Carrying on Down the Waikato (Part One)

October 10, 2020
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The southern and central parts of the Waikato region. The Waikato River is shown in blue for this post. Taumarunui is at bottom centre. The names of Lake Taupō, Waikawau Beach, Hērangi Range, Waikato River, Waitomo Caves, Maungatautari, Maungakawa, Hobbiton, Ngāruawāhia and Waingaro Hot Springs have all been added for this post. Background imagery ©2020 Landsat/Copernicus, Data SIO, NOAA, U. S. Navy, NGA, GEBCO, TerraMetrics. Background map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

WHEN I got to the end of the Forgotten World Highway, I was in Taumarunui. The Whanganui River — the Rhine of New Zealand — is still quite sizable even that far inland, more than 200 km by the run of the river.

This post is about my journey into and through the lands of another river: the Waikato, which flows out of Lake Taupō and down to the sea through the Waikato plains. The Waikato River flows through eight hydroelectric dams. It’s a much more domesticated river than the Whanganui!

My starting point for this journey was Taumarunui, on the Whanganui River. Taumarunui is an old Māori settlement that evolved into a town in more recent times, first as a terminus for Whanganui riverboats.

And then as a railway town when the North Island Main Trunk Railway was finally driven through the centre of the North Island in 1908. After that, Taumarunui became an important halfway stop on the North Island Main Trunk railway line, celebrated in a local Woodie Guthrie-type folk song from years ago:

You can get to Taumarunui / Going north or going south / And you end up there at midnight / And you’ve cinders in your mouth.

These days, the train trip from Auckland to Wellington is a scenic daytime tourist journey with a buffet car on board. So, now, you don’t need to turn out into a freezing Taumarunui for refreshments at midnight with cinders in your mouth (those were the days!).

As the next video points out, the line’s an engineering marvel, which is one of the reasons it wasn’t completed until 1908. In spite of the obvious importance of linking Auckland and Wellington, the centre of the North Island is so rugged that building a railway through it was a bit like building a railway through Switzerland. A video by America’s Smithsonian Museum describes some of the heroic engineering involved.

One thing the things the American narrator (whose pronunciation of Māori placenames is also a bit ropey) doesn’t mention, is that along with all the viaducts and tunnels there’s also a spiral at a place called Raurimu, about 20 kilomeres from Taumarunui, where the train loops back on itself and then spirals up a hill in a sort of helix with two tunnels, to get onto the high plains of the central North Island!

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Raurimu Railway Spiral from a Helicopter. Photograph by Duane Wilkins, 23 November 2007, CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Here’s a map of the spiral.

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Map of the Raurimum Spiral, based on Open Street Map data. Source: Open Street Map, CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Disclaimer: ‘This map may be incomplete, and may contain errors. Don’t rely solely on it for navigation.’

This sort of engineering is fairly common in Switzerland. But the effort the New Zealand railway builders put in is all the more remarkable when you consider that only about one million people lived in New Zealand at the time the North Island Main Trunk Line was completed. It’s not as if they were joining two halves of Europe together.

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1902 Gotthard Railway Poster by the Swiss Railways (now SBB). Source: Swiss Government Alptransit Portal.

From Taumarunui you can head northeast to the Pureora Forest Park, west of Lake Taupo. Pureora is in the geographical centre of the North Island.

It’s the site of a huge but comparatively inaccessible native forest, gouged by deep ravines, which was one of the last to be opened up for logging in the late 1940s. Thirty years later, most of the forest was still standing when it was finally placed under protection, after protestors camped in the trees.

These days, the Pureora Forest Park is the site of a new trail-riding experience (which you can also walk) called the Timber Trail, which the Department of Conservation describes as “one of 23 great rides developed as part of Nga Haerenga, The New Zealand Cycle Trail —

The Timber Trail includes a second, now-disused railway spiral near Ongarue which was used for transporting logs until 1958. There’s also a 12-metre tower which you can climb up to look at the birds in the forest canopy.

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Locomotives of the Ellis & Burnand timber-logging concern, made by A & G Price (Thames, New Zealand), on the spiral near Ongarue around 1910. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

For those on the road, there’s also a lookout over Lake Taupo and the volcanoes of the central North Island at the Waituhi saddle.

