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Waikato places

by Nancy Swarbrick

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, coastal and inland areas, and other places of interest in Waikato.

Waikato River

At 425 km, the Waikato is the longest river in New Zealand. It begins on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, draining into Lake Taupō and exiting at the north-east. After flowing through a string of hydroelectric dams and passing through lowlands between Cambridge and Mercer, it turns westward, entering the Tasman Sea at Waikato Heads. The Waipā River, which rises in the King Country, meets the Waikato River at Ngāruawāhia.

Significance to Māori

The Waikato River provided physical and spiritual sustenance for Māori living along its banks. The spirits of ancestors were said to mingle with its waters, which were used in rituals. Orators addressed it as having a life-force of its own. It was a source of food, including eels, mullet, smelt and whitebait, and plants like watercress. It was an important waka (canoe) route, especially from the mid-1800s when Māori began taking their farm produce to distant markets. In 1859 scientist Ferdinand Hochstetter called it ‘the Mississippi of the Maoris’. 1

Waikato of a hundred chiefs

A well-known saying about the Waikato River uses taniwha (mythical water spirits) as a metaphor for chiefs: ‘Waikato taniwha rau, He piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha’.2 (Waikato of a hundred taniwha, on every bend a taniwha). This saying relates the power and prestige of the Waikato tribes to that of the river.

In 1993 the Waitangi Tribunal acknowledged that the river was a taonga (treasure) of the tribes of Tainui and Ngāti Tūwharetoa. Ngāti Tūwharetoa has interests in the ‘Taupō waters’, including Lake Taupō and the Waikato River downstream of the lake as far as Huka Falls, while Tainui tribes claim mana (authority) over the rest of the river.

Importance to Europeans

When British troops invaded Waikato in 1863–64, gunboats took supplies, men and equipment upstream, and bombarded Māori that blocked the way.

After militia towns were established, the river became a lifeline for Pākehā settlers. Boats brought supplies up the Waikato as far as Cambridge, and also travelled the Waipā River to Alexandra (now Pirongia). Later, farm produce and coal were taken to markets via the river, and until the mid-1900s it was used to shift road metal and sand.


Farming adversely affected the river. Swamp drainage reduced ponding areas for flood waters, and removal of vegetation increased runoff into the river. The Waikato–Waipā drainage system became overloaded and there were floods in the lower reaches from the late 19th century. The Waikato Valley Authority, set up in 1956 to tackle the problem, constructed flood-control works during the 1960s. Revegetation and creation of reserves in the upper reaches helped reduce erosion and silting of the river from adjacent pumice land.

Hydro schemes

The construction of hydroelectric power stations dramatically changed the river’s flow. By 1970 eight dams formed a staircase profile between Āratiatia and Karapiro. They were Arapuni (1929), Karapiro (1947), two linked dams at Maraetai (1953 and 1970), Whakamaru (1956), Atiamuri (1958), Waipapa (1961), Ōhakuri (1961) and Aratiatia (1964). Some rapids and geothermal features were flooded when the river was dammed, and artificial lakes were created. The Tongariro power scheme, which diverted waters from the Tongariro, Rangitīkei, Moawhango, Whakapapa and Whanganui river catchments to power hydro stations south of Lake Taupō, increased the volume of water in the Waikato River.


Stormwater, phosphate runoff and animal waste are discharged into the river from a catchment area of around 8,800 sq km. The river flow of 233 cubic metres a second dilutes this. However, pollution has hastened the decline in native fish numbers over the past 100 years, and one species, the grayling, has become extinct. Most aquatic plants are now introduced species. The river’s health is of concern to Māori and conservationists, and also to recreational users such as swimmers, kayakers and waterskiers.

Tainui settlement

In 2008 Waikato-Tainui tribes signed an agreement with government to protect the Waikato River for future generations, and this was made law under the Waikato-Tainui Raupatu Claims (Waikato River) Settlement Act 2010. Waikato-Tainui has kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of the river and works in partnership with government and local-government agencies such as the Waikato Regional Council to manage it.

    • Quoted in Evelyn Stokes and Margaret Begg, eds, Belonging to the land – Te hononga ki te whenua: people and places in the Waikato region. Hamilton: Waikato Branch, NZ Geographical Society, 1997, p. 43. Back
    • Quoted in Belonging to the land, p. 37. Back

Waikato Heads to Meremere

Waikato Heads

Headlands at the mouth of the Waikato River, 40 km south-east of the Manukau Harbour entrance. Huge sand dunes cap both heads, and the river estuary is tidal. At Maioro, on the north head, New Zealand Steel mines ironsand for its Glenbrook mill. Sand combined with water travels to the mill through an 18 km underground pipeline.

Māori brought goods along the river in waka (canoes), which they portaged (carried) overland to the Waiuku River and into the Manukau Harbour. Later commercial shipping to and from Waikato passed through the heads, but shifting sandbars halted this in 1955.

Whitebaiting takes place between the heads and Tūākau.

Old man river 

Steel hulks on the banks of the Waikato River south of Mercer are relics of the shipping ventures of Caesar Roose, a lifelong promoter of river transport. For decades until 1976, the steamers, launches and barges of the Roose Shipping Company carried passengers and freight along the Waikato and Waipā rivers. Roose also encouraged shipping trade through Port Waikato, and his company helped build bridges over the Waikato River, including the Caesar Roose Bridge at Mercer. 

Port Waikato

Settlement, first called Putataka, on the southern shore of Waikato Heads, 32 km south-west of Tūākau. In 1839 the Church Missionary Society established a mission station and school there. During the Waikato war of 1863–64 a dockyard serviced British gunboats carrying supplies and troops along the river.

Port Waikato expands in summer with crowds of surfers. Striking limestone outcrops in the hills about 8 km to the south were the setting for Weathertop Hollow in the Lord of the rings film trilogy.

Te Kohanga

Farming locality on the south bank of the Waikato River, 14 km north-east of Port Waikato. In 1853–54, the Church Missionary Society mission school at Port Waikato shifted here to land given by Ngāti Tīpā chief Waata Kūkūtai.


Town with a 2013 population of 4,182, on the north bank of the Waikato River, 9 km south-east of Pukekohe. Tūākau was originally a trading centre for passing waka, but after war broke out in 1863 it was occupied by British troops. They built the Alexandra Redoubt, the outline of which is still visible, on a tall bluff above the river. After the confiscation of surrounding Māori land, Tūākau became a farming service centre.

Onewhero and Pukekawa

After the Tūākau bridge was opened in 1902, Pākehā began farming around the Māori settlements at Onewhero and Pukekawa, 9 and 14 km south of Tūākau across the river. Radiata pine forests were planted in this rugged area in the 1960s and dairying gave way to beef farming. Lifestyle blocks are now common.

In 1970 the bodies of Pukekawa farming couple Jeanette and Harvey Crewe were found in the Waikato River. Following a controversial police investigation, local farmer Arthur Allan Thomas was found guilty of shooting them. He spent nine years in jail, but was pardoned after a commission of inquiry. The true story behind the murders remains a mystery.


Locality 49 km south-west of Tūākau, famed for the 1-km-long Nīkau Cave, which features limestone pillars, stalactites and stalagmites.


Township between the Waikato River and the southern foot of the Bombay Hills, 4 km north-west of Mercer. Originally a Māori village, it became the terminus of the Great South Road, built from Drury in 1862–63. The huge Queen’s Redoubt was constructed as the launching point for the government invasion of Waikato, which began on 12 July 1863 when troops crossed the Mangatāwhiri River 3 km to the south. The redoubt remains are in present-day Pōkeno, which stands near the junction of state highways 1 and 2, and the start of the Waikato Expressway.

The squalid tea of Mercer 

Until 1958 Mercer railway station had refreshment rooms where passengers could purchase and hastily consume pies, sandwiches, cakes and cups of tea served in thick china cups. Poet A. R. D. Fairburn wittily commented on this fare in ‘Note on NZR’:

‘The thought occurs to those who are entrained:
The squalid tea of Mercer is not strained.’1


Settlement on the east bank of the Waikato River, 34 km north-west of Huntly. Named after a British officer mortally wounded at the battle of Rangiriri in 1863, Mercer became a transport hub. In 1875 the railway from Auckland reached Mercer, shortening the two-day journey to Hamilton. People could travel by train instead of coach to Mercer, and then board a riverboat. The Auckland–Mercer section of the railway later became part of the North Island main trunk line. A walkway along the Koheroa ridge to the east traverses 1860s military sites.


Settlement on the east bank of the Waikato River, 30 km north-west of Huntly. A formidable on the hill at Meremere was bypassed when gunboats towing barges loaded with British troops steamed upriver before daylight on 31 October 1863. The British then built a redoubt, the earthworks of which are still visible.

