Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

King Country region

by Kerryn Pollock

Named for the Māori King Tāwhiao, who lived in exile there from 1864 until the early 1880s, the remote King Country (also called Te Rohe Pōtae) was largely off-limits to Europeans until the 1880s. After the Ngāti Maniapoto tribe agreed to a survey for the main trunk railway line through their territory in 1882, the King Country was gradually opened up for European settlement.



The King Country is located in the North Island’s western uplands. It is flanked by mountain ranges to the west and east, and its landforms are strongly influenced by the active volcanic zone of the central North Island. The lowlands of the northern reaches look towards Waikato, while the steep hill country further south is part of the rugged terrain which characterises the inland Whanganui and Taranaki regions. Much of the forest has been felled, but the remnants – principally on the western, eastern and southern boundaries – recall the region’s ancient name, Te Nehe-nehe-nui (the great forest).


The name ‘King Country’ embodies a relatively brief though crucial period in the region’s history. A name bestowed by Europeans, it recalls the period in the 19th century King Tāwhiao spent in Ngāti Maniapoto territory, exiled from his Waikato homeland. The name ‘Te Rohe Pōtae’, which loosely translates as ‘the area of the hat’ – supposedly referring to an incident in which King Tāwhiao defined the area's boundaries by throwing a hat onto a map – was coined by Māori and asserted Māori sovereignty over the region. Neither are official place names, but they are commonly used labels for the area.


The Tainui waka (canoe), which brought the ancestors of Māori to New Zealand from Polynesia, landed on the west coast at Kāwhia and Mōkau. Maniapoto, the founding ancestor of Ngāti Maniapoto (the main iwi of the King Country), was descended from the captain of Tainui. Kāinga (villages) and fortified were established on the west coast and along rivers.

European traders first visited the King Country around the late 1820s. They were followed by missionaries in the 1830s. The region was closed to Europeans for two decades after the Māori king, Tāwhiao, and his followers were exiled to Ngāti Maniapoto territory following the battle of Ōrākau in 1864. It was during this period that the region was first called Te Rohe Pōtae.

Negotiations to open the region to European settlement began in the 1870s. Ngāti Maniapoto agreed to a survey through the Rohe Pōtae for the main trunk railway line in 1882. The railway line, which reached Ōtorohanga and Te Kūiti in 1887 and Taumarunui in 1903, facilitated the opening of the King Country to Pākehā.

The first European settlers took up farms in the early 1890s and settlement spread inland from the west coast. Growth in the European population did not take off until the early 20th century. Town growth was fostered by the railway line. Farming, sawmilling and coal mining were important sources of prosperity.


The King Country comprises Ōtorohanga and Waitomo districts and the northern two-thirds of Ruapehu district. It is not an official region, but a regional identity has developed within these approximate boundaries .

Landscape and climate

Ranges and hills

The King Country is a broad expanse of uplifted sedimentary rock west of the North Island main divide and central volcanic zone. An area of steep, rolling hills and valleys dissected by rivers and streams, it is part of a larger, geologically similar tract of land that includes inland Whanganui and Taranaki. Mountain ranges flank the King Country – the greywacke and argillite Hērangi Range in the west and the greywacke and ignimbrite Rangitoto and Hauhungaroa ranges to the east. The hills are siltstone, sandstone and mudstone.

The limestone karst landscape in the centre of the King Country is the region’s most distinctive geological feature. Karst landscapes occur when water dissolves carbonate rocks such as limestone, leaving rocky outcrops, sinkholes, and underground caves laden with stalagmites and stalactites. The region’s pure limestone, hilly terrain and high rainfall created ideal conditions for karst formation.

Describing the land

The Māori settlement of Te Kūititanga – later Te Kūiti – was located near the Mangaokewa gorge. Te Kūititanga meant ‘the narrowing in’ or ‘the closing in’, a reference to the way the hills close in when entering the gorge from the north.

Volcanic landscapes

The most recent changes to land formations in the King Country were caused by volcanic activity. Mt Ruapehu was built up by a series of eruptions over the last 200,000 years and is still active. At 2,797 metres, Ruapehu’s tallest peak is the highest point of the North Island.

Both Mt Ruapehu and its ring plain fall within Tongariro National Park. They lie at the southern end of the Taupō Volcanic Zone, which runs through Lake Taupō and the Rotorua lakes to Whakaari (White Island) off the Bay of Plenty coast. Active faults underlie the volcanic landscape.

Volcanic activity has had an impact on landscapes some distance from the volcanoes themselves. For example, pyroclastic flows (created when pumice, ash and gas are expelled from volcanoes) travelled from the Taupō Volcanic Zone north to Ōtorohanga and west to Piopio around 700,000 years ago. The flows fused, leaving ignimbrite rock formations.


The region’s characteristic hills give way to rolling, flatter land and alluvial valleys around Ōtorohanga, which is within the Waipā River basin. This basin extends south of Te Kūiti, where the hills become steeper and the valleys narrower. Volcanic activity created the flat plains which form the base of the mountains in Tongariro National Park.

Flood of ’58

In February 1958 the Waipā and Mangapū rivers overflowed and flooded low-lying Ōtorohanga, causing £600,000 (almost $30 million in 2019 terms) worth of damage. Te Kūiti was also flooded, and small townships such as Benneydale and Mangapēhi were temporarily isolated by floodwaters. To prevent further such disasters, the Waipā River was diverted away from Ōtorohanga and stopbanks were built between the river and the town.


Rivers and streams cross the length and breadth of the King Country and drain to the north, west and south. The Mōkau River rises in the Rangitoto Range in the east and drains at Mōkau on the west coast. The Waipā River also rises in the Rangitoto Range and flows north into the Waikato region.

The Whanganui River rises on the slopes of Mt Tongariro and travels north-west before turning south at Taumarunui and draining at Whanganui on the west coast. Water from the Whanganui and Whakapapa rivers is diverted to feed the Tokaanu hydro-electric power station. The Ōhura and Ōngarue rivers are major tributaries of the Whanganui River.


