Carrying on down the Waikato (Part Two)

October 18, 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.

SOUTH of Pirongia there’s the Waitomo Caves, which are inhabited by creatures called glow-worms. There’s a European glow-worm, the larval stage of a firefly which glows yellowish-green. But the New Zealand glow worms (with relatives in Australia) are quite different and in some ways a lot weirder, like most things in New Zealand.

New Zealand glow-worms are carnivorous gnat larvae that live in caves in huge numbers, like bats. They hang sticky threads around themselves, lighting up the threads with a blue glow. Small creatures attracted by the light get tangled in the threads and devoured.

It’s a pretty supernatural experience to be in a glow-worm cave. Here’s an amazing 360-degree interactive video: don’t just watch it passively — scroll from side to side!

Another video calls it ‘Avatar in Real Life’:

The glow-worms also live out of doors, on mossy banks. I’ve seen them beside the Kauaeranga Valley Road in the Coromandel, where we used to live.

The other thing that Waitomo’s famous for is the fact that that it’s really vast: with an underground river that you can actually go rafting on and even an underground lake, both with ‘skies’ of glow-worms above. It’s all a bit like the poem by Coleridge:

Where Alph the sacred river ran / Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

If you head west from the Waitomo caves, a journey on small roads through scenic country in the Hērangi Ranges, with other attractions along the way such as the Mangapohue Natural Bridge, leads eventually to Waikawau Beach, which you get to through a pedestrian tunnel.

This is in a really remote location, on a stretch of coast that doesn’t have a road along it for 60 kilometres.

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Waikawau Tunnel Beach. Background map data from Land Information New Zealand, 2020

North of Pirongia is Raglan, a township and harbour that attracts a lot of surfers and holidaymakers. The west coast of the North Island between Taranaki and Auckland is curiously uninhabited (or nearly so) and you can certainly get away from it all.

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Raglan, 8 January 2011, photo by новичёк (Novichok), CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The most famous person to come from Raglan, most probably, is Eva Rickard, born Tuaiwa Kereopa: a Māori woman who was given the name Eva in school, where speaking Māori and even the use of Māori names were forbidden in the belief that it would hold Māori pupils back.

And so Tuaiwa was radicalised at about the age of five. Subsequently married to a man named ‘Tex’ Rickard, she became active in Māori issues along with Tex: mostly famously over the issue of the local golf course, which was built on Māori land taken by the government for defence purposes in World War II and then given to the council to turn into a golf course instead of being given back to the local Māori, as it should have been even by the government’s own rules.

Tuaiwa, or Eva as she was more often known for better or worse even though she referred to it as her ‘slave’ name, led a big protest that resulted in the golf course being given back to its rightful owners in 1978.

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Tuaiwa (Eva) Rickard dancing during the occupation of Moutoa Gardens, Whanganui, ca. 31 March 1995. Cropped detail from a full length image taken by an unidentified Evening Post photographer. Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1995/0906/25. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. The full length image can be seen on /records/22748216

You can read about Tuaiwa/Eva Rickard, and some others, in an article called ‘Five wāhine Māori protestors (who other Māori thought were a pain in the ass)’ by Alice Webb-Liddall, of the Ngāti Porou and Ngāti Pikiao iwi.

From Raglan you can go due east on SH 23 to Hamilton, the largest inland city in New Zealand, with a population approaching 200,000.

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Hamilton. Map data ©2020 Google. North at top.

Like Cambridge, which is only a little way to its south, the city is cut in two by the Waikato River and has a string of bridges over the river, like the one you can just see at the right in this photo.

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Hamlton has got a generous endowment of parkland, including the amazing Hamilton Gardens, built on the site of a former rubbish dump on the banks of the river in the south-eastern part of the city. The Hamilton Gardens are indeed plural, for there are twenty-one separate gardens including a Chinese scholar’s garden and a Char Bagh Indian, Persian or Islamic garden. You could spend a long time getting cheerfully lost in the Hamilton Gardens, which have been deliberately styled as a sort of wonderland. I always think that’s the best sort of park!

