THE WAIKATO REGION
The rugged area southwest of the Waikato, around Otorohanga, Waitomo and extending from Mt. Pirongia in the north to the coastal town of Mokau in the south, is known as the King Country. The Maori King Movement, which sought to unite the tribes on a national basis, developed in the Waikato in the 1850s. After the Waikato War of 1863-64, King Tawhiao, the second Maori king, and his people sought refuge in the rugged countryside to the south and the region became known as the King Country. Peace had been declared after the Waikato War between the Maori and the Europeans, but there were still conflicts flaring up along the river. Governor George Grey met with Tawhiao, the chief Rangatira of the Tainui waka, the Maori King, at Waahi (Huntly). Grey’s proposal was to cut the land in half to avoid further conflict. In reply Tawhiao asked for Grey’s hat and was about to cut it in half with a tomahawk when Grey protested. Tawhiao said, 'You were afraid that if we cut your hat in half it would be damaged. But would the land not be damaged if we cut it in half?' Grey agreed and then Tawhiao made a proposal, using his own hat as an example, that the Europeans should have the land around the brim of the hat and the Maori the central area under the hat, which became known as the Maori King Country. The agreed and from 1864 until 1883 access to the area was forbidden to Europeans until in 1908 when the arrival of the Main Trunk Railway line ended its isolation. Today the area is notable for its distinctive rock formations and complex cave systems formed over thousands of years in the limestone rock that is a feature of the region.
For many years Te Awamutu was a small frontier town, located on the northern border of land that had been confiscated from Maori 'rebels'. The Otawhao mission had been established here much earlier in 1839 by the Rev. John Morgan. By 1860 there were a number of flour mills operating in the area along with permanent church buildings, most of them funded by their Maori parishioners, which had been built under the direction of John Morgan. Today Te Awamutu is known as the 'Rose Town', and in early summer you can see magnificent displays in the Rose Gardens at the northern end of the town where over 2000 roses come into bloom each year. It is not much further south on SH3 to Kihikihi which features a monument to Rewi Maniapoto, the venerated Maori warrior. Kihikihi was the location of the final battles of the Waikato War. A few kilometers east of the town at Orakau, 300 Maori dug in behind hastily prepared earthworks to face over 1000 colonial troops supported by artillery and armed with muskets and grenades. Rewi Maniapoto regarded the position as untenable, but the Waikati Maori had been joined by about 170 men from the Tuhoe tribe in the Urewera as well as Ngati Kahungunu from East Cape who said they had not carried their guns all that distance to go home without a fight. They stayed and fought a legendary defence against thousands of British troops, repelling several major attacks before retreating into the King Country.
Otorohanga is New Zealand's self-styled and official Kiwiana town, embracing and celebrating all aspects of New Zealand's popular culture. The Waitomo Caves are one of the main attractions south of the town, featuring a subterranean wonderland and the celebrated glow-worm grotto that has delighted generations of tourists. Today the caves are also used for caving adventure trips that include black water rafting and cave abseiling. The road continues out to the coast at Marokopa and offers a number of short walks to the Mangapohue arch in the Mangapohue Natural Bridge Scenic Reserve as well as to Piripiri caves where you can see large oysters and other 30 million year old fossilized shellfish embedded in the cave walls, a reminder that this landscape was once submerged beneath the sea. Located right on the edge of the contact zone between limestone and volcanic rock formations, the Marokopa Falls are a short distance west of the caves. These spectacular falls drop 37 m over a faultline into a deep valley cut by the Marokopa River. Back on SH3, the next main township is Te Kuiti, heralded as the Shearing Capital of the World and boasting a prominent statue of a shearer. The 3 day New Zealand Shearing Championships are hosted by the town at the end of March each year. Another highlight is the ‘Running of the Sheep’, with around 2000 sheep running the length of Te Kuiti's main street. The road continues through the scenic Awakino Gorge on its route to the Tasman coast and a number of small coastal townships. The towns are located ona number of rivers that have become popular locations for whitebaiting, these transparent little fish comprising the main ingredient in the classic New Zealand delicacy, the whitebait fritter. Tongaporutu on the coast is the starting point of the White Cliffs (Paraninihi) Walkway but visitors can also take a shorter stroll along the edge of the inlet out to the coast and the Three Sisters, a series of towering 25 m high coastal rock stacks.