Nature and conservation
The land surrounding the river is only about one million years old. Formed of soft sandstone and mudstone (papa) from the ocean-bed, it has been eroded by water to form sharp ridges, deep gorges, sheer papa cliffs and waterfalls.
Over this land has grown a broadleaf-podocarp forest of rata, rewarewa, rimu, tawa, kamahi and kowhai with beech dominant on the ridge tops. Tree ferns and plants that cling to the steep riverbanks are very distinctive.
Bird species such as kereru (native pigeon), tiwaiwaka (fantail), tui, toutouwai (robin), riroriro (grey warbler) and miromiro (tomtit) are often seen and heard. The call of the brown kiwi can often be heard at night. The river is rich in eels, lamprey, species of galaxiid (a group of native fish species including whitebait and kokopu), koura (freshwater crayfish) and black flounder.
History and culture
Māori cultivated the sheltered terraces and built elaborate eel weirs along river channels where eels and lamprey were known to converge. Every bend of the river had kaitiaki (guardian) which controlled the mauri (life force) of that place. The mana (prestige) of a settlement depended upon the way in which food supplies and living areas were looked after for the benefit of the tribe and visitors.
Te Atihaunui, a Paparangi people, settled the valley from 1100 AD. In time the river became linked by a series of pa which were later called 'the plaited fibres of Hinengakau'.
The first major European influence arrived with missionaries in the 1840s. In 1891 a regular riverboat service began carrying passengers, mail and freight to the European settlers on the river between Taumarunui and Pipiriki and thriving tourist trade soon began between Mt Ruapehu and Wanganui.
The main riverboat trade ceased in the 1920s due to better roads, a main trunk railway and the development of other tourist attractions around the country, although riverboats were still operating in the late 1950s.