Between 1958 and 1991 a coal-burning thermal power station operated at Meremere, and the associated workers’ village remains. To the south, a drag-car racing strip opened in 1973 and, more controversially, Spring Hill prison was built in 2007.

    • Quoted in Neill Atkinson, Trainland: how railways made New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2007, p. 172. Back

Hūnua to Te Kauwhata

Hūnua Ranges

Steep ranges (rising to 688 m) north of the highway between Mangatāwhiri and Miranda, formed of uplifted blocks of greywacke. They are covered with dense forest and much of the area is now a regional park. It was a refuge for Māori when British troops invaded the Waikato in 1863. Since the 1950s the catchments of the Mangatāwhiri River and the Mangatangi Stream, both tributaries of the Waikato River, have been dammed, making the area a major water catchment for Auckland city.


Farming locality on State Highway 2, 21 km east of Pōkeno. The nearby exotic forest was planted in the 1920s and 1930s by relief workers. During the Second World War there was a conscientious objectors’ detention camp there. Detainees felled trees, and commercial logging began in 1951.

Kōpaku coalfield

Major coal seam near Maramarua. Mining started in the 1800s. In 1947 an opencast mine opened, supplying coal to Meremere thermal power station by an overhead cableway from 1958. When the station closed in 1991 the mine was abandoned. In 2008 Solid Energy announced it would reopen,  but it remained closed in 2015.

Whangamarino Wetland

Second-largest wetland in the North Island, covering 7,290 hectares between Meremere and Te Kauwhata. The Whangamarino Wetland encompasses peat bog, swampland and river systems. The dominant vegetation is mānuka and wire rush, with moss and lichen species. Threatened plants include water milfoil, the swamp helmet orchid (Anzybas carsei), and clubmoss.

Threatened bird species, including the grey teal, the spotless crake, the North Island fernbird and around 25% of New Zealand’s population of Australasian bitterns live in the wetland. Eighteen species of fish include the black mudfish.

In 1961 the lower Waikato–Waipā flood protection scheme caused water levels to drop by more than 1.5 metres. As part of wetland restoration, a weir was constructed on the Whangamarino River in 1989 to maintain minimum water levels. The Department of Conservation controls animal and plant pests, which include the highly invasive alligator weed.

Hapūakohe Range

Mountain range dividing the Waikato basin from the Hauraki Plains. A walkway along its length offers breathtaking views on both sides.

Te Kauwhata

Town 19 km north of Huntly, with a 2013 population of 1,473. From the 1860s farming began in the Waerenga district to the east. The settlement of Te Kauwhata, originally known as Wairangi, grew around a railway station built in the late 1870s. In 1886 trial plantings of exotic trees began nearby, and in 1892 a government research station started. As Te Kauwhata Viticultural Research Station, it carried out horticultural research, focusing on viticulture, until 1992. Vineyards, including Cook’s Landing and Rongopai Wines, were established locally. North of Te Kauwhata is the Hampton Downs motor racing venue.

Lake Waikare

Waikato’s largest lake, south-east of Te Kauwhata, covering 3,442 hectares and discharging into the Whangamarino Wetland. Its level was lowered for flood control purposes, seriously damaging the natural hydrology. Agricultural runoff, vegetation clearance and pest fish have caused poor water quality. Part of the lake is a wildlife reserve.

Travellers’ rest

After European settlement, Rangiriri became a coach stop on the road south from Auckland. The historic Rangiriri tavern, built in 1904, replaced an earlier hotel for travellers. Some motorists still take a refreshment break at Rangiriri, but most drive on by.


Locality 4 km south of Te Kauwhata. One of the fiercest battles of the Waikato war was fought at Rangiriri on 20 November 1863. The built there by Māori to block the British advance was exceptionally strong, and attacking British forces lost many men. Māori defenders, who also suffered heavy losses, surrendered by mistake the following day, under the false impression that a white flag flying from a gunboat meant that the British wanted to negotiate. Part of the pā is now a historic reserve. Some of the British dead are buried in a nearby cemetery. Te Wheoro’s Redoubt – named after its commander, pro-government Māori chief Wiremu Te Wheoro – was built as a British military supply depot after the battle.



Town 34 km north-west of Hamilton with a 2013 population of 6,954. Originally a Māori settlement called Rāhui Pōkeka, Huntly was a military post during the Waikato war and a Pākehā settlement afterwards. It was named after the home town of Scots settler James Henry, postmaster from 1870.

Huntly expanded when commercial coal mining began. In 1874 Captain Anthony Ralph, a former Waikato militiaman who had been granted land nearby, registered the Taupiri Coal Mining Company, and Ralph’s mine opened in 1876. Companies owned by the Ralph family dominated the industry until the 1940s.

Huntly developed as a tight-knit working-class community. Many miners came from the South Island’s West Coast, and the north of England and Scotland. Local Māori also entered the industry in large numbers. Huntly miners stopped work for three months during the 1913 general strike. On 12 September 1914, 43 miners were killed in an explosion in Ralph’s mine.

Brick making began at Huntly in 1884. The dominant firm, the Huntly Brick and Fireclay Company, was established in 1911. After several name changes, it was still operating in the 2010s as Shinagawa Refractories. Many buildings in the town are made of Huntly brick, including the Masonic Lodge, St Paul’s Anglican church, and the former Huntly Hospital, and it is a widely used building material throughout the region.

Fuel for war

Māori used Huntly coal before Europeans arrived, and explorers and missionaries were aware of the existence of coal seams from the 1840s. It has been suggested that Pākehā desire to control this resource was one reason for the invasion of the Waikato in 1863. During the war coal was mined from the banks of the Waikato River near Huntly to fuel the British steam-powered gunboats.

At first coal was mined underground at Huntly, but in 1915 a bridge across the Waikato River gave access to more coal on the west bank, and mining settlements such as Pukemiro, Glen Afton, Rotowaro, Waikōkōwai and Renown were established. Opencast mining began west of Huntly during the Second World War, and an opencast mine also opened on the east bank of the river at Kimihia. As nearby swamps were drained Huntly also became the centre of a farming community.

Huntly thermal power station

New Zealand’s largest power station, on the west bank of the Waikato River at Huntly. Its huge smoke stacks dominate the skyline. Commissioned in 1983, the station belongs to state-owned Genesis Energy. It runs on local coal and gas, and uses water from the Waikato River for cooling.


Principal marae of Ngāti Mahuta, and traditional home of the kāhui ariki – the Kīngitanga royal family. It is at Huntly, on the west bank of the Waikato River. The present king, Tūheitia, lives nearby.


Settlement 18 km south-west of Huntly. Pukemiro was the first coal settlement established on the west bank of the Waikato River, in 1915. A railway line linked Pukemiro (and nearby mining settlements) to Huntly. Mining ceased in 1967.

Glen Afton

Locality 16 km south-west of Huntly. A settlement developed to service two coal mines which opened in 1923. The mines were owned by the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company, which needed coal to power its Waikato dairy factories. The company built a model town, including miners’ houses, a boarding house, school and roads. On 24 September 1939, 11 Glen Afton miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a mine fire.

An opencast mine, opened in 1944, was supplying both the dairy company and the Meremere thermal power station by the 1960s. It closed in 1969.


Locality 11 km south-west of Huntly. Rotowaro was a coal-mining settlement from 1915. In 1930 the Waikato Carbonisation factory was built there to process coal slack into heating briquettes. The ‘Carbo’, as it was called locally, closed in 1987, and is now listed as an industrial heritage site.

In 1979 State Coal Mines announced plans to demolish Rotowaro township to create a huge opencast mine, and by 1987 all the residents were relocated. This caused great bitterness, as many had lived there all their lives. In the 2010s the Rotowaro opencast mine was run by state-owned Solid Energy.



Town 19 km north-west of Hamilton with a 2013 population of 5,127. Ngāruawāhia’s name comes from a 17th-century love story. Te Ngaere, a Waikato chief, and Heke-i-te-rangi, a Ngāti Maniapoto woman, eloped. When their tribes were reconciled at a great feast, Te Ngaere began the festivities by saying, ‘Wāhia ngā rua’ (break open the food pits).

Ngāruawāhia has been an important Māori settlement for centuries. In 1858 the first Māori king, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, was crowned there, establishing his headquarters on a point between the confluence of the Waikato and Waipā rivers.

Ngāruawāhia was occupied by troops after the battle of Rangiriri in November 1863, and was settled by Pākehā in 1864. Renamed Queenstown and then, in 1870, Newcastle, the town became Ngāruawāhia again in 1877.

