Wednesday 3 August 2016

Whanganui: why not?

I dunno. When your mission is to give tourism publicity to a place that's generally considered to be a bit of a backwater, is it a good idea to meet your media guests at the airport with a row of vintage cars? It was certainly a novelty to be driven into town in a 1938 Dodge (I wasn't important enough for the 1975 gold Rolls Royce - the TV people got that one) though it made me very twitchy not to have a seat belt - just as well it's less than a 10-minute drive. Where it paid off, though, was in introducing me to Keith, the first of a dayful of super-enthusiastic locals who were hell-bent on selling the town to me.
Next was Mark, in his flash new Jag, who was to show me around. He's a born and bred local, and spent much of our drives tooting and waving at friends, and winding down the window to say hello. Clearly, Whanganui is a Waiheke sort of place. Much older, though - in fact, one of NZ's oldest towns - and with a real wealth of heritage buildings. How much wealth? Eleven percent, that's how much. I heard that figure more than once. Certainly, the town centre is full of pretty Victorian and Edwardian buildings in brick, stone and plaster: colourful, stately and ornate. A little too ornate, however - the locals have been cursing Christchurch roundly since 2011, when that city's quakes led to stringent - and expensive - earthquake strengthening regulations throughout the country.
The town centre wasn't on my itinerary, however, and nor were the Sarjeant Art Gallery, the Moutoa Gardens, the Opera House, museum, Observatory, or, to my real regret, any of the many and talented local glass artists. No, I went out to the Havoc Coffee Roastery to meet Sheryl, who cheerfully admits to her addiction and told me how the beans pop, like corn, as they roast. It certainly smelled good, but I didn't get a taste.
Next I met Rennie, at Bushy Park which is a lovely old 1906 homestead out in the country, in the middle of a predator-free wildlife sanctuary of native bush that was full of birds, including a noisy saddleback. On a winter's day the house looked lovely, all high ceilings, varnished wood, tall fireplaces and a gorgeous leaded light window in the entrance hall - but boy, it was chilly. George Moore designed it for efficient ventilation, to help his TB. It's a characterful homestay, but I recommend a summer visit.
Lunch at the Union Boatshed followed, the walls lined with ornamental oars and framed photos of men in caps. Whanganui's other name (apart from Wanganui, which is still the source of much grumpiness from old white males - can't imagine how they'd cope if they'd had a macron imposed on them too) is the River City, and it certainly features strongly in daily life - as the reason for the city's existence, for sport, for tourism, as a flooding threat. Industry too, as I discovered at Q-West boat builders, about which I posted yesterday.
Everyone knows about the Durie Hill elevator, which was built in 1919 and is still running, on request. Zena is in charge, and has been for 45 years, clanking up and down the 66 metre shaft for 12 days out of every 14 until recently sharing the job with her daughter. Kids take it up to school with their bikes, pedalling along the 213 metre tunnel - and then back again at the end of the day. The school forbids them from riding down the hill because it's so steep. It wasn't always so white: there was a painting by Rolf Harris at the entranceway until relatively recently, when it became an embarrassment. There's a couple of towers at the top.
We finished the day with Witerina Koopa, who welcomed us into the highly-decorated St Paul's Memorial Church at Putiki, as full of Maori carvings, tukutuku and kowhaiwhai panels as the one at Tikitiki on East Cape. Photos weren't allowed, but in compensation, Witerina's talk about the various features inside was interesting.

So that was Whanganui. There's also unemployment there, some crime, gangs and empty shops - but it's still worth a visit, I reckon. I'd be happy to spend a bit more time there.

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