THE MANAWATU / WANGANUI REGION
The Whanganui, Manawatu and Rangitikei rivers flowing from the central North Island to the coast between Wanganui and Wellington, have played an important part in the development of the lower part of the North Island. In pre European times when the coastal lowlands were covered in dense forests and swamplands, these long waterways were the easiest and most direct route inland for the early Maori. Later after European settlers had arrived, the Whanganui River carried steamers north to Taumarunui. You can still take a trip up the river on a restored steamer or head southeast from the city of Wanganui through rolling farmland towards the Manawatu. Here you will find the Main Trunk Railway Line which was built, following the course of the Rangitikei River, while a road and rail route was also developed along the Manawatu River between the Tararua and Ruahine mountain ranges through into the Wairarapa. The landscape sweeps dramatically from the forest clad Ruahine and Tararua mountain ranges, through the rugged Manawatu Gorge and the beautiful Pohangina Valley, along Manawatu River and across the coastal plains of Tangimoana and Himatangi. The region enjoys a mild climate, providing ideal growing conditions for the many world class public and private gardens.
The first north bound train on the 680 km main trunk line, left Wellington over a century in 1908. It was a major expansion of the North Island rail network from just 74 km in 1870 to a mainline rail system that was completed 20 years later in 1909. The main trunk was a great leap forward for North Island transport and up until the Second World War at least, most people travelling between Wellington and Auckland took the train. In many of the towns along the route, the skills of the surveyors, engineers and workmen who completed the railway are commemorated in small museums. Today you can still see rows of the original workers' cottages, all built to a uniform design, giving a special character to many of the main streets in the towns along the way. State Highway 1 from Auckland to Wellington generally follows the route of this main trunk railway and today there are plenty of places to stop and explore along the way.
Highlights along include the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum at Waiouru which features a wide range of military memorabilia, weapons, medals, paintings, models and films as well as a number of armoured fighting vehicles on display outside the museum. There are regular ‘Steam Engine Sundays’ running throughout the year, taking passengers from Wellington, Paraparaumu and Levin in the south up to Taihape, which has become famous as the Gumboot Capital of New Zealand. Gumboot Day is held on the first tuesday after Easter each year and include a gumboot throwing competition as part of the festival, which aims to break the record for the worlds’ longest gumboot throw. Mangaweka features three old churches on the main highway and a 1940s vintage DC3 airliner, containing a cafe, perched on the side of the road. The township has a flourishing artists' community with a number of art galleries and hosts a controversial annual Fakes & Forgeries Art Exhibition and Festival in October and November each year. Nearby the Rangitikei River has become popular for jet boating, kayaking, white-water rafting and the Mokai Gravity Canyon which provides visitors with the opportunity to take an 80m bungy jump, a 50 m free fall from a swing bridge or a ride on a flying fox across the valley. Further south, Marton features a well preserved historic commercial precinct along with an old brick courthouse built in 1897 which is an excellent example of Victorian architecture. You can also visit the Captain Cook Pioneer Cottage which is furnished with colonial period household items. Fielding and Palmerston North are the main centres in the Manawatu. You can take a tour of the saleyards and experience the excitement and atmosphere of a real stock auction in Fielding, a town that has become well known for its vintage vehicle and antique collectors, with numerous private museums in the area and a wealth of historic collections that reflecting the rich rural heritage of the region. Known as Palmy to the locals, Palmerston North is one of New Zealand’s largest provincial cities, still retaining many of its original stores built in the 1920s and 1930s, which have been restored and are now is use as boutiques, cafés and restaurants.