Whanganui: Lift up your eyes

There's plenty to see in Whanganui, where Pam Wade gets an elevated view.

The tunnel at Durie Hill. Photo / Stuart Munro
The tunnel at Durie Hill. Photo / Stuart Munro

Air New Zealand has decided it's much too busy and important to bother with Whanganui any more. They stopped flying there at the end of July. Luckily, Air Chathams has stepped straight up to the plate — because there's a lot more to see, do and enjoy there than the national carrier seems to think.

I worry about Zena, though. She's the lady who's spent the past 45 years inside Durie Hill, clanking up and down operating the century-old elevator, 12 days a fortnight until recently. Does she know what she's missing, out there at the end of that long, long tunnel?

From the tower at the top, she could look across the town, tucked inside the final curves of the river, which follows a tortuous route from its headwaters 290km away.

"It's the longest navigable river in the country," I was told. Go suck on that, Waikato! But has Zena discovered all the treasures down there?

She can't have missed the Victorian and Edwardian buildings in the streets around the stately Watt Fountain. It's like a film set there, all brick and stone, pillars, pediments and plaster mouldings.

"Whanganui has 11 per cent of New Zealand's heritage buildings," I heard. Twice.

Among them are coffee shops and restaurants, an opera house and observatory, museums of art and history, studios and galleries. On Taupo Quay is the Sarjeant Gallery, crammed with art in all media by New Zealand and international artists, from Ralph Hotere to Augustus John.

On Saturdays, Zena probably transports people from the suburb on top of the hill down to stroll the River Traders Market over the bridge. Fruit and vegetables, art and crafts, baking and freshly roasted coffee beans ... on their way back home, they must leave some enticing smells behind in the old lift. The coffee is probably Havoc, produced by Sheryl in her barn out at Westmere.

Through her office window, Zena would certainly see the Waimarie paddle steamer, resurrected from 50 years under the mud at the bottom of the river and restored by enthusiasts to her 1899 glory. She flaps her way up and down the river as passengers take turns at the wheel, or on the end of a coal shovel, or simply sit back with tea and scones.

There's a lot of flapping too out at Bushy Park Wildlife Sanctuary where, behind the predator-proof fence, native birds luxuriate in 100 hectares of virgin forest. Bellbirds, tui, woodpigeons and even stitchbirds and saddlebacks are easily spotted from the tracks and wetland boardwalks; the 1906 homestead is a fabulous place to lie in bed at night listening to the moreporks.

Does Zena tire of looking at the plain wooden walls of her lift? Would it blow her mind to go to St Paul's Memorial Church at Putiki, with its Maori carvings and tukutuku and kowhaiwhai panels? Wikiterina would love to give her the tour there and tell the stories of the decoration, linking it with centuries of Maori history.

Cycling, tramping, fishing, bush and beaches, parks and gardens: Whanganui has them all. Zena, leave your lift shaft — go towards the light!

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Chathams flies daily between Auckland and Whanganui.

Further information: See visitwhanganui.nz.

- NZ Herald

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