Smokestacks and paddle-wheels
Today a playground for canoeists and jetboaters, the Whanganui River was once a major highway serving settler and tourist alike. Stately paddle-steamers and innovative tunnel-dive launches mingled with skiffs and waka, bearing people, good and livestock though the forested interior. But the river was no boating cakewalk, all limpid depths and shimmering beauty. Its many treacherous rapids were a test of nerves for both passengers and crew, making travel on the country’s longest navigable river an unforgettable experience.
Up in the wheelhouse, behind a frame of dazzling white railings, skipper Greg Robinson hangs his denim coat on a stanchion and casts his eye over the surface of the water, reading its mood. Beneath our motionless hull the river is muscling ocean tide back from the Dublin Street bridge and into the Tasman. Thick, nigrescent smoke froths from the stack behind the skipper as the boiler is brought up to pressure. Snatched by the wind, the dark column is torn and dissolved in the overcast sky Spots of rain begin to freckle paintwork and decking. Robinson’s hands find their accustomed places on the spoked wooden wheel and he offers a glance towards the wharf. A line is let go. The paddle-wheels amidships turn in their housings, biting water and releasing ribbons of foam, and with the smoothness of a train pulling from its platform the boat edges forward.
The newly restored paddle-steamer Waimarie (“wai-MA-ree-eh”) is leaving its berth in the town of Wanganui* and heading upstream, as it has for several months now, plying the waters it first knew a hundred or more years ago when river travel was enjoying its golden age. The passengers—several dozen on this trip—relax on bench seats under the cover of an awning, watching the river’s lazy slide and the unfolding parade of trees along its banks.
Their Edwardian counterparts were lured by something more heady than the prospect of a short nostalgic excursion. It was the call of the exotic. Adventure afloat. A journey through a wonderland. Lavish advertisements and picturesque postcards trumpeted the beauty of what was romantically called “the Rhine of Maoriland,” and extolled an experience that, even for an age weaned on hyperbole, was something special.
There was the scenery, of course—the Whanganui River* was “an old road of ruin,” in the words of poet and nature essayist Blanche Baughan, “that has become a highway of beauty.” The forested fastnesses of the middle reaches, where the river, reflective as polished greenstone, cut past mossclad cliffs, left writers grasping for superlatives. There were noisy quicksilver rapids, the intricate tracery of massed tree ferns, and on the banks secluded Maori kainga (settlements)—windows on a culture rich and strange.
There was the sweet perfume of flowering rangiora which filled the river valley. The liquid tones of bellbirds. A strange optical phenomenon called the Drop Scene, in which, at a certain place on the river, the bush-clad hill ahead seemed to lower like a painted stage curtain into the water. There was that magnificent hotel in the middle of nowhere—Pipiriki, the place was called—which boasted a palm conservatory, a billiards room, eight parlours and a 40-metre promenade balcony with splendid river views. It even had electricity, generated by a waterwheel donated years before by Sir George Grey for grinding corn.
A day further upstream lay something equally magical and surprisingly refined: the Houseboat, a purpose-built floating hotel, with hot showers and flush toilets and waitresses in starched aprons, which allowed travellers to break their journey to or from the railhead at Taumarunui in style. Moored permanently at the confluence of the Ohura River beneath an old pa, the Houseboat injected a touch of Mississippi elegance to the North Island’s rugged interior.
The allure of the Whanganui was well caught by the American journalist Charles Russell, who journeyed from Taumarunui to Wanganui early in 1911, when the riverboat service was at its romantic peak. Not surprisingly, it was the energetic transiting of the rapids that most keenly engaged Russell’s attention
Before each charge of white water, the crew solidified into a tableau vivant: the skipper, a young tanned Scot, braced at the great wheel, the deckhands, two on the foredeck and two at the stern, all raising aloft their long iron-shod poles.
