Horse racing began early in the Whanganui region. In the 2010s, the Wanganui Jockey Club was one of the country’s oldest, and there were also clubs in Waverley, Rangitīkei and Marton.
The region is home to two long-established hunt clubs: Rangitīkei, founded in 1881, and Egmont–Wanganui, which dates from 1894 and is based in Waverley. Polo has been played in Rangitīkei since 1891, and there are several pony clubs in the region.
Two of the region’s horses have won the Melbourne Cup – Wotan from Mangaweka in 1936, and Kiwi from Waverley in 1983.
The Wanganui Rugby Football Union was formed in 1888, and by 1889 included clubs from lower Rangitīkei, Hunterville and Waverley. The Taihape sub-union formed in 1903, and Ruapehu in 1908. Ruapehu transferred to King Country in 1922 but rejoined the Wanganui union in 1970. Wanganui has been a finalist in all Meads Cup matches since the Heartland Championship was set up in 2006, and has won the cup in 2008, 2009 and 2011.
Seventeen All Blacks have been selected from the Wanganui Rugby Football Union, including Moke Belliss, Peter Henderson and Bill Osborne.
Row, row, row your boat
When William Webb successfully defended his rowing title on the Whanganui River in 1908, thousands of spectators came, and the race was followed by a flotilla of steamers.
The Whanganui River is a major centre of New Zealand rowing. The area’s clubs have been at the forefront of national competitions and have provided rowers and coaches for New Zealand teams competing internationally. William Webb won the world sculling championship in Sydney in 1907. Prominent later rowers and national coaches included Clarrie Healey, Peter Irvine, Harry Mahon and Richard Tonks. Simon Dickie and Trevor Coker won Olympic gold medals.
Whanganui’s rowing tradition is evident at local secondary schools. At Wanganui Collegiate it stretches back to 1886. The school has won the boys’ national eight-oar race for the Maadi Cup 17 times – almost twice as often as the next-best school.
Women with wings
In 1934 the Wanganui Aero Club’s four women members flew down the coast in their de Havilland Gypsy Moths to meet intercontinental aviator Jean Batten and escort her to Whanganui, then on to New Plymouth and Hāwera. Two of them – Trevor Hunter and Jane Winstone – were among five New Zealand women to serve in the Air Transport Auxiliary in Britain in the Second World War. Winstone was killed when her Spitfire crashed in 1944.
One afternoon in late 1911 thousands lined the riverbank at Whanganui when Arthur Schaef from Wellington made three attempts to fly a three-cylinder seaplane from the river. An aerodrome was developed at Landguard Bluff in 1930, and over 10,000 people watched the North Island air pageant there in 1932. Notable airmen from Whanganui have included Sergeant-pilot James Ward, the first New Zealander to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the Second World War, and Air Commodore Alan Deere, renowned as a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain.
Cooks Gardens in Whanganui was developed from 1896 as a ground for cricket, athletics, cycling and rugby. Regarded as one of New Zealand’s finest outdoor sporting venues, it made international headlines on 27 January 1962 when Peter Snell set a new world record for the mile – 3 minutes, 54.4 seconds. Extensive upgrading in 1996 included a new state-of-the-art athletics track and an innovative wooden velodrome. Local cyclist Gary Anderson won three gold medals at the Auckland Commonwealth Games in 1990 and a bronze at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.
Out of town
Access to remote tracks and hunting grounds improved considerably after jet boats were invented in the late 1950s. Improved maintenance of tracks, walkways and huts has also encouraged greater interest in tramping and walking in Tongariro National Park, Kaweka, Kaimanawa and Ruahine forest parks, and Whanganui National Park. Canoeing is popular on various rivers, especially the Whanganui, and the Rangitīkei is ideal for white-water rafting. For the less active, the homestead and 100 hectares of native forest at Bushy Park are a drawcard.
Development of skiing facilities at Tūroa, above Ōhakune on Mt Ruapehu, began in 1962, and a major ski field opened there in 1979.