An important port for steamboats plying the Waipā and Waikato rivers, in the 19th century Ngāruawāhia had a brewery, flour mill, flax mill, several sawmills and brick works. It was suggested that it could become the capital of New Zealand, but any hope faded when its growth stalled during the depression of the 1880s. Industries gradually closed in the 20th century. Many of the town’s workforce staff the Horotiu freezing works further south, or commute to Hamilton.

The first annual Ngāruawāhia Regatta, featuring Māori cultural activities as well as waka (canoe) races, took place in the early 1890s. It is still held in March each year, attracting huge crowds.


After making peace with the government in 1881, King Tāwhiao toured the Waikato region. On this journey he made a prophetic announcement:

Ko Arekahānara tōku hāona kaha
Ko Kēmureti tōku oko horoi
Ko Ngāruawāhia tōku tūrangawaewae.’ 1

(Alexandra (Pirongia) will ever be my symbol of strength of character, Cambridge a symbol of my washbowl of sorrow, and Ngāruawāhia my footstool.)

Tūrangawaewae, which literally means ‘footstool’, can also be translated as ‘a place to stand’. It was the name given to the Kīngitanga marae built at Ngāruawāhia in the 1920s.

Tūrangawaewae marae

Principal marae of the Kīngitanga, at Ngāruawāhia. In 1919 a Kīngitanga parliament house was built in the town, and in 1921 Te Puea Hērangi, grand-daughter of King Tāwhiao, inspired Kīngitanga supporters to build Tūrangawaewae marae. This fulfilled a prophecy of Tāwhiao that one day his people would return to Ngāruawāhia. The main meeting house, Māhinaarangi, was opened in 1929, and another, Tūrongo, in 1938. The Māori king frequently hosts visiting dignitaries there, and the marae complex is occasionally open to members of the public.

Hākarimata Range

Hilly range forming the western rampart of the middle Waikato basin. The name Hākarimata originates in the same feast that gave Ngāruawāhia its name. It refers to the mountain of food prepared for guests – ‘hākari kai mata’. The Hākarimata Scenic Reserve covers 1,850 hectares, and its tracks include the 12-km Hākarimata Walkway. Large beech and kauri tower over the forest canopy, and a strongly scented bush daphne, Alseuosmia quercifolia – unique to central Waikato – is found there.


Locality 6 km north-east of Ngāruawāhia. Hopuhopu was the site of an army camp from 1920, and many soldiers were trained there during the Second World War. In 1993 the land was returned to Waikato-Tainui, who built a complex including the Waikato-Tainui Endowed College and tribal administrative centre.

Taupiri mountain

Peak (288 m) at the junction of the Mangawara Stream and the Waikato River. The special burial ground of Waikato Māori, its summit is reserved for Māori kings and queens. In the 17th century the chief Te Putu had his on Taupiri mountain. After Te Putu was treacherously killed by another chief, Ngātokowaru, he was buried on the mountain and it became tapu (sacred).

Taupiri township

Settlement on the southern side of Taupiri mountain, 8 km north-east of Ngāruawāhia, with a 2013 population of 417. Until the 19th century an important pā, Kaitotehe, once the home of King Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, stood on the other side of the river. Nearby was Benjamin Ashwell’s Church Missionary Society mission station, which operated from 1842 to 1863.

Taupiri was settled by Pākehā in the 1870s, and became a farming centre with flax mills, a sawmill and, later, dairy factories. In the 2010s it has a significant Māori population.

    • Quoted in Michel King, Te Puea: a life. Auckland: Reed, 2003, p. 105. Back

Raglan and the west coast

Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa)

Harbour 50 km south of Port Waikato, 13 km long and 2–3 km wide, with two arms fed by the Waingaro and Waitetuna rivers. Whāingaroa means ‘the long pursuit’, referring to the Tainui waka’s search for its destination. From the late 1700s the Ngāti Māhanga tribe occupied surrounding land.

In the 1820s flax trader John Rodolphus Kent called at the harbour, and in the 1830s it was surveyed by Captain Thomas Wing. Ngāti Māhanga chief Wiremu Nēra Te Awa-i-taia, a Christian convert, supported the establishment of a Wesleyan mission station at Te Horea on the northern shore in 1835–36. It shifted to Nihi Nihi, near present-day Raglan, in 1839.

There was a port from the 1850s, but by the 1970s only cement was landed, and it closed in 1981.

A rocky road 

In 1879 a road, known as the Old Mountain Road, was formed between Raglan and Hamilton. Very winding, with steep gradients, it proved unsuitable for motor traffic so a deviation was constructed from Whatawhata to north of Waitetuna between 1907 and 1913. The road was not properly upgraded until the late 1950s and became a state highway in 1961. 


Town on the southern shore of Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa), with a 2013 population of 2,736. The settlement dates from 1854, when the government began buying land in the area. First called Whāingaroa village, in 1858 it was renamed after Lord Raglan, British commander in the Crimean War. During the Waikato war Te Awa-i-taia protected the settlement, and it was garrisoned by troops. Raglan relied on shipping until adequate roads were developed.

Dairy farming started nearby in the late 1800s, but from the 1930s many dairy units changed to sheep farming, which was more suited to the hilly terrain. Near Raglan, the farming settlements of Te Hutewai, Te Mata, Kauroa and Te Uku emerged.

Raglan supports a commercial fishing industry. A seaside resort for Hamiltonians, it has also been a surfing town since the 1960s. As road improvements have allowed people to live there and commute to Hamilton for work, property prices have boomed.

Te Ākau

Farming district north of Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa). West Waikato lands were confiscated after the Waikato war, but a stretch between the harbour and Port Waikato was returned to Māori who did not fight. The Te Ākau block of over 36,000 hectares was leased by South Island runholders H. C. Young from 1868 and John Studholme from 1874. The station homestead at Te Horea was linked with Raglan by ferry. The station gained a freehold title and was subdivided around 1911.


Locality 30 km north-east of Raglan. In 1885 its thermal springs, long known to Māori, were discovered by Pākehā. A hotel and bathing pools were constructed and the track from Huntly and Ngāruawāhia was upgraded to a road. Travellers arriving by coach went by launch down the Waingaro River and across the harbour to Raglan. People and goods from Raglan travelled the other way. The hotel still stands, and the pools remain a favourite destination for locals.

Beaches south of Raglan

Ngarunui Beach is reached by a track through the picturesque Bryant Memorial Scenic Reserve. Further on, Manu Bay and Whale Bay are among New Zealand’s premier surf locations, with unusual left-hand surf breaks. Beyond Mt Karioi is windswept Ruapuke Beach, which is unsafe for swimming.

Gardens in a gorge

The dramatic Te Toto Gorge begins as a deep-cut stream on the slopes of Mt Karioi, winding down into a semi-circular basin with 60 m basalt cliffs. In the 17th and 18th centuries the area was gardened by Māori, and there are remnants of stone rows, storage pits, terraces and two small

Mt Karioi

Volcanic cone (756 m) south-west of Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa). The mountain’s vegetation has been sculpted by westerly winds. Sailing along the coast, explorers Abel Tasman and James Cook observed Mt Karioi, and Cook named it Woody Head.

Aotea Harbour

Inlet 27 km south of Raglan Harbour (Whāingaroa), an important habitat for sea and shore birds. It was the landing place of the Aotea waka, which brought the ancestors of the Ngā Rauru and Ngāti Ruanui tribes to New Zealand. When they discovered Tainui people in occupation, they travelled south to Taranaki. Ngāti Te Wehi is the local Tainui tribe.

Near Raoraokauere, a Wesleyan mission that operated from 1840 until 1856 is commemorated by a cairn of bricks from the station’s chimney. Aotea Harbour was not heavily settled by Pākehā because of its dangerous bar.

The Aotea Scientific Reserve preserves archaeological sites, including evidence of intensive Māori gardening.

Bridal Veil Falls

Waterfall 4 km south of Te Mata. Its Māori name, Wairēinga, means ‘water of the underworld’. The Pakoka River spills 55 metres over a lip of basalt into a natural amphitheatre. Surrounding forest includes orchids and five species of rātā.


New Zealand’s fourth-largest city, located 129 km south-east of Auckland, with a 2013 city population of 141,612.

Hamilton was established in 1864 by the 4th Waikato militia. Built around two redoubts, on either side of the Waikato River, the town was an administrative and commercial centre and a refuge for outlying settlers in case of renewed war. It was named after Captain J. F. C. Hamilton, a British officer killed at Gate Pā near Tauranga in 1864.

Hamilton was strategically founded near the abandoned Māori village of Kirikiriroa, on the west bank. Remains of other villages on both banks confirm this stretch of river had been well-occupied. There were also large Māori settlements nearby at Te Rapa, Tamahere, Tauwhare, Whatawhata and Horotiu.

