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King Country places

by Kerryn Pollock

From the large estuary of Kāwhia Harbour to the black-sand beaches around Mōkau, from the limestone landscapes around Waitomo to the Whakapapa ski village of Mt Ruapehu – this is a comprehensive guide to the places of the King Country.

West coast


Township on the north-western shore on Kāwhia Harbour, 50 kilometres north-west of Ōtorohanga, with a 2013 population of 339. Kāwhia has great significance for Māori because it was the final landing place of the ancestral waka Tainui. The people of Tainui settled around Kāwhia Harbour.

Famous 19th-century Ngāti Toa chief Te Raupahara grew up at Kāwhia, but he and his people were expelled by Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto forces after he killed a Waikato chief.

European traders arrived in the 1820s and were followed by Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, who established mission stations on land purchased at Kāwhia, Waiharakeke and Ahuahu (Te Waitere) in the 1830s. Land was also sold to European settlers. Kāwhia was closed to Europeans after the Waikato war of the 1860s.

In 1880 the government bought a block of land previously owned by an early settler. The new town of Kāwhia was laid out at Pouewe on the northern shores of the harbour in 1882. King Tāwhiao was not consulted, but eventually agreed to the town’s establishment, and Europeans returned.

The harbour was the centre of Kāwhia’s economy. Ships transported dairy products, flax and timber from Kāwhia to larger centres. In the early 20th century the local council wanted the government to make Kāwhia a major port. The First World War intervened before plans could mature and coastal shipping was overtaken by road and rail transport, to the town’s detriment. However, its picturesque harbourside location appealed to tourists, many of whom travelled there from Hamilton. The Kāwhia Regatta has been held annually since 1910, and the Kāwhia Kai Festival is an annual Māori food festival.

Te Māika

Coastal settlement on Urawhitiki Point at the entrance to Kāwhia Harbour. Only accessible by sea, Te Māika is 6 kilometres south-west of Kāwhia by boat. The land belongs to the Māori king and is administered by a trust. A cluster of baches (holiday houses) are used by holidaymakers. There were no permanent residents in the 2000s.

Long-lived lemon tree?

A lemon tree at Te Waitere that was still producing juicy fruit in the early 2000s is reputed to have been part of John Whiteley’s orchard in the 1840s. It is located near the wharf and surrounded by a wooden fence.

Te Waitere

Settlement on a southern inlet of the Kāwhia Harbour, 9 kilometres by boat from Kāwhia and 50 kilometres south of Kāwhia by road. Te Waitere was the site of a Wesleyan Methodist mission station in the mid-19th century. Early settlers referred to Te Waitere as ‘Lemon Point’ in recognition of the lemon trees planted there by missionary John Whiteley. The original name was Ahuahu.

European settlers arrived in the early 20th century. A boat club has operated at Te Waitere since about 1910.


Settlement and site of an ironsand mine, 14 kilometres south-west of Kāwhia. Taharoa was a traditional Māori settlement and the location of a great battle between the Ngāti Toa, Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto tribes in the 1820s. Māori continued to live at Taharoa after European settlement.

In the 1960s large sand-dunes were encroaching on Taharoa and surrounding farmland and many residents left the area. However, the sand was rich in iron ore, which provided a new focus for the settlement. Ironsand mining started in 1972 and a new settlement was built on leased Māori land by the New Zealand Steel Mining Company to house mine employees. Mining continued in the 2000s.


Rural settlement on the southern shores of Kāwhia Harbour, 37 kilometres south of Kāwhia by road and 11 kilometres by boat. The first European settlers arrived in 1902. Kinohaku School opened in 1907.


Rural settlement 45 kilometres south-west of Ōtorohanga. Piripiri was settled by Europeans in the early 1900s. A sawmill operated there between 1942 and 1961. Piripiri School opened in 1927.

Natural attractions nearby include the Piripiri Caves, the 35-metre Marokopa Falls (which were made a reserve for scenic purposes in 1925) and the Mangapōhue Natural Bridge, a 17-metre limestone arch.

Hole in the wall

Waikawau Beach, south of Marokopa on the west coast, is reached via a tunnel through the sandstone cliffs. The tunnel was built in 1911 so cattle could be driven to and from Nukuhakare station on the hills above – it was far easier to drive them along the beach than the hilly terrain further inland. The tunnel was made by three men using picks and shovels.


