Topic: The Waikato River

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Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha, he piko he taniwha, Waikato of a hundred chiefs. At every bend a chief, at every turn a chief (Waikato-Tainui Te Kauhanganui Incorporated, n.d).

The Waikato River is New Zealand's longest River at 425km in length. Over millions of years, the Waikato River has changed course many times.  20,000 years ago it ran north to Piarere and on to the Hauraki Plains and to the Firth of Thames.  Gradually areas within the River built up with volcanic debris and it began turning west near Maungatautari.  1,850 years ago the Taupo Tephra eruptions occurred, and the Waikato River carried and deposited a huge volume of volcanic pumice sands, silts, and gravels.  These deposits were up to 30 meters thick in some areas and engulfed the banks of the River.  Nowadays the River is above flood-level with a low-level terrace, up to six meters high and 200 meters wide bordering much of the River.

The River's origins begin in the heart of Mt Ruapehu.  It then flows on to Lake Taupo where the Waikato River begins at an outlet from Lake Taupo and flows strongly into the Waikato region, through Hamilton City and on to the sea at Port Waikato, approximately an 18 hour journey (Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, n.d). 

"The Waikato River was deeply entrenched, dug into the landscape.  On either side of the River were small lakes and great swamps.  Beside the River were huge terraces, slowing the flow of swamp water to the River.  The vegetation was varied...  the swampy areas contain the most complex vegetation...  On the ranges which lay around the basin were thick rain forests... There were cushions of moss, mats of fungus, tiny ferns and orchids" (Gibbons, 1977, p. 25-26).

The name 'Waikato' originated during the journey of the Tainui canoe from Polynesia to New Zealand. "Arriving just off the mouth of the River, the crew remarked upon the kato (the pull of the River current in the sea) and thereafter the name Waikato (wai meaning water) was given to the River" (Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, n.d).

Waikato River is central to the identity of the Tainui people, with permanent physical, spiritual, cultural and historical meanings: "The River was important to us because it's our name, the name of our people - Waikato.  It's Waikato te Iwi.  Waikato te Awa.  That's us.  The same thing.  It's not separate.  Waikato is the people.  Waikato is the name of the River" (Katipa as cited in Waikato Millennium Foundation Trust, 2001).

For centuries before the arrival of Pakeha each of the individual hapu who make up Tainui had their own traditional land areas within the Waikato.  There are numerous landmarks and Pa sites located along the banks of the Waikato River, including;

•·         Te Totara, Pukete Pa

•·         Te Owhango Pa

•·         Matakanohi Pa

•·         Te Tupari Pa

•·         Waitawhiriwhiri Urupa

•·         Kirikiriroa Pa

•·         Opoia Pa

•·         Urupa (unnamed)

•·         Te Rapa Pa

•·         Te Kourahi Pa

•·         Te Moutere O Koipikau Pa

•·         Te Nihinihi Pa

•·         Te Parapara Pa

•·         Unnamed Pa (Hammond Park)

•·         Te Pa O Ruamutu

•·         Mangaonua Pa

Details, physical descriptions and maps of these significant sites can be found in 'Visions from the Past: Kirikiriroa' an information kit complied by Fiona Corcoran, 'Central City Riverside Archaeological and Cultural Assessment', and 'Nga Tapuwae O Hotumauea' a Hamilton City Council Management Plan for Maori landmarks on Riverside reserves.  All of theses items are available at the Garden Place Library.

The Waikato River was a central means of transportation, communication and trade, as well as an abundant source of food and a spiritual focus for many hapu.  The bends in the River are guarded by mythical creatures named taniwha; proverbs were based on features of the River; and spirits of the dead were believed to move within the currents (Waikato te Awa, 1987).  "We were told the River is sacred.  If anyone is sick, the first thing we do is go straight to the River and the old people bless us with the water.  We respect the water for that" (Haunui as cited in Waikato Millennium Foundation Trust, 2001).

Food provided in and along the banks of the Waikato made survival during these early times less gruelling.  A vast selection of food could be collected from the River, including eel, freshwater crayfish, whitebait, mullets, shellfish, water fowl and wild vegetables.  The waterways also provided irrigation for other food sources such as kumara and taro (King, 1977, as cited in Waikato te Awa, 1987).  Food, as well as people and items for trade were transported by waka up and down the Waikato River. 