Russell records for his Boston readers how the skipper steers unhesitatingly into the midst of the narrow stream, framed by roaring rocks on all sides. The river bottom, standing out vividly, seems no more than a few inches from the surface. Then the boat begins to lurch. The skipper spins his wheel this way and that, “like a squirrel in a cage,” his eyes searching the water ahead as if scanning the very stones beneath.
“As the boat plunges in the first line of the boiling breakers, the bow sinks under you, the swift current behind catches the stern and slings it sideways,” writes Russell. “A tremendous clatter arises, the boat careens and shakes as if she were falling apart, and you, standing upon the upper deck and nervously holding the handrail, give yourself up for lost . . .
“Now then, now then!’ yells the captain. The boys put their strength to the poles. Just as the craft seems sliding sideways into the boulders that line her path she slips into the stairless green and silver of the next reach, and the captain . . . settles down to a cup of tea, holding the wheel with one hand.”
Russell, for one, is relieved, and he admits to an unnerving suspicion that the Scot himself is not always sure of the outcome.
“Sometimes the captain’s quick, rasping orders to the deckhands have the ragged edge of anxiety, and his manner of tearing with hands and feet at the wheel indicates a considerable concern. Once I hear him mutter under his breath the national slogan, ‘I hae ma doots, I hae ma doots,’ with a fervour that leaves no doubt of its sincerity, as we shoot into a particularly abominable piece of water.”
That, concludes the journalist, is the peculiar attraction of travel on a Whanganui steamer—moments of high drama punctuated with passages of profound peace and almost unapproachable beauty. The reaches are of such depth and canyoned stillness that the surface is transformed into a flawless mirror which faithfully repeats the myriad details of bush and cliff. “You sail for miles through a double glory,” says Russell, “and if you photograph any scene only an expert can tell which is the shore and which the reflection”
The pleasures of nature were far from paramount in the minds of the riverboat pioneers. In 1865, the skipper of the first steamer to press its bow inland much past the young town of Wanganui was answering a quite different plea. It was during the time of the Hau Hau uprising when that boat, the colonial government paddle-steamer Gundagai, with militia aboard, ventured as far as Koriniti to help avert a threatened attack. A few months later the paddle-steamer Moutoa carried soldiers as far as Pipiriki, 79 km upstream.
Fitful journeying continued until, in 1886, the Wanganui River Steam Navigation Company launched the river’s first commercial steamer service. Its vessel of choice, a 46-tonne iron stern-wheeler called Tuhua, was an odd craft, described as “a cheesebox built on a raft.” It was to be dogged by complaints of poor workmanship and bad performance. Though the company’s venture had the backing of local MP and Native Affairs minister John Ballance, who pushed the benefits of the scheme to river Maori, financial pressures soon mounted, and squabbling among directors reached the point where the press had to be banned from company meetings.
A major difficulty, aside from chronic undercapitalisation and the shortcomings of their craft, was a lack of customers. In 1886, the only European upriver settlement was the Jerusalem Mission, and plans to connect with the Main Trunk line were premature—construction of the rail link had barely begun. The company folded in 1887.
Into the breach stepped an energetic, hard-headed entrepreneur who would almost single-handedly shape the future of travel on the Whanganui River and forge it into a world-renowned tourist destination. His name was Alexander Hatrick. An Australian-born Scot, he had been a director of the Wanganui River Steam Navigation Company, but soon resigned. Hatrick came to symbolise the spirit of business in the region. Astute, and with a gift for backing successful new ventures, he grew to become a lion of colonial commerce—a Gulliver in Lilliput, as one contemporary cartoon depicted him.
By 1890, when a ministerial party set off by canoe down the Whanganui in unrelenting rain to assess its suitability as an inland waterway, the lower river had already been snagged (cleared for navigation) for a considerable distance. Just the previous year the suggestion had been made that for the cost of laying a mere two miles of rail the river could be snagged as far as Taiunarunui, thereby creating a fine 230 km highway through the very heart of the forest.