Two towns

Divided by the river, which could be crossed only by punt, Hamilton developed as two separate settlements: Hamilton East and Hamilton West. By joining forces they could get a government loan for a bridge, so they combined as one borough in December 1877. The aptly named Union Bridge was completed the following year.

Old Hamilton

In the 1800s Hamilton was a mere village compared with settlements such as Napier, New Plymouth, Whanganui and Nelson. By 1911 its population was 3,542 – a little over half the size of Waihī, then a booming gold town of 6,436 people. Before Waikato dairy farming developed, Hamilton remained small.


One account of the naming of the Eureka estate says that syndicate member William Steele rode out with a group looking for a suitable headquarters, and reaching a hilltop announced ‘Eureka I have found it!’ 1 Another story says the name was made up of letters from the names of all the women in the party. 

On its outskirts were huge swamps, which were drained only slowly. Militia settlers allocated land there usually departed, but some stayed, and farming settlements like Newstead, Tamahere and Matangi developed in the 1870s and 1880s. The Rukuhia estate of 6,000 hectares to the south-west and the Eureka estate of 35,000 hectares to the north-east were gradually subdivided. Tauwhare was surveyed in 1882, and the villages of Eureka and Gordonton grew from the 1890s.


Hamilton’s growth spurt began around the First World War, as it became the transport hub for the region. It was located on the main north–south road, and was also a major river port. From 1916 produce was shipped from Hamilton directly to Auckland via Port Waikato. In 1917 Hamilton absorbed the separate borough of Frankton, an important junction on the main trunk railway line. Branch lines extended from Frankton to Cambridge, Rotorua and Te Aroha. Hamilton’s position as Waikato’s main centre was cemented when an airport, established at Rukuhia in the 1930s, developed after the war. There were 21,982 people by 1945, the year Hamilton gained city status.

From piles to plastics 

Hamilton was the birthplace of some important construction and manufacturing industries. As the city expanded in the 1950s and 1960s, construction firms F.T. Hawkins (now Hawkins Construction) and Brian Perry (now Perry Group) flourished and spread beyond the region. Building on Hamilton’s engineering skill base, Plastic Products, Trigon Plastics, and aluminium manufacturer Ullrich Aluminium also expanded into national and international markets. 

New Hamilton

More tertiary-educated residents arriving in the 1950s and 1960s challenged ‘small town’ views. The hospital employed medically skilled workers, scientists joined agricultural research institutions, the university and teachers’ college attracted academics from around the world, and teachers were recruited by new schools. Branches of government departments opened. A pattern of transience became established, with many people living in Hamilton temporarily. The city’s population had leapt to 63,000 by 1966.

There were only 194 Māori in Hamilton in 1936, 1% of the population of 16,150, but by 1976 over 10% of inhabitants (9,077 of 87,968 people) were Māori. Once a wholly Pākehā town, Hamilton had become a major centre of Māori population. In 2013 one-fifth of Hamilton city’s residents were Māori.

From town to city

Hamilton’s boundaries were extended from the late 1940s and had more than doubled by 1962, a consequence of post-war population growth which surpassed that of other provincial cities. Tall buildings altered the skyline of the west-bank business district. Suburbs including Beerescourt, Melville, Fairfield, Hillcrest and Enderley emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, and Te Rapa, Pukete and Silverdale in the 1960s.

By then there were concerns that Hamilton had turned its back on the river, and the process of developing the riverbanks with walkways began. This continued in the 2000s, and new suburbs spread, particularly to the north and west of the city. In 2011, work began on a ring road around the city to ease traffic congestion. It was expected to be completed in late 2015.

Hamilton’s outskirts

As Hamilton expanded, once-rural settlements such as Rototuna were absorbed. Others such as Tamahere became essentially outlying suburbs of the city. Dairy farms were turned into lifestyle blocks, and horticulture, including blueberry, kiwifruit and asparagus growing, developed.

    • T J Muir, ‘Farming the Eureka landscape,’ in Settling the Waikato and beyond, 2006: proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists 2006 Conference. Hamilton: New Zealand Society of Genealogists, 2006, p. 38. Back

Hamilton east of the river

Memorial Park

Park downstream from Victoria Bridge. In 1864 Hamilton’s first militia settlers landed on this site. On the riverbank is the hulk of the paddle steamer Rangiriri, which brought them upstream. Used by British forces during the Waikato war, it was later a cargo boat. The park and cenotaph were created in memory of First World War soldiers.


Remains of a large Māori fortification beside River Road, upstream from Whitiora Bridge. Miropiko is the best preserved of a number of pā sites on both river banks.



From the 1870s until the mid-20th century, Hamilton East was sometimes known as ‘Irishtown’. A significant number of the militiamen who settled there were of Irish descent, and many other Irish Catholics came to live near the Catholic church and convent.


Hamilton East

Suburb 2 km south-east of the city centre. At its centre is Steele Park, named for militia officer William Steele. It was originally called Sydney Square, after the New South Wales city where members of the 4th Waikato militia enlisted. The oaks around its perimeter were planted in 1889, the silver jubilee of the arrival of militia settlers.

Reminders of a strong Irish Catholic presence include the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which replaced the 1912 church in the 1980s, the convent of the Institute de Notre Dames des Missions and Sacred Heart Girls’ College.

Hamilton bridges

Six bridges across the river link Hamilton East and Hamilton West.

  • The Claudelands combined rail-and-road bridge was built to carry rail traffic only, in 1884. A pedestrian bridge was added in 1908. In 1964, when the railway line across Victoria St was put underground, the rail bridge was converted to a traffic and pedestrian bridge, and a lower-level rail bridge was built alongside.
  • The steel Victoria Bridge, linking Hamilton East with southern Victoria St, was constructed in 1910 to replace the 1878 Union Bridge.
  • Fairfield Bridge, with its gracious concrete arches, opened in 1937. The discovery in 1980 that it had ‘concrete cancer’ prompted extensive repairs.
  • Cobham Bridge opened in 1963 as part of a motorway development linking the central city with State Highway 1 south.
  • Whitiora Bridge, also known as the Boundary Road bridge, opened in 1978 to ease traffic congestion in the city centre.
  • Pukete Bridge opened in 1996, and has become part of the Wairere Drive motorway development through Hamilton’s expanding northern suburbs.

Hamilton Gardens

Public gardens upstream from Cobham Bridge, covering 58 hectares. They were developed from the 1980s in stages, with paradise, productive, cultivar and landscape collections. The much-praised paradise collection includes a Chinese scholar’s garden, an English flower garden, a Japanese garden of contemplation, an American modernist garden, an Italian Renaissance garden and an Indian char bagh garden. A woven Hinuera stone cloak sculpture at the main entrance, ‘Ngā Uri o Hinetuparimaunga’ (earth blanket), honours natural creative processes.

Hayes Paddock


Thanks to Hamilton heritage enthusiasts, an area of state housing in Hamilton East, constructed between 1939 and 1945, has received protection in the city’s district plan. The enclave, known as Hayes Paddock, contains over 200 classic state houses built along seven streets named after governors-general.


Claudelands Reserve

Site of the Claudelands Showgrounds and the Waikato Events Centre, between Heaphy Terrace, Boundary Road and Brooklyn Road. A racetrack was established there in 1885, A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows were held from the 1890s, and winter agricultural shows from the 1960s. In the early 2000s the reserve was being developed to include walks and a wetland area. It abuts Jubilee Park (also known as Claudelands Bush) a remnant of the kahikatea groves that were a reason for the militia settlement’s location. Many of the first houses were built from kahikatea.

Ruakura Research Centre

An AgResearch farm research station, bordering the suburbs of Fairview Downs, Claudelands, Hillcrest and Silverdale. With its rolling green paddocks, Ruakura developed out of a state experimental farm established in 1901. From the 1940s it gained a reputation for research and farmer education programmes. Within its grounds is Waikato Innovation Park, a complex of around 50 agritech and biotech businesses.

University of Waikato

University and teachers’ college campus in the suburb of Hillcrest, south-east of the city centre. It was constructed from 1964 on one of Ruakura’s dairy farm units and land originally reserved for a chest hospital. Park-like grounds, including several artificial lakes, make it New Zealand’s most attractive university campus. The WEL Energy Trust Academy of the Performing Arts, built in 2001, has won several architectural awards.

Hamilton west of the river

Lake Rotoroa

Lake south-west of the city centre, popular for recreation, including yachting. It is also known as Hamilton Lake.

Its margins were planted in exotic trees in the 1920s and 1930s, and it is now encircled by a walkway.

Waikato Hospital

Regional base hospital, located on a hill overlooking Lake Rotoroa. Nearby is Hockin House, built in 1893 for the hospital superintendent and named after later superintendent Munro Hockin.