By the 1840s and 1850s the Waikato River was a busy highway with the transportation of a variety of produce into Auckland, to feed the growing population.  "Each year they brought thousands of kits of potatoes and other vegetables and fruit, hundreds of pigs, fowls and other poultry and bushels of wheat, tons of flour from their own mills, and more tons of firewood, a commodity which Auckland was notoriously lacking" (Waikato te Awa, 1987).    


1973,Te Winika's final journey to the Waikato Museum of Art and History (HCL9196).

 "In 1936, almost one hundred years after the tree from which Te Winika's central hull was made was felled, Te Puea heard of the piece laying in the sand and saw in it the beginning of her fleet of canoes... the hull was lifted and taken to Turangawaewae where it was given a formal tangi... The waka had made yearly appearances at the Turangawaewae Regatta and had been paddled on the Waitemata at the Auckland Anniversary Regatta in 1971" (Nelson, 1991, p. 62). 

In 1972, it was announced that Te Winika would be gifted to the Waikato Museum of Art and History.  
In 1973 Te Winika made its final journey on the Waikato River escorted by the waka Taheretikitiki II.  

The arrival of the Pakeha saw use of the River increase, and specific areas along the Waikato River became symbolic in the Waikato Wars that were to follow.  In 1863 King Tawhiao fixed the Mangatawhiri stream which flows into the Waikato River as the boundary point for which the Imperial Troops were not to cross.  In July 1863 General Cameron and the Imperial Troops crossed the Mangatawhiri stream, sparking the beginnings of the Waikato Wars.  Two gunships, the Pioneer and the Avon, were used by the Imperial Troops to travel along the Waikato River carrying troops and ammunition, and engaging in warfare.  Cameron used the gunships to fire upon Maori redoubts in the battles of Meremere and Rangiriri, inflicting significant casualties upon the defenders.


c1910, The remains of The Rangiriri, formally used as a gunboat during the Waikato War. The Traffic Bridge can be seen in the background (HCL00051).

After the Waikato Wars, the Government's initial land confiscation of Waikato territory was 1,202,172 acres, 4869 sq km (New Zealand History Online - Nga Korero Aipurangi o Aotearoa, n.d).  Confiscated land was given to militiamen and their families for settlement.  The first troops landed on the bank which is now Memorial Park - the landing is marked by a plaque erected by the Hamilton City Council.  On the opposite side, the Ferrybank landing was an area where many troops and their families landed and built stores for the settlement.  The Ferrybank was also the location on the Waikato River where a ferry operated before any bridges were built (Waikato te Awa, 1987).

By the 1860s small stores had sprung up at the foot of Grantham Street, immediately beside the Ferrybank and the Riverboat landing areas.  Some of the stores were temporary premises on government land "small, rough structures with no tenure and not much space" (Gibbons, 1977, p.59).  Shop owners who squatted on the government land without permission and without paying rent included; T Morris, John Knox's auction mart, Hill the butcher, Dr. Beale, Barnes the carpenter, Davis, a shoemaker, Ripley the "hunchback who was a watchmaker" and Martin, the tailor (Norris, 1956, p.188).  The main shopping area remained on Grantham Street until the mid 1870s when most of these buildings were either re-erected or replaced by new constructions, mainly at the upper end of Grantham and Victoria Street.


1866, Ferrybank Landing and Grantham Street (HCL0480).

In 1925 Caesar Roose, known as 'the King of the River' built up a fleet of boats and a thriving business on the Waikato River.  Caesar Roose brought his first trading boat when he was 16, and formed the Roose Shipping Company in 1922.  The paddle steamer 'The Rawhiti' was launched in 1925, followed by 'The Manuwai'.  Their hulks can still be seen today in the Riverbanks of Mercer.  "Living close to the River we could hear the Manuwai and the Rawhiti chugging up and all us kids would tear down to the bank and launch our little six-foot canoes and paddle like mad and get out behind the wash of the paddle wheel and up and over, up and over.  It was great" (Les Jones as cited in Waikato Millennium Foundation Trust, 2001, p. 35).


1925, The Rawhiti(HCL00335).

 The Manuwai was used during the 1930s Depression by the Hamilton Sunshine League to take groups of children for holidays at the Port Waikato Health Camp.  It was also well known as a venue for dances at night.  Muriel House, a 14 year old at the time remembers the dances: "We used to think how romantic it must have been.  We'd got to bed and look out the windows to see the Manuwai going past with the music going" (Waikato Millennium Foundation Trust, 2001, p. 38). 


The Manuwai (HCL01453).

