Things To Do In The Central Waikato Before Passing Through on Your Way to Somewhere Else

 

waikato

 

Between Auckland and a whole host of palatable destinations like Rotorua, the Volcanic Plateau of the Central North Island and the golden beaches of the Bay of Plenty is the Waikato. A vast fertile basin of temperate climate, the Waikato region stretches from the wild black sand beaches of the North Islands West Coast to the Coromandel on the Islands East coast. In between is a cornucopia of landscapes that is mostly overlooked by the casual tourist flying into the country via Auckland and hurrying on through on their way toward more famous destinations.

Perfectly suited to the growing of grass, the Waikato is the centre of New Zealand’s behemoth Dairy industry and home to the giant Dairy Co-Operative Fonterra, a brand that dominates international dairy trade and is New Zealand’s largest manufacturing and export industry. The Waikato boasts one of the world’s premier ‘young’ Universities in the University of Waikato, whose Business School is considered secondly only to Harvard’s. The region is also a major international centre of scientific research with a particular specialty in bovine genetics.

The Waikato is NZ’s fourth largest regional economy with an annual GDP of around $16.5 billion.

Heading Southward from Auckland, the Waikato can be approached from 3 directions:

  1. Straight down via State Highway One, which takes us through Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Hamilton, Cambridge and Tirau.
  2. Via State Highway 27, the gateway to the Coromandel and Bay of Plenty, which takes us through Te Aroha, Morrinsville and Matamata.
  3. Or by way of the West Coast, a cornucopia of marginal roads that offer a wholly unique driving experience and includes the Limestone district (as featured in the film trilogy Lord Of The Rings), the iconic surfing town of Raglan, Kawhia and Otorohanga.

The West Coast route begins at Port Waikato, a brief 40 minutes from the Auckland CBD where the countries longest river, the 425 km long Waikato, meets the sea. This road takes us past the regions three harbours, Raglan, Aotea and Kawhia.

Weathertop

Raglan is a two-hour drive from Port Waikato. This route abounds with spectacular scenery and includes the Limestone Downs District, or as it is referred to in the Lord of the Rings movies, Weathertop. There are numerous lakes, coastal vistas and native forests to see on a drive that seldom includes other vehicles.

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Limestone Downs

Raglan

Raglan is home to some 3000 people and the coffee and food is first class. Hamilton’s (the capital city of the Waikato region) weekend getaway spot is a magnet for alternative lifestyler’s, surfers and those seeking respite from the rat race. The Wharf District, Bridal Veil Falls (a spectacular waterfall surrounded by native forest) and the many bays and beaches are all well worth your time as is the famed toothbrush fence at the little settlement Te Pahu, a few kilometres down the line. Don’t forget to bring your old tooth scrubbers along for some artistic recycling.

 

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Raglan Surf

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Bridal Veil Falls

The coastal road South takes us around the beautiful Mt Karioi (where there is plenty of good hiking) and past the Te Toto Gorge, a wild cliff face that plunges with sudden and breath-taking drama from the land to the sea. The drive will take about two hours and remember to stop and check out the untouched glories of the Aotea Harbour along the way. A former glacial valley, (fed by the Pakoka River which you would have seen earlier as the Bridal Veil Falls), this peaceful harbour is unpopulated and bordered by regenerating native forest and rolling pastureland.

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Te Toto Gorge

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http://www.aoteaharbour.co.nz/

Kahwia Harbour

Kawhia Harbour was the one of the original landing places of the first wave of Polynesian migrants some 7-800 years ago. With such a long history, the district has many stories to tell.  It is also a mecca for fossil hunters and new discoveries about NZ’s distant past are being unearthed all the time. The latest major discovery is the fossilized remains of a penguin that stood as tall as a human. Amateur geologists will also have a field day exploring the unique rock formations on display.

The main beach is typically North Island West Coast black sand but under that sand you will find a multitude of hot water springs that can be accessed for two hours either side of low tide. Dig a hole, let it fill with hot water then slide in, sit back and sigh loudly.

