Story: King Country region

Page 9. Transport and infrastructure

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Rivers and sea

As well as providing early Māori communities with food, rivers were major transport routes – the equivalent of modern-day highways. The Waipā River, a tributary of the Waikato River, provided access to the north and the Whanganui River gave access to the south. The Awakino and Mōkau rivers flowed from the centre to the west coast, while the Ōhura River in the centre and Ōngarue River in the east were tributaries of the Whanganui.

Rivers remained crucial transport routes after Pākehā settlement, particularly before roads and railways were built. Flax, timber, coal, wool and dairy products were taken by boat down the Mōkau River and shipped south to Waitara and New Plymouth. The Whanganui River was another important transport route.

Ships transported people, livestock and goods from ports along the west coast, including Mōkau, Marokopa and Kāwhia. Ironsand has been exported from Taharoa since 1972.


Walking tracks were often portage routes (along which canoes were carried) between rivers. One track that existed independently of the rivers was the west coast path, which extended from Waikato territory down to Ngāmotu (New Plymouth) in Taranaki. The arrival of European missionaries and traders in Kāwhia and Mōkau increased traffic on this track.


The North Island main trunk line was the most crucial factor in the development of the King Country. Rail was used by the government as a lever to ‘open’ the region for European settlement.

Miniature yet long

New Zealand’s longest miniature railway is at Manu Ariki marae, near Taumarunui. The 3.2-kilometre track was built in 1993 by Alexander Tau Phillips, a Māori prophetic leader and spiritual healer who had been a railway worker. Phillips founded a spiritual organisation known as the Kotahitanga Building Society, as well as the marae on which the railway is located.

By 1880 the main trunk line had reached the upper Waikato in the north and Manawatū in the south. In between was Te Rohe Pōtae, a rugged, heavily forested land under the control of Māori and out of bounds to most Europeans.

In 1882 Ngāti Maniapoto leaders agreed to a survey for the railway, and two years later a parliamentary committee chose this central route through the King Country in preference to lines through Taranaki or Hawke’s Bay.

The line reached Ōtorohanga and Te Kūiti in 1887, but construction further south was slow as the economy faltered and the government changed. The Taumarunui section opened in 1903. The elevated terrain and deep ravines south of Taumarunui called for inventive engineering work – the result was the ingenious Raurimu spiral and a series of viaducts.

The main trunk line was completed in 1908. European populations in the main towns grew rapidly once the King Country was connected by rail to the rest of the North Island. Rail also provided rural communities with a vital connection to the outside world, especially in an era of inadequate roads.

A railway line connecting Stratford in Taranaki with the main trunk line at Ōkahukura was built in stages between 1901 and 1932. It closed in 2009.

Bush tram walkway

In the early 2000s the Department of Conservation turned the historic Ōngarue tramway in the Pureora Forest into a walking and cycling track. The tramway had been constructed by the sawmilling firm Ellis and Burnand and was used from 1922 to 1958. Most tramway lines were dismantled and converted into roads or pastureland, or planted over with trees, once sawmilling ceased. At Ōngarue, most of the tramway system survived.


Early farming communities relied on Māori tracks and rivers for transport. Roads were built with money derived from farm leases or loans. Farmers worked on roads, providing them with a crucial source of income until their farms became profitable. When towns gained their own councils, roads were one of the first pieces of infrastructure built and improved by them.

The early roads were basic, often little more than dirt tracks passable by pack horses only. They were later widened and metalled to accommodate horse- and bullock-drawn wagons and carriages. The King Country still had a lot of unsealed roads in the 2000s – 56% of the local roads within Waitomo district were unsealed in 2009.

Eight state highways pass through the region. State Highway 3, which links Hamilton and New Plymouth, and State Highway 4, which links Hamilton and Whanganui, are the major routes.

Precious power

For a few months after Te Kūiti’s power station began operating in April 1913, power was restricted to certain periods – between 4 and 11 p.m. and 1.30 and 2.30 a.m. Passenger trains travelling north and south arrived in Te Kūiti at the latter inhospitable hour, when power was laid on for the passengers’ benefit.

Power generation

The first electric power plant in the King Country opened at Te Kūiti in 1913. This was followed by Taumarunui in 1924, Piopio and Āria in 1925, Ōtorohanga and the Waitomo Caves in 1926, and Awakino and Mōkau in 1937. Supply was extended to other parts of the region after the Second World War. Private power stations and generators were also built by sawmilling firms and farmers.

The Tongariro power scheme (constructed between 1964 and 1983) diverted water from the Whanganui River catchment to feed power stations at Tokaanu and Rangipō, above Lake Taupō.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'King Country region - Transport and infrastructure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

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