Steve Sole

King Country

While the sun didn’t set on the British Empire until after WWII, there were places within it where it hardly rose in the first place. In New Zealand, for a period of some 20 years from the early 1860s, Maori barred European settlers from about 20 per cent of the central North Island, making the region a de facto state within a state. When Pakeha did eventually move in, somewhat hesitantly, they joined Auckland and Wellington by rail, milled the forests, introduced farming to a reluctant land, and co-founded one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. Maori call this place Te Rohe Potae —“Under the Brim of the Hat”. Pakeha call it the King Country.

Written by       Photographed by Steve Sole

“It was known that women and children were in the pa,” reported Brigadier-General George J. Carey, “the enemy was called upon to surrender previous to the concentrated fire of the Armstrong gun and hand grenades.” But would they?

Four days earlier, on Thursday, March 31, 1864, as the sky was lightening with the first dabs of dawn, Carey had attacked Orakau Pa with 300 men. Rewi Maniapoto, the leader inside the pa, hadn’t wanted the battle on that site but had succumbed to Ngati Tuwharetoa’s impatience for a scrap. Despite the pa having been thrown up hastily, its “earthwork with strong flank defences, deep ditches with posts and rails outside, and nearly covered from view with flax bushes, peach trees, and high fern”, it proved strong enough to repel three consecutive assaults.

If Rewi had had his way, the government forces—a mixture of regulars (imperial and colonial), militiamen and kupapa (Maori loyal to the Crown)—would have chased him to a pa at Te Kuititanga (near the site of present-day Te Kuiti). There, a large war party was waiting, which is why those at Orakau amounted to no more than 300 men, women and children. When Rewi looked between the palisades on the second morning, 1500 men looked back at him—and some of them were digging a sap. His mouth was parched and his stomach rumbling, just like everyone else’s. The horses shuffled anxiously. Ammunition was so scarce his men were firing peach stones from their muskets.

After lunch on the third day, Carey’s sap was within a couple of metres of the pa and two 6-pounder Armstrong guns were in position. A soldier blew “Cease fire” on his bugle, and in went Carey’s interpreters. Crouching in the sap, they shouted: “Surrender now! Your lives will be spared. If you decline, have some compassion on your women and children and send them out.” As John Featon wrote in The Waikato War (1879): “It was expected that the natives would have surrendered, seeing that they were so closely invested, and no chance of escape.”

The Maori, however, were looking at things somewhat differently. They were tangata whenua. The Pakeha were trespassers, having crossed King Tawhiao’s aukati (border) at Mangatawhiri Stream, declared eight months before, when they had started their invasion of Waikato.

The Maori were fighting for the land that Ferdinand von Hochstetter had told the world in 1859 was “a real Eden for agriculture and the breeding of cattle”. They were fighting for land that grew enough grain to mill 150 t of flour a year, some of it exported to the Californian and Australian goldfields. They were fighting for land that, 10 years earlier, had earned them over £32,000 in revenue. And they were fighting for mana.

The 30 m high Marokopa Falls lie between Waitomo and the quiet west coast bach settlement of Marokopa.
The 30 m high Marokopa Falls lie between Waitomo and the quiet west coast bach settlement of Marokopa.

Great hui had been held over the previous decade, at which chiefs from most parts of New Zealand had talked about how to unite against the Pakeha, especially to stem his insatiable appetite for land. The first European to spend time with Maori, James Cook, had surmised: “…it doth not appear to me to be at all difficult for Strangers to form a settlement in this Country. [Maori] seem to be too much divided among themselves to unite in opposing.” It seems that European “strangers” shared this view almost 100 years later. But they were wrong.

Maori saw how Europeans drew strength from their unity under the British Crown, and so established their own monarchy to safeguard their lands and create mana motuhake (separate authority). When, in 1858, Wiremu Tamihana of Ngati Haua anointed the first Maori King, Te Wherowhero of Waikato (who took the name Potatau), he said: “The Maori King and the Queen of England to be joined in accord; God to be over them both.” However, Pakeha saw this “King Party” as a slap in their own royal faces, a way for Maori to stop land sales, and they were about to teach its supporters at Orakau just who owned what.