Locality downstream from Victoria Bridge. River steamers once moored at Ferrybank, and there were freight wharves upstream of the bridge. Ferrybank was planted in trees in the early 1900s, and a band rotunda and rowing club were built.

Shopping and shaking

It’s easy to spot the out-of-town visitors to Centreplace, a large shopping mall in Hamilton’s Victoria St. They look terrified when they hear a loud rumbling underfoot. This comes from the trains passing along the subway, which was built in the 1960s to replace the railway line across Victoria St.

Victoria Street

Hamilton’s main street, once called ‘the golden mile’. Victoria St stretches from Victoria Bridge to beyond the Fairfield Bridge, but the commercial section ends before Whitiora Bridge.

At the Victoria Bridge end, the Waikato Brewery, built in 1930 to replace an earlier structure, once produced the local beer: Waikato Draught. It was run by the Innes family, whose firm constructed a soft-drink bottling plant across the road in the 1950s. Designed by modernist architect Henry Kulka, this factory is now the Meteor Theatre.

Nearby is St Peter’s Anglican cathedral (1926), built over the Hamilton West Redoubt and backing onto the former Hamilton courthouse (1931). Other notable buildings include the Bank of New Zealand (1878), the post office (1901) and the Hamilton Hotel (1923), all now used for different purposes. The historic Municipal Pools, known to generations of Hamilton children as ‘the Munies’, opened in 1912.

Further along Victoria St is Garden Place, carved, after much debate, out of a hill in the late 1930s. Opposite is the Skycity casino, which opened in 2002 behind the former central post office building (1940) with its art-deco dome.

At the northern end, the elegant brick New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company building (1920) recalls the industry on which the wealth of the golden mile was based.

Founders Memorial Theatre

Fine modernist theatre, west of the city centre, built in 1963. The front facade was graced by a fountain, and another ‘dandelion head’ fountain was constructed nearby in 1978, at a time when Hamilton was calling itself ‘Fountain City’.

Waikato Stadium

Sports stadium built on the site of the former Rugby Park, north of Founders Memorial Theatre, in 2002. The stadium can accommodate nearly 26,000 spectators. The home of Waikato rugby, it also hosts other sports and events.

Te Rapa

Suburb 8 km north-west of the city centre. The South Auckland (later Waikato) Racing Club moved there from Claudelands in the 1920s. Te Rapa became the main industrial area in the 1960s, and railway facilities were developed. As part of the 1995 Waikato raupatu (confiscation) settlement, land there was returned to Waikato-Tainui.

The Frankton tornado

A freak weather event devastated the suburb of Frankton in 1948. A major tornado swept through and in 10 minutes killed three people, injured many others and destroyed or damaged up to 150 houses.


Suburb 2 km west of the city centre. After the railway line from Auckland reached Frankton in 1877, a settlement developed. The completion of the main trunk line in 1908 increased Frankton’s strategic importance, and that year it acquired a town board, achieving borough status in 1913. In 1917 Frankton amalgamated with Hamilton, but retained a separate working-class identity. The Railways Department was a major employer, and from 1920 to 1929 the Frankton Junction railway house factory made prefabricated railway houses which were erected throughout New Zealand. The ageing Frankton Junction complex closed in 1975, and Hamilton railway station was built further south.

Temple View

Temple, college and farm complex established in the 1950s by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) south of the city (now within its boundaries). In 2009 the church closed the college. The temple remains a prominent landmark.

Hamilton Zoo

Zoo located north-west of Nawton. It was developed from Hilldale Game Park, established in 1969. In the early 2000s it housed over 400 mammals, reptiles and birds in enclosures modelled on natural habitats.

Taitua Arboretum

Collection of around 1,500 exotic and indigenous tree species covering 20 hectares, located west of Dinsdale. Established by private owners in 1968, in the 2000s it was administered by the Hamilton City Council.

Te Awamutu

Te Awamutu

Town 29 km south of Hamilton with a 2013 population of 10,302. It was originally the site of two important : Ōtāwhao and Kaipaka. The town grew on the site of Ōtāwhao mission station, established by the Church Missionary Society in 1841. During the Waikato war the mission became headquarters for British troops, and three redoubts were built. In 1864, 4,000 troops were based at Te Awamutu.

St John’s Anglican church was built for the mission in 1854. Soldiers killed at the battle of Ōrākau are buried in the churchyard, which contains memorials to both British and Māori combatants. The Te Awamutu District Museum has the best collection of Waikato war artefacts in New Zealand.

Members of the Second Waikato Militia settled in the area, but after British troops left and the militia was disbanded in 1867, the town stagnated. It revived only when the railway line arrived in 1880.

From the 1880s Te Awamutu developed as a farming centre, with large saleyards. The first cooperative commercial dairy factory in the North Island opened there in November 1882, followed by others. In the 2010s the town had a Fonterra dairy factory and two major grain factories.

Te Awamutu became a borough in 1915. It is called ‘Rose Town’ because of its rose gardens, which were established in the 1960s.


Township 12 km north of Te Awamutu, with a 2013 population of 519. Like nearby Ngāhinapōuri, Te Rore and Harapēpē, Ōhaupō was a military post during the Waikato war. It was settled by Bohemian militiamen connected with Pūhoi settlement north of Auckland, and some of their descendants still live there. A redoubt, built in April 1864, was located about 1 km further north.

Peat lakes 

The brown colour of peat lakes is caused by tannin in the surrounding peatlands. Peat lakes in the vicinity of Te Awamutu were formed when the Waikato River changed its course around 19,000 years ago. Water-borne silt and gravel blocked the mouths of valleys, allowing water to build up in the peatlands of the Waikato basin. 

Lake Ngāroto

One of Waikato’s largest peat lakes, north-west of Te Awamutu. It is used for yachting, rowing and kayaking, and a walking track has been developed around it. Native vegetation has been planted around the lake to improve the quality of the water, which has high levels of nutrients, sediment and algae caused by runoff from surrounding farms.


Locality 8 km east of Te Awamutu. During the 1840s and 1950s people of Ngāti Hinetū and Ngāti Apakura, with local Anglican and Catholic missionaries, cultivated wheat, maize and potatoes at Rangiaowhia. Little remains now except the historic St Paul’s Anglican church, built in 1856. During the Waikato war Rangiaowhia was the supply base for Māori fighters. On 21 February 1864 British and colonial troops attacked Māori non-combatants taking shelter there, killing some of them.

Pirongia mountain

The tallest mountain (959 m) in Waikato. It was named Te Pirongia-o-te-Aroaro-o-Kahu (the scented pathway of Kahu) by Tainui ancestress Kahupeka. Following European settlement, low-lying forest was cleared, but Pirongia remained untouched. In 1971 it became a forest park.

A farm walkway 

The Karamū Walkway, which starts at State Highway 23 between Raglan and Hamilton, passes through the Four Brothers and Karamū scenic reserves, and close to the Kāniwhaniwha Scenic Reserve. However, most of its course is through private farmland, and for that reason it is closed during the lambing season in August and September. 

Pirongia mountain has one of the region’s largest areas of forest, with rimu and tawa on lower slopes, and kāmahi, horopito, mountain flax, coprosmas and ferns higher up. New Zealand’s tallest recorded kahikatea tree grows there. It is also home to the rare wood rose (Dactylanthus taylorii), New Zealand’s only completely parasitic flowering plant, which has no leaves and grows partially underground. Tracks lead to the limestone Kāniwhaniwha caves.


Township 13 km north-west of Te Awamutu. First named Alexandra, it was a military post during the Waikato war. In 1864 the Second Waikato Militia built and occupied the Alexandra East and West redoubts, part of a chain of fortifications between Alexandra and Cambridge designed to block possible attack from Māori living south of the Pūniu River. The earthworks of an Armed Constabulary redoubt built in 1872 are well preserved.

In the 1870s Alexandra was the terminus for steamers travelling up the Waipā River. Despite vigorous lobbying by Alexandra residents, the main trunk railway line was constructed through Te Awamutu. This, and reduced river traffic, led to Alexandra’s decline. In 1896 the name was changed to Pirongia to avoid confusion with the Central Otago town.

Kakepuku to Maungatautari


Peak (449 m) south-west of Pirongia mountain. It was named Te Kakepuku-o-Kahu (the hill over which Kahu climbed) by Tainui ancestress Kahupeka, who explored Waikato after the death of her husband. The mountain’s shape explains another popular version of its name, Kakepuku-te-aroaro-o-Kahu (the swollen stomach of Kahu), given by Tainui tohunga Rakataura in honour of his pregnant wife. Tainui tribes occupied Kakepuku for centuries, and there are remains of four under the forest canopy.