The King Country coastline is bounded in the north by Aotea Harbour, north of Kāwhia Harbour, and in the south by the mouth of the Mōkau River.

Kāwhia Harbour is a large estuary. Originally a valley, it was inundated and then prevented from draining by the formation of a sandbar at the coast. Deeply carved inlets characterise the southern reaches of the harbour.

Large sand dunes are found north of Marokopa, chiefly around Kāwhia and Aotea. The coast between Albatross Point in the north and Mōkau in the south is composed of stratified cliffs formed from sedimentary rock in the Miocene period (23.8 to 5.3 million years ago).


The King Country has relatively high rainfall compared with regions to its north and east, though similar to that of Taranaki to the south. The inland western side of the region and the volcanoes in the south receive between 2,000 and 4,000 mm each year. The rest of the region receives between 1,500 and 2,000 mm. Westerly winds prevail.

Average annual temperatures are 14–16°C along the coast, 12–14°C in the centre and 10–12°C in the south, south-west and eastern ranges.

The most variable temperatures occur in the volcanic zone – at Whakapapa Village, temperatures can reach 25°C in the summer and fall to -10°C in winter. Southerly winds bring snow in winter.

Plants and animals


Much of the King Country was covered by conifer–broadleaf forests prior to European settlement in the late 19th century. Māori knew the area as Te Nehe-nehe-nui (the great forest).

The south-east was dominated by the tussock grasslands and alpine herbs of the Volcanic Plateau, with beech trees on the western and southern slopes of Mt Ruapehu. In 1887 Horonuku Te Heuheu, paramount chief of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, and the government agreed to protect the upper slopes of Ruapehu, Ngāuruhoe and Tongariro mountains.

Much of the lower-lying forest was felled or burned by farmers and cut by sawmillers. Nonetheless, in the early 2000s the King Country still had a larger proportion of native vegetation than neighbouring regions such as Waikato.

Tree-top protest

In 1946 Pureora was one of the last native forests opened to logging. Three decades later, in 1978, conservation activists built and occupied platforms in the branches of some of the park’s massive tōtara trees in protest at the felling of native forests and the effect on native wildlife. The protest was successful gained media attention and achieved a temporary halt in logging. In 1982 logging in the forest ceased.

Protected forest parks and conservation areas flank the eastern, south-western and southern reaches of the King Country. The eastern boundary is largely covered by Pureora Forest Park. Podocarps such as rimu and tōtara grow in dense clusters on volcanic ash, which flattened the previous forest during the Taupō eruption around 232 CE. The deeper the ash, the denser the forest.

In the south of the region are the Tongariro and Whanganui national parks.

A chain of forests and conservation areas runs down the western side of the region. Whareorino Forest in the Hērangi Range is the largest. It contains a complete altitudinal sequence of plants, from hardwood trees to subalpine species. Small forest reserves are found throughout the interior of the region.

Native wildlife

Pureora Forest is home to the rare North Island kōkako. Other rare native birds in the forest include the kārearea (falcon), kākāriki (parakeet) and whio (blue duck). Kererū (wood pigeons), tūī, fantails, pōpokotea (whiteheads), tauhou (waxeyes), kākā and North Island robins are more common.

Other native birds live in Whareorino Forest, including the riroriro (grey warbler), miromiro (tomtit), tītiti pounamu (rifleman) and koekoeā (long-tailed cuckoo).

Hochstetter’s frog and native bats are found in both forests. The critically endangered Archey’s frog inhabits damp spots in the higher areas of Whareorino Forest.

Wading birds, including the tōrea (oystercatcher), tuturiwhatu (dotterel) and bar-tailed godwit, live on the shores of Kāwhia Harbour. The west coast is the traditional habitat of the rare Māui’s dolphin. Glow-worms, the larvae of a fungus gnat, adorn the caves of the Waitomo district.

Seagoing no more

The west-coast fossils were mostly sea creatures. Ammonites and squid are common at Puti Point on the Kāwhia Harbour. The Mangapōhue Natural Bridge near Piripiri is full of giant oysters, sea urchins, barnacles and corals. The Kiritehere fossil bed contains mainly clams, though there are also lamp shells, small snails, ammonites and parts of larger sea creatures like the ichthyosaur (a dolphin-like reptile). In 2006 members of the Hamilton Junior Naturalists Club found a giant penguin fossil in rocks at Te Waitere on the Kāwhia Harbour. The penguin is displayed in Waikato Museum.


The King Country’s west coast is rich in fossils because it is formed of sedimentary rocks. The first fossil ammonites (large prehistoric molluscs) discovered in New Zealand were found on the shores of Kāwhia Harbour by 19th-century geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter. In 1977 Jean Gyles noticed a giant ammonite shell in a road cutting at nearby Taharoa. Mineral deposits in the shell showed that the ammonite had died after it was covered by volcanic ash under water. The ammonite – at 1.42 metres in diameter, the biggest found in New Zealand – is displayed in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.

Fossils can be seen at Puti Point on the Kāwhia Harbour, the Mangapōhue Natural Bridge west of Waitomo and Kiritehere Beach on the west coast. The caves in the Waitomo district also contain fossils.

Plant and animal pests

Ragwort, gorse and blackberry were noted as pest plants in the 1930s. In the 2000s old man’s beard infested parts of the King Country. Other troublesome introduced pest plants in the region include variegated thistle at Āria, white bryony at Āria and Mōkauiti, Chilean flame creeper in northern areas, alligator weed and Californian bulrush near Taumarunui, and tutsan in the Ruapehu district.

Wilding pines, heather and broom are major pest plants around the Volcanic Plateau. Large herds of feral goats live in the Whareorino Forest and other forested areas in Ōtorohanga and Waitomo districts.

