The Whanganui River | Te Awa Tupua

In early January 2017 I made a visit to the Whanganui River in Aotearoa/New Zealand. This river is important to the local Iwi/people and carefully protected by the Iwi through laws that govern the use and value of the river.

The Whanganui River is recognised with the legal status of personhood, including its mountainous tributaries and its banks. This gives the Iwi – as hapu/representatives whose sovereignty is entangled with the sovereignty of the river – power to act according to their law.

In the lead up to my visit, I was thinking about how I might behave alongside the river. My stay would be light as a guest. However, anticipating my body’s own sovereign needs, I felt there would be times when I would feel my touch too heavy on this place. 


Out of respect more than curiosity, I meditated on one desire in preparation for my visit: the desire to swim in the river. The day that I arrived was the third day of continuous rainfall and the river was very full. Because the river was full it ran fast and dangerous – in some moments I saw whole driftwood trees being carried on the surface by the current. 

With the desire to swim confronted by danger, swimming stayed as a possibility in the background. The next few days there was no rain, the river flowed and emptied slowly until it was safe to swim. I watched as the river slowed – on those days I ate, slept, sat by and walked alongside the river.

I had some thoughts and I did not swim:

sitting on the bank
of the river, a reminder
of movement, of groundlessness

seeing the water move
my eyes eventually stop
trying to stop the water

walking alongside
the fast flowing river:
one being continuous

there is no need
to swim in the river
we are swimming already