The only public transport along the Whanganui River Road is the early morning mail bus, which takes four hours to rattle its way up river from the town of Whanganui to the remote settlement of Pipiriki. Even by New Zealand standards, this part of the country – deep in the heart of the North Island – is the back of beyond.
The New Zealand postal service contracts out the deliveries for geographically challenged regions like this, and the operators call the return trip a ‘rural mail tour’. This seems like a good way to see a bit of the back-country, and we’re on the road for an early start at 7.15am. By 7.18am, as the only passenger that day, I’ve already got a promotion – folding up the advertising circulars for the 76 addresses on the 79-kilometre route.
Occasional clearings offer views down to steep-sided, fern-clad gorges
The deliveries come in ones and twos as the narrow road winds high above the east bank of the Whanganui River, through a dense carpeting of trees and bushes. Occasional clearings offer views down to steep-sided, fern-clad gorges or across the river to sheep paddocks swirled with mist.
Every house has a mailbox by the roadside. Some people make do with simple wooden boxes on poles; at one house, there is nothing more than an inverted plastic bucket.
At the other extreme are huge contraptions with handles and windows – one, I swear, has a veranda and a barbecue.
I’m puzzled by the few boxes that don’t seem to have houses attached to them – until distant buildings, far across the river, are pointed out. There’s no road access at all on the other side, so the inhabitants have to cross on flimsy-looking aerial cableways strung 30 metres above the river to retrieve their mail.
The full significance of this only becomes apparent later.
We make slow progress on the round, but it’s an improvement on the old days, when access to the string of upriver settlements was by paddle steamer only. The first regular service started in 1891, prompting an early tourism boom which saw Edwardian visitors being steamed up the river to spend the night at the grand Pipiriki Hotel (long since burnt down).
This has been Maori land since at least the fourteenth century
But the Europeans were late arrivals. This has been Maori land since at least the fourteenth century, and the small settlements along the river are still overwhelmingly Maori in character. Not that you’d know from the names of the hamlets, which were nearly all rechristened by European missionaries who pushed up the valley in the 1840s, each clutching a Bible in one hand and a volume of the Classics in the other. Hence Jerusalem, Corinth and Athens.
At Jerusalem, the prettiest place by far, the Sisters of Compassion maintain the historic church of St Joseph’s, perched on a bluff above a bend in the river. We’ve got time to get out and have a look at the carved Maori altar inside the church. You might even be offered a cup of tea at someone’s house.
Eventually, at around 11am, the van rolls into Pipiriki, focus of an increasing number of river-based activities. Most local businesses work together and if you want to arrange a jet-boat trip, a kayak on the river or a bike ride, it’s easily done.
The most popular trip is the jet-boat ride and hike to the Bridge to Nowhere, a remote concrete span across a deep valley, which the government thought that returning First World War soldiers might like to farm. What the government failed to mention was an absence of flat fields and, instead, an abundance of hills and impenetrable bush.
A few hardy types stuck it out, battling to clear the trees to provide grazing land, but by 1936, when the bridge was built to ease access, most settlers had abandoned the valley.
I still shudder at the thought of the bicycle pedals set into the floor
Back at Pipiriki, someone’s waiting to take me to my overnight accommodation. I’m staying at The Flying Fox, downriver near Corinth, which sounds suitably rural and indeed is – but it’s on the opposite bank. It turns out that, round here, a ‘flying fox’ is what they call an aerial cableway.
Now in my book, hotels and guest houses should have a drive big enough to accommodate my limousine, not a bit of old wire strung between two poles, from which dangles a rudimentary cage with a bench – one that swings in the wind.
I still shudder at the thought of the bicycle pedals set into the floor, ‘for when the power fails’.
Think Gilligan’s Island meets Swiss Family Robinson
Be brave though, for the Flying Fox is an absolute treasure, where stylish guest cottages from rescued material sit in the middle of a thriving organic farmstead. Think Gilligan’s Island meets Swiss Family Robinson and you won’t be far off. The two-storey wood and tin cottages have wrap-around decks and first-floor balconies, are warmed by wood-burning stoves and decorated in a sort of rustic-pueblo style.
Ingredients for meals come from the garden. Avocados are a big crop and the cottages are shaded by a grove of walnut trees. There are even eels from the river, smoked and served as an appetiser. Best of all is bath time: grab a glass of Chardonnay and sink into the outdoor clawfoot tub beneath the southern sky, the water warmed by a wood fire. In the morning, home-baked bread, yoghurt and local honey is delivered to your room and if you’re up early enough you’ll hear the toot of the horn as the mail bus goes by on the other side of the river.
Just don’t volunteer to fetch the letters.
This article was originally commissioned by UK Sunday national paper, The Observer.
Whanganui River Road mail tours – from Whanganui Tours and others.
The Flying Fox – a great base for an adventure trip on the Whanganui River, thoroughly recommended.
Header image: Whanganui River by Aidan, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Old Whanganui Road by mtrappitt, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Post box by Abulic Monkey, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Marae by Markus Koljonen (Dilaudid), CC BY-SA 3.0
Bridge to Nowhere by Evan Goldenberg, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Whanganui River by James Shook, CC BY 2.5