Māori settlement and occupation

Waka traditions

The King Country has important associations with the Tainui waka (canoe), one of many which brought the ancestors of Māori to New Zealand from East Polynesia. Tainui, captained by Hoturoa, landed at Mōkau, where some of the crew disembarked. The waka was buried at Kāwhia. Through this ancestral connection with Hoturoa, Ngāti Maniapoto belong to the Tainui confederation of tribes.

Rescue effort

The Tainui’s anchor stone lay untouched on a sandspit at the mouth of the Mōkau River until 1894, when it was removed by the European owner of a cutter (small ship), who took it to his home in Waitara. Its absence was soon noted and suspicion fell on the culprit. He was confronted by Te Horo, a chief, and the surveyor and ethnographer William Skinner. They arranged for the anchor to be returned to the Mōkau River. In 1926 it was placed within the more secure grounds of the urupā (cemetery) at Maniaroa marae, near Awakino.

People from the Aotea waka visited Kāwhia on foot before travelling south to the Pātea River, where they settled. The Tokomaru waka stopped at Mōkau and some of the crew disembarked to continue their journey overland.

Ngāti Maniapoto

Ngāti Maniapoto is the main iwi (tribe) of the King Country. The iwi is named after the ancestor Maniapoto, a 17th-century descendant of Hoturoa.

Maniapoto’s great-grandfather Tūrongo was given land south of the Pūniu River, the waterway which later became the iwi’s northern boundary. The Mōkau River formed the southern boundary.

Maniapoto inherited the mana over these lands on the death of his father Rereahu, Tūrongo’s grandson. His older half-brother, Te Ihingaarangi, challenged Maniapoto but was defeated, which confirmed Maniapoto’s leadership.

In 2006 just over 33,600 people identified themselves as Ngāti Maniapoto, which made it the seventh-largest iwi in New Zealand. Most of them lived outside the King Country.

Other iwi

Oher tribes with affiliations to the region include Ngāti Mahuta of Tainui on the Kāwhia Harbour, Ngāti Raukawa in the north-east around Wharepūhunga, and Ngāti Tama in the south-west around Mōkau. Ngāti Hauā, a Waikato iwi, has interests south of the Pūniu River, near the region’s northern boundary, and the Whanganui and Ngāti Tūwharetoa people have interests around Taumarunui. The volcanic mountains in the south are of great cultural and spiritual importance to Ngāti Tūwharetoa.


Major Māori settlements were on the west coast and along rivers. Kāwhia in the north and Mōkau in the south were important locales. They were on water- and track-based transport routes and had abundant food. At Kāwhia, Ngāti Toa (who descended from the Tainui waka) occupied the northern part of the harbour, while Ngāti Maniapoto settled the southern part. At Mōkau, Ngāti Maniapoto intermarried with Ngāti Tama of Taranaki, though the two groups also fought over land and resources.

The coast between Kāwhia and Mōkau comprises tall, broken cliffs and scattered beaches and was sparsely settled. Kāinga (villages) were established on Lake Taharoa and the Marokopa River in the north, and on the Waikawau and Awakino rivers further south.

There were also settlements further inland. The Waipā River valley was an important area of settlement – Maniapoto himself grew up at Te Kūiti. The confluence of the Whanganui and Ōhura rivers at Taumarunui was another populated place.


The early 19th century was a time of inter-tribal conflict triggered by the arrival of Europeans and access to muskets. War parties moving up and down the North Island travelled through the King Country, mainly down the west coast and along the Mōkau River. In the 19th century Ngāti Maniapoto joined their traditional Waikato allies to fight battles in Waikato against Ngāti Toa and the invading Ngāpuhi, and against Ngāti Tama in Taranaki.

In 1820 thousands of Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto warriors attacked Kāwhia. They defeated Ngāti Toa, led by Te Rauparaha, during a major battle near Lake Taharoa, south of Kāwhia Harbour. This contributed to Ngāti Toa’s migration south along the King Country coast, through Taranaki and eventually to Kāpiti.

Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto were not immune from attack. In 1822 Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto forces were routed by musket-bearing Ngāpuhi in a battle near Pirongia. Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato, who was later to become the Māori king, took his people into the upper Mōkau River district, where they lived for several years.

Birthplace of a king

The second Māori king, Tāwhiao, was born at Ōrongokoekoeā, a Ngāti Maniapoto near the upper Mōkau River, south of modern-day Te Kūiti. Ōrongokoekoeā was well known for its great gong, which was struck in times of war.

In the late 1820s and early 1830s, now armed with muskets, Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto raided Taranaki. These raids devastated the northern Taranaki communities and the people joined Ngāti Toa in Kāpiti. Te Wherowhero made peace with Taranaki in 1836, but this was not recognised by Ngāti Maniapoto, who made their final raid in 1837. By this time, European traders and missionaries had arrived in the region.

Māori and European contact

Early contact

Early contact between Māori and Europeans in the King Country occurred from the late 1820s on the coast. In the early 1830s flax traders Thomas Ralph and Amos Kent, employees of Sydney-based merchant Joseph Montefiore, worked in Mōkau and Kāwhia respectively. New Plymouth traders made periodic trips to Mōkau.

Trade interruptions

Flax trader Thomas Ralph, who was based at Mōkau, was caught up in inter-tribal conflict in 1832. A war party from Aotea Harbour (north of Kāwhia Harbour) travelled down to Mōkau and found it almost empty, most of the people having gone south to fight Ngāti Tama in Taranaki. Ralph’s house was ransacked and he was taken back up north by the invaders. He was rescued by fellow trader Amos Kent and relocated his trading activities to Tolaga Bay on the East Coast.


In the early 1830s Wesleyan Methodist missionaries established mission stations in Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto territories, at the request of Waikato Māori. The first in the King Country was at Kāwhia in 1834. This was followed by two more on the Kāwhia Harbour, one on the upper Mōkau River and one at Mōkau itself.

A Lutheran mission station operated at Motukaramū, also on the upper Mōkau River.