Coastal settlement on the bank of the Marokopa River, 65 kilometres west of Te Kūiti. Before European settlement, Māori villages and were located around Marokopa. Early European settlers farmed cows, and dairy products were shipped from Marokopa up the west coast to Auckland. Flax and sawmilling were also important industries in the district. In the 2000s Marokopa consisted of both permanent and holiday homes.



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.


Te Kūiti

Te Kūiti

Rural service town 20 kilometres south-west of Ōtorohanga and 80 kilometres north-west of Taumarunui, with a 2013 population of 4,221. Te Kūiti is on the intersection of state highways 3 and 30. The main trunk railway line runs through the middle of the town, which is the seat of the Waitomo District Council.


During the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which was held in New Zealand, Te Kūiti was re-named ‘Meadsville’ to honour the contribution of local rugby legend Colin Meads and his brother Stan to the town and the sport. A Tui beer billboard sported the new name, as did a sign at the entrance to the town, the railway station and shops in the town centre.

A Māori village called Te Kūititanga stood at the entrance to the Mangaōkewa Gorge at the south end of present-day Te Kūiti. The second Māori king, Tāwhiao, lived there in exile after Waikato tribal lands were confiscated by the government following the land wars of the 1860s.

In 1887 the main trunk railway line reached Te Kūiti, where a camp was set up to house construction workers. This formed the nucleus of a busy new township. Te Kūiti was the end of the line until 1894, when the tracks reached the Poro-ō-tarao tunnel to the south-east. The workers departed and Te Kūiti became much quieter.

The town’s fortunes revived after farms were established to the south and west from the late 1890s. The population grew from 1,266 in 1911 to 1,982 in 1916. Te Kūiti became a self-governing borough in 1910.

However, growth was not underpinned by strong economic foundations – farming production was still small, soil fertility was declining and some farmers left to fight overseas during the First World War. The government bought town sections to on-sell to settlers just before the local economy slumped in the 1920s and had trouble selling them. The population still grew but at a much slower rate.

Growth picked up again after the Second World War. The population increased from 2,720 in 1945 to a peak of 4,842 in 1971. It declined from the 1980s.

Te Kūiti has branded itself as the sheep-shearing capital of New Zealand. During the town’s annual Great New Zealand Muster, between 1,000 and 2,000 sheep run down the main street.

Unusual origins

During the 1930s economic depression a camp for unemployed men was set up at Pururu, near Rangitoto. The men lived in tents and slept in bunk beds. Recreational opportunities were few and far between and the residents had little to do when they were not working. They went on strike in protest. This tactic was successful and a recreation hall was built. After the camp was closed the building became the Rangitoto district hall.


Rural settlement 10 kilometres east of Te Kūiti on the western slopes of the Rangitoto Range. The first European settlers arrived in 1904. Rangitoto School opened in 1920, closed for a time, and re-opened in 1923.

Waitomo Caves

Rural settlement and tourist village, 19 kilometres north-west of Te Kūiti. The area is riddled with caves, some of which are accessible to the public. The Glow-worm, Aranui and Ruakurī caves are owned by Māori and the Department of Conservation, and leased to Tourism Holdings, which runs cave tours. Other less well-known caves, such as Hollow Hole and Gardener’s Gut, are explored unguided by caving enthusiasts.

Intrepid travellers

Early visitors to the Waitomo Caves had to be made of stern stuff. A woman who visited the Glow-worm Cave in 1902 wrote: ‘Most of the caves were damp from the constant drip of the water from overhead; the flooring of some of the upper caves was covered with a greasy white substance similar to modelling clay … We had to climb down some wooden step ladders that were unpleasantly slippery … one felt very insecure holding the rail in one hand and the candle in the other, trying to grope along in the darkness that was only made visible by the flickering candles.’1

A tourist village is located near the Glow-worm Cave. The Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre (formerly the Waitomo Museum of Caves) opened in 1972. Waitomo Caves School has served the district since 1910.


Rural settlement 8 kilometres north-west of Te Kūiti and 10 kilometres south of Waitomo Caves. The area is full of limestone caves.

Ōparure Native School opened in 1902 after Ruita Te Mihinga Joseph, a local landowner, donated land for this purpose. The school is now Te Wharekura o Ōparure, a Māori-language immersion school.


Rural settlement 28 kilometres south-west of Te Kūiti, first settled by Europeans in 1903. Dairy farms were established throughout the district.