Entrance to the Picturesque Garden of the Hamilton Gardens, through a short tunnel. Photo by ‘Johnragla’, 27 November 2019, CC-BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The city is named after a British naval captain named John Fane Charles Hamilton who was killed at the Battle of Gate Pā near Tauranga in April 1864, some nine months after the invasion of the Waikato had begun.

The British and colonial assault on the fortification at Gate Pā turned out to be one of those total disasters that populate British military history, even in the smaller wars of empire. The following, macabre tale is told to the present day:

That evening the nine officers whose units were to lead the attack on the pā gathered for dinner at the Elms, the mission home of Archdeacon Alfred Brown and his wife. Only one of them, Assistant Surgeon William Manley of the Royal Artillery, would survive the following day’s assault.

The house in which the doomed officers sat down to dinner still exists:

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The Elms, Tauranga. Source: ‘Gate Pā’, URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 3-Apr-2019. That is also the source of the quote above.

Captain Hamilton was one of the nine, his last words recorded as “follow me, men.”

Like Cambridge, the city is built entirely on confiscated land. Hamilton is the only large city in New Zealand to have been built entirely on confiscated land, though one or two Auckland suburbs are as well.

(Many other urban centres in New Zealand were built on land sold by Māori for a peppercorn sum in the earliest days of colonisation.)

A statue of Captain Hamilton was erected as recently as 2013 in the city that bears his name, only to pulled down again in 2020 in deference to fast-changing sensibilities.

(A New Zealand Herald story linked here says that Captain Hamilton was in the army but that was actually his brother who was also a captain, confusingly.)

The Māori name of the spot on which Hamilton is sited is Kirikiriroa. That may well become the official name of the city in the future.

Of course, purely symbolic concessions like the pulling down of a statue or a name change don’t really cost anything apart from the money wasted on Hamilton’s statue, which will probably wind up in a museum.

But as to whether Wi Parata’s argument will ever be acknowledged by our property-owning democracy — well now, that’s a whole ‘nother story.

The next photo shows a part of the downtown embankment. I took it at half past four on Friday the 24th of July this year, which is to say the middle of winter. I guess it would be sunnier and with more people on it in summer, but it is odd that it was so strangely deserted. There weren’t any Covid restrictions in New Zealand at that time.

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Here’s a photo of Garden Place, the main downtown square, at the same time.

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I also took photos of pou, or totemic poles, outside the Sky City casino.

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As I say this is all worthy stuff. But I suspect it may not satisfy the material question, the same one the Saxon peasants of England itself asked after their land passed into the hands of the Norman.

Just north of Hamilton or Kirikiriroa, at Ngāruawāhia, the Tūrangawaewae Marae is the centre of the Māori King movement, the one which did once stand against the colonists with military force.

Tūrangawaewae means ‘place to stand’. Ironically, these days, the complex has been visited by Queen Elizabeth II, as well as most of the members of her family. And all sorts of other famous people from overseas as well. Here’s a video clip from Te Kārere, the Māori-language news on New Zealand’s TV1 (with subtitles).

Tūrangawaewae wasn’t always the headquarters of the King movement. It owes its existence to Te Puea Hērangi, a remarkable leader who came from the family of the first Māori King, Potatau.

Here’s an episode of the 1980s series Pioneer Women that describes the life of Te Puea, who ran away from her people to live in Pākehā (settler, colonist) society for a time and to be assimilated like the young Eva Rickard, but eventually went back to lead her true people as well. There's a link to a dramatised TV documentary about Te Puea, here.

In the days of Te Puea’s youth the Māori king was named Mahuta. Mahuta was the third Māori king. He was based at Mangatāwhiri, a place of great historical importance as the spot the Pākehā first crossed in their invasion of the Waikato, but swampy and unhealthy. Te Puea persuaded everyone in the court to move to a new site they called Turangawaewae, which means ‘a place to stand’, outside Ngāruawāhia.