Township 4 km south-east of Te Awamutu, with a 2013 population of 1,974. Before the Waikato war, Kihikihi was a Ngāti Maniapoto settlement. Kīngitanga leaders conferred at the meeting house Hui-te-rangiora. In 1894, a memorial was erected in the main street to Ngāti Maniapoto chief Rewi Maniapoto, and he was buried there after his death that year.

In 1864 Kihikihi was garrisoned by the 65th regiment and the 1st Waikato militia. It remained strategically important because of its proximity to the King Country border. During the 1880s it was a construction camp for the main trunk railway. Once the last refreshment stop before the (officially) alcohol-free King Country, Kihikihi has two historic hotels: the Alpha Hotel (1868) and the Star Hotel (1882).


Historic battle site 5 km along the Kihikihi–Arapuni road. By March 1864 the British had control of Waikato, but Rewi Maniapoto led further Māori resistance. A force of 300 Māori built a pā at Ōrākau. It was besieged by nearly 1,500 troops between 31 March and 2 April. Short of water, food and ammunition, the defenders were forced to fire peach stones and fragments of metal and wood. Meanwhile, the troops shelled the pā and began digging a sap – a covered zigzag trench – to try and breach its walls.

On 2 April British commander General Duncan Cameron gave the Māori a chance to surrender. He received the famous reply: ‘E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke!’ (Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever!). Shortly after this, the sap reached the pā and the occupants abandoned it. Many were killed retreating south, and others who were captured, including women, were bayoneted.

The events of Ōrākau were gradually mythologised, and when a monument was erected with much ceremony on the site in 1914, 50 years after the siege, it was Māori heroism rather than British ferocity that was remembered.

Pūniu River

River in the south of Waipā district. The southern boundary of Waikato lands confiscated under the New Zealand Settlements Act 1863, it was a natural barrier between Pākehā settlers to the north, and Waikato tribes taking refuge in the King Country. Although some settlers were afraid of Māori attacking from the south, there are accounts of people travelling and trading across the boundary before 1881, when peace was established.

Suspended mountain

Maungatautari can be translated as ‘suspended mountain’. It is said that the name was given by Tainui tohunga Rakataura, who first saw the mountain rising above the fog that often blankets Waikato.


Ancient volcano dominating the central Waikato basin. Maungatautari has three separate peaks – Maungatautari (797 m), Pukeatua (752 m) and Te Ākatārere (727m) – and a long history of settlement.

The first inhabitants, Ngāti Kahupungapunga, were supplanted by Tainui tribes before the 16th century. These peoples – Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Wairere, Ngāti Hauā and Ngāti Korokī – still own lands on the slopes. Another Tainui tribe, Ngāti Maru, lived at Maungatautari in the 19th century.

Some areas were logged, but regenerated forest includes magnificent groves of mamaku, large rimu and rātā on lower slopes and Hall’s tōtara higher up. The Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust was formed in 2002 to restore forest and reintroduce species. 3,400 hectares is enclosed by a 47-km predator-proof fence, and then all mammalian pests were eradicated. Visitors to New Zealand’s largest mainland sanctuary can encounter kiwi, kākā, takahē, hihi (stitchbirds) and other birds and animals not seen on the mountain for generations.

Wharepapa South

Locality beside the road leading south from Waipā to Taupō. It is a destination for rock-climbing enthusiasts, with challenging climbs including the famous Froggatt Edge.



Town 24 km south-east of Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 15,321. In 1864 the 3rd Waikato militia settled at Cambridge. It was named after Queen Victoria’s cousin, the Duke of Cambridge, then commander in chief of the British army.

Like Hamilton, Cambridge was divided by the Waikato River into two settlements, connected by a punt. The river was bridged by 1871 but, unlike Hamilton, the sides remained administratively separate for nearly 100 years. The south settlement, Leamington, did not amalgamate with Cambridge Borough until 1958.

A tale of two kings

When Cambridge got a new post office in 1908, the arched metal grille over the door commemorated the reigning monarch, King Edward VII. The post office was extended in 1936 and, as it gained another door, a matching grille was made for the new King Edward VIII. A short time later, he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson. The post office, with its two grilles, is unique in New Zealand and probably in the world.

Cambridge began to flourish when first a road and then a branch railway were built from Hamilton. A borough by 1886, it rivalled Hamilton for the position of Waikato’s main town, but was outpaced in the next few decades.

Dairying was the main type of farming in the surrounding district, but sheep farming on the hill country, and horticulture, have become increasingly significant. The most noticeable change since 1945 has been the growth in numbers of thoroughbred racing studs. The success of Cambridge-bred horses and riders is celebrated in the Equine Statue and Equine Stars Walk of Fame on Victoria St.

Thoughtful planting of exotic trees in early days allowed Cambridge to call itself ‘town of trees’ in the late 20th century. It also has some picturesque timber buildings, including St Andrew’s Anglican church (1881) and the Cambridge Primary School (1879). The imposing town hall (1909) is bordered by Jubilee Gardens, which contain a clock tower and war memorial.


Farming locality 4 km north-west of Cambridge. The Cambridge Co-operative Dairy Company, established in 1901, had five factories in the rich dairying area around Cambridge by the 1950s, including one at Hautapu. In 2010 Fonterra owned a huge, modern dairy plant there.

Te Miro

Farming locality 15 km north-east of Cambridge. Te Miro estate was developed by the government after the First World War to settle returned servicemen. Te Miro Scenic Reserve has tawa, rimu, pukatea, rewarewa and, of course, miro trees.

Te Tāpui Scenic Reserve

Large reserve south-east of Te Miro, including two old volcanic cones, Te Tāpui (495 m) and Maungakawa (494 m). The Piakonui Stream, which drains the thickly forested reserve, is a tributary of the Piako River. A loop track leads to a lookout tower with views to the Kaimai Range and Firth of Thames. In the early 1890s King Tāwhiao established his parliament house in this area, but it burned down in 1908.

Maungakawa Scenic Reserve

Reserve north-east of Cambridge. The name can be confusing, as Maungakawa mountain is actually located in Te Tāpui Scenic Reserve. Maungakawa Scenic Reserve, established in 1963, got its name because it was once part of the large Maungakawa estate. The hill here, Pukemako, is also known as Sanatorium Hill. From the summit there are panoramic views. The Gudex Memorial Park, within the reserve, commemorates the conservation work of M. C. Gudex.

In 1868 surrounding land was purchased from Māori owners by Daniel Thornton, and after his death a substantial residence was built on Pukemako. Between 1903 and 1922 it was a government-owned tuberculosis sanatorium, Te Waikato.

Lake Karapiro

Artificial lake of 8 sq km, formed behind the Karapiro hydro dam, south-east of Cambridge on the Waikato River. Beneath its waters lies the Horahora power station, completed in 1913 to supply the Waihi Gold Mining Company in the Bay of Plenty. It was flooded in 1947 during the process of bringing the Karapiro dam into use. Lake Karapiro is used for rowing, water-skiing and powerboating. It has been the venue for national and international competitions, and hosted the 2010 World Rowing Championships.



Town 32 km north-east of Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 6,993. Auckland entrepreneurs Thomas and Samuel Morrin bought around 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) and in 1874 established an estate called ‘Lockerbie’, planning the town of Morrinsville to house their workers. Lockerbie passed to the government in the 1890s, and land around Morrinsville was subdivided for closer settlement.

A buzz about Beeville 

One of New Zealand’s oldest anarchist communes, Beeville, began near Morrinsville in the late 1920s or early 1930s and lasted until 1973. Its members espoused eastern religious ideas, vegetarianism, resistance to military service and sexual freedom long before the hippie communes of the 1970s. 

Morrinsville became important because it was a junction for roads and railway lines. The main highway linked Morrinsville with the Coromandel Peninsula, while other roads led to farming settlements such as Mangateparu, Tauhei, Tāhuna and Hoe-o-Tainui. A railway line from Hamilton opened in 1884. More lines were completed north-east to Te Aroha in 1886 (extended to Thames in 1898 and Waihī in 1905) and south-east to Rotorua in 1894.

As dairying developed, the district became one of the most intensively farmed in the Waikato. Morrinsville grew into a prosperous farming town, with large saleyards, farm machinery outlets, agricultural services and engineering firms.

Piako and Waitoa rivers

Rivers rising in hill country south-west of Matamata. They converge near the Kopuatai Peat Dome, and below this point they are tidal. Both were traditional transport routes and sources of food for Māori. From the 1870s, until roads and railways provided other options, goods for Morrinsville and nearby settlements were brought up the Piako River, which was navigable by steamers to Kerepēhi, and by canoe or rowboat further upstream.

At this time wetlands covered a huge area from the Firth of Thames to present-day Te Aroha, Waitoa, Waihou, Morrinsville and Matamata. They were progressively drained to create roads, railways and farmland. Drainage works and planting of willows along riverbanks placed strain on waterways and devastating floods occurred at intervals from the early 20th century. Major flood-protection works were carried out along the Piako, Waitoa and Waihou rivers from the 1950s.