The town that wasn’t

In 1911 a town site was surveyed at Waitanguru, near Mairoa. The survey plan laid out town sections and streets and made provision for public buildings, a cemetery, creamery, saleyards and mechanics’ institute. The sections were sold but the town did not eventuate. A number of the sections were on steep land and some were full of limestone rock formations. A history of the district published in 1975 noted that some people held onto their sections for decades in the hope a town would develop.

Mairoa epitomised the difficulties faced by farmers working on volcanic soils of low fertility and lacking in cobalt – the wasting disease suffered by animals grazed on these lands, sometimes called ‘bush sickness’, was dubbed ‘Mairoa dopiness’. These problems were compounded by economic depression. By 1940, 55 of the 106 settlers who took up farms around Mairoa, Ngapāenga, Mangaōtaki and Waitanguru had walked off the land.

After the Second World War the Department of Lands and Survey rehabilitated abandoned farms, which were farmed by returned servicemen. Cobalt-enriched fertiliser solved fertility problems and bush sickness. Aided by aerial fertiliser topdressing, farms were converted from dairy to beef and sheep.

    • Quoted in Robert Arrell, Waitomo Caves: a century of tourism. Waitomo: Waitomo Caves Museum Society, 1984, p. 26. Back



Township 35 kilometres south-east of Te Kūiti. Coal was discovered there in 1931. In 1940 the government purchased the coal mine and built Benneydale township. The mine closed after a major fire in 1962. Another part of the coal seam nearby was worked between 1978 and 1998 but on a much smaller scale.

Prophetic movement

The 19th-century Māori prophetic movement Pao Mīere was based at Tīroa, near Benneydale. The movement developed in response to the early-1880s opening of Te Rohe Pōtae (the King Country) to Pākehā, which followers did not support. In 1887 Te Rā Karepe and Rangawhenua supervised the construction of a cross-shaped house called Te Miringa Te Kakara. The house burned down in 1983 but the Rereahu hapū were considering rebuilding it in the early 2000s.

In the early 2000s Benneydale still had a primary school, dairy, petrol station, police station and pub – but empty houses and shops stood out.

Benneydale is one of the few localities in the King Country with an English name. It combines the surnames of Charlie Benney, the under-secretary for mines in 1940, and Tom Dale, the mine superintendent.


Rural locality 6 kilometres west of Benneydale on State Highway 30. Mangapēhi was a busy mill township until the late 1960s, when the last of the mills closed. Nothing was left of the township in the early 2000s.

Pureora Forest Park

Protected forest park of 78,000 hectares, administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC) atop the Rangitoto and Hauhungaroa ranges on the King Country’s eastern border. A small village containing a DOC office and visitor accommodation is located in the middle section of the park, 21 kilometres north-east of Benneydale. Mt Pureora (1,165 metres) is the highest peak in the park.


Rural settlement on State Highway 4, 42 kilometres south of Te Kūiti. The general store was open from 1900 to 1992 and was later turned into a café. Māpiu School serves the district’s farming community.

Blessed waters

Waimiha is said to have been named by Kahupeka, who lived around the late 1400s. She visited looking for her son, Rakamaomao, who was one of the first human inhabitants of the area. Her journey took her to the slopes of Mt Pureora (which she also named). During this time she was ill, and she was blessed in the waters of a small spring with a miha (karakia). She named the stream which flowed down from the spring Waimiha (water of blessing).


Farming settlement 37 kilometres north-east of Taumarunui on the North Island main trunk line. Waimiha is on the western side of the Ōngarue River valley.

Māori lived in permanent and seasonal villages and near waterways. Present-day Waimiha was established after the main trunk railway line reached the area in 1901. The first European farmers arrived in 1909. Those with native bush on their land sold the cutting rights to the sawmillers who followed. Waimiha contained a number of businesses by the 1920s, including general stores, boarding houses, stables, a post office, butchery and picture theatre. Milling in the area peaked in the 1940s.

The post office closed in 1988. Residents could no longer withdraw money in Waimiha, and this had a negative impact on other businesses. The last shop closed in 1991. In the 1990s forestry company Carter Holt Harvey bought farms in the district and replaced livestock with pine trees. Changes like this meant there were fewer families with children in the district and Waimiha School closed.