Early settlers

Few Europeans settled permanently in the King Country until the late 19th century. Most of those who settled before then married Ngāti Maniapoto women and were absorbed into the iwi. Early settlers whose descendants remained in the King Country in the 21st century included Louis Hetet, William Turner, William Searancke, Nathaniel Barrett, Thomas Anderson and Robert Ormsby.

Sign here please

A small number of Ngāti Maniapoto Māori signed the Treaty of Waitangi. The missionary John Whiteley collected 10 signatures at Kāwhia between April and September 1840. The Manukau–Kāwhia copy of the treaty, as it is known, is the only surviving copy which has the signature of the colonial secretary, Willoughby Shortland, on it. In total, 540 Māori signed the treaty.

Land sales

Before 1840 the only land sales in the King Country took place around Kāwhia. Land was sold to missionaries and settlers.

The government bought four blocks of land totalling about 27,300 hectares around Mōkau and Awakino between 1854 and 1857. Mōkau’s harbour and proximity to New Plymouth made it an attractive settlement prospect. Further north, around 2,400 hectares on the coast south of Albatross Point was purchased during this period.

These transactions existed on paper only for over two decades. Ngāti Maniapoto’s involvement in the King movement and growing resistance to land sales from the late 1850s made European settlement of the land impossible at the time. The blocks were not even surveyed until the 1880s.


Ngāti Maniapoto communities were skilled traders and incorporated the European farming techniques, animals and plants introduced by traders, settlers and missionaries into their local economy. In 1846 missionary Cort Schnackenberg wrote: ‘The people of Waikawau and Mangungu [north of Mōkau) are so much engaged in trading that I hardly ever meet them at home.’1

Some Māori learned to read and write at mission schools, and Christianity had a lasting impact, but Schnackenberg worried that Māori were not undergoing wholesale conversion. The 1860s wars between Māori and the colonial government in Waikato and Taranaki, followed by land confiscation in these regions, spelled the end of missionary influence in the King Country.


Ngāti Maniapoto were strong supporters of the Kīngitanga (King movement), a pan-tribal grouping based in Waikato territory. The Kīngitanga promoted Māori unity, authority and an end to land sales through the establishment of a Māori monarch. Ngāti Maniapoto hapū met at Haurua, near Ōtorohanga, in 1857, where they endorsed the choice of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero of Waikato as king. This meeting was later called Te Puna o te Roimata – the wellspring of tears – referring to the troubled times that followed.


Conflict over land and authority led to war between Māori and the government in Taranaki in 1860, and in Waikato, which was invaded by government forces in 1863. Ngāti Maniapoto fought in both wars alongside Taranaki and Waikato iwi. No fighting occurred in Ngāti Maniapoto territory.

In 1864 Kīngitanga forces led by Rewi Maniapoto of Ngāti Manaipoto were defeated at Ōrākau, near Kihikihi. Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, and some of his people retreated south of the Pūniu River, beyond the ancient aukati (boundary) between Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto. They were hosted in Ngāti Maniapoto territory until the early 1880s.

    • Quoted in Evelyn Stokes, Mokau: Māori cultural and historical perspectives. Hamilton: University of Waikato, 1988, p. 89. Back

Te Rohe Pōtae

Māori control

The government did not pursue the Māori king beyond the aukati (boundary), and no land within Ngāti Maniapoto territory was confiscated. These lands were largely off-limits to the government and settlers until the early 1880s. A small number of Europeans who entered the territory unauthorised were expelled or killed.

The King movement existed unchallenged within its central North Island stronghold. Native Minister Donald McLean agreed that Māori fugitives would not be pursued there. The most famous of these was the rebel leader and prophet Te Kooti, who lived at Te Kūiti from 1873 to 1883 and then at Ōtewa (south-east of Ōtorohanga) until 1893.

Contact with the outside world did not cease altogether. Māori traded across the aukati – many moved closer to the northern boundary so they could trade more easily with European towns such as Alexandra (present-day Pirongia). Government officials and envoys made occasional visits.

Hat authority

While the name ‘Te Rohe Pōtae’ is best known as applying to the King Country, it was also used elsewhere to mean autonomous Māori land. ‘Te Rohe Pōtae o Tūhoe’ referred to Tūhoe tribal land beyond a confiscation line in the eastern Bay of Plenty in the late 1860s. Tūranganui (Gisborne) Māori also spoke of the concept in the 1850s. The head is sacred to Māori, and the idea that the ‘pōtae’ (hat) related to authority over land was derived from the crown worn by Queen Victoria – one of the symbols of her authority.


From the 1860s Ngāti Maniapoto territory was called the King Country or ‘the King’s country’ by Europeans. While this described Tāwhiao’s temporary (though lengthy) place of residence, it ignored Ngāti Maniapoto’s position as tangata whenua. It would be more accurate to call Waikato the king’s country.

King Tāwhiao is reputed to have conferred the name Te Rohe Pōtae, loosely translated as ‘the area of the hat’, on the land in the late 1870s when he threw a hat down on a map. Ngāti Maniapoto leader Wahanui Huatere has also sometimes been identified as the person who coined this name. ‘Te Rohe Pōtae’ came to be used by Pākehā as well as Māori. The aukati (boundary) between Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto was along the Pūniu River.


In the 1870s the government tried to persuade Waikato and Ngāti Maniapoto leaders to allow European settlement in Te Rohe Pōtae. Premier George Grey and Native Minister John Sheehan both met with King Tāwhiao and Ngāti Maniapoto chiefs with a view to achieving this goal, but their negotiations failed.

Changing opinions

Sheehan nonetheless sensed some interest within Ngāti Maniapoto in opening up their land. The tribe wanted to harness the economic potential of the land and protect their customary interests in case rival claimants applied to have title determined by the Native Land Court. They wanted to lease rather than sell land to settlers. A few Europeans were now permitted to settle in the area – the first was Alexander Bell at Taumarunui in 1874.