Inside the pa, Ahumai Te Paerata, who was to have a finger shot off in the ensuing battle, said: “If our husbands and brothers are to die, of what profit is it to us that we should live?” She told the interpreters: “Ki te mate nga tane, me mate ano nga wahine me nga tamariki.” The interpreters passed on the message to Carey: “If the men die, the women and children must die also.” Seeing the women thus resolved, Te Paerata (not Rewi Maniapoto, as is commonly thought) shouted defiantly over the collapsing palisades: “E hoa, ka whawhai tonu ahau kia koe ake, ake, ake!” The interpreters informed Carey: “Friend, I shall continue to fight you for ever and for ever!”

But to fight you have to live, and as Featon wrote:

At 4 o’clock in the afternoon…the two or three soldiers stationed along [a cut road] suddenly heard the rush of men coming through the scrub, and immediately a large number of natives who were escaping from the pa jumped across the road and plunged into the high ti-tree and scrub that lined the edge of the swamp… The whole force, regulars and militia, mixed together without order or formation, with loud shouts rushed in pursuit… and numbers of the unfortunate wretches were cut to pieces.

The government forces lost 16 killed, but the Waikato war, which ended at Orakau, had cost them 700 lives and £300,000. Including the 120 deaths at Orakau, Maori had lost 1000, but the real damage came later when the Crown, via the New Zealand Settlement Act of 1863, confiscated 1.2 million acres (486,000 ha) of the Waikato’s most productive and strategic land. While Pakeha flooded into the region, King Tawhiao, successor to his father Te Wherowhero, and thousands of fellow Waikato people sought refuge in Ngati Maniapoto country to the south, an area Pakeha consequently called the King Country.


We knock on the door of a small house in central Te Kuiti, the heart of Te Rohe Potae. “Haere mai! Haere mai!” calls a voice within. My part­ner and I take off our shoes and enter the home of Phillip Crown, kaumatua of Ngati Rereahu and Maniapoto. Shane Te Ruki of Ngati Unu and Maniapoto is also visiting.

I ask, “So where are the boundaries of Te Rohe Potae?”

Both men smile at the complexity of the apparently sim­ple question, for the boundary has moved, and continues to move, with the changing affiliations of the iwi concerned. Phillip reads from an original document, written in 1894 by his great-great-grandfather Reihana Te Huatare, commonly called Wahanui, and used in a submission to the Na­tive Land Court.

This document states that the tribal lands of Ngati Ma­niapoto, Hikairo, Raukawa and Tuwharetoa, along with those of the Whanganui iwi, fall within Te Rohe Potae. Its boundary starts at Raukumara between Kawhia and Aotea Harbours, skirts the northern slopes of Mt Pirongia, then arcs south to the west of, and roughly parallel with, the Waikato River as far as Whangamata Bay, on Lake Taupo (the site of Kinloch). From here it crosses the lake south­wards and continues overland to a tributary of the Waipaki­hi–Tongariro system also called the Waikato River. Shane adds: “You cross the Waikato River by the Desert Road, but it’s so small there you could fit it through a door.”

The boundary continues south along the Kaimanawa Mountains to the Rangitikei River, curves west to Mt Par­itetito, passes through Ohura to Waipingau Stream on the west coast (less than 50 km north of New Plymouth), and from there returns up the coast to Raukumara.

Wahanui took four days to describe the boundary to the land court. Shane says: “He would say things like, ‘You proceed one day’s walk along this river to such-and-such a rock, look to the east and there stands a tree of so and so.’ He knew who was buried on this land. He knew the rauwiri [eel traps], their names, and who owned them. He knew the pa sites. That’s how well he knew this district.”

Te Kuiti started as a railway construction camp when the main trunk line was out through in the early 1900s and is now the main town in Waitomo District, which has a population of 10,000.
Te Kuiti started as a railway construction camp when the main trunk line was out through in the early 1900s and is now the main town in Waitomo District, which has a population of 10,000.