Rural settlement on the west bank of the Ōngarue River, 24 kilometres north of Taumarunui. Before Europeans settled in the area, the main Māori settlement was Katiaho, near present-day Ōngarue. In the 2000s Te Rongoroa marae was an important part of the Ōngarue community.

Ōngarue was founded after the main trunk railway line reached the area in 1901 and was the end of the line until 1903. As in nearby Waimiha, farmers and sawmillers settled the surrounding district. Ōngarue School opened in 1902.

Sawmilling firm Ellis and Burnand, one of the largest in New Zealand, took over a mill at Ōngarue in 1912 and became the main employer. Returned servicemen developed new farms after the first and second world wars. Farming and sawmilling supported a small but busy township.

The mill closed in 1966, followed by the post office. By then, the general store was the only shop still open – and it closed in 2003. Ōngarue School remained open.

Piopio to Mōkau


Rural service township on State Highway 3, 24 kilometres south-west of Te Kūiti, with a 2013 population of 396. Piopio was laid out around 1902 and served a dairy-farming hinterland.

Piopio School opened in 1909. In the early 1920s the government decided to consolidate small rural schools. Piopio became the first consolidated school in New Zealand in 1924. The first school bus service in the country also started at Piopio that year. A secondary school opened next to the primary school in 1960.

Bird town

All the streets in Piopio’s town centre are named after New Zealand native birds. Piopio itself is the name of an extinct native bird. Streets with bird names include Kaka, Kea, Moa, Ruru, Tui, Huia and Kiwi.

In the early 1990s residents started a beautification committee and turned a vacant section on the main street into a village green. This work continued in the early 2000s. A new committee built a café at the northern entrance to Piopio, which was leased by a private operator, and a monthly market was held on the green.


Farming settlement 14 kilometres south of Piopio. A small township supported by the surrounding farms developed in the early 1900s and Āria School opened in 1908. A dairy factory was established in 1911, and stock saleyards in 1924.

The district’s population dropped after the Second World War, and businesses and services (such as the post office) closed. In the 2000s, the Āria Cosmopolitan Club and the school still operated.

Special gorse patch

In 1962 a new species of giant wētā was found living in a gorse patch on a farm near Māhoenui. The gorse protected the wētā from being eaten by rats, possums and hedgehogs or squashed by grazing stock. The gorse was reserved by the Department of Conservation and fire breaks were established around the site. Māhoenui is the only place these wētā have been found, though some have been relocated to the Ruakurī reserve near Waitomo and another reserve on the Coromandel Peninsula.


Rural settlement 50 kilometres south-west of Te Kūiti. Māhoenui was one of the earliest areas settled by Europeans after the King Country was opened in the mid-1880s. The first settlers arrived in the late 1890s.

Limestone caves are located in the district. From 1965 members of the Taranaki Caving Club used an old homestead owned by a local farmer (and club member) as a base from which to explore the caves.


Coastal settlement 79 kilometres south-west of Te Kūiti and 98 kilometres north-east of New Plymouth. Awakino is on the banks of the Awakino River, which rises in the Hērangi Range. Whitebaiting stations are located along the river.

Traditional Māori sites were clustered along the coast around Awakino.

The anchor stone from the ancestral Tainui waka is on the grounds of Maniaroa marae near the settlement.

In 1854 the government purchased almost 6,500 hectares of Māori land around Awakino. Because the King Country was closed to Europeans between the 1860s and the 1880s the land was not surveyed until 1883 and was only made available for settlement in 1893.

Farming, flax processing and sawmilling were important early industries in the district. Ships plying the North Island’s west coast called in at Awakino. Coastal shipping declined in the area after the bridge across the Mōkau River opened in 1927 and Awakino was no longer used as a port.

Explosive monument

During the Second World War a live mine floated into the Mōkau River with the tide. The mine was defused and the shell painted and mounted on a concrete base facing State Highway 3, where it remains in the early 2000s.


Coastal settlement 5 kilometres south of Awakino and 83 kilometres south-west of Te Kūiti. Mōkau abuts the northern bank of the Mōkau River and its proximity to Taranaki means it is often considered part of that region. Mōkau is renowned for its whitebait.

Life in Mōkau revolved around the river, both before and after European settlement. It was the traditional boundary between Taranaki and Tainui tribes. People and goods were transported on the river, which flows down to the sea from the Rangitoto Range to the east. The first bridge over the river opened for traffic in 1927.

