Town 85 kilometres south of Te Kūiti on State Highway 4, with a 2013 population of 4,503 (including Manunui). Taumarunui is the seat of the Ruapehu District Council, whose territory reaches down to Raetihi, Ohakune and Waiōuru.
The last prophet
In 1961 Alexander Tau Phillips founded the Kotahitanga Building Society to free people from mākutu (curses). He established Manu [no-lexicon]Ariki[/no-lexicon] marae near Taumarunui, including a temple, school of sacred knowledge, gymnasium and New Zealand’s longest miniature train track. Phillips became known as ‘the last Māori prophet’, and many followers attended his 90th birthday celebrations in 2007. He died the following year.
The Whanganui and Ōngarue rivers meet at Taumarunui. They were major transport routes for Māori, and linked Whanganui, Waikato and Taupō. The Māori settlement of Taumarunui was located at the junction.
In 1874 Alexander Bell was the first European allowed to settle in the King Country after it had been closed to Pākehā in the 1860s. He married into the Ngāti Hauaroa tribe and established a trading post at the river junction.
In 1903 the railway line and Whanganui River-based transport were extended to Taumarunui, and the settlement was proclaimed a native township so town sections could be leased to Pākehā settlers. Rail and river transport combined with sawmilling and farming in the rural hinterland facilitated Taumarunui’s growth. It was a self-governing borough from 1910 to 1989.
The population increased from 1,128 in 1911 to 2,287 in 1926. Growth slowed in the mid-1930s and during the Second World War but picked up again when the war ended in 1945. By 1951 Taumarunui had more than 3,000 people, and the population grew from 3,344 in 1956 to 4,961 in 1961. By then it had overtaken Te Kūiti as the biggest town in the King Country. Growth slowed in the 1960s and 1970s. Taumarunui’s population peaked at 6,541 in 1981 and dropped from that point.
In the 2000s Taumarunui’s proximity to Whanganui and Tongariro national parks and its riverside location meant it was increasingly promoted as a tourist destination.
Like National Park further south, Manunui was once known as Waimarino. John Burnand of the Ellis and Burnand sawmilling company changed it to Manunui about 1905.
Township 6 kilometres east of Taumarunui on State Highway 4, with a 2013 population of 546. Major sawmilling firm Ellis and Burnand opened a mill at Manunui in 1901. The main trunk railway line arrived there in 1903 and the mill expanded to become the largest in the region.
The mill closed in 1942. Farms developed around Manunui as the bush was felled and other manufacturing industries were based there. In the 2000s Manunui was a quasi-suburb of Taumarunui.
Rural settlement 10 kilometres south-east of Taumarunui on State Highway 4. Māori settlements were located on both sides of the Whanganui River around Piriaka.
Present-day Piriaka started out as a construction camp for the main trunk railway line and became a sawmilling centre. Farming settlers took up land around Piriaka after the main trunk line was completed in 1908. They struggled to profitably farm the pumice soil until aerial fertiliser topdressing became common after the Second World War.
Books for all tastes
Artist Peter McIntyre had a holiday home in Kākahi. In his book Kakahi New Zealand (1972) he wrote about the importance of the settlement’s general store, which was owned by the Indian Lala family: ‘With the cinema gone, the billiard saloon gone, almost the entire social life of Kakahi centres around the store ... In its way it is a sort of Aladdin’s Cave, festooned with the minor treasures of modern life – pitchforks and paperbacks, shirts and spades, newspapers, magazines, fruit and fishing flies. Its literature ranges from The guns of Navarone to the Kama sutra.’1
Rural settlement 16 kilometres south-east of Taumarunui. Kākahi has a long history of Māori occupation, with four fortified pā around the locality before Europeans arrived. The Taumaihiōronga meeting house was built in 1913.
The first European settlers were railway construction workers, who lived in a tent town (ironically dubbed ‘The Holy City’) near present-day Kākahi. A bush fire destroyed the tent town in 1905. Sawmilling and farming secured Kākahi’s future as a permanent township. Kākahi School opened in 1909.
Township 21 kilometres south-east of Taumarunui on State Highway 4 and the main trunk railway line, with a 2013 population of 177. Ōwhango backs onto the Tongariro Conservation Area.
Before European settlement, Ōwhango was settled by Māori and was a resting and meeting place for travellers from Taupō, Whanganui and Taranaki. Some native forest in the area was felled to make way for the main trunk railway line in the early 1900s. Ōwhango became a busy mill township and also served farming settlers. Ōwhango School opened in 1910.
Irish writer George Bernard Shaw visited Ōwhango in 1934. He attended a sports day and is said to have been amused by the fact that people chopped wood for entertainment and sport.
Because Ōwhango is close to Tongariro National Park and skifields, many of its houses are used as holiday homes. The post office, which closed in 1989, was converted into holiday accommodation, while the general store became a ski shop in 1980. The Ōwhango Hotel was the first hotel in the King Country to open after the prohibition on liquor licences was lifted in 1954.