The Pakeha were more scientific. Stephenson Percy Smith, chief surveyor for the Auckland Provincial District, triangulated what would be called the King Country Block in 1884 and found it occupied 18,000 km2. Other estimates put it at 28,000 km2, or some 22 per cent of the entire North Island, placing land from modern-day Otorohanga, Waitomo, Taupo, Waipa, Ruapehu, Rangitikei and New Plymouth District Councils within Te Rohe Potae. Today’s King Country borders, more restricted than the above, have been fashioned by bureaucratic convenience and his­torical carelessness. However, as long as Tainui, the power­ful tribal grouping to which Ngati Maniapoto and Waikato belong, continues to breathe, Te Rohe Potae will exist.

Driving to Kawhia from the Orakau battle site—now, ironically, a rest area—we’ve covered only a few kilometres when we come to the Puniu River bridge on State High­way 3. After the flight from Orakau, Tawhiao declared the Puniu the new aukati. A sign, looking as if it’s had a few battles of its own around the edges, reads “NORTHERN BOUNDARY OF KING COUNTRY”.

Mt Pirongia, which J.H. Kerry-Nicholls climbed on his journey here in 1882, looms on our right. In his book The King Country, Kerry-Nicholls wrote:

The grandest natural scenery burst upon the view… The aukati or boundary-line could be distinctly traced…there was nothing to denote that the territory to the north was the abode of en­lightenment, and that the land to the south was a primeval wil­derness still wrapped in the darkness of primitive barbarism.

The rumpled coastal country stretching south of Mt Pirongia to Taranaki has always been tough on roads, and there is no rushing it to Kawhia. Minutes from a Kawhia county meeting in 1915 state: “No person shall drive a motor vehicle round any corner at a greater speed than six miles per hour [10 kph].”

Phillip Crown, a kaumatua in Te Kuiti, prefers the Maori name for the area, Te Rohe Potae (under the brim of the hat), to King Country.
Phillip Crown, a kaumatua in Te Kuiti, prefers the Maori name for the area, Te Rohe Potae (under the brim of the hat), to King Country.

We arrive in Kawhia 600 years after the canoe Tainui, from which all Tainui iwi, including Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto, trace their descent. The kai moana of these waters has fed generations, all of which, it seems, have gathered at the annual Kawhia Kai Festival.

Nick Tuwhangai, chair of the organising committee, explains: “It’s to unify all races in Kawhia. It’s our way of celebrating Waitangi Day. But here, there’s no politics or religion. It’s for all whanau to come and enjoy.”

To the sound of playing bands, elders korero in the shade, rangatahi jump off the wharf, and queues of whanau at the Ka Pai Mussel stall watch a cuzzie, a cross between show­man and chef, toss woks full of mussels, steam and fire.

The road south of Kawhia is no improvement as it heads into the karst landscape of the Waitomo valley, an area in which almost 800 ha are protected by QEII National Trust open-space covenants, the greatest density of such cov­enants in the country.


Even a whisper echoes in the Cathedral at the Wait­omo Caves, which, with their constellations of glow­worm lights, have long been one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist attractions. Lit by candles, the chamber resonates with carols every Christmas.

“I got married in here,” confesses our guide, Garth Cas­tor. “For me, being a male, I could get married under a tin shack and I’d be very happy, but it was special. My mother’s older sister got married here, too. We had 150 guests and heaps more up at the marae. Didn’t need to send any invita­tions, eh.”

About 70 per cent of tour guides here are descendants of local hapu; Garth himself is from Ngati Maniapoto hapu Ngati Uekaha. The family farm is just over the hill, and his mother and brother work at the caves too. Later, driv­ing down the road, he toots the horn, waves, and shouts “Shonks!” to a guy working on the road. More whanau.

