Kōrero: King Country region

Whārangi 9. Transport and infrastructure

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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 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 joined 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 overseas from Taharoa since 1972.


Walking tracks were often portage routes (where canoes were carried) between the rivers. One track that existed independently of the rivers was the west-coast path, which extended from Waikato territory in the north 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 – and a former railway worker. Phillips was the founder of a spiritual organisation known as the Kotahitanga Building Society, as well as the marae where 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 Europeans.

In 1882 Ngāti Maniapoto leaders agreed to a rail survey of the land 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 proceeded slowly in a climate of economic depression and changes in government. 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 railway viaducts.

The main trunk line was completed in 1908. European populations in the main towns grew rapidly in the early 20th century as the main trunk line connected the King Country to the rest of the North Island. Rail also provided rural communities with a vital connection to the outside world, especially in the days 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. This line 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. Ōngarue is unusual because 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 developing roads, providing them with a crucial source of income before 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 the 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 to 2.30 a.m. Passenger trains travelling north and south arrived in Te Kūiti at this latter inhospitable hour of the morning and power was laid on then 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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'King Country region - Transport and infrastructure', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/king-country-region/page-9 (accessed 6 December 2019)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 13 Dec 2011, updated 30 Mar 2015