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Hot Water Springs Kawhia Beach

The town itself is a sleepy little settlement of some 600 people with a beautiful Marae at its heart (a Marae is a traditional Maori meeting place). The fish and chips are very good and just south of Kawhia, they mine iron-sand for steel making. It’s a huge operation but probably only worth your while if you are an ‘enthusiast’.

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Otorohanga

58kms east of Kawhia is the town of Otorohanga (pop. 2,600). The central feature of the town is the Ed Hillary Walkway named for famous New Zealand adventurer Ed Hilary, the first person to reach the summit of Everest the world’s tallest mountain.

The walkway is a notable and extensive collection of Kiwiana (historic New Zealand brands and cultural artefacts) featuring everything from Buzzy Bees to All-Black memorabilia. Don’t forget to check out Haddad’s Menswear, a glimpse into New Zealand’s retail past, the Haddad brothers have been dressing the districts men for 50 years.

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Ed Hilary Walkway

The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park boasts the nations largest domed aviary, and is the perfect place to see and observe a selection of rare native birds, including the Kiwi. This flightless bird possesses a brain structure more akin to mammal than an avian and behaves more like a cat than a bird. Soft and warm with plenty to say, the Kiwi is a delight to behold.

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Otorohanga Kiwi House - feeding Longfin eels

Eel feeding at the Otorohanga Kiwi House

 

Pirongia, Te Awamutu

From Otorohanga you head south to New Plymouth (and take in some of the North Islands most scenic road views) or head north into Hamilton, a route that will take you past the stunning 962 meter high Mt Pirongia, an extinct volcano where you will find an array native birds including fantails, kingfishers, kereru, and tui as well as some spectacular stands of old growth native trees like rimu, tawa and totara. The walkways are numerous and well developed.

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Tirohanga, Pirongia Forest Park

Pirongia village itself is a reliable coffee stop as is the bustling dairy farming town of Te Awamutu a little further north.

http://www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/waikato/places/pirongia-forest-park/

While in Te Awamutu, check out the Rose Gardens, (considered to be among the world’s finest), and the museum which hosts a permanent display to towns most famous sons, The Finn Brothers. The Finn Brothers are responsible for some of New Zealand’s most iconic music: as solo artists, as a duo and as members of international hit makers the pop/rock bands Split Enz and Crowded House.

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Hamilton

Hamilton is the Capital of the Waikato region. With a population closing in on 190,000, it is NZ’s fourth largest city.

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http://www.hamiltonwaikato.com/

Hamilton Central boasts some 115 eateries, the suburbs a whole lot more. Hood Street is the main entertainment district and home to a variety of bars, clubs and restaurant’s offering craft beer, live music and a host of other goodies. A little further south along the main street is the Meteor, NZ’s largest ‘black box’ theatre and there is something going on here most nights. Its worth timing your visit for the Meteors regular Performance Cafe, a night when the cities poets, musicians, performance artists and comedians gather to do their thing in front of a rowdy audience.

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Just across the road from Hood Street is the cities Museum and Art Gallery where the visitor can view, among the varied permanent displays, the 200 year Maori war waka (canoe) Te Winika.

http://waikatomuseum.co.nz/

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Te Winika 

 

Don’t forget to seek out Browser’s an iconic second hand bookstore. Browser’s is warm, welcoming and endlessly eclectic, offering the bibliophile a host of rare and unexpected delights.

The glory of Browser’s is only matched by Auteur House further up the main street. At the top of the slightly seedy looking stairwell is a cinephiles heaven. This World Cinema DVD rental store is the repository one of the countries largest private film collections. You’ll find films here that you never knew existed.
While you’re in town don’t forget to say hello to Riff Raff. Designed by Weta Workshop (The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings) this statue is a tribute to one of the cities favourite sons Richard O’Brien. Situated on the former site of the Embassy Movie Theatre where a young O’Brien immersed himself in the B-Grade Horror films that later inspired him to create ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’, the world’s longest running theatrical production. O’Brien (who found further fame hosting iconic British game show The Crystal Maze between 1990 and 1994) played Riff Raff in the original stage production and later movie adaptation.