Kopuatai Peat Dome

New Zealand’s largest restiad peat bog (bog dominated by rushes of the Restionaceae family), about 35 km north-east of Morrinsville. It includes both peatland and mineralised wetland, and covers 10,201 hectares. A fortuitous survivor of swamp drainage works, Kopuatai is managed by the Department of Conservation.

Vegetation includes the greater jointed rush, clubmoss, and remnant kahikatea forest. There are 54 species of birds (notably the threatened Australasian bittern, banded rail, marsh crake and North Island fernbird), black mudfish and longfin eels.

Rukumoana marae

Marae between the towns of Morrinsville and Kiwitahi. It is the site of a Kīngitanga parliament house, built between 1915 and 1917. The house fell into disuse from the 1920s, but was restored in the 1980s.


Settlement 6 km north-east of Morrinsville. It is home to the Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company, formed in 1914. Unlike other Waikato dairy companies, Tatua was not absorbed by the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company in the 1920s. In the early 2000s it exported dairy products to Japan and the Asia-Pacific region.


Settlement 12 km north-east of Morrinsville, with a 2013 population of 306. In the 19th century, before swampland was drained, flax milling developed around Waitoa. This continued into the early 20th century. Later, dairy farming became profitable. The Thames Valley Dairy Company opened a cheese factory at Waitoa in 1916. In 1920, the year it amalgamated with the New Zealand Co-operative Dairy Company, the company was building a dried milk factory there. When completed it was said to be the largest in the world. Later, it diversified into condensed milk, baby food and cheese products. A workers’ settlement developed to service it and other local industries. In 2009 Fonterra owned the dairy factory.


Dairy farming service centre, 16 km north-east of Morrinsville. In 1879 Waihou, then a railway construction settlement, was surveyed. After the brief gold rush at Te Aroha in 1880, some prospectors bought land in the area to try their luck at farming.

Te Aroha

Te Aroha

Town 56 km north-east of Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 3,906. Established in the late 1870s, Te Aroha flourished from 1880, when gold was discovered locally. The boom was brief, but hot springs at the foot of the mountain made the settlement prosperous. Te Mōkena Hou, a Ngāti Rāhiri chief, gifted the springs to the government. Te Aroha developed as a spa from 1883, attracting thousands of visitors, especially after a railway link from Hamilton was completed in 1886. Its popularity waned from the 1930s, but some hot pools were modernised in the late 20th century. Visiting Te Aroha domain, with its old bathhouses and formal gardens, is like stepping back in time.

The railway line from Hamilton to the Bay of Plenty via Te Aroha closed in 1978. The town remains the centre of a farming district and industries include animal-skin processing and timber milling.

Te Aroha mountain

At 952 m, the tallest peak in the Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park. The 360-degree views from the summit take in the Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions.

One story says the mountain got its name when Tainui ancestress Kahupeka travelled around the Waikato after the death of her husband Uenga. She climbed the peak and named it Te Aroha-o-Kahu (the yearning of Kahu) in memory of him.

Gold was found on the mountain in 1880, and prospectors burned the vegetation in a fruitless search for a reef. At Tui mine, on the northern slopes, lead flux was recovered for gold smelters at nearby Waiorongomai, but the ore contained too much zinc to be useful. The mine reopened in the 1960s, but failed because the ore was contaminated by mercury.

Regenerated vegetation includes rimu, miro and silver beech. A television relay transmitter station and mast were erected below the summit in 1965 and replaced in 1985.

How wrong am I?

After the Waiorongomai gold rush ended in failure for most prospectors, C. W. Richmond wrote this verse:

O wrong are you, o wrong am I
O wrong are all of us
We are all sold, there is no gold
The claim’s not worth a cuss.
We came O why? It’s all my eye
So sing O wai-o-rongo-mai
Here comes the bloomin’ bus
Let’s all get in, it is a sin
The claim’s not worth a cuss.
Singing O wai-o-rongo-mai.
O wrong are all of us.1

Waiorongomai valley

Locality on the southern outskirts of Te Aroha. Gold was discovered there by Hōne Werahiko in 1881, and a settlement grew. Buck’s reef, the main quartz reef containing gold, is one of the largest in the world. However, because the quartz was unexpectedly hard, yields were low. The Piako County Tramway was built in 1882–83 to give access to mines. It had three self-acting inclines, where the loaded wagons going down pulled the empty wagons up. Parts are still intact, making it New Zealand’s oldest railway with rails still in place.

Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park

Forest park covering 37,000 hectares. The Kaimai Range, the central feature of the park, divides Waikato from the Bay of Plenty. Gold mining created a need for timber, and kauri and other tall native trees were also prized for building. Many were felled from the late 19th century.

In the 1960s the Forest Service planned to clearfell areas of the Mamaku State Forest and plant radiata pine. Conservationists protested, petitioning for it to be made a national park. Instead, the Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park was gazetted in 1975. The Forest Service continued to advocate logging, but gradually environmental interests prevailed. In 1987 the Department of Conservation took over management of the park.

Vegetation ranges from dense low-altitude forest to scrub and grassland, and includes kāmahi, red beech and silver beech at their northern limit, and kauri at its southern limit. As well as many bird species, there are small populations of the rare Hochstetter’s frog and threatened Te Aroha stag beetle.

Waihou River

River with headwaters in the Mamaku and Pātetere plateaus. The Waihou meanders along the base of the Mamaku and Kaimai ranges, flows through Te Aroha and then north to the Firth of Thames. In the 1870s Josiah Clifton Firth cleared the river 19 kilometres above Te Aroha so he could ship the produce of his Matamata estate to Auckland. From the 1880s boats brought visitors from Auckland up the river to ‘take the waters’ at Te Aroha. The Waihou remained a transport route until the late 1940s, when it became clogged by willows.




Town 62 km east of Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 7,089. Some houses were built near the Matamata railway station, completed in 1885, but settlement did not really grow until Josiah Clifton Firth’s huge estate passed to the Crown and was subdivided in 1904. Matamata became a borough in 1935. At the heart of a rich dairying area, Matamata developed as a rural service centre. Horticultural blocks and horse studs were established nearby. Engineering and construction businesses were also set up from the 1920s. Access to ports via the Kaimai Railway Tunnel has helped Matamata prosper.


After part of the Lord of the rings trilogy was filmed on a farm near Matamata in the 1990s, Matamata began billing itself as ‘Hobbiton’ to attract tourists wanting to visit the former film set. Interest was revived in 2011 when the set was reconstructed for the filming of The hobbit.

A concrete tower built by Firth in 1882 as a defensive work in case of Māori attack is now a central feature of the Firth Tower Museum on the outskirts of Matamata.


Township 7 km north-west of Matamata, with a 2013 population of 465. A few kilometres north of present day Waharoa, on a ridge above the Waitoa River, Ngāti Hauā chief Te Waharoa established a in 1830. An Anglican mission started nearby in 1835, but was abandoned when war broke out between Te Waharoa and neighbouring tribes in 1836. A Catholic mission began in 1841, but three years later shifted to Rangiaowhia near Te Awamutu.


Ngāti Hauā chief Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpipi, sometimes called ‘the Kingmaker’ because of his central role in the Kīngitanga, was a devout Christian. In the 1840s he established a village northwest of Matamata which he called Peria, after Berea which is mentioned in the New Testament. At this village, of which no trace remains, he and his followers had a farm, flour mill, boarding school, post office, church and meeting house.

In 1865 Firth leased land in the area from Te Waharoa’s son, Wiremu Tāmihana Tarapīpipi, and by 1887 owned over 56,000 acres (22,660 hectares) outright. Firth opened the Waharoa Dairy Factory in 1886, and a canning factory the next year. The township of Waharoa developed around these industries. In the early 2000s two cheese factories opened at Waharoa: the Kaimai Cheese Company, a small, specialty cheese factory; and the much larger Open Country Dairy Company.

Kaimai Railway Tunnel western portal

Entrance to the railway tunnel through the Kaimai Range. At 8.85 kilometres, it is the longest rail tunnel in New Zealand. It was built primarily to shorten the rail route between the timber towns of south Waikato and the port at Mt Maunganui. Construction began in late 1965 but was plagued by technical difficulties because of the very hard volcanic rock. Four men died in a cave-in near the western portal on 24 February 1970. Work was finally completed in 1978.

Wairere Falls

Waterfalls 14 km north-east of Matamata, on the foothills of the Kaimai Range. The falls, which are visible from much of the Waihou–Piako basin, mark the western end of the Ōkauia fault line. The Wairere Stream descends through the surrounding forest, with two drops of 91 and 60 m. A steep track with sets of steps leads to a lookout at the top of the falls.