John (upper, left) and Karam Haddad, long time retailers in Otorohanga, have created their own line of “all-year-round-hats”, one of which is worn by local country and western singer Merv Haines (bottom).
John (upper, left) and Karam Haddad, long time retailers in Otorohanga, have created their own line of “all-year-round-hats”, one of which is worn by local country and western singer Merv Haines (bottom).
John (upper, left) and Karam Haddad, long time retailers in Otorohanga, have created their own line of “all-year-round-hats”
John (upper, left) and Karam Haddad, long time retailers in Otorohanga, have created their own line of “all-year-round-hats”

We’re crouching in a cave for a close-up view of a glow­worm and hearing about the complexities of its life, which, let’s face it, isn’t even as dynamic as you think it isn’t. Yet we watch enthralled as a small fly entangles itself in the worm’s sticky threads, hanging like a mass of fishing lines from a rocky overhang. Before we can say, “What are the chances of…?”, the Arachnocampa luminosa has reeled in the line so aggressively and wolfed down the fly so speedily, I recoil. Nothing left. “Well,” says Garth, “you don’t see that every day!”

Mysteriously, Fred Mace, who, in 1887, was the first person to explore these caves, which he did on a flax-stem raft with local Tane Tinorau, never mentioned glow-worms in his report. Not a word. Nevertheless, 360 visitors had seen the cave within two years. Today, that number goes through before morning tea every day. Although Garth doesn’t need to issue us with candles and rolls of magne­sium wire to see our way, and we don’t have to clamber down slippery wooden ladders or ride in leaking boats, he says: “People can see caves all over the world but what re­ally impresses visitors here are the glow-worms. People are amazed that anything can live in pitch-black conditions.” A 1902 visitor’s reaction to the starry ceiling of the glow-worm grotto expresses how people continue to feel today: “…lo! a wonderous sight burst upon our astonished eyes”.

Outside, the double-decker bus that was disgorging over 50 Japanese tour­ists when we arrived has departed. The driver told me they had left Auckland at 7.30 a.m. to be here before 10.00 a.m. and would “do” Rotorua before arriving back in Auckland at 8.00 p.m. It’s this type of tourist that makes up the bulk of Waito­mo’s 600,000 annual visitors. However, says Destination Waitomo’s chairman John Anderson, “There’s considerable growth in the number of people who are spending two to four nights in the area, which is mainly driven by the adventure activities.”

Indeed, budget permitting, you can spend days abseiling, caving, black-water rafting (floating through caves on the inner tubes of tractor tyres), rock climbing, tramping, camping, horse riding and quad-bike riding, with each company crowing they are less “touristy” than the next. One brochure declares: “Clients must be prepared to get wet, muddy, exhausted and quite possibly break a nail!” Or you can watch angora rabbits being shorn, or laugh your way through Billy Black’s Kiwi Culture Show, a peep at the hard lives of the pioneers.

The type of hat involved in the episode that led to the naming of Te Rohe Potae is uncertain: Otorohanga has a bowler, Taumarunui, a top hat.
The type of hat involved in the episode that led to the naming of Te Rohe Potae is uncertain: Otorohanga has a bowler, Taumarunui, a top hat.

When tarseal smoothed the rough road from Hamilton to Waitomo and beyond in 1931, motorists who didn’t fancy the swish Waitomo Hotel sought accommodation in Otoro­hanga or Te Kuiti. Today, just as the adventure companies around Waitomo fight to outsell one another, so competi­tion between B & Bs, lodges, motels, inns, farm stays, cottages and holiday parks is fierce. The Youth Hostel alone sleeps 120. We spend a couple of quiet nights at the Woodlyn Park Motel, one in a 16 m-long 1950s Fiat Railcar unit that evokes a real sense of travel, and one in a Hobbit Hole unit complete with circular door and windows, grass on the roof, and door knockers solid enough to wake Bilbo Baggins.

Waitomo is tourism, and more of a tourist-town than Rotorua. When I ask Garth if he still enjoys guiding here after 14 years, he replies not as an individual but as a spokesman for his hapu: “We don’t just see it as a job; we see it as representing our ancestors.” Then he adds, “I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”


Not only does limestone give rise to beautiful caves, it also lends itself to the construction of grand monuments such as the Taj Mahal—and garden walls. We also use pulverised lime as fertiliser, fungicide and insecticide, in the manufacture of steel and paper, in gold extraction, and for stabilising road foundations, making paper, treating water, refining sugar, tanning leather and cleaning our teeth. New Zealand produces about 2.5M t of lime a year, and at least a third of that comes from McDon­ald’s Lime Quarry at Oparure in the King Country.