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Riff Raff Statue

http://www.riffraffstatue.org/page/riffraff_5.php

One of Hamilton’s little known treasures are the 750 hectares of gullies that weave in and about through the city. Long abused, in recent years they have been the focus of major restoration work. Raised walkways make them easy to traverse and the curious will discover a wide variety of natural ecosystems and fresh water springs bare meters from the bustling cityscape. There are also extensive walkways along the Waikato River and around Lake Rotoroa, (Hamilton Lake). Just up behind the city centre, this peat dome lake is surrounded by gardens and several large-scale public art pieces.

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Before you leave the city don’t forget to check out the Zoo, a thoroughly modern affair dedicated to conservation. Here you will meet zebras, meerkats, tigers, giraffes, elephants and all manner of native birds in natural surroundings.

On Cobham Drive you’ll find the Hamilton Gardens, an eclectic collection of themed gardens that recently won the coveted ‘International Garden of the Year Award’ in 2014. Themes include: The Tudor Gardens, The Indian Char Bagh Garden, The Italian Renaissance Gardens, The Modernist Gardens and The Chinese Scholars Garden.
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hamilton gardens

 

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The Italian Renaissance Gardens

Cambridge

Just south of Hamilton is the heritage town of Cambridge (population 20,000). Noted for its trees, parks, boutique shopping, cafes and fine dining, there is plenty on offer for the casual visitor. New to the town is the Art-Deco themed Tivoli Cinema overlooking the Lake Te Koutu Domain as are a plethora of walkways and cycle-ways that offer extensive views of the Waikato River. If all that walking about has made you hungry you might want to check out the Queen Vic Chippy, an award winning Fish and Chip shop. Fish and Chips are New Zealand’s traditional takeaway meal.

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Lake Te Koutu Domain Cambridge

The Waikato occupies an area of 9,325 sq. km. and is home to some 2 million dairy cows and 416,000 people.

20 minutes out of town, past the historic Karapiro Hydro Dam and lake, is the Maungatautari Ecological Island, an extinct volcano whose cone has been enclosed by 50 km’s of predator proof fencing. This community led project has created the largest predator free enclosure on mainland NZ and remains one of the worlds most successful ecosystem restoration projects. Since the projects inception, endangered native birds have been proliferating and spilling out across the region. There are several walks, some longer than others, but all worth your time.

*With the exception of a species of bat and the Tuatara lizard, prior to the arrival of humans some 1000 years ago, the New Zealand islands (long isolated from the rest of the world) had no mammals or reptiles. Birds were the dominant species and evolved without knowledge of these predatory species. With the arrival of humans came rats, dogs, cats and opossums (to name a few) and they wrecked havoc on the defenceless bird populations. For many decades’ people both at community and governmental level have been working hard to preserve native ecosystems from introduced biological threats.

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Maungatautari Predator Proof Fence

Between the towns of Cambridge, Morrinsville and Matamata are circular range of hills comprising the districts of Te Miro, Maungakawa, Whitehall and Richmond Downs and some of the most spectacular scenery in the region is to be found here. The narrow roads that traverse the high plateau are a popular destination for weekend motorcyclists so be careful to stay on the left so you won’t be surprised by the row of Harley’s coming the other way. These districts also offer several stands of virgin native forest and walkways by which they can be explored.

Look out for Waterworks Road. Here you will find an artificial lake that supplies water to the town of Morrinsville. It is a popular destination for swimming, boating and barbecuing in the summer. Roads of particular scenic interest include Te Miro Rd, Whitehall Rd, Scotsman Valley Rd, French Pass and Brunskill.

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Maungakawa Hill by Rodney Hamill (1999)

Matamata

Matamata (Population 7,600) is famous for its close association with the Hobbits of Middle Earth and the small display village of Hobbiton but it has a great deal more to offer. On ‘Old Te Aroha Road’ (a few spare minutes north of the town) you will find Waiere Falls. Careering down the Kaimai Ranges, this is one of the longest waterfalls in the North Island. The trek to the top takes about one and a half hours and after the walk back down you can relax at one of the two thermal spas to be found nearby. As for food and coffee, check out Workman’s Cafe on Matamata’s mainstreet and in particular their extensive collection of ‘lewd’ postcards. Ronnie’s a nationwide bakery franchise began in Matamata, and the original cafe is the place to go if you are interested in baking. here you can try a broad range of traditional Kiwi cakes, biscuits, pastries and pies.