Hatrick was also on the river at about the time of the government ministers, and, seeing the brisk canoe traffic, the splendid scenery and the riverside land being cleared for settlement, he was not slow to see pounds sterling in the equation. When, armed with a government mail contract, he launched an upriver steamer service later the following year, proof of his energy was already abundant. The many-tentacled A. Hatrick & Co. imported grain and fruit, ran a chaff-cutting and grain-crushing mill, dealt in butter and farm produce, acted as agent for fire and marine insurance companies and, in 1889, had begun a trans-Tasman shipping service using the barquentine St Kilda.
Having determined that a steamer of not more than half a metre draught could reach Pipiriki year-round, Hatrick did what any colonial of British stock in his circumstances would have done: he placed an order with the London shipyard of Yarrow & Co., in London. The company was a specialist in shallow-water navigation, and its craft were in demand throughout the Empire.
In October 1891, wooden packing crates containing galvanised steel parts for a coal-burning side-wheel paddle-steamer arrived in Wanganui. Just two months later the vessel, named Wairere (“flowing water”), bucked its first rapids and, avoiding the many eel weirs on the river, reached Pipiriki, where it tied up at 6.30 in the evening. The next day, on its return voyage, and in anticipation of what would become a staple of the new shipping venture, Wairere loaded 15 bales of wool at Jerusalem and freighted them to Wanganui.
Wairere was a pretty little steamer and well appointed, with a forward saloon upholstered in dark leather, and, for the women on board, a “very cosy little boudoir” amidships, finished in peacock-blue crumpled velvet. The service flourished, and Hatrick soon increased sailings of the 250-passenger vessel to three a week. In 1894, he added a bigger 400-passenger stern-paddle-steamer, Manuwai, and three years later a twin-screw steamer, Ohura.
Hatrick was impressed with Yarrow & Co. all over again when the kit for the double-decked Manuwai arrived. Nothing was left to chance. Parts for the port side were coloured red, and those for the starboard grey, each plate being stamped with a letter and number corresponding to the accompanying drawings. Nothing was overlooked. Paint, brushes, even galvanised buckets and brooms, were included.
While the stately stern-wheeler, with its maroon leather chairs and saloon panelling of bird’s-eye maple and mahogany, was restricted to the comparatively easy lower section, Ohura was marked for the difficult reaches beyond Pipiriki. It featured a design innovation never before seen on New Zealand rivers: propellers housed in tunnels set into the hull. The tunnels kept the propellers—two to each drive shaft—free of river stones and other obstacles. At rest, the propellers were only half-submerged, but as the blades turned, water was sucked into the tunnels, allowing the propellers to work at shallow draught. After seeing the benefit of this technical advance, Hatrick ordered no more new paddle-steamers for the Whanganui.
Ohura exceeded Hatrick’s expectations. In 1892, he had entered into an agreement with London-based travel agent Thomas Cook and Son to carry its tourists—a move that guaranteed income and, more importantly, put the Whanganui River on the world map. Custom from tourists grew, as did income from freight haulage.
But Hatrick didn’t have everything his own way. Farmers and fellow merchants, jealous of his success and undoubtedly worried at the stranglehold he was developing on river traffic, started the Wanganui Settlers’ River Steamship Company in opposition. The company ordered a sister ship to Wairere, also from Yarrow’s yard, and had it assembled on the banks of the Whanganui by
David Murray, the man who had built the Tuhua. The new steamer, finished in May 1900, was christened Aotea after the Maori voyaging canoe and was immediately put to work on the river.
From the start, things went badly. Lacking Hatrick’s acumen and his alternative sources of income, the Settlers’ Company couldn’t get out of Hatrick’s shadow. It became embroiled in a price war with its rival, and after a mere 18 months of operation was forced to sell Aotea to him. The jubilant Hatrick renamed the vessel Waimarie (“good fortune”—he had, after all, eliminated the competition), painted her in his own livery—a dark green hull with white paddleboxes, varnished cabins and a touch of black about the red funnel—and sent her off to join the rest of the expanding fleet.
