Story: Rivers

Page 7. Rivers and culture

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Challenging, alluring and sometimes threatening, New Zealand’s ubiquitous rivers weave a thread in the nation’s identity. Since the 19th century, the rivers have inspired artists and writers.


Rivers have been vividly and imaginatively portrayed in some memorable artworks. Petrus van der Velden’s 19th-century paintings of Ōtira Gorge conveyed awe at the power of nature. A later artist, William A. Sutton, depicted the stony bed of a Canterbury river as emblematic of the region. His contemporary, Toss Woollaston, produced expressive paintings of West Coast rivers such as the Grey and the Hokitika.


Rivers featured in 19th-century fiction and non-fiction writing, but the first novel that made a river its central motif was published by Jane Mander in 1918. The story of a New Zealand river is set in a timber-milling community on the Northern Wairoa River, in the Kaipara region of Northland.

Rivers figured prominently in the fictional landscapes of later novelists such as Vincent O’Sullivan and Maurice Gee. In non-fiction, Mona Anderson’s A river rules my life (1963), an account of life on a South Island high-country station by the Wilberforce River, was a publishing phenomenon in New Zealand.

Frame’s new name

In 1958, novelist Janet Frame changed her name by deed poll to Nene Janet Paterson Clutha. One reason was to protect her privacy in the face of growing public recognition. But she also wanted to acknowledge the importance to her of the Clutha River in Otago. She had seen it as a source of creative inspiration since her student days in the 1940s.

For poets Denis Glover and James K. Baxter, the river held great power. In Glover’s work, this is most evident in his sequences on Arawata Bill, based on the gold prospector William O’Leary, who lived by the Arawata River on the West Coast. The Whanganui River became both muse and location for Baxter’s challenge to modern material life from the late 1960s. In his commune beside the river, Baxter sought to affirm Māori values, a sense of community and traditional spirituality. His Jerusalem sonnets (1970) and Jerusalem daybook (1971) voiced some of the issues faced by a people teetering on the cusp of social change. For a fisherman-poet like Brian Turner, rivers are a recurring theme in his musings on landscape. His near contemporary, Jeff Holman, has enjoyed popular success with The late great Blackball Bridge sonnets (2004), exploring a rich childhood in a West Coast mining town up the Grey River valley.


A few New Zealand feature films have explored the river theme. John O’Shea’s 1981 Pictures depicted the Whanganui as part of intrepid 19th-century surveyor John Rochfort’s story. In his Victorian epic River queen (2005) director Vincent Ward evoked the Whanganui River’s beauty and totemic power with a strong narrative about blood and belonging. The film’s title echoes that of a 1928 short documentary, Queen of rivers. Ironically this one was shot on three rivers besides the Whanganui.

How to cite this page:

David Young, 'Rivers - Rivers and culture', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 August 2022)

Story by David Young, published 24 Sep 2007