On assistant manager Darcy Maddern’s laptop computer is a revolving 3-D model composed of a multitude of tiny blue and pink blocks, each representing a 25 x 25 x 2 m, 3000 t chunk of limestone. It’s a feature of a quarry optimisation programme for making production more efficient­ not the sort of thing that existed 23 years ago, when Nev­ille Rawlings, who shows us round the 67 ha site, began work here.

Otorohanga-born and-bred, Neville started out bull­dozing, scraping off the overburden of topsoil, volcanic ash, siltstone and cap rock that covered the limestone, filling whole valleys with it and carefully contouring his handi­work. These days he’s the quarry manager.

Wearing hard-hat, safety glasses, high-viz vest, steel-capped boots and earplugs, I follow Neville’s boot-prints in the fine lime dust. He’s shouting into the noise of 1600 t of limestone being crushed in a surge bin and carried through a tunnel on conveyor belts, and I can’t hear a word.

McDonald’s quarry at Oparure is the largest limestone quarry in the country, producing almost one million tonnes a year.
McDonald’s quarry at Oparure is the largest limestone quarry in the country, producing almost one million tonnes a year.

At the comparatively quiet drying plant, he explains: “We dry the fines off the main crusher here. They’re stored in a bin behind us. See that drum over there? That contains 13 t of little magnesium balls that grind it down to flour. And we extract all the fine dust so it doesn’t go into the air. You get bugger all waste here.”

A little later, pointing through the window of his 4WD, he says: “One day, that hill there will disappear. We’ve only stripped the first half of the quarry. At the moment, we’re crushing 280–300 t an hour.”

That means the yellow trucks plying to and fro, which are so big you have to climb a ladder to get into the cab, each needs to tip its 42 t load into the crusher every nine minutes. And the anticipated 950,000 t of lime quarried this year will need 38,000 road trucks to cart it away. Over half will go to McDonald’s kilns in Otorohanga, where they make burnt, or quick, lime.

Among the pavlovas, Jandals and Buzzy Bees that Otoro­hanga uses to market itself as New Zealand’s Kiwiana Capi­tal, there’s a small sculpture of a bowler hat, commemorat­ing the significance of that item of headwear for Te Rohe Potae. It was here that the name Te Rohe Potae superseded Te Nehe-nehe-nui (The Great Forest) as Ngati Mania­poto’s appellation for the King Country. Philip Crown tells me how it happened, at Te Kaunihera (the Council of Chiefs) in the late 1870s.

“There were 114 Maniapoto chiefs at this meeting…” “That’s a lot of chiefs just from Maniapoto.”

“That’s right. But everybody thought they were chiefs. Anyway, at this meeting, the map was on the ground and a statement was made from the government that ‘this is the way we are going to cut up the land so everybody knows exactly what they own. If you want to sell some, you know how to sell it in these lots.’”

On hearing this, Wahanui, Ngati Mania­poto’s paramount chief after Rewi Maniapoto, asked for a hat from one of the government of­ficials. It’s unclear whether it was Native Minis­ter John Bryce’s hat or not. Wahanui then asked chief Te Hauauru, who was standing next to him, for his patiti (tomahawk). Holding this in his hand, Wahanui raised his arm and was about to cut the hat in half when the government of­ficial asked, “What are you doing?”

Limestone outcrops throughout the King Country, most famously forming the Waitomo Caves, where Garth Costar guides.
Limestone outcrops throughout the King Country, most famously forming the Waitomo Caves, where Garth Costar guides.

Wahanui replied, “Well, you’re cutting up my land. I was just going to show you what would happen if I cut your hat.” The govern­ment official asked, “Where is your land?” Wa­hanui answered, in words sometimes credited to Tawhiao, “Under the brim of that hat is my land”—which translates (in short) as “Te rohe potae”.