At the turn of the 20th century, there were two ways of getting from Auckland to Wellington. One was by boat from Onehunga to New Plymouth, then by train. The other, which seems arduous even to record, but was more scenic, involved going by train to Rotorua, by coach to Taupo, across the lake by steamer and by coach again via Waiouru and Raetihi to Pipiriki. There, a paddle-steamer would be caught to Wanganui, leaving at 5.30 A.M. to connect with the southbound mail train at Aramoho for the journey to Wellington.
By 1903, Hatrick had blazed a trail for his steamers all the way to Taumarunui, where he established his upriver terminus, and he was soon running a regular service which connected with the town’s newly completed railhead.
In 1904, he hatched the grand scheme that was to add so much charm to travel on the river: he decided to overcome accommodation difficulties north of Pipiriki by building what came to be known the world over simply as “the Houseboat.” More in the nature of a 30 m floating hotel, the Houseboat was roomy enough to contain 18 cabins on the lower deck, while on the upper it managed an open lounge, a smoking room, a saloon with a piano and a dining room able to seat 40.
Its crowning glory, though, was that it had electricity, thanks to an on-board generator, and when moored near the Ohura junction at Maraekowhai its fairy lighting added a touch of enchantment to the remote and unroaded wilderness.
Guests sojourning on the Houseboat could visit pa sites and the remains of a flour mill, take bush walks or contemplate the hilltop niu poles—reminders of the Hau Hau rebellion—and a picturesque waterfall on the Ohura River. At night there was the amusement of cards and the piano and in the early morning birdsong and river mist.
Getting the Houseboat to its location had been far from straightforward. The unpowered and rudderless vessel, built in Taumarunui, had to be floated stern-first for 50 turbulent kilometres down the Whanganui to its mooring site. The task of easing it safely through the many rapids using wire hawsers took three men a fortnight.
Just how hard the Whanganui could be on boats and equipment was reported by one of Hatrick’s engineers, David Reid, when the single-screw steamer Wakapai was winched up the skids for an overhaul after a year on the middle run.
The newly arrived Reid was soon to find out what life was like aboard these workaday craft. Accommodation ashore or on the Houseboat may have been attuned to the needs of travellers, but the vessels themselves were more than mere water-borne tourist coaches. They were lifelines for scattered communities and farms the length of the river.
Fencing wire, sugar, wool packs—everything a farmer needed was delivered on the boats. Even four lumbering traction engines and 13 trailers to help build the Main Trunk line were offloaded at Pipiriki, where they were taken overland to Ohakune.
“The decks on which expensively-shod feet walked might recently have been vacated by torn sacks of fertiliser or weeping tins of kerosene. And the handrails clutched by manicured hands would be very recently wiped if they did not yield a few smuts from the funnel,” Reid recalled.
The steamers made unscheduled passenger stops at the wave of a hand, flung newspapers ashore, picked up mail from the unlikeliest places—letters held out from the bank on a stick, mailbags strung from a wire over the water. They acted as river ambulances, often for bushmen with axe cuts—no matter if the boat was down- or upriver bound, as long as the injured could be seen to.
While prohibition reigned in the King Country, the boats offered another service. By a legal quirk, they were able to sell liquor on the river. It got so that locals would take a one-stop trip for the sole purpose of fortifying themselves en route. As well as ministering to the thirsty, the steamers helped the mechanically challenged. Often a boat’s engineer was called on to fix a farmer’s internal combustion engine. Machinery was spreading through the river valley, as elsewhere, faster than was the expertise to repair it—and a woolshed engine would break down in the midst of shearing.
Often the engineer was forced to improvise for the sake of his craft, doing everything from substituting a length of wire to building a make-do forge on the riverbank to repair a rudder. In all cases, the steamers, and later benzene boats, were islands of modernity in a difficult, unforgiving landscape.
Not that modernity equated with ease.