If you take that road, you can turn left at Kuratau and carry on up State Highway 32, west of Lake Taupo. There are several tracks and local roads leading to tracks in the Pureora Forest Park that come off to the left as you head north on SH 32.

Eventually you’ll come to the Waikato River at Whakamaru, the site of one of the Waikato’s eight dams. Via Waipapa Road you get to another dam at Maraetai, and then via other roads to the Arapuni Dam and to Maungatautiri, the Sanctuary Mountain.

If you go back toward the river and carry on you get to Karapiro, another artificial lake where rowing championships are held, and the town of Cambridge.

Cambridge is located at the highest navigable point on the Waikato river, below Karapiro. To this day the town is surrounded by a ‘town belt’ which is in reality the relic of fortifications intended to fend off hostile Māori tribes, who were hostile because the town was built on confiscated land. Originally, Cambridge was only the part north of the Waikato river, surrounding the permanent source of water called Lake Te Kouka. Later on, the town was extended south of the river and its town belt continued around the new part, now purely as parkland.

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Map supplied by the Waipa District Council, 2012

Both Cambridge and the larger nearby city of Hamilton (pop. 165,000), also on the Waikato river, were established on land confiscated from Waikato Māori, after their lands were invaded both overland and by way of the river.

To help with the invasion, the British had four armoured river gunboats of the latest type, called monitors, built in Sydney. Two of the monitors had Māori names, the Rangiriri and the Koheroa, while two others had English names, the Pioneer and the Avon.

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Source: James Cowan, ‘The New Zealand Wars’

The Rangiriri, named after a November 1863 battle which I’ll talk about in the next post, never fired any shots but helped to ferry the first settlers of the town of Hamilton upriver in 1864. The others guarded convoys of barges full of troops and supplies, and did battle with Māori forts on the banks of the river.

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The Pioneer doing battle with a Māori pā (fortification) at Meremere on 31 October 1863. Detail from an image catalogued as A-110–006 at the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, via

The story of the invasion is told in a short clip from a 1990s TV series on the New Zealand wars, narrated by the historian James Belich. Here’s a map of the northern part of the Waikato which originally appared in James Cowan’s The New Zealand Wars in the 1920s.

It shows the location of Meremere, where the incident above took place, and also various other settlements, forts, battles and skirmishes in Auckland and the lower reaches of the Waikato River.

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The New Zealand Wars, which raged from 1845 until 1872 and have sometimes been classed among the ‘small wars of Empire’, were nevertheless quite epic locally. At their most ferocious, during the invasion of the Waikato in 1863 and 1864, though no individual battle involved more than a couple of thousand attackers and defenders in total, they were nevertheless comparable in some ways to the American Civil War raging at the same time, both in terms of the technologies and techniques employed and also in terms of the actual amount of destruction wrought per head of population.

Big enough even for the most unpromising male colonists to be drafted to fight, as the wife of one Auckland storekeeper complained in 1860:

"George has been called into the Militia. The next thing he will be called to fight them in the bush. Just imagine George fighting the Maoris with his spectacles on."

And destructive enough to spur the following comments in a letter to his parents from a colonist named Fred Haslam, manning a picket at Drury, now one of the outer suburbs of Auckland, in November 1863. Among his other complaints, Haslam observes that the recent arrival of help from the Australian colonists was proving to be a mixed blessing:

"The once happy New Zealand, a land of homesteads and farms, cattle, and rosy children playing on the green meadows, is now the scene of ruin, desolation and bloodshed of the most barbarous character, and, worse than all, the destruction by our own defenders, the lawless mob introduced from Australia. . . . What fearful scenes I have witnessed of late, years of toil destroyed by Maoris & defenders while the inhabitants are out defending another part. Such is Auckland now."

(I found both these quotes in Ben Schrader’s recent book The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities 1840–1920.)

Why was the Waikato invaded? The answer is simple: to get land.

New Zealand is generally thought of as a farming nation. But in reality there isn’t much good farmland in New Zealand.