The debate between Waikato and Ngati Ma­niapoto about who said these words continues to this day. As Shane Te Ruki puts it: “As far as Ngati Maniapoto are concerned, when we’re talking about Rohe Potae here, we’re right. When we go [to Waikato], they’re right.”

Otorohanga’s John and Karam Haddad are convinced they’ve got it right. They’ve designed and made a hat that, they claim, is for all New Zealanders. They sell it at their Haddad Menswear store on Otorohanga’s main street along with everything else a practical person needs.

“A hat is like a flag,” says Karam.

John elaborates: “We wanted a hat that was New Zea­land. Everybody else has a hat. We should have a hat. So we made this one. But it took us four years. Why is that? Well, we wanted to make sure it was right. And I think we’ve done that. Try one on.”

Very comfortable. I don’t buy one but three sell during the 30 minutes I’m in the store.


The 20 km drive to Te Kuiti (the name is an abbrevia­tion of Te Kuititanga) from Otorohanga is through rolling hills of pasture, crops and English trees. It’s the type of country Alfred Cockayne, director-general of the Department of Agriculture from 1936 to 1943, must have been thinking of when he compared New Zealand’s land to “a magic hat which, while still retaining its original size, allowed the conjurer to draw out a seemingly never ending stream of objects…” From the once forest-cloaked hills of the King Country, the hat has conjured sheep, cat­tle, dairy, lime, tourism and forestry, including a Te Kuiti timber mill named Tregoweth. Although land is being converted to dairy pasture, David Hearn, CEO of the De­velopment King Country Trust, says, “The key economic drivers have traditionally been sheep and beef.” Within the Waitomo district alone, sheep and beef generate $95.7 mil­lion, about two-thirds of the return from all agricultural production.

“C’mon gentlemen. They’re here for sale. I’ll take two. Four-three-eight, thank you Brucie. Four-forty. Four hun­dred and forty dollars. Four-forty. Four-forty. Sold! Sold for four hundred and forty dollars!”

Before the hammer hits the table, the next lot is pacing around the inside arena’s auction pen at Te Kuiti’s weekly cattle sale. It’s an unseasonably hot day and a few blokes hold up the railings outside. Raymond Ngatai is yakking with Frank, no last name, who’s sold 10 Angus cattle today.

“Happy with the price?”

“Oh well, accept what you get, eh. You got to on a lovely day like this.”

Farmers start checking cattle in at 8 a.m. and the sale starts at midday, but a yardman outside tells me that things have been getting a bit behind. “Some of these cockies are late getting out of bed. We were here in the dark last week—didn’t finish until 7.15 p.m.”

Bachelors Frank (left) and Raymond have a yarn at the Te Kuiti sale yards. Frank farms 211 ha near Piopio and Raymond is a retired shepherd.
Bachelors Frank (left) and Raymond have a yarn at the Te Kuiti sale yards. Frank farms 211 ha near Piopio and Raymond is a retired shepherd.

Still, everyone’s very happy with the new all-weather sales arena, opened two years ago by Ernest Ronaldson, one of the oldest farmers hereabouts. He and his wife of 60 years, Roma, both 87, have a farm at Eight Mile and we call in. Ernest greets us at the door and stands aside to let us walk through first. Roma puts on the kettle for a cup of tea and we make ourselves comfortable round the wooden dining table.

Ernest’s father drew a block at the back of Mangaotaki in 1919 but “every inch of it was terrible” and he bought these 520 acres (211 ha), though the holding has since expanded to 640 acres (259 ha). It was the lack of cobalt in the soil, or “bush sickness”, that killed many dreams on King Country land. As Ernest goes on to relate: “Fellas walked off the farms after the war. They just couldn’t make it do. The Crown took over dozens of farms. There were that many returned soldiers around here…”

Of their own farm, Ernest recalls: “Out the back were 400 acres [162 ha] that was just a mat of biddy-bid. Solid biddy-bid.” He’s referring to Acaena viridior, a low-growing rosaceous plant with prickly burs. “You never saw anything like it. You’d have to shear your sheep before the first week in November or they’d be covered in the stuff. And you had to shear the dogs.”