By the early 1900s the River became a resource for generating electricity.   The first hydro-electric power station was built in Horahora in 1913 for the Waihi Gold Mining Company (which was later brought by the Crown).  The second hydro-electric power station was completed in 1929 in Arapuni, and work on the control gates where the Waikato River exits Lake Taupo was also completed.  The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s saw the commission and completion of the Karapiro Station, the Mangakino, and several other dams (The Pouakani Report 1993, as cited in Waikato te Awa, 1998, p.289). 

Nowadays the River flows through eight hydro-electric dams, and located on the banks of the River are the Wairakei geo-thermal Station and the Huntly Coal & Fuel Station.  The River generates approximately 4,000 gigawatt hours of electricity per year - about 13% of New Zealand's total electricity.  The eight artificial lakes created by the power stations are popular recreation areas for fishing, boating and swimming (Visit Hamilton, n.d).


Karapiro Hydro Dam - Karapiro Spillway(HCL9494).

In 1987 a claim for the Waikato River was filed in the Waitangi Tribunal as part of Waikato-Tainui's raupatu claim.  When Waikato-Tainui settled in 1995, the Deed of Settlement did not include the Waikato River (Waikato-Tainui Te Kauhanganui Incorporated, n.d).  However, in 2008 Waikato-Tainui and the Crown reached a settlement for historical claims over the Waikato River and on the 22 August 2008 the Waikato River Deed of Settlement was signed by representatives of both Waikato-Tainui and the Crown.   The overarching purpose of the settlement sees co-management and the restoration and protection of the health and wellbeing of the Waikato River for future generations as the main priority (Waikato Raupatu Trustee Company Ltd, n.d).

Sir Robert Te Kotahi Mahuta states, "The River belongs to us just as we belong to the River. The Waikato tribe and the River are inseparable.  It is a gift left to us by our ancestors and we believe we have a duty to protect that gift for future generations." (1975, as cited in Waikato Raupatu Trustee Company Ltd, n.d).


Warwick Johnson grew up in Hamilton East. In this extract he talks about playing down by the Waikato River as a boy. This extract is 1 minute and 45 seconds in length. Click here to listen (Hamilton City Libraries OH0287).


Corcoran, F. (1998). Visions of the past Kirikiriroa: An information kit on early Maori settlement in the Hamilton area. Hamilton: Hamilton Public Library.

Gibbons, P. (1977). Astride the River: a history of Hamilton. Christchurch: Whitcoulls for the Hamilton City Council. 

Hamilton City Council. (2000). Central city Riverside archaeological and culturalassessment. Hamilton: Opus International Consultants Ltd.

Hamilton City Council. (2003). Nga Tapuwae O Hotumauea. Maori landmarks on Riverside reserves management plan. Hamilton: Hamilton City Council.

Nelson, A. (1991). Chapter 6 - Waka of the Waikato Ngatokimatawhaorua. In Maori Canoes: Nga Waka Maori (p.63-71). New Zealand: McMillan.

New Zealand History Online - Nga Korero Aipurangi o Aotearoa. (n.d). Legacy of war: Settling the Waikato-Tainui claim. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from,

Armed settlers: The story of the founding of Hamilton, New Zealand 1864-1874. Hamilton: Paul's Book Arcade.

Norris, H. C. M. (1964). Settlers in depression: A history of Hamilton, New Zealand 1875-1894. Auckland: Paul's Book Arcade.

Soons, J. M., & Selby, M. J. (Eds). Landforms of New Zealand (2nd Ed). Auckland: Landman Paul. 

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand. (n.d). The origin of the name. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from Travagia, P. (1998). Waikato te awa: A selection of articles relating to the Waikato River. Hamilton: Hamilton Public Library.

Visit Hamilton. (n.d). About the Waikato River. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from

Waikato is the name of the River. Hamilton: Waikato Millennium Foundation Trust.

Waikato Museum of Art and History. (1987). Waikato to awa. Hamilton: Waikato Art Museum. 

Waikato Museum of Art and History. (c1995). Waikato te awa: the people and theRiver: A photographic exhibition. Hamilton: Waikato Museum of Art and History.

Waikato-Tainui Te Kauhanganui Incorporated. (n.d). Aspirations of the claim: TeMana o te awa. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from,

Waikato-Tainui Te Kauhanganui Incorporated. (n.d). River Claim. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from

Waikato Raupatu Trustee Company Ltd.  (n.d). Media release: Waikato-Tainui and Crown sign a Deed of Settlement for the Waikato River. Retrieved August 10, 2011, from Waikato_River _Claim220808.pdf


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