King Tāwhiao did not want to negotiate with the government until it guaranteed Māori autonomy over the land. Tactical differences between Ngāti Maniapoto and Tāwhiao saw the government negotiate with Ngāti Maniapoto chiefs alone.


In 1880 the government gained a toehold when it purchased land at Kāwhia originally bought by a European settler before 1840. From 1882 streets were laid out, buoys fixed in the water and beacons placed on the land. Waikato Māori were at first angered by these developments, which occurred without their knowledge, but accepted them after discussions with Native Minister John Bryce.

The land

The authors of the 1883 petition eloquently expressed the importance of the land above all other considerations: ‘What possible benefit would we derive from roads, railways and Land Courts if they became the means of depriving us of our lands? We can live as we are situated at present, without roads, railways, or Courts, but we cannot live without our lands. We are not oblivious of the advantages to be derived from roads, railways, and other desirable works of the Europeans. We are fully alive to these advantages, but our lands are preferable to them all.’1

1880s negotiations

In 1882 Ngāti Maniapoto agreed to a survey along the proposed route of the main trunk railway line through Te Rohe Pōtae. In return they wanted the government to agree to various proposals. Some of these were made in an 1883 petition by Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa and Whanganui tribes, who banded together to protect their interests in the western hill country. The petition requested that the Native Land Court not operate in Te Rohe Pōtae, that Parliament pass a special law to prevent the land from ever being sold, and that iwi be allowed to fix the boundaries of – and tribal boundaries within – the area. The area described in the petition was about 142,000 hectares.


The government did not agree to these requests. Individual claimants began making applications to the Native Land Court and the first court hearing was in 1886. The court then determined boundaries. An ‘official’ Rohe Pōtae (also known as the Aotea block) of 78,000 hectares, belonging to Ngāti Maniapoto alone, was created by the court. The other three iwi and the remaining land were dealt with separately.

Secret sales

Some early land sales by Māori to government agents were conducted in secrecy for fear of incurring tribal leaders’ wrath. In 1890 an agent wrote that ‘the two who just disposed of their interests … were fully a fortnight after discussing the matter with me, before they could screw up their courage to sell, and, instead of coming to me in the day time they waited upon me at 9 p.m … having ridden 12 miles since sundown … and returned that night least any of the local natives should see them and surmise that they had been selling land.’2

The court subdivided the Aotea block from 1888. The government had sole purchasing rights and government agents started buying individual land shares in 1890.

Some agreements were reached. At Ngāti Maniapoto’s request the region was made ‘dry’ – the sale of liquor was prohibited. Māori fugitives – including Te Kooti – sheltering within Te Rohe Pōtae were pardoned in 1882.

    • Quoted in Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1883, J-1, p. 1. Back
    • Quoted in Alan Ward, A show of justice: racial ‘amalgamation’ in nineteenth century New Zealand. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1995, p. 299. Back

Population and society

Significant European settlement of the King Country happened much later than in most other parts of New Zealand. It was one of the least accessible parts of the North Island, and had few settlers before it was closed to Europeans in the 1860s. The opening of the Rohe Pōtae 20 years later made European settlement possible on a much larger scale than previously.

Population report

In the 1880s government surveyor Lawrence Cussen tried to estimate the Māori population of Te Rohe Pōtae. He found this difficult because, as he wrote, ‘natives travel about so much – attending meetings, Native Land Court etc …’1 Cussen noted that many of the younger people left their homes to build railway lines and roads, and dig kauri gum in Hauraki.

19th century

European settlement proceeded slowly after Te Rohe Pōtae was opened because most Māori were reluctant to sell land to the government, and because construction of the railway line south of Te Kūiti was slow. The European population grew from 362 in 1886 to 427 in 1891 and 754 in 1896. Including Māori (who were recorded by a somewhat unreliable separate census), the region’s population was around 3,200 in 1896.

New growth

The total population grew more rapidly in the early 20th century, from 5,475 in 1901 to 27,086 in 1926. During this period more land was made available for European settlement and the main trunk railway line was completed.

Slower growth

In the 1920s soil erosion became a problem and land that was difficult to farm was abandoned in some areas. Prices for pastoral products were sluggish, and fell sharply in the early 1930s. While the population continued to grow – to 31,411 in 1936 – the rate of increase slowed markedly. A 4% drop between 1936 and 1945 was offset by renewed growth (mostly in the towns) after the Second World War. By 1961 the region’s population was 38,916.


The population declined thereafter. It dropped by one-third between 1961 and 2013, when it was 25,938. Like other rural areas, the King Country was affected by periods of falling wool prices and weakening meat prices, and by out-migration.

Pine planting in Pureora State Forest stopped in the 1950s and coal mines and sawmills closed in the succeeding decades. The region did not have a strong enough manufacturing base to offset weakening primary-sector industries and related population decline. Developments in farm technology meant less labour was needed. Because the region had relatively small towns and no cities, population-based government spending was limited.


The European population probably overtook the Māori population by 1906. Just over a century later, in 2013, 71.6% of the King Country population identified as European – slightly lower than the national figure of 74%. Māori made up 36.4%, more than double the national figure of 14.9%. Pacific people comprised 2.9% and Asian people 2.3% of the regional population. 

Dry area

In 1884 the government made the King Country a ‘dry’ area at the request of Ngāti Maniapoto leaders. This meant liquor could not be legally sold. The people were by no means teetotallers – sly-grogging (illegal liquor manufacturing for sale) was widespread and drinkers pooled money to bring in liquor for personal use from outside the dry area (which was legal). Chartered clubs could obtain liquor licences from 1946 and prohibition was lifted in 1954.

Booze smuggling

Alcohol intended for resale was smuggled into the King Country in creative ways. In Ōngarue, local legend tells that special containers were made to fit inside horse collars that were sent to Auckland by train for ‘repair’. The collars were returned with the containers filled with whisky – and the police were none the wiser.

