First European explorers
Naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach travelled to Mōkau from Taranaki in January 1840. Other early European visitors to the region included politician Donald McLean and missionary Richard Taylor in 1845, and geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter in 1859.
Alexander Horsburgh Turnbull, whose books, manuscripts, photographs and paintings formed the basis of the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, started his collection at the age of 17 in 1885 when he purchased James Kerry-Nicholl’s The King Country; or, explorations in New Zealand: A narrative of 600 miles of travel through Maoriland (1884). Later Turnbull wrote, ‘This was the first book of my collection’1 on the fly-leaf of the book, which is held by the eponymous library.
The opening of Te Rohe Pōtae to Europeans in the early 1880s allowed visitors to explore the region again. British explorer James Kerry-Nicholls travelled throughout what he somewhat romantically described as the ‘forbidden land’ in 1883.2 Dunedin photographer Alfred Burton accompanied surveyor John Rochford and artist Edward Payton on a tour of the region in 1885 and took about 150 photographs of the land and the people. These became a significant record of life there at the time.
The Waitomo Caves lie in the heart of the King Country’s limestone territory. Some were known prior to Pākehā settlement – the Ruakurī Cave was discovered by a hunter gathering birds for a war party to eat. Wild dogs lived in the cave and attacked him when he approached the entrance. Ruakurī means ‘den of dogs’.
The glow-worm caves were explored between 1887 and 1888 by Tāne Tinorau, who owned the land on which they were located, and surveyor Fred Mace. Ruakurī was re-explored in 1904, and tourists were guided through both caves.
Fairies and fantasy
The Tourism Department bestowed fantastic names on the Waitomo Caves, including Ghost Walk, the Bride’s Jewels and Wedding Cake, and the Cathedral Majestic. Railways Department publicists excelled themselves, describing ‘fairy palaces [which] now yield up their true and elegant treasures … where undreamt-of ethereal vistas for the first time unfold themselves.’3
Under the Scenery Preservation Act 1903, the government acquired ownership of the Glow-worm Cave in 1904 and Ruakurī Cave in 1906. Aranui Cave was discovered on government-owned land in 1910. It opened for tourists the following year, and the government also built a new hostel. The caves were popular and were the only profitable government tourist site from 1920 until the end of the Second World War. The Railways Department publicised the caves (which are near the main trunk line) throughout the country.
All government tourist hotels, including Waitomo, were sold to a private hotel chain in 1990. The same year, the glow-worm caves and surrounding land were returned to majority (75%) Māori ownership after an inquiry by the Waitangi Tribunal. The government retained the remaining 25%, which, along with the Ruakurī and Aranui caves, was administered by the Department of Conservation. Tourism activities in the caves were run by a private operator. In 2010 around 350,000 people visited the three caves.
The first ski club in New Zealand was started at Ruapehu in 1913. After the First World War huts were constructed at Whakapapa for skiers and trampers. The Chateau hotel followed in 1929, providing accommodation for alpine enthusiasts and tourists unwilling to sleep rough in huts. The Whakapapa ski field opened in 1953, and the first chairlift was installed the following year.
Other tourist attractions
The Mōkau River was mainly used for transport and commercial purposes, but from the late 19th century it was also visited by tourists, some of whom travelled aboard the coal boats which plied the river. Tourists began their Whanganui River cruises from Taumarunui when the railway line reached there in 1903. The first jet-boat trip on the river took place in 1957. The underground streams and limestone crags around Waitomo offered more adventurous recreational opportunities, such as black-water rafting, later in the 20th century. The native and exotic forests of the region provided pig and deer hunters with plenty of sport.
Mangatepopo Stream tragedy
In 2008 six students and a teacher from Elim Christian College in Auckland were killed on an outdoor education trip along the Mangatepopo Stream near Tongariro National Park. The gorge in which the stream is located flooded suddenly, and the victims drowned while trying to escape the rising waters.
With improved roads and increased car ownership, coastal settlements such as Aotea, Kāwhia, Awakino and Mōkau became holiday destinations during the warmer months. Walking and mountain-biking tracks were established in the region’s protected forests, some based on tracks made in the early 20th century. The Ōtorohanga Kiwi House opened in 1971.
Small communities established rugby clubs in the early years of European settlement. The Manunui, Matapuna, Ōio and Kākahi rugby clubs combined in 1905 to form the King Country Rugby Union (KCRU). A new union was created in 1922 on amalgamation with the Ruapehu, Maniapoto and Ōhura sub-unions. Other sub-unions later joined. Ruapehu left to join the Wanganui Rugby Union in 1970 and Ōtorohanga joined the Waikato Rugby Union in 1998. Taupō joined the KCRU in 1987.
In the 2000s the KCRU played in the Heartlands Championship, a competition for semi-professional provincial unions. Colin Meads, one of New Zealand’s best-known rugby players, grew up on a farm near Te Kūiti. He continued to play and coach in the King Country during his years as an All Black and after he retired.
Sheep shearing is a sport as well as an essential rural service and source of income in the region. A national competition which pits North and South island shearers against one another occurs annually in Te Kūiti, and smaller competitions take place throughout the year in King Country towns, including Piopio, Ōhura and Taumarunui. Te Kūiti-based champion shearer David Fagan was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to shearing in 1999.