On his first journey upriver, aboard the old warhorse Wairere, Reid discovered cable. The crew had steamed up 20 or more rapids with such ease—though sometimes not without the aid of their long manuka punting poles—that he had become relaxed to the point of complacency. Reid saw that the skipper’s typical method was to take the boat close in to the bank to get away from the main current or to gain the benefit of a back eddy. Sometimes in doing this the boat would barge indecorously through overhanging foliage, tearing itself free of tangled branches that would rake the superstructure and any passengers who got in the way.
Having swept past the village of Atene, Wairere was forced by boulders into the main current from where, with mounting dread, Reid stared up at the Ahu Ahu—”a rapid so long, so rough, and so swift I could not in any circumstances see the vessel climbing it—poles or no poles.”
Then a peculiar thing happened. Skipper Kenny Stuart eased his steamer’s bow into the foaming tail of the rapid and dropped the revs until Wairere hung poised as if gathering the wherewithal to rush up the torrent. But the rush never came.
Instead, a Maori deckhand reached for a long hooked pole and, lowering it over the side, began scratching about on the rocky riverbed. After much effort and accompanied by vocal exhortations from the skipper, the deckhand hauled up a wire hawser and took several turns around the winch drum. With full power on and paddles flailing, the steamer then dragged itself up along the hawser, the other end of which was anchored above the rapid.
That crew was fortunate. Often, if the cable snagged or got buried under shingle, no amount of searching would retrieve it. Then, one or two men would jump out with a spare coil of wire rope and laboriously drag it up to the head of the rapid, where it could be made fast to a boulder, tree or, in several places, a ringbolt set into the cliff.
Some captains were game enough to travel the river at night, usually taking their boats down the rapids stern first, and often with the help of the fixed wire hawsers. At such times the boat would float close in to the banks, giving passengers fine displays of glow-worms.
On the upper reaches, the winching stratagem sometimes resulted in a riverboat’s hull graunching inch by inch over barely wetted boulders. Reid was to experience one trip from Pipiriki on the converted steamer Wairua in which the haul up the Paparoa rapid—actually two rapids, on a bend in the river just above Pipiriki—took a full hour. The river was unusually low on that occasion, and the crew laboured all day and all night to reach the Houseboat.
Not surprisingly, the hulls of the boats were badly punished as a result and rivets were often torn out of the bottom plates. These holes were readily stopped with tapering wooden plugs hammered home, until more durable gutterbolts could be fitted. But for bigger tears, caused by jagged rocks, something more extreme was needed—flour.
The procedure was to set a sack of flour over the hole and secure it with timber wedged against the deckhead. The water would then form a doughy skin inside the sack, which was remarkably leakproof. A boat patched in this way once carried on working for three months before it could be hauled out and repaired.
The side-wheelers encountered another problem: submerged logs. Sometimes one would strike the wheel and smash it. The vessel would then be tied up to the bank while new blades were bolted on. Once, when Waimarie was heading up to Parinui pa with a load of timber for the new school, it encountered a two-metre wave, the result of heavy rain further up. A log in the water wedged itself in the paddle blades, locking the driveshaft and stopping the engine. Two of the crew rowed to the bank in a dinghy and ran alongside the fast-drifting steamer. They caught a thrown rope and fixed it to a willow. With blue smoke coming off the kingpost and less than a metre of rope left, the heavily laden boat was finally brought under control.
The same thing happened to skipper Kenny Stuart aboard the sister ship Wairere. Wheels and steering were both jammed this time, and the anchor lost. Stuart blew his whistle at Jerusalem as the boat went by, and again at Ranana, but either the locals didn’t cotton on or they had better things to do. For more than 30 km Wairere drifted on until, at Matahiwi, Maori answered the cries of the crew and launched a waka to tow the vessel to shore.