Māori settlements were located at the river mouth and inland along its banks. Trader Thomas Ralph settled at Mōkau in the 1820s and a Wesleyan mission station was established there in 1843. Up the river, sawmillers felled native bush from the 1840s and coal mines were worked from the 1880s.

The government bought around 840 hectares on the north side of the river in 1854. Europeans left Mōkau after the King Country was closed in the 1860s and the block was not surveyed until 1883. In the 1870s Māori invited some Europeans to settle there, including Joshua Jones, who became infamous for dubious land dealings in the area. The township was laid out in 1896.

By the early 20th century most accessible timber had been felled and dairy farms were established around Mōkau. River-based tourism started in the late 19th century and Mōkau later became popular with holidaymakers.



Township 50 kilometres north-west of Taumarunui, with a 2013 population of 129. Ōhura is located in the valley of the Waitewhena Stream, a tributary of the Ōhura River. The Stratford–Ōkahukura railway line passes through Ōhura.

Strike strife

In 1951 Ōhura coal miners went on strike in protest at emergency regulations passed by the National government during the famous 151-day industrial dispute between wharf workers and their employers. No coal was mined in the area for five weeks. The United Mineworkers Union held a secret nationwide ballot on whether members should return to work. The result was ‘yes’, but many miners had boycotted the vote and it was not representative. The Ōhura miners were prevented from meeting to discuss the issue by police, who raided every venue they tried to gather in. The only way they could meet was by travelling to Benneydale, a mining township in the north-eastern King Country.

Māori settlements were located at the junction of the Ōhura and Whanganui rivers. A walking track between the Taranaki coast and present-day Taumarunui ran through the Ōhura River valley. In the 1860s Māori built two flour mills in the area. The first European settlers arrived in the district in 1900. More farmers took up land after the first and second world wars.

Coal mines were worked in the district from the 1930s, and mining underpinned Ōhura’s economy for the next 40 years. It became a bustling township and its population peaked at 654 in 1961. However, its reliance on one industry made it vulnerable – after the state-owned mines closed in the early 1970s many businesses and community services in the township closed too. The last mine on the Waitewhena coalfield closed in 1990.

A miners’ hostel was converted to Ōhura Prison in 1972. The prison provided an alternative source of employment for some. However, attracting staff to Ōhura was difficult and the prison closed in 2005. In the 2010s the buildings were being used as a backpackers’ hostel.

The township’s population dropped from 222 in 2001 to 129 in 2013. In the 2010s mining companies investigated reworking old mines in the area.


Rural settlement 14 kilometres north-east of Ōhura. A Māori walking track between Mōkau on the west coast and inland Taumarunui passed through present-day Mātīere. European settlers began farming the area in the early 1900s. Mātīere School serves the local farming community.


Rural settlement 22 kilometres west of Ōhura. Waitaanga is surrounded by forested conservation areas on most sides. European farmers settled the district from 1905. The Waitaanga road ends on the coast at Ahitītī, in Taranaki.


Rural settlement 13 kilometres south-west of Ōhura on State Highway 43. The Tatū state coal mine operated from 1940 to 1971. During this period some of the miners and their families lived at Tatū. The mine site is on Waro Road, which travels west from Tatū.

Tunnels and more tunnels

The transport links around Tokirima are distinguished by a number of tunnels. There are three tunnels on the Stratford–Ōkahukura railway line between Ōhura and Tokirima and five between Tokirima and nearby Tahora in Taranaki. The road between Tokirima, Aukope and Ōhura ran through a tunnel until 1960. After the road was directed away from the tunnel a local farmer used it to store hay. In the 2000s the tunnel remained marked on maps.


Rural settlement 19 kilometres south of Ōhura. The first European settlers arrived around 1904. Children were taught in the homes of settlers until Tokirima School opened in 1910. The Stratford–Ōkahukura railway line passes through Tokirima.


Rural settlement 20 kilometres south-west of Taumarunui. Māori kāinga (villages) and seasonal settlements were scattered around present-day Ōtunui. Eels were caught in the Whakamaro stream. Relics such as fish hooks, mere (clubs) and adzes were found by farmers in the 20th century.

Europeans first arrived in 1906. The native forest was burned and felled and dairy, sheep and beef farms were established. Small-scale commercial sawmills processed native timbers. Ōtunui School was open from 1915 to 2007.