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The Okoriore Hotel and Spa has been trading since 1880. The Hotel buildings are all original and feature hot pools set amidst native bush as well as a coiffured nine-hole golf course. Okoriore is tucked in behind the village of Tirau on State Highway One. Tirau is also the gateway to the glorious Blue Springs from where 70% of NZ’s bottled water originates. The springs, the source of the Waihou River, are famously blue and rich in aquatic flora and fauna. This is a very special place, peaceful, uncrowded and spiritually invigorating.

 

 

Morrinsville and Te Aroha

North of Matamata are the towns Morrinsville and Te Aroha. Surrounded by the most productive dairy land in the world, Morrinsville and districts boast 3 major dairy processing plants. In the centre of town you’ll find the Wallace Gallery, home to a world-class art collection. A group of dedicated locals in conjunction with the Wallace Arts Trust (custodians of the nations largest private collection of NZ art, a collection gathered by Sir James Wallace a notable local son and CEO of large local employer Wallace Industries) have transformed the old Post Office, (a notable piece of post-modern architecture) into a gallery space where the visitor can view paintings and sculptures by iconic NZ artists. Across the road you’ll find Fitness Furnishings, a local institution where the weary traveller will find one of the region’s best coffees.

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morrinsville gallery

A few minutes’ outside of the town, down the end of Harbottle Rd lies a disused Quarry. Retired after 60 years of service, it has filled with water and is now a deep lake of viridian blue. If you have a kayak, bring it along. You will seldom find a more perfect and peaceful spot for gliding across the waters.

Te Aroha is just up the road from Morrinsville. This heritage mining town lies under the shadow of the 952 meter tall Mt Te Aroha, a spectacular volcanic peak. There is a walkway to summit that offers views as far south as Mt Taranaki (320km away). The town, a living remnant of a NZ some fifty years gone, has an extensive ‘Edwardian style’ botanical park with private spas and a large tepid pool, all fed by hot soda water from deep beneath the mountain. The botanical gardens are home to the Mokena Hou Geyser, the only natural soda water geyser in the world.

 

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TeAroha

Huntly, Taupiri and Ngaruawahia,

Due South of Auckland straight down the motorway (State Highway one) you’ll pass by three towns, Huntly, Taupiri and Ngaruawahia. The first of these, Huntly (population 7,600), could almost be described as the town of lakes. Centre of the regions historic coal mining industry and home to countries largest coal and gas -fired power plant Huntly on face value is an industrial town but behind the mines, quarries (the nations favourite brick, the Huntly brick, is baked from local clay) is a ravishing collection of lakes. Perhaps most notable of these is man made job. Lake Puketirini was formed into 1993 when the former Weaver Open Cast Coal pit was flooded. The lake is approx 64 m deep in the deepest section, 54 Hectares in size. If you haven’t got your scuba gear handy, (the lake is often used for diver training) Puketirini like neighbouring Lake Hakanoa is perfect for kayaking. The Lake Hakanoa walkway is split into thirteen zones including a native tree reserve, Japanese Garden, Global Garden, Wildlife Gardens, Palm Beach, Contemporary Maori Garden, Green Cathedral, Ponga Grove and wetlands.

 

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http://huntly.co.nz/things-to-do/

 

Between Huntly and Ngaruawahia is the small settlement of Taupiri (population 500) which sits beneath Taupiri mountain a site sacred to Waikato Maori and the is the main burial ground for the regions associated tribes.

 

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Burial on Taupiri Mountain

Ngaruawahia (population 5000) is just a few km north of Hamilton and is the sight of the Tūrangawaewae Marae a significant Maori meeting place and home of the Maori King Movement. A response to British colonisation, the Kingitanga Movement was an attempt to unite all the Tribes of New Zealand under a monarch. The thinking was that united the tribes could stand strong against British colonisation. The first Maori monarch was crowned at Ngaruawahia in 1857 and the Marae properly established in 1921. The Maori monarchs still live here today.
*Other tribes choose to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, a document that gave Maori full rights as British citizens and has since become recognised as the founding document of the nation state of New Zealand.

 

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Images from Turangawaewae 

 

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