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The Whanganui River is the country’s third longest river and its longest navigable river. Beginning on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro it flows north-west until it turns south-west at Taumarunui. It then flows down through the King Country before turning south-east and flowing past the settlements of Pipiriki and Jerusalem until it reaches the coast at Whanganui.

The Whanganui is the ancestral river to the Whanganui iwi (Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi), a confederation of three ancestral groups: Hinengākau of the upper river, Tama Ūpoko of the middle reaches and Tūpoho of the lower Whanganui.

According to Māori legend, the Whanganui River was named by Hau who set off from Patea following his wife Wairaka along the coast. The first obstacle Hau met was a great river flowing westwards to the setting sun. He sat to consider the best way to cross the water and uttered these thoughts: “Too wide to swim, too deep to wade. I will wait for the tide to turn”. That was how he named the river Whanganui, which literally means the ‘big wait’.

Despite many stretches of white water and more than 200 rapids, the Whanganui River has always been an important communication and transport route for both Maori and European settlers. Before Europeans arrived, the Whanganui area was one of the most densely inhabited in New Zealand and colonial settlers later used the area near the river’s mouth as a major trading post.

Today, more than half the catchment is covered in native bush or forest and approximately a third of the land area is used for sheep and beef farming. The biggest urban area is the coastal town of Wanganui which has a population of about 42,500.

There is weekly monitoring in place at Town Bridge. See LAWA's  'Can I Swim Here' pages for more details.

Sites 20

Monitored sites in the Whanganui catchment

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