Superphosphate transformed farming, especially, after the WWII, aerial top dressing. Ernest’s father remem­bered the first “manure” in the King Country. In 1922, he was riding his horse past land now part of the Piopio golf course and, as Ernest tells it, “This fella, a dairy farmer, was spreading this stuff by hand and my father thought it was flour.”

Eventually, Ernest took over the farm and married Roma. This was a time of no tractors, no electricity, no bulldozers, no farm tracks, no stock trucks, terrible roads, and everything done by horse and human. Horses hauled sacks of fertiliser on sleds up the steep hills, and with 20 kg of the stuff in a tin tied round his neck, Ernest spread about 2000 kg a day by hand, “and I’m still paying for it with my knees.” These days, the whole farm can be aerially top-dressed before lunch, and the stock levels are radically dif­ferent. “Before manure, there would be 100 sheep out there and they’d starve in the winter,” explains Ernest. “Now there’s 1000 out there and 400 cattle on the same ground.”

The Te Kuiti area has 690 farms, most of them sheep and beef, and fertility is maintained by spreading super- phosphate and lime.
The Te Kuiti area has 690 farms, most of them sheep and beef, and fertility is maintained by spreading super- phosphate and lime.


I ask if either he or Roma has suffered any accidents.

“No, we’ve been lucky,” he replies. “Just little things like broken ribs, nothing serious.”

Roma tops up our tea, offers more cookies, and tells us what she used to get up to.

“I was under eight stone, and Ernest’s parents were concerned that he’d married such a frail town girl. We had two children. They were long days. Breakfast at seven. Do­ing the meals and washing up. No Dishmaster then. We used to make our own butter. Some friends used to say our groceries consisted of salt, sugar, flour and tea. We grew our own veges and had our own orchard. We were self-con­tained. Those shelves”—she points to some floor-to-ceiling cupboards—“were full of bottled fruit.

“When we first got married, people used to envy us liv­ing on the main highway only eight miles from Te Kuiti. Now it’s awful—awful!”

Ernest agrees: “We used to shift stock along the road all the time—ewes and lambs and cattle. You daren’t put anything on the road now. I’ve stopped traffic down there to put stock across, and this truck driver was going to get down and have a piece of me.”

After 60 years of marriage and having made a go of the farm, Roma and Ernest are taking things more easily. One of their sons owns the farm now but they still help out.

Roma insists, “You’ve got to be useful.”

Ernest adds, “Yea. You’ve got to do something, don’t ya?”


Travel in the King Country wasn’t always as easy as it is today. Kerry-Nicholls wrote about conditions there in the years following the 1860s: “All [Pakeha] who had hitherto attempted to make even short journeys into it had been ruthlessly plundered by the natives, and sent back across the frontier, stripped even of their clothes.”

These were the lucky ones. Maori killed Pakeha tres­passers in 1870, ’73 and ’80, and the Crown was powerless to act. However, says Phillip Crown, there were “a lot” of Pakeha who, mostly through marriage or religious service, lived within Te Rohe Potae during those years.

The King Country was, as Kerry-Nicholls noted: to all intents and purposes, an imperium in imperio, situated in the heart of an important British colony, a terra incognita, inhabited exclusively by a warlike race of savages, ruled over by an absolute monarch, who defied our laws, ignored our institu­tions, and in whose territory the rebel, the murderer, and the outcast took refuge with impunity.

The most famous outlaw was Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki. After killing about 30 Europeans and 20 Maori in raids on settlements in Poverty Bay in 1868, he was chased by colonial troops and kupapa for four years. His last en­gagement with his pursuers took place at Te Porere, west of Mt Ruapehu. Rewi Maniapoto watched this battle and, says Phillip, “He called [Te Kooti] an idiot and came home. It was a sham.”