From the beginning, smoothing out the water highway to minimise danger and damage was a priority. The Wanganui River Trust was formed in 1891—the year Wairere was built—to clear and maintain channels for steamers. This the trust’s workers did by snagging, blasting and constructing stone groynes to redirect water and deepen channels. There are graphic accounts of conditions at some rapids before the trust stepped in. For example, at a place called Tarei-pou-kiore—the Whirlpool—the water was reputedly 24 m deep at normal river levels, and after heavy rain was capable of spinning a steamer around. Company policy was to avoid going through this challenging stretch of water while the river was in high flood, but one day, aboard the single-screw steamer Wakapai, Reid found himself doing just that. It was a frightening thing to see, he remembered. “A great, sucking, swirling, almost animate thing that moved about its high-walled enclosure like some voracious animal.” Nor was that the only danger. Beyond lay a massive cluster of boulders—the result of a landslide in 1875—and through this bottleneck thundered a ferocious torrent of water.
To the engineer’s dismay, the order came through for full ahead. With the side shutters in the engine room open, Reid had a fine view out over the steamer’s low freeboard, “and you may take it from me that the gaping gullet of a killer whirlpool at such close range has no qualities worth stopping to admire . . . So, with a full head of steam, we began our desperate dash. But we might have been a matchbox. The vessel was drawn sideways to plunge into the whirlpool, heeling madly on its starboard beam. Floodwater poured into the engine room through the open shutters. The engine raced wildly as the screw left the water. Jack and I clutched desperately at whatever support came to hand to avoid being thrown into the machinery as we lurched over to the other beam . . . I honestly thought it was the end. Then the Wakapai straightened and was flung free. Just like that!”
Skilful blasting later removed this troublesome hazard, and today’s kayakers have difficulty believing the pool’s foul reputation as they skim over its placid surface. A less easily remedied difficulty was the colossal damage caused by floods, which washed thousands of tonnes of earth into the river and sent enormous trees crashing through its narrow gorges. At Pipiriki, a sign 20 m above the Whanganui’s normal level today marks the height of the 1904 flood and serves as a sober reminder of the river’s potential for destruction.
Part of the problem in the early 1900s was that the very work of the new settlers in clearing the country was increasing erosion and reducing the ability of the land to hold water.
Hatrick fumed over the damage, and helped get legislation through in 1908 to protect riverside forest. An even more worrying threat to navigation occurred in 1905 when Taumarunui mill owners began floating experimental log rafts down the Whanganui. They were fined under the handy Timber Floating Act for rafting without a licence, but protracted litigation followed and the matter was only settled three years later, when the Main Trunk railway dispensed with the need for rafts altogether.
The steamers did their bit to improve conditions, resupplying isolated river trust workers and on occasion themselves dragging metal harrows through rapids to deepen the shingle fans. Despite all the expenditure of effort, however, the Whanganui could never be taken for granted.
One look at the telegraphic entries in the travel diary of English visitor Alice Mackie is enough to instil a generous respect for the river. Mackie, the daughter of the personal physician to the Khedive of Egypt, saw a good deal of the globe, and in 1924 brought her considerable writing skills to bear on an early winter steamer trip from Taumarunui on the motor vessel.
“Monday 19 May,” she begins. “Started down river in boat at 8 A.M. About 15 passengers. Settled down to enjoy scenery. About 2 miles from Tau[marunui] steering gear bust in the middle of dangerous rapids. Captain stood helpless. So did we. In a moment crashed on rocks, swung around & heeled right over filling with water.
“Engineer just got out in time. [He had dived back into the engine room to rescue his guitar]. Side of boat stove in & back broken. Shrieks from women & we all took refuge on highest part of deck, clinging to railings. Rapids swirling round, no swimmer could live in them; water rising & boat cracking & breaking up in midstream. Agonised parents clasped their babies; seemed absolutely no hope.”
Then this plucky sentence: “Doris and I thought we were done for, but saw funny side.”
Nearby farmers rushed to the aid of the stricken boat, one roaring off to the local store in his milk truck, shouting at the store owner to charge it to Hatrick & Co. as he threw a coil of rope on the tray. Back at the river, helpers waded into the chilly water to secure the line. It was made fast and, one by one, in a bosun’s chair made of old banana crates, the passengers were taken off. Suitcases, mailbags and provisions, however, had been swept away and the boat itself was a mess. In the afternoon a second boat picked up the stranded passengers.