Oil and gas

In 1969 and 1970 an American–New Zealand oil consortium conducted a search for oil and gas around Ōtunui. Two oil rigs were constructed on local farms and a third was placed at Upper Retaruke to the south. None of the sites showed great promise and the project did not get beyond the exploration stage.

Returned servicemen were settled on farms after the First World War but difficult farming conditions – including wet weather, poor soil fertility and steep hill country – led to some farmers walking off the land. After the Second World War aerial topdressing made farming the area easier and more profitable.



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 Ariki 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.

Name change

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 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.

Famous visitor

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.

    • Peter McIntyre, Kakahi New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1972, between plates 12 and 13. Back

National Park


Township 34 kilometres south-east of Taumarunui. Raurimu began life as a railway construction camp or ‘tent town’ in the early 20th century. The famous Raurimu spiral on the main trunk railway line was constructed between 1905 and 1908 so trains could manage the area’s steep gradients. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people (mainly men) lived in the camp in this period.


In 1997 Raurimu hit the headlines for tragic reasons. Stephen Anderson shot and killed his father, four guests staying at the family’s Raurimu holiday home and a local man, and wounded four others. Anderson was found not guilty of murder by reason of insanity and detained in a mental institution.

A more permanent township emerged near the camp site from 1907. Tents were replaced by wooden buildings, and the settlement was supported by farming and sawmilling once the original railway workers left. Some residents were permanent railways employees. Raurimu’s gender imbalance slowly disappeared – in 1926 women were 41% of the population, compared to 25% in 1906.

In December 1925 a devastating fire swept through Raurimu and almost destroyed the entire commercial area of the township. Rebuilding occurred and some businesses were re-established, but the population declined from this period. The police station closed in 1957, followed by the railway station and the last remaining sawmills in the mid-1960s, and the post office in 1977. However, its proximity to the ski fields of Mt Ruapehu meant that Raurimu assumed a new (albeit low-key) identity as a holiday town in the later 20th century.

King Country artist

Painter Edward (Ted) Lattey farmed in the Upper Retaruke valley south of Kaitīeke in the 1920s. After he left the King Country he became a professional artist and was known for his paintings of native forests, including King Country scenes. He was close to his cousin, well-known artist Dorothy Richmond. His work is held in several major galleries and museums.


Rural settlement 13 kilometres north-west of Raurimu. The landscape comprises steep, rugged hills and valleys, once covered in thick native forest. European settlers arrived in the early 1900s and most of the forest was felled between 1908 and 1916. Small sawmills operated in the district from the 1920s.

During the First World War and the 1930s depression some farmers abandoned their land. By the mid-1930s around half the land cleared for farms reverted to fern and scrub. High rainfall also caused soils to leach and lose their fertility. The advent of aerial fertiliser topdressing after the Second World War improved farming conditions. Kaitīeke School opened in 1910.


Rural settlement 28 kilometres south-west of Kaitīeke. Whakahoro is near the junction of the Whanganui and Retaruke rivers. A Department of Conservation campsite is located next to the Whanganui River.

National Park

Township 38 kilometres south of Taumarunui at the intersection of state highways 4 and 47, with a 2013 population of 171. National Park is a base for visitors to the Tongariro National Park and skifields. The township was originally called Waimarino but changed to National Park in 1926 because of its close associations with Tongariro National Park.

Whakapapa Village

Alpine settlement on the north-western slopes of Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park, 18 kilometres east of National Park township. Whakapapa is 1,100 metres above sea level, which makes it the highest permanent settlement in New Zealand. In the early 2000s around 150 people lived there year-round, and the population more than doubled in the winter when seasonal employees moved in.

Because Whakapapa is within Tongariro National Park, the Department of Conservation is the local authority. Businesses are charged a community levy which pays for amenities and services such as a sewerage system and rubbish collection.


Rural settlement 23 kilometres north-east of National Park on State Highway 47. Taurewa was founded in 1937 after the Egmont Box Company was granted a concession to fell native trees in Taurewa State Forest. State houses were built at Taurewa in 1940.

By the early 1960s most of the forest had been felled and the buildings were moved elsewhere or abandoned. Avondale College of Auckland leased the remaining buildings from 1973 for an outdoor education camp.


Rural settlement 6 kilometres south of National Park on State Highway 4. A state forest was established at Erua in 1930. In the 2000s Erua was a base from which to explore Tongariro National Park and the surrounding district.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'King Country places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 13 December 2011, updated 1 March 2015