Running Along the Whanganui River

September 17, 2009

There’s an endless debate going on in Wanganui, New Zealand. No, I’m not misspelling anything; the region and the river both hold the name Whanganui, but the city has been without the “h” for some years. Apparently, there’s always an opinion in the Wanganui Chronicle (NZ’s longest running newspaper) as to whether the town should adopt the “traditional” Maori name rather than the one enforced by European settlers. Confused enough yet?

In most Maori dialects, “wh” is pronounced as “f” (e.g. Ngawha Springs = Nafa Springs), but in Wanganui, the “wh” sound is more of a breathy “w” (Whanganui = whaa – n – ga – nui). It gets weirder; there’s also a city in Northland called Whanganui, pronounced with the “f” sound. With me so far? If you want to sound like an ignorant tourist, walk up to the first local you see and proclaim: “It’s nice as in Fanganui, isn’t it?”

Cherry blossom tree in Wanganui, NZ

Just one of the many issues I’ve been happy to learn about since my late afternoon arrival in this town of 45,000 or so. Wanganui sits comfortably to the west of the river, in an area with black sand beaches, green mountains, and snow-capped mountains to the north (Ruapehu, I believe). Unfortunately, I’ve been told it’s also the home of a lot of gang activity, with young people too bored to do much of anything else. Shops on the main street, Victoria Avenue, are sure to have signs in their windows stating “students will not be served during school hours”.

Wanganui is also the home of the glass festival in late September; blowers from around the world gather in this small New Zealand town to show off their wares, demonstrate glass blowing, and provide a regional must-see event (though if I were you, I’d buy a lotto ticket here).

I had the chance to observe a goblet being blown at Chronicle Glass by one Katie Brown. Quite an interesting process really: first, the mouth of the goblet is formed by dipping a tempered glass-blowing metal rod into a vat of molten material and blowing it out slowly, giving the rod the appearance of a wizard’s staff. Another piece of molten material is added and precisely spun to form the handle, then a third attached and flattening to make the base. Each time a piece is added, the glass is heated to “temper” it, if you will – reinforce the new shape and strengthen the bonds. As a side note, I didn’t know glass would be so viscous while cooling off; seems more like a very thick marmalade.

Road to the black sand beach - Wanganui, NZ

As far as running is concerned, Wanganui is the way to go. Try starting from the black sand trail off Balgownie Ave (you’ll see the entrance before the street dead ends) and head north along the riverbank. Better yet, if you’re looking for something longer, try the north end of Kowhai Park near the jungle gym and playground full of giant animals and fairy tale creatures; as far as I know, you can follow the stretch of road past the airport until you hit the seas. Great for early morning runs.

Giant spider swingset in Kowhai Park, Wanganui, NZ

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