Iwi authority

The Maniapoto Maori Trust Board, formally established by an act of Parliament in 1988, is the King Country’s main iwi authority. The board maintains a roll of tribal beneficiaries whom it represents on matters that affect their welfare.

Other iwi have interests in the King Country. Ngāti Manunui (a hapū of Ngāti Tuwharetoa) has a marae at Kākahi, and hapū of Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi (a Whanganui iwi) have a number of marae in Taumarunui.

Treaty claims

Ngāti Maniapoto and other King Country iwi have filed a series of claims with the Waitangi Tribunal. These were grouped together as the Te Rohe Pōtae District Inquiry, which was in its final phase in 2015.

    • Quoted in Evelyn Stokes, Mōkau: Māori cultural and historical perspectives. Hamilton: University of Waikato, 1988, p. 163. Back

Farming, forestry and mining

The government ‘opened’ land for farming settlements from the early 1890s. Much of this land was initially leased by Māori rather than sold. Māori also developed farms. Returned servicemen were settled on farms after both world wars.

Farm types

Pastoral farming was the main form of agriculture. Sheep predominated, followed by dairy cows and beef cattle. Dairy farms were established where the land was flat enough, while sheep and cattle were farmed on hillier country.

Agricultural processing

Dairy factories opened in the King Country from the early 1900s. The smaller factories closed as road transport improved in the 1920s and 1930s – milk could be taken to larger, more advanced factories further afield. After the Second World War processing was concentrated in these larger factories, and eventually moved out of the region altogether. In 2011 the closest factories were in Taranaki and Waikato. Freezing works were located in Te Kūiti and Benneydale.

Farming problems

Forests were burned by early settlers to create farmland. The ash improved the fertility of the soil, but this boost was temporary. Poor fertility, the enlistment of farmers for the First World War, an economic slump in the early 1920s and the depression of the 1930s led to widespread reversion of farmland to scrub and bush.

Local ailment

Bush sickness had a number of local names. The King Country’s version – Mairoa dopiness or disease – referred to the settlement of Mairoa, south-west of Te Kūiti, where the problem was particularly bad. It was also known as Morton Mains disease in Southland and the Glenhope ailment in Nelson.

Another problem was ‘bush sickness’. Animals which grazed on the volcanic pumice soils common in the region wasted away and died unless they were moved to pasture growing on different soil. The cause – cobalt deficiency – was discovered in 1935.

Māori farming schemes

From the late 1920s the government provided Māori land owners with funds to develop their holdings into farms. Such assistance had previously been available only to European farmers. At Waimiha, north-east of Taumarunui, for example, dairy farms of around 150 hectares were established in the 1930s. Some were later sold and others consolidated into larger holdings.

Farming success

By the Second World War, superphosphate fertiliser (with cobalt added) was widely applied to farmland, which resolved soil fertility and mineral-deficiency problems. The Land Development Branch of the Department of Lands and Survey brought reverted farmland back into production. After the Second World War returned servicemen were settled on the farms. From the 1950s aerial fertiliser topdressing significantly increased farm productivity.


Kahikatea (white pine) was exported from Kāwhia from the 1840s until the region was closed to Europeans in the 1860s.

Commercial sawmilling operations were established after the main trunk line reached Ōtorohanga in 1887. Most were small operations serving the local market. However, one of the largest sawmilling businesses in New Zealand, Ellis and Burnand, operated in the King Country.

Taumarunui became the regional sawmilling centre after the railway reached the town in 1903, and the industry developed further once the entire line was completed in 1908.

Mill townships such as Mangapēhi and Ōngarue were bustling places when the mills were operating. Sawmilling provided a livelihood for many King Country residents and the sounds and smells of the mills were a distinctive part of everyday life.

Milling of indigenous timber peaked in the 1950s. In the later 20th century timber supplies were much diminished, and the small mills which had characterised the industry closed. In the late 1970s state-owned forests such as Pureora were protected for scientific and environmental reasons. Logging in Pureora ceased permanently in 1982.

Exotic forests

Exotic forests (mainly radiata pine) were established by the government Forest Service at Erua in 1930 and Pureora in 1949. By the 1970s large stands of exotic trees had been established in the vicinity of Pureora. In the 2000s most of the exotic forests were in the east of the region, around Pureora and Benneydale.

Coal spotter

Ernst Dieffenbach, the naturalist for the New Zealand Company, was probably the first European to note the existence of coal at Mōkau. Dieffenbach travelled there in 1840 during a trip along the west coast of the North Island and into the volcanic region in the interior.


Coal deposits were observed in the sedimentary rocks around Mōkau in 1840. Extraction began in the 1880s and continued around Ōhura until 1990, when the last mine of the Waitewhena coalfield closed. Further north, coal was mined at Āria and Benneydale. The Benneydale mine was worked from 1931 to 1962, and a new part of the seam was mined on a smaller scale between 1978 and 1998.

Ironsand has been mined at Taharoa, near Kāwhia, since 1972.

Limestone extraction

High-grade limestone deposits are located in the northern King Country. The first limestone quarry was opened near Te Kūiti in 1898. Lime was used for agricultural purposes and demand grew with European settlement, leading to more quarries opening in the district.

In the 2000s there were major limestone processing plants near Te Kūiti and Ōtorohanga. Limestone was also taken from the Te Kumi quarry, near Te Kūiti. A limestone and serpentine quarry was located at Āria.

Transport and infrastructure

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.

Government and politics

Early government

During the period of provincial government (1853–76) most of the King Country was within the Auckland province. Parts of the southern and south-western areas were in Wellington and Taranaki provinces respectively.

European settlers were very few in number. There were no government officials, so provincial affiliations were nominal. The closure of the region to Europeans following the Waikato war in 1864 underlined this point.