“Shooting rapids all the way, & captain and Maori crew splendid, but so dashed casual . . . rudder kept jamming & things breaking & they just tied them up with string . . .
“Tuesday 20 May. Woke up on Houseboat to feel it was good to be alive & here instead of a corpse in the river.”
For passengers, adventure was no doubt made more palatable by their unwavering regard for the boat crews, and especially for those almost mythical beings the skippers. Hatrick was fortunate in the men he recruited for his steamers, and their skill and professionalism were reflected in the service’s safety record—over the entire time the boats operated not one passenger’s life was lost due to navigational error.
It was said to take 12 months to become acquainted with all the rapids between Taumarunui and Pipiriki—all told, there were some 239 named rapids on the river—and with the lie of the wire hauling ropes.
Over the years these men developed a repertoire of unusual, sometimes bizarre techniques for getting their charges where they needed to go. On downriver legs, the usual method at low flow was to run at a rapid with all possible speed then, on its very lip, to stop the engine. Momentum would carry the vessel over the barely submerged river stones and down into deeper water, where the engine could be opened up again. Often, when the rapids were on a sharp bend, the boat would careen alarmingly, bringing the satisfaction of a stifled scream from the passenger deck.
Tourists had their own poetic phrases for the business. “Sliding down a mountain on the dew,” they called it. “Steamboating on a trout brook.”
The inaptly named West Coaster Joe Tarry was a skipper in a hurry who, it was said, never willingly stopped for anything short of an act of God. To pick up a passenger or a letter from a survey party on the river, he would cut his engine and bear down alarmingly on the waiting canoe. Sometimes mail from the surveyors’ camp was despatched by tying it to a short stick and lobbing it at the passing steamer. This attempt at satisfying Tarry’s need for speed was abandoned, however, after a packet bounced on the wheelhouse roof and disappeared down the funnel.
In later years, one of the best-known skippers on the river was Andy Anderson, a local Maori who had served with distinction in the First World War and still had some shrapnel in him to prove it, along with the Military Medal. Anderson, a familiar figure in his striped blazer and matching cap, had earlier worked as a deckhand, and was something of a local hero. But a tragic accident in 1940 marred his career.
At the time, he was skippering Ohura. It was loaded—some claimed overloaded—with cattle and sheep, which were being taken down the swollen river to Wanganui. Partway through the dangerous Ngaporo rapids, the cattle moved, breaking partitions and heeling the vessel over. The sheep then rushed to the listing side, causing other partitions and side rails to collapse. Ohura capsized, fatally trapping the engineer below. Two others, clad in oilskins and boots, died in the water among the frenzied animals. The three dead men had all been married and had big families-23 children among them.
The river later took Anderson himself. Despite a reputation as a strong swimmer, one night in 1958, at the age of 63, he was swept away while repairing his lamprey trap. The skipper’s neat two-storeyed weatherboard house in Pipiriki is now a public information centre. Nearby is the site of Hatrick’s grand hotel, and, up on the hard, as a monument to those days, the motor vessel Ongarue, Anderson’s favourite.
A year after Anderson died, the hotel burned to the ground, and with its loss, symbolically, the riverboat era ended. It had been in decline, if people cared to admit it, since the First World War, when tourist numbers began falling and recession loomed. Hatrick, dynamo of the enterprise, had died in 1918, passing the baton on to family members. The company shrank further in 1928 to become Wanganui River Services, under the direction of a son. But the writing was on the wall. Improved roads and more reliable vehicles gave better access, the river road reaching Pipiriki in 1934. Maintenance work on the upper reaches fell away. It was to be the death of a thousand cuts.
