This summer the Chronicle is bringing you another look at some of the best content of 2019. This story originally ran on August 09, 2019
I have never felt connected to the Whanganui River.
That is despite growing up right alongside it in Taumarunui, more than 160km north of Whanganui, a two-hour drive along State Highway 4.
The 290km-long river runs along the slopes of Mt Tongariro, going northwest until it reaches the King Country town.
There it meets the Ongarue River at Ngāhuinga, or Cherry Grove, a domain full of flora, fixed barbecues and the football fields I played on as a boy.
More than 20 years on from those days, I climbed aboard the Motor Vessel Wairua and spent the majority of 10 hours thinking about the river's impact on my life.
The MV Wairua rumbles over the sound of skipper Sam Mordey's voice as he chats to passengers about the cold, the cruise ahead and of all things, carrier pigeons.
"They used pigeons on the river until about 1909. A pigeon can do Upokongaro to Whanganui in about nine minutes," Mordey says.
"They always used to send the message at least twice with pigeons, because of course, there were a few predators."
It is 7.50am, 20 minutes past our scheduled departure time and Mordey counts eight heads before instructing deckhand Blair Greenem to prepare for our journey to begin.
Mordey delivers a safety message, contacts the Coastguard about our departure, then cranks an acceleration lever forward and the rumbling of the vessel becomes louder.
It begins gliding across the calm waters of the Whanganui River that glisten brightly as the low-hanging sun slowly rises in the east.
The vessel won't set any speed records, but it is like a Ferrari compared with the crawling congested traffic above as we pass under the Dublin St bridge.
We are embarking on a journey that in 81 years has only been completed once, by Mordey and Greenem more than a month ago.
They travelled more than 50km upriver to Downes Hut, navigating 19 rapids along the way and now they are doing it again, this time with passengers.
Mordey had many reasons for steering the MV Wairua back to this area, including the challenge of it and to acknowledge the riverboat's history.
He says there is nobody else alive who has taken the vessel as far as Downes Hut.
"This is recreating something that was daily life for almost 70 years here on the Whanganui River. This was the only way to travel the North Island," Mordey says.
"MV Wairua has been back in service now for over 13 years and it was time we finally ventured up and had the vessel back where it belongs."
The riverboat first took to the waters ahead in 1904 when it transported passengers, mail and cargo over 80km between Pipiriki and Whakahoro.
Pipiriki is a settlement about 80km upriver from Whanganui and to travel north to Whakahoro now by car takes close to three hours.
Mordey says the MV Wairua spent 34 years in service before it became worn out and surplus to requirements, so returned to Whanganui.
"She was used as a pontoon for a number of years and then eventually sank in her moorings," Mordey says.
"She spent 40 years buried in the mud alongside Hatricks Wharf back in Whanganui. She was salvaged in 1987 by four local men, friends and helpers."
After 19 years of restoration, the MV Wairua was given a second lease on life, relaunching in March 2006 offering picnic trips, cruises and personalised charters.
As we progress, we see pine trees and paddocks full of cows and sheep and all sorts of birdlife including whio, seagulls and peacocks.
After about two hours of taking in the sights, Mordey uses an intercom system to let us know that we are approaching the first of 19 rapids.
He steers the vessel wide to the right of the riverflow and navigates the small-looking rapid with ease.
As we approach rapid number two shortly after, Mordey decelerates and Greenem tests the water levels using a pole that he plunges into the water.
The minimum amount of water depth the MV Wairua needs is two feet (61cm), but at that depth it would only be able to idle through.
The vessel dips to the left as it sails through the rapid and Mordey chuckles heartily.
"Well, there you go. You've had your first wobble in the Whanganui River," he says.
"What we're doing is actually a lot more impressive when you look back at where we've come from."
Looking back, the rapids are flowing swiftly away from the riverboat, producing a white spray as the water smashes against a rocky bottom.
It comes as no surprise that Mordey's comment was on the money, as he has been involved with riverboats here for 13 years.
Mordey was born in Whanganui, but spent time in the UK and Australia before moving back to the River City.
He was a volunteer at the Whanganui Riverboat Centre from age 13 and eventually became a member of staff before moving on to Q-West boat builders.
When Mordey was 23 he was encouraged to buy the boat by Dave McDermid who owned and helped restore it.
So in 2016, he bought the boat that was built in 1904 by Yarrow & Company in London and sent to A. Hatrick & Company in kitset form.
Since then, Mordey has seen significant increases in passengers boarding the vessel, especially in 2019 compared with the year before.
The restorers of the vessel aimed to keep it as close to its original form as possible.
It has white rails with wire netting, white seats facing each other, green rubbish bins with lids like anvils and a tubular red chimney rising through a wooden deck.
Inside the cabin room, the engine sounds like it is sitting in your head, but little windows provide beautiful views for passengers wanting to remain a little warmer.
At about 12.40pm we round a bend into Atene and a short time later, the MV Wairua arrives at its destination.
Mordey lines the vessel up alongside the riverbank, we walk the plank, then cross a steep and muddy track to arrive at the little red hut.
Downes Hut sits inside a fenced area with two gates. There is a woodshed to the left of it with half a stack of wood inside and another one sits empty behind it.
Beside the building is a bench with two taps attached to it for access to water from a tank behind them and in the distance among the trees is a longdrop.
Inside the hut are five mattresses for sleepy travellers, a chest for storing firewood in on chilly nights, a table, a bench and the main attraction, an open fireplace.
Mordey says we made good time to reach the halfway point and that it is a good achievement.
"I was very confident we were going to get here, but it's a long trip up. It's a trying time to navigate through that, to be concentrating for several hours at a time.
"There's a certain element of unknown in a journey like this. It's been done by other vessels and jetboats and that kind of thing, but not by a historic riverboat."
Downes Hut was built by Thomas William (TK) Downes who was a member and one-time river foreman of the Whanganui River Trust.
Since his death in 1938, the hut has been maintained by a number of people, including Norm Hubbard who was associated with it for more than 40 years.
Hubbard renovated the hut in 1961 using a cable across the river to transport materials and in 1964, he installed mānuka-framed bunks inside it.
In 1987, Whanganui National Park staff restored the hut to its original condition with help from the Wanganui Training Club, although the interior had to be modified.
Although apple, lemon and walnut trees that were once nearby are long-gone, a puriri tree planted by Downes remains flourishing behind the hut today.
After a 45-minute break, we track back down the bank as dark clouds envelop the sky and before we are even back on board the rain comes pouring down.
Our skipper turns the boat around, aided by the downward streaming current, and we begin our return voyage.
I think about how much further up the river my hometown is and memories come flooding back to me.
Growing up in Matapuna, the Whanganui River was almost a stone's throw away, perfect for cooling down in on hot summer days.
I remember the relief of the cold fresh water washing over me after running across rocky shores before diving in.
Later, I would go to different areas and cast a line in, more often than not coming up empty handed, but on occasion reeling in a nice rainbow or brown trout.
As I got older still, priorities may have changed, but the river remained a constant, as mates and I would camp beside it.
We would swim, fish, listen to music, start fires, cook food and drink beer, without te awa, most of that would not have been possible.
I have never felt connected to the Whanganui River, but during this journey, I realised that for all these years, I have taken it for granted.
For the majority of my life, the Whanganui River has been a constant source of good times leading to great memories.
All I had to do was take the time to think about it.