The whole of New Zealand – even areas beyond the reach of the government, such as the King Country – was divided into counties in 1876. The King Country was covered by Kāwhia county and parts of West Taupō, Taranaki and Wanganui counties. The number of counties increased as the European population grew – Awakino county was cut out of Kāwhia county in 1904, and Waitomo county out of Kāwhia and Awakino in 1905. Ōhura county was created out of Waitomo county in 1908, and Kaitīeke county out of West Taupō county and Waimarino county (part of Wanganui) in 1910.

The counties were altered again in the early 1920s. Awakino and West Taupō counties were abolished, and Ōtorohanga and Taumarunui counties were created. Waitomo and Kāwhia were retained but altered, while Ōhura and Kaitīeke were retained unaltered.

Gone to the dogs

During Taumarunui’s period as a native township (1903–10), the council was unable to raise loans to carry out development work. In 1906 Taumarunui’s only income was from dog licences.

Native townships

In 1903 the existing townships of Kāwhia, Ōtorohanga, Te Kūiti and Taumarunui were designated native townships. The intention was to speed up the rate of European settlement. This status allowed the government to proclaim new towns on Māori land and lease sections to Europeans. After pressure from settlers, the law was amended in 1910 so town sections could be sold.


Taumarunui and Te Kūiti became boroughs (self-governing towns) in 1910 after both reached the required 1,000 residents. Ōtorohanga’s smaller population meant that it did not follow them until 1952. Kāwhia, Ōhura and Manunui became town districts (at least 500 residents) with autonomy from their counties.

Town booster

When Te Kūiti became a borough in 1910, the King Country Chronicle published this boosterish doggerel: ‘Ho, Te Kuiti has a Mayor / Say the word and hold your breath / From the Waipa right to Taupo / She’s the greatest and the best / From the great majestic river / That all nations flock to see / Westward to the rolling hills / Te Kuiti is the town to be.’1


In 1956 Kāwhia, Ōhura and Kaitīeke counties were abolished and their territories merged into Ōtorohanga and Waitomo (Kāwhia) and Taumarunui (Ōhura and Kaitīeke). In the late 1970s Te Kūiti borough and Waitomo county merged to form Waitomo district, and Ōtorohanga borough and county formed Ōtorohanga district. The three town districts were abolished – Kāwhia and Ōhura were absorbed into Ōtorohanga and Taumarunui counties respectively, while Manunui merged with Taumarunui borough.

After major local government reform in 1989, the region had three local councils. Waitomo and Ōtorohanga remained district councils, while Taumarunui borough and most of Taumarunui county were absorbed into the new Ruapehu District Council. Waitomo and Ōtorohanga came within the Waikato Regional Council, and most of Ruapehu was within the Manawatū–Whanganui region administered by Horizons Regional Council.

In 2004, Waitomo and Ōtorohanga voters rejected a Local Government Commission proposal to amalgamate the two districts.

Parliamentary electorates

Most of the King Country was covered by the Waitomo (1919–72), King Country (1972–96) and Taranaki–King Country (from 1996) electorates. These electorates have a long tradition of returning conservative candidates – the National Party has held the seats since its foundation in 1936.

The Taumarunui district has been covered by a number of different electorates. Well-known Labour politician Frank Langstone represented Taumarunui between the 1920s and the 1940s, when it was part of the Waimarino electorate. The various electorates have returned both Labour and National candidates since the Second World War. The Te Tai Hauāuru Māori electorate (previously Western Māori) covers the King Country.

The most prominent politician associated with the King Country is Jim Bolger, National MP for King Country and then Taranaki–King Country from 1972 to 1998, who was prime minister from 1990 to 1997.

Health and education

In the 2000s the King Country was mainly serviced by Waikato Hospital in Hamilton. Rural hospitals with more limited services were located in Te Kūiti and Taumarunui.

In 2011 there were 49 schools in the King Country. Secondary schools were located in Ōtorohanga, Te Kūiti, Piopio and Taumarunui. Te Wharekura o Oparure in the Waitomo district was the only school in the region catering for students of all ages.

    • Quoted in Dick Craig, Te Kuiti golden jubilee, 1910–1960. Te Kūiti: Te Kuiti Jubilee Committee, 1960, p. 9. Back

Tourism, recreation and sport

First European explorers

Naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach travelled to Mōkau from Taranaki in January 1840. Other early European visitors to the region included missionary Richard Taylor and future politician Donald McLean in 1845, and geologist Ferdinand Hochstetter in 1859.

The first

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 once again explore the region. British traveller James Kerry-Nicholls traversed what he somewhat romantically described as the ‘forbidden land’ in 1883.2 Dunedin photographer Alfred Burton accompanied surveyor John Rochfort and artist Edward Payton on a tour of the region in 1885, taking about 150 photographs of the land and the people. These are a significant record of life there at the time.

Waitomo Caves

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 living in the cave 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 between 1920 and 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.

Mt Ruapehu

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 Tongariro hotel followed in 1929, providing accommodation for alpine enthusiasts and tourists unwilling to sleep rough in huts. The Whakapapa skifield 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 colliers which plied the river. Tourists began their Whanganui River cruises at Taumarunui once 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 through which the stream flows 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 in 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 Heartland Championship, a competition for semi-professional provincial unions. King Country won the second-tier Lochore Cup in 2015. Colin Meads, one of New Zealand’s greatest 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. He gave his name to the trophy awarded annually to the winner of the Heartland Championship.


Sheep shearing is a sport as well as an essential rural service and source of income. 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.

    • Quoted in A. G. Bagnall, ‘Alexander Turnbull’s first book.’ Turnbull Library Record 11, no. 2 (October 1978), p. 73. Back
    • J. H. Kerry-Nicholls, The King Country or, explorations in New Zealand: a narrative of 600 miles of travel through Maoriland. Christchurch: Capper, 1974 (originally published in 1884), p. 16. Back
    • Quoted in Margaret McClure, The wonder country: making New Zealand tourism. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2004, p. 108. Back

Arts, culture and heritage


Ngāti Maniapoto writer, genealogist and King movement advisor Pei Te Hurinui Jones lived in Taumarunui. He recorded Tainui tribal genealogies and stories and collaborated with Apirana Ngata on the renowned collection of songs Nga moteatea. Jones’s history of Tainui, Nga iwi o Tainui, was published posthumously in 1995.