Fittingly, the last paddle-steamer of Hatrick’s 12-strong riverboat fleet to succumb—Waimarie—was the first to recover. Old and neglected, it sank at its moorings in 1952 near the single-screw steamer Wairua, and for 40 years lay undisturbed under a quilt of river mud. Then, in 1990, the Whanganui Riverboat Restoration and Navigation Trust sprang into life under the guidance of Mark Campbell and David McDermid. McDermid was appointed restoration manager, and his team began by cleaning up and reinforcing the riverbank near the Settlers’ Company wharf.
They rebuilt the wharf and, in 1993, turned their attention to what remained of Waimarie. Using high-powered pumps, plastic containers, steel drums welded to the hull, and compressed air, rescuers prised the vessel from its riverbed prison. The wheelhouse had long since been removed, and deck timbers had splintered, but the hull itself was found to be in remarkably good condition. The original brass whistle was discovered, along with tools, a lamp and, in the engine room, a diminutive Popeye mascot with an arm that still pivoted. Even the oil in the boat’s pump reservoir was untainted.
Getting the Waimarie back to its original state was not easy. The records of builder Yarrow & Co. had been destroyed by bombing in the Second World War, so the hull had to be measured frame by frame, and deck details scaled off surviving photos. “It was an old style of construction, so we had to learn as we went along,” says McDermid.
Some 67,000 volunteer hours later, on the stroke of midnight, as the new millennium began, Waimarie’s paddles churned the waters of the Whanganui and she headed upriver with crowded decks—the first vessel to be cornmissioned in the new century.
Out on the water, skipper Greg Robinson had no trouble coaxing the boat’s reconditioned 86 hp engines up to their maximum 72 revs in a steam trial for the surveyor, but he was thrown by the steamer’s handling. Other powered boats are controlled by the propeller pushing water past the rudder, but Robinson found the paddle-steamer had no steerage unless it was underway. “First time out, I only managed a 30-degree turn,” he tells me. Since then, he has perfected the “big skid,” spinning the flat-bottomed hull gracefully across the water to swing its bow.
On a brisk autumn afternoon, under ragged cloud, I get some sense of what steamer travel was all about. Confined to the lower river, Waimarie no longer shoots rapids or pays visits to those sheltered and secret middle reaches. But she moves the way she always has—lightly. I see as we press on under a pillar of coal smoke that the boat throws up almost no wash.
Robinson minutely adjusts the wheel. “We’re pushing a lot of tide at the moment, so they have to work hard,” he says, gesturing aft. I catch the scrape of a shovel from somewhere down below and decide that a closer look at the power plant is in order.
It doesn’t take long to find engineer Frank Carter, who is cradling a mug of tea beside his thrumming machinery. The boiler was replaced, but the engines are original, and their appetite for fuel undiminished. When the big paddles find their form, Carter and fireman Kevin Holly are kept busy feeding 200 kg or more of coal an hour into the fiery maw.
On deck, passengers are taking in the sights. The flat Whanganui is slipping past, in that way big rivers have, its edges brushed by overhanging trees. Eddies swirl floating leaves and twigs. A handful of ducks get airborne. I take a seat on a bench. Next to me, white-haired Winifred Valentine lets on about how it used to be when she was a 17-year-old slip of a thing. Evening cruises on Waimarie across the clear moonlit water. The gentle passage of the steamer, the soft music of the all-women band—the Blue Revellers, she believes they were called. I’ll be loving you always. “When I turn 90 next year, I’ll have a party here,” she says.
A swirl of smoke uncoils about us. The flag at the stern snaps to and fro on its stanchion. We are about as far upriver as we are due to go and ready for Robinson’s sliding turn. I find myself hankering after the Houseboat. A long snooze under the niu poles would be the only right and proper way to end such proceedings.
Nevertheless, the energetic slap of the blades considered and the fine spread of coal smoke taken into account, I’m as happy as Huck Finn. Today, I’d settle for accompanying the current past the ol’ town and out to the coast.
Anything, as Tom might say, to keep the adventure alive.