The Wairere Track – which ran through forested ranges between Te Puna in the Bay of Plenty and the Waikato region, emerging at the Wairere Falls – was a link over the Kaimai Range for centuries. It was used first by Māori, and later by European traders, missionaries and armed forces. By the 2000s it led only part of the way across the range, but connected with other tracks that came out on the Bay of Plenty side.


Farming locality 8 km north-east of Matamata. Ōkauia is at the centre of an area that has long been occupied by Ngāti Raukawa. The Ōkauia thermal pools were developed as a tourist attraction in the early 1900s, and in the 2010s were known as Opal Hot Springs.

Hinuera cliffs

Natural feature beside the road between Lake Karapiro and the settlements of Piarere and Hinuera. The cliffs mark the course of the Waikato River 20,000 years ago, before it began to flow to the west. The ignimbrite of which they are formed is yellow-cream to pale brown, and contains fragments of pumice. Mined since the 1950s and marketed as Hinuera stone, it is a sought-after building material.

Putaruru and Tīrau


Township 9 km north-west of Putaruru, with a 2013 population of 690. Established in 1870 as a military post, Tīrau became a coach stop for travellers. First called Oxford to identify it as a sister town to Cambridge, it was later named Tīrau to avoid confusion with Oxford in Canterbury. A dairy factory was built in 1938, and a casein factory in 1982.

Tīrau’s transformation

By the late 1980s Tīrau, like many small rural towns, was declining. The post office and a number of businesses had closed. Local entrepreneur Henry Clothier realised that many tourists bound for Rotorua and Taupō passed through Tīrau on State Highway 1. Taking advantage of this, he opened an antique store, turned the old Matamata county council building into an event centre, and encouraged other retailers to open craft stores and restaurants.

From 1908 to 1989 the Matamata County Council had its headquarters there. After 1989, along with the boroughs of Putaruru and Tokoroa, Tīrau was governed by South Waikato District Council. With its many cafés and craft and antique shops, it is a popular stop for travellers on State Highway 1.


Locality 6 km north-east of Tīrau. The Ōkoroire hotel was built in 1889 to take advantage of nearby natural hot pools, long valued by Ngāti Raukawa. The tribal ancestor, Raukawa, was born at Ōkoroire. The most attractive is called the Fairy Pool because at night its banks are dotted with glowworms.

East of Ōkoroire, in a reserve off Kākahu Road, is a tōtara niu pole with a carved figure at its base. Dating from around 1845, it was associated with ancient Māori rituals and later the Pai Mārire faith. It was restored in the 1980s.

Fitzgerald Glade

Roadside reserve 6 km south of Tīrau. Driving along State Highway 5 to Rotorua travellers pass through a green oasis – Tukorehe Scenic Reserve, also known as Fitzgerald Glade. Lush tree ferns line the road, and vegetation towering above includes tawa, rimu, mataī and five species of rātā.


Town 64 km south-east from Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 3,777. The Pātetere block, including the future site of Putaruru, was bought by the Patetere Land Company in the early 1880s, later passing to the Thames Valley Land Company. A settlement emerged about 1886 when the railway line to Rotorua was being constructed. In 1905, after the Crown had acquired surrounding land, a township was surveyed. The Taupo Totara Timber Company built a tramway from its Taupō forests to Putaruru, where it had a mill. Construction of the Arapuni dam on the Waikato River in the 1920s further boosted Putaruru’s population. By 1946 it had 1,160 people and the following year it became a borough.

In the late 1940s the newly established Putaruru Timber Yards built several mills to process wood from exotic forests which had been planted nearby in the 1920s. The mills were taken over by New Zealand Forest Products in the 1970s, but changes in the industry in the 1980s caused Putaruru’s population to decline. In 2008 Carter Holt Harvey, the major timber company at the time, closed its mill.

Water from Te Waihou springs, which feed the Waihou River, is bottled commercially. The town also has a boutique cheesemaker and a cheese school. The Putaruru Timber Museum is situated south of the town. The unusual circular building in central Putaruru, built in 1969, was originally the post office.


Settlement 14 km west of Putaruru. Arapuni, the second hydroelectric dam on the Waikato River, and much bigger than Horahora further downstream, was opened in 1929. A walkway between the dam and the hydro lake, which is popular for fishing and watersports, includes a 152-m swingbridge used by dam workers. The walkway is part of the Waikato River Trail, a network of walkways.


Farming locality 7 km south-east of Putaruru. In the 1880s Lichfield, the base for the Thames Valley Land Company, was larger than Putaruru. It was also a coach stop until the railway to Rotorua was complete. Relics of the 1880s include a brick water tower and a small store building made of Putaruru rhyolite stone. Lichfield was surveyed in 1905 – at the same time as Putaruru – but, like other South Waikato farming settlements, failed to prosper because cobalt deficiency in the soil caused a stock illness called ‘bush sickness’. In the 1930s it was discovered that cobaltised superphosphate could correct this problem. The largest cheese factory in the southern hemisphere is situated at Lichfield.


Main administrative centre for the South Waikato district, 88 km south-east of Hamilton, with a 2013 population of 12,717. Tokoroa takes its name from the surrounding area, shown as Tokoroa Plains on 19th-century maps. Tokoroa was a chief of Ngāti Kahupungapunga, the first tribe in the area. He was killed at the siege of Pōhuturoa, south of the present town of Tokoroa. This battle was one of many that took place when Ngāti Raukawa spread into south Waikato around 1600.

Farming and forestry

The area around Tokoroa was owned by the Thames Valley Land Company in the 19th century, and by the Matarawa Land Company from 1914. A farming settlement emerged at Tokoroa, but it remained very small. Until ‘bush sickness’ in stock due to cobalt deficiency in the soil was remedied in the 1930s, farming was unprofitable. However, the pumice land was suitable for exotic forestry, and between 1925 and 1935 New Zealand Perpetual Forests planted radiata pine forests close to Tokoroa. When these forests matured in the 1940s, New Zealand Perpetual Forests’ successor company, New Zealand Forest Products (NZFP), began constructing a pulp and paper mill at nearby Kinleith to process the wood.

A company town

From 1947 Tokoroa grew to house workers building the Kinleith mill 8 km to the south, and to provide accommodation for future staff of the mill. Unusually, the town was developed by a company – NZFP – rather than by the state. NZFP built 2,230 workers’ houses between 1947 and 1976, as well as camps for single men. The layout of the town, community facilities and even the appearance of the houses were designed to attract and retain a stable workforce.

Tokoroa was a county town from 1953, and a county borough with a mayor from 1966, but the company continued to have a strong influence on civic affairs.

Different cultures

Workers of different nationalities and ethnicities came to live in Tokoroa, creating a distinctive multi-cultural community. Some were assisted immigrants from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and the Pacific Islands – notably the Cook Islands but also Samoa, Fiji, Tonga and Niue. Others were Māori and Pākehā who came to Tokoroa from elsewhere in New Zealand.

Social issues

When Tokoroa was planned, unskilled workers were provided with more modest houses than skilled workers and managers, and were confined to certain suburbs. Single men, regarded as transient and potentially disruptive, were accommodated in camps on the outskirts of town. This created both social and ethnic segregation and strife. Lack of work for school leavers in the 1950s and a shortage of youth facilities led to a crime problem in the 1960s. Despite attempts to create a sense of community, Tokoroa gained a reputation as a rough frontier town, which it found difficult to shake.

Pungent pulp and paper

A sulfurous smell announces the presence of the Kinleith mill to motorists on State Highway 1. Environmental concerns led to the introduction of a new gas stripper system at the mill in the mid-1990s, halving Kinleith’s odour levels.


The site of the Kinleith mill was chosen because it was flat land close to existing transport links and a water supply, as well as being near Tokoroa. The mill began operating during the early 1950s and was officially opened in 1954. It grew considerably in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s NZFP’s decision not to expand overseas, combined with poor trading conditions, reduced demand for forest products and industrial unrest, led to staff cutbacks. Kinleith was bought in 1990 by Carter Holt Harvey. Since then there have been modernisation and environmental initiatives, including introduction of recycling and better waste management methods.

Population fluctuations

Tokoroa had a mere 242 people in 1948, but by 1951 the population was 1,193, and by 1955, 6,000. Growth at the Kinleith mill in the 1960s and 1970s created demand for more staff, and Tokoroa was expected to become a city of 20,000 people by the mid-1970s. Instead, the population peaked in 1981 at 18,713 people and, thereafter, reductions in the Kinleith workforce caused it to fall. The 2013 population was 12,717, a decline of 11.8% since 2001.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'Waikato places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 September 2021)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 31 May 2010, updated 11 Jun 2015