleansing, and therefore better purity, many of its previous wildlife values will also be restored, together with greater attractiveness of the upper river’s waters particularly. The region will benefit in recreational terms, the Maori in terms of their mana. A precedent will be set for other rivers similarly affected, and the question of charging Electricorp for water shifted from one catchment to another may be raised. And perhaps finally old Te Kere’s prophecy will out, and the Maori will achieve the recognition of their claim to the river for which they have fought for so long.