The Whanganui – A River & Person

I rere mai te Awa Nui
Mai i te Kāhui Maunga ki Tangaroa
Ko au te Awa, ko te Awa ko au.

The Great River flows
From the Mountains to the Sea
I am the River, and the River is me.

-Whanganui iwi, Tångata Whenua, or traditional guardians of the Whanganui River Catchment

The Whanganui – A River with Personhood & Personality

October 2014

At the helm stands the riverboat captain, covered in a thick, long, blue woolen coat, like the early settlers of New Zealand must have worn. His fingernails are stained with tobacco, his hair pressed down under a boat captain’s short-rimmed beret. He knows this river like he knows the lines on his own palm, and his attention to it is as strong as his legs – which take no rest. With an iron grip, he clutches the helm and with the other hand he clutches at the breast of his pilot’s jacket, like Napoleon posing on the front lines of a great victory. The river is his life and every day it becomes a new conquest. 

If the North Island were indeed a great fish, as according to Māori legend, then the Whanganui River would be its intestine – or a great hook within. Winding its way through the southern central catchment, it carries with it the promise of sustenance for all the land. The River is in itself an ecosystem, a combination of living and non-living elements that comprise a living body, with its own particulars, and as New Zealand law has it, even its own rights. The Whanganui is at once interconnected and isolated, always the same, and ever changing. It is also exceedingly fragile. Like our own bodies, this ecosystem is prone to outbreaks of sickness, emotion, temper, and lovesickness, hence the many legends revolving around this natural area of special significance to New Zealand’s Indigenous people and settlers since the Colonial Era. For reasons biological, political, spiritual and cultural, The Whanganui River is for all New Zealander’s Taonga; a natural treasure.    

Today, like yesterday and the day before, the river rolls unwearyingly through bush and pasture, lucid and green at dawn and by the morning brown and upside-down. It is rich in sediments as well as in stories, re-born and re-lived in meters per second. It is like youth, constantly outgrowing its khaki garments and childhood bed. It is also like old age, and stories of storms and countless confrontations are told on its wrinkled face, each a tributary feeding the catchment with a torrent of endless blood, sweat, and tears. At times, the river is unbearably loud, other times it is comforting, and yet other times it taunts us with dangerous excalamations.  The river is neither black nor white, Pakeha nor Maori, for it is gravity’s way of melding the world, and all of its’ people, into one brackish stream. Braided with the diversity of the people, plants, and animals that have relied on its life giving waters and transportation and beauty, the Whanganui is New Zealand’s hearty rope, much like the ones Maori and European immigrants used to hoist their sails in crossing the Pacific, and like that cord that the demigod Maui once used to suspend the sun. 

In the most practical, human sense, the Whanganui has been a road – a liquid highway for travelers and cattle, a path that once lead workers to work and soldiers and warriors into battle. This is a road for boats, like the riverboat that we are aboard – a sleek and adaptive contraption introduced from Europe centuries ago, like the trout. But more like the native fish, these hard, narrow vessels are able to migrate upstream by climbing the riffles and runs with a steady pace towards more serene and protected areas. Today, the riverboat captain is surrounded by his friends and neighbors, the very same who helped to resurrect this living coffin from the grave and set it back afloat after the captain suffered a stroke from the sheer stress of building his timeless arc.  Beneath us, the well-guarded propeller spins in its tubular casement like a weathervane in a cyclone. It is a machine driven by love and dedication, heading to an ambiguous place, more difficult to hit on the head than a stainless steel rivet. Undoubtedly, it is the River Boat that unites this crew.

The crew ambles, chats, stares, works, relaxes, warms up, cools down. The language that they speak is the same as the river’s, a tounge diverted into subtle dialects, but remaining unanimously comprehensible to all of its speakers. Like the murmuring river, they tell stories of lives lived far away in distant jungles and nearby in local shops, until the dark cloak of night is cast upon the scene. Then silence takes hold as the Captain’s unwavering spotlight scans ahead for the unsuspected and the expected, both equally possible in his piloting mind, and in the dark we begin to really feel the river, ripple by ripple, lurching on, and leaving the miles behind.