Story: King Country places

Page 2. Ōtorohanga

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Rural service town 19 kilometres north of Te Kūiti and 25 kilometres south-west of Te Awamutu, with a 2013 population of 2,514. The main trunk railway line passes through Ōtorohanga, as does the Waipā River. The town is located on the intersection of state highways 3 and 39, and is the seat of the Ōtorohanga District Council.

Te Kooti’s accident

From 1883 to 1893 Māori prophet and rebel leader Te Kooti lived at Ōtewa, 9 kilometres south-east of Ōtorohanga. On the first day of his journey away from Ōtewa to his proposed new home in Whakatāne, he was injured in an accident that caused his death two months later. Fighting dogs upset a cart, which landed on Te Kooti’s back and crushed him, causing internal injuries. Earlier in his life, he had predicted that his death would be caused by a minor accident.

Ōtorohanga was a traditional Māori village. After the King Country was opened to European settlement in the 1880s, Ōtorohanga became the home of government services and the Native Land Court. The railway line arrived in 1887. In the early 1900s many of the town’s businesses were established by Māori, in particular John Ormsby (Hōne Ōmipi).

Ōtorohanga’s population grew fourfold in the first half of the 20th century – from 367 in 1916 to 1,569 in 1951. Growth continued in the second half but slowed considerably. However, unlike Te Kūiti and Taumarunui, the King Country’s other major (and larger) towns, Ōtorohanga’s population has not significantly declined. It was 2,652 in the early 1990s and dropped slightly to 2,514 in 2013.

Ōtorohanga is supported by a prosperous dairying hinterland. It is close to the Waikato city of Hamilton and is the northern entry point for tourists visiting the region. In 1999 a project to brand Ōtorohanga the ‘kiwiana’ town of New Zealand was started to attract more visitors. This played on the kiwi-themed image which developed after the Ōtorohanga Kiwi House opened in 1971.

In the early 2000s Ōtorohanga gained nationwide recognition for achieving full youth (under-25-year-olds) employment. This came about through a suite of youth-focused initiatives, including a local apprenticeship scheme, the creation of a trade training centre and scholarships offered by Ōtorohanga businesses.

Body snatcher

During his time in the King Country Austrian naturalist Andreas Reischek removed the mummified bodies of two Māori from a burial cave. They ended up in the Imperial Natural History Museum in Vienna. Reischek knew he had offended against Māori custom – in a collection of his writing published in 1930, almost 30 years after his death, he wrote that ‘the tapu on such graves is indissoluble, and any one who disregards it is killed’1 and ‘the undertaking was a dangerous one, for discovery might have cost me my life’.2 The bodies were returned to New Zealand in 1985.


Rural settlement 22 kilometres north-west of Ōtorohanga. Governor George Grey travelled to the district in 1878 to meet King Tāwhiao at Hikurangi , just south of Ngutunui. Naturalist Andreas Reischek stayed at the pā after Tāwhiao gave him permission to collect birds and plants in the early 1880s. The first European settlers arrived in 1903 and Ngutunui School opened in 1914.

Te Kawa

Rural settlement 12 kilometres north-east of Ōtorohanga. Land north and east of Ōtorohanga was settled by European farmers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Returned servicemen were settled on farms in the district after the first and second world wars. The gentle terrain was well suited to dairy farming, which is the main form of agriculture in the district.

The main trunk railway line passes through Te Kawa. Primary schools are located at Kio Kio, Kōrakonui and Ōtewa to the south.


During the First World War men who had committed serious crimes were admitted to Waikeria, which had previously housed low-level offenders only. Escaping from a relatively open, rural prison was not difficult. Te Awamutu Borough Council wrote to the Justice Department in 1917 complaining that constant escapes created fear in the community and were hampering the district’s development.

Waikeria Prison

Prison complex 21 kilometres north-east of Ōtorohanga, opened in 1912. The site is 1,200 hectares and the prison accommodates up to 1,031 inmates.

In the early 20th century prisons opened in rural areas so inmates could develop prison land and gain farming skills to improve their employment prospects in the outside world. Waikeria was one of these prisons.

In the late 1950s a staff village was constructed near the prison. Facilities included a community centre, post office, swimming pool and primary school. Prison employees rented the houses at a subsidised rate. Rent subsidies were abolished in the 1990s and many employees moved elsewhere. The houses were later sold and relocated – there was nothing left of the village in the 2000s.

Famous son

Opera singer Oscar Natzke (later Natzka) was born in Wharepūhunga in 1912, and spent his early years there on the family farm. In the late 1920s an English talent scout visiting New Zealand heard Natzke singing in Auckland, and he was soon on his way to England. He sang at Covent Garden in London and around Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and became an international star. Natzke died suddenly during a performance in New York in 1951.


Rural settlement 36 kilometres east of Ōtorohanga. The first European settlers arrived in 1896. Primary schools at nearby Arohena and Maihiihi serve the district. The Mangatutu Stream flows through the district and is well known amongst angling enthusiasts for its trout.

  1. Andreas Reischek, Yesterdays in Maoriland, (last accessed 9 September 2011). Back
  2. Andreas Reischek, Yesterdays in Maoriland, (last accessed 9 September 2011). Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'King Country places - Ōtorohanga', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 13 Dec 2011, updated 1 Mar 2015