In the whole of the country, it is only in the Waikato region, south of Auckland, that there is a large enough area of plains to present a flat inland horizon. And that’s precisely why it was invaded.

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New Zealand Topographical Map. Source: Gingko Maps, with four historic main port cities superimposed. North at top.

Indeed, it was Māori success in farming the region and supplying Auckland with essential supplies in the time of peace and prosperity to which Haslam refers, even exporting rope to Britain, that prompted the invasion.

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Māori Rope-making, circa 1903. Hand coloured lantern slide, probably from the National Publicity Studios, Negative Number 1867. Archives reference: AAPG W3878 Box 1 / B21. CC-BY-2.0 via Archives New Zealand on Flickr.

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The cover of a book published by Auckland University Press in 2006. Reproduced for critical purposes.

When the first Europeans arrived in New Zealand, they observed that the Māori were for the most part a settled, farming people.

On the other hand, the traditional crops that the ancestors of the Māori had broght from tropical Polynesia were hard to grow in New Zealand, a temperate country where most regions get frost in winter.

The tools, seeds and animals brought to New Zealand by the colonists were much more suited to local conditions, and were soon adopted by the Māori in preference to their old way of doing things.

It was the Māori who showed that many parts of New Zealand could be farmed by British and European methods and would in fact yield bumper crops.

At which point, the claim was made that Auckland would never be safe unless the Māori behind the plough, on the verdant plains of the Waikato, were replaced by farmers of British stock! The fact that many Māori, including the Māori of the Waikato, had elected a Māori king in 1858 was taken as further proof of anti-settler intent.

Pirongia: A pretty subalpine climb in bog

But enough of history for the moment. There’s heaps of things for a visitor to the Waikato to do in the present day.

East of Cambridge, there’s a range of low mountains with spectacular views over the plains and south to the volcanoes of the central North Island. You can drive to the top of Pukemako. And further east, still just a few kilometres from Cambridge, is Hobbiton.

A little bit further east still is Te Aroha Hot Springs, Mount Te Aroha and the Kaimai Range.

West of Cambridge lie the town of Te Awamutu and Pirongia mountain, a subalpine mountain with beautiful granite rock faces,.

In the remainder of this post, I’m going to talk about hiking on Pirongia which, at 959 metres high, is easily the highest peak in the Waikato region.

At only 25 kilometres southwest of Hamilton, the mountain is also the largest remaining area of native forest close to the city.

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Pirongia, southwest of Hamilton. Map Data ©2017 Google.

Although there are several routes to the summit, when I tramped it we took the 18.5-kilometre-long Bell Track to the top, heading past the Kaniwhaniwha Caves and along a ridge to the Cone, which is the second-highest point on Mt Pirongia. The Bell Track is very much up and down, as is the form of Mount Pirongia itself, so you will end up climbing a lot more than 959 metres in total: be warned! From the Cone, we carried on to the Pahautea Hut, where it’s another thirty minutes to the summit. The track itself forms part of the Waikato section of Te Araroa, meaning ‘The Long Path’, a trail that takes you the length of New Zealand all the way from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

I tramped Pirongia in the summer and found that despite the heat, it was very muddy at the top. There were three of us in the tramping party, one of whom was an unfit, overweight woman who carried four litres of water and refused to lighten her pack. Consequently, walking the Bell Track took us ten hours. I was very sorry for the guy with her because he ended up carrying some of the food from her pack, as well as having to help her up to the top. Then she wanted to pitch her tent in the middle of nowhere at nine p.m. Thankfully, I had saved them the last two beds in the Pahautea Hut, which the poor guy was very happy about. She also wanted to trek into the night, but I refused because the track was a very marshy, peaty type of soil and we could have easily become stuck or at least lost a hiking boot or two in the dark.

The peaty soil grows beautiful subalpine ferns, and for anyone who is interested in ferns, Pirongia is a special treat.

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My journey through the Waikato will continue next week!


Online New Zealand Department of Conservation brochures and maps provide a great deal of information about each location, with tick boxes to show huts, walks and campsites.

This post will be included in my forthcoming book about the North Island.

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