This was not Te Puea’s only achievement by any means, as she did a great deal to raise her people up and to have them taken more seriously by the Pākehā. She was often called ‘Princess’ Te Puea in Pākehā accounts, but never used that title herself, and would often greet people in gumboots, working in the garden.

Most New Zealand hot springs are heated by volcanic heat, and this usually brings a sulfur smell. But 24 kilometres west of Ngaruawahia there are the Waingaro Hot Springs: which are unusual for New Zealand because they don’t smell of sulfur.

We’re not talking about a scooped-out hole in the sand here: Waingaro Hot Springs is a big facility, complete with a hydroslide and a hotel.

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Waingaro Hot Pools and Hydroslide: View from Hotel. Photo by ‘Johnragla’, 14 August 2013, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Travelling north, you come to Huntly, an old coal mining town and the site of an elegant-looking power station that’s run on natural gas these days to try and curb its greenhouse emissions, and the town of Taupiri, under Taupiri Mountain: a sacred burial site for high-ranking Māori since the 1600s.

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Taupiri and Taupiri Mountain (Waikato District Council)

Further north, on the way back to Auckland, you come to another important battlefield at Rangiriri, where, in November 1863, no less than eight successive assaults by 1,400 British troops failed to capture a massive fort, which was only taken in the end by deception. If this hadn’t happened, the invasion of the Waikato might have failed.

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The repulse of the Royal Navy storming party, Rangiriri Pā. (20th November 1863). 1863 sketch by Charles Heaphy, from ‘The New Zealand Wars’, vol. I, by James Cowan. 1922, p. 331. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

The fort was known by both sides as the Rangiriri Pā, the word pā originally meaning a fortified village or stockade, though by the 1860s the word had come to be applied to colossal fortifications that looked like something out of the American Civil War: the victory of the British by no means assured, though they did win in the end.

There’s a cafe with assorted battlefield memorabilia at Rangiriri. The epic Maori fortifications, as they were largely destroyed when a road was built through the site in the twentieth century. Fortunately however, the highway was bypassed in recent years and the fortifications restored.

Here’s the gateway to the battlefield.

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Here’s a striking female image from the top of one of the new pou whenua (‘totem poles’) along the route the defenders took from the Waikato River to garrison the pā. We’ve had to edit the photo in ways that include removing the twentieth-century power lines that accompanied the road built through the site: no doubt they will be undergrounded soon.

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And a short video of some of the pou whenua, the route of a British charge that followed the same course, and an interpretive display.

Travelling north past Rangiriri, you get to Meremere.

The foundations of the fort from which the Pioneer was fired upon still exist there. Te Araroa, the long pathway by which you can bike or hike the length of New Zealand, goes right past.

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Meremere Redoubt. Source: New Zealand Department of Conservation brochure, CC-BY-4.0.

The turrets of the Pioneer have been preserved along the lower Waikato, at Mercer and also at Ngāruawāhia. The hull of another of the old-time river monitors, the Rangiriri, has also been preserved in Hamilton / Kirikiriroa.

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Turret of HMS Pioneer at Ngāruawāhia. Photo by Jock Phillips, 2011, via

It's worth pulling into the tiny township of Mercer to see the other one and also to visit Mercer's equally tiny but excellent cheese shop, next to the Podge's Place motel, which also sells Dutch condiments and salted licorice along with cheese. In fact this fertile and thus once-contested region is a bit of gourmet district these days. I might do another post dedicated to that topic.

Just south of Auckland, up Runciman Road near Pukekohe, there's the Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church, on top of a commanding ridge, which survived an attempt to capture the ridge on the 14th of September 1863. The attack is described in this link from a book published nearly 100 years ago by the historian James Cowan.

Pukekohe East Presbyterian Church and Churchyard

The church was surrounded by a stockade at the time, and you can still see the impressions of the stockade in the ground. To this day the church has quite a few bulletholes in its timbers, and there's also a bullet-scar in the back of the gravestone of a woman named Betsy Hodge.

The Betsy Hodge bullet-scar

And so, finally, you get to the motorway and it’s back into Auckland!


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.

Material from this post will be included in my forthcoming book about the North Island of New Zealand.

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