F. L. Phillips, who lived in Ōtorohanga, compiled Nga tohu a Tainui / Landmarks of Tainui, a two volumes on Tainui historic places with a strong focus on the King Country.

Ruth Park, Mary Scott, Helen Wilson and Frank Sargeson all wrote about King Country life in their published works. Farming on the hill country is a prominent theme for Scott, Wilson and Sargeson. The protagonist of John Mulgan’s novel Man alone (1939) spent time in the King Country.


Artist Peter McIntyre, best known as New Zealand’s official war artist during the Second World War, owned a holiday cottage in Kākahi, south-east of Taumarunui. Inspired by the rugged landscape and the district’s small communities, he painted the volcanic cones, native bush, rivers, farming scenes and local people. These appeared in his books Peter McIntyre’s New Zealand (1964) and Kakahi New Zealand (1972).

Rangimārie Hetet of Ngāti Maniapoto was a distinguished practitioner of traditional Māori weaving. She began teaching women to weave in the early 1950s and went on to exhibit her work throughout New Zealand and internationally. Many honours were bestowed upon her and she became Dame Rangimārie in 1992. Her daughter Diggeress Te Kanawa was also an expert weaver.

Green eyes

Big-city fashion designers were taken aback when Taumarunui designer Michael Mattar won his first major award in 1968. Later in life, Mattar remarked that ‘the jealousy was terrible. Those Auckland designers just hated it that a country boy from Taumarunui could have beaten them. One even came up to me and accused me of bribing the judges.’1


Women’s fashion designer Michael Mattar grew up in Taumarunui and lived and worked there until his death in 2004. He opened Michael Mattar Haute Couture in the town’s centre in 1963 and achieved national fame in 1968 when he won the supreme award at the New Zealand Fashion Showcase. After this, women from around the country flocked to Taumarunui to have dresses designed and made by Mattar. International visitors also patronised his boutique.

Māori places of importance

Evidence of Māori settlement – , villages and middens (ancient rubbish heaps) – are found in archaeological sites throughout the King Country. Many sites have been recorded, particularly along the Mōkau River and around Kāwhia.


Well-known transgender person and one-time Wellington mayoral candidate Carmen Rupe grew up on a farm near Taumarunui and in the town itself. She wrote in her 1988 autobiography that ‘the centre of my world was my grandfather’s farm at the end of a dirt road. The town of Taumarunui, a long walk away, with its railway, post office, banks, shops, schools, hotels, boarding houses and picture houses, was the focus for most of our off-the-farm entertainment.’2

Maketū marae in Kāwhia is celebrated as the final resting place of the Tainui waka (canoe). The town’s Methodist church was built by students of the Tūrangawaewae Carving School (founded by Tainui tribal leader Te Puea Hērangi) in 1934 to commemorate the centenary of the Methodist mission and church in Kāwhia.

Māori leader Te Kooti and his followers built the wharenui (meeting house) Te Tokanganui-a-Noho in what became Te Kūiti, in 1873 after finding sanctuary in the region. He gifted it to Ngāti Maniapoto shortly before receiving a government pardon in 1883. Located in the centre of the town on State Highway 3, the wharenui is one of 42 Ngāti Maniapoto marae in the King Country.

European heritage

Many of the King Country’s European heritage sites are related to the railway line. Original railway stations are still standing in some places, including Ōtorohanga, Te Kūiti, Taumarunui and National Park. The main trunk line itself (including viaducts) is recognised as an important heritage site.

In addition to altering the natural landscape, sawmillers left behind evidence of their work in the form of buildings and milling structures. New Zealand’s sole surviving complete native-timber sawmill is located near Waimiha, a rural settlement north of Taumarunui.

Two of the government’s early tourist hotels are in the King Country. The Waitomo Caves Hotel (1908) sits on a ridge above the glow-worm caves, and the Chateau Tongariro (1929) is on the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu.

Museums and historical societies

Museums are located in Kāwhia, Ōtorohanga, Waitomo, Piopio, Mōkau, Ōhura, Aukope and Taumarunui. Historical societies based in Te Awamutu, Ōtorohanga, Te Kūiti and Waitomo jointly published a journal called Footprints of history between 1988 and 2004.

Ron Cooke published Roll back the years, a journal covering the history of the central and southern King Country, from 1980. The articles were collated in book form by the Taumarunui and Districts Historical Society.

    • Quoted in Lucy Corry, ‘Man for all seasons.’ Waikato Times, 30 August 2003, p. D1. Back
    • Carmen, Carmen: my life as told to Paul Martin. Auckland: Benton Ross, 1988, p. 17. Back

Facts and figures

Land area

  • King Country: 9,550 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km


(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1971–2000)


  • Mean temperature, January: 18.3°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 7.5°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 1,517 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 1,629 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • King Country: 27,225 (2006); 25,938 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013


  • King Country: 71.6%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • King Country: 36.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • King Country: 2.9%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • King Country: 2.3%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • King Country: 0.2%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi

Population of major urban areas, 2013

  • Taumarunui : 4,503
  • Te Kūiti: 4,218

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • King Country: 23.5%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • King Country: 62.6%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • King Country: 13.9%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 20131

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • King Country: 24.5%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Education and training

  • King Country: 8.7%
  • New Zealand: 8.6%

Retail trade

  • King Country: 7.1%
  • New Zealand: 10.1%

Unemployment, 2013

  • King Country: 4.7%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 20122


  • King Country: 2,053,829
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • King Country: 301,169
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • King Country: 297,746
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412
    • Data includes the whole of Ruapehu district. Back
    • Data includes the whole of Ruapehu district. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'King Country region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 May 2024)

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