With only a $2 entry fee, the annual day-long Kawhia Kai Festival attracts thousands to the quiet harbour village, close to the somewhat elastic northern edge of the King Country.
With only a $2 entry fee, the annual day-long Kawhia Kai Festival attracts thousands to the quiet harbour village, close to the somewhat elastic northern edge of the King Country.

Phillip says Ngati Maniapoto, who was hosting Tawhiao and possessed the majority of the land within the King Country, opened the area to Pakeha primarily to get Te Kooti, who had taken refuge there, a pardon. But there were other considerations. Land sales and trade had been limited since the 1860s, weakening the King movement, or Kingitanga, which was eager for greater commercial opportunities. Some sought income not from selling land but leasing it, and there were jobs to be had in railway con­struction. The Crown—that is, the New Zealand govern­ment—had its own reasons for wanting the King Country opened up: the military was bogged down with border sur­veillance; the favoured route for the Auckland–Wellington railway lay through the area; and settlers were hungry for its land. While the King Country remained closed, the Na­tive Land Court chipped away at its edges.

Finally, in 1881, at the village of Whatiwhatihoe, near present-day Pirongia, Tawhiao officially ended his armed struggle, even though he was well aware of the effort that would be needed to regain confiscated Waikato lands. In front of government officials, he laid down, broke and buried many symbolic items. The most significant tokens, says Phillip Crown, were 70 kereru, representing the 70 warriors in a Maori fighting unit, and one piwakawaka (fantail), the bird that, in Maori legend, was responsible for changing man’s immortality to mortality. Tawhiao blessed all the tokens and, says Phillip, “He made his speech that, with all his spiritual being as a king, said he had made peace, and made a prediction that there would be no more fighting between Maori and Pakeha.” With Te Kooti and others pardoned in 1883, and a prohibition placed on the sale of alcohol (which remained in place until the 1950s), the King Country opened its doors to Pakeha.

Even so, there wasn’t exactly a stampede. As James Be­lich notes in Making Peoples: “Loose empire…arrived in the King Country about 1890. Tight empire may have had to wait until World War One.”


In 2007, Ngati Tuwharetoa, ardent supporters of the Kingitanga, have a sign on the southern shores of Lake Taupo: “No entry into Waihi Village—Keep Out.” Nearby, a house is surrounded by 2 m-high concrete walls with a 2 m-high wooden gate. From within, a Pakeha man emerges to collect the mail. He sees me looking at the sign and says, “That’s the way New Zealand is going. You’re going to see a lot more of that. Sad, isn’t it?”, before disap­pearing back inside.

Up the western side of the lake, on the eastern-most land of Te Rohe Potae, we follow another sign: “Pureora Forest Park (Waihora Lagoon)”. This visitor-abused wetland looks more like a trampled paddock, and we continue driving through extensive pine plantations to a native-forest view­ing tower near Pureora village. From 12 m above the forest floor, we get a feeling for what it must have been like for the treetop protesters who, in 1978, generated enough national support to stop native logging in Pureora Forest. Following intensive pest control within Pureora’s Waipapa Ecological Area, the native birds are back. Robins enjoy an 80 per cent nesting success rate, kaka make up the largest population of their kind in the North Island, and only one area in the country boasts more kokako.

And there’s now only one more large town for us to visit, which, like other King Country settlements, grew cau­tiously following the arrival of the first steam trains. We approach Taumarunui from the east, via Highway 41, but, as Peter Cape sang in his 1957 ditty, Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line:

You can get to Taumarunui going north or going south, And you end up there at midnight and you’ve cinders in your mouth, You’ve cinders in your whiskers and a cinder in your eye, So you pop off to refreshments for a cuppa tea and pie… New Zealand culture is still digesting that tea and pie,along with the sturdy Crown Lynn cup and saucer, although the infamous catering might have been predicted when Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward opened the main trunk line in 1908 and promptly went off for a feed at Tau­marunui’s Tiffin tea rooms.

Just down from the railway station, near a concrete hat­ that enduring symbol of Te Rohe Potae—a plaque reads: Welcome, come again stranger and as you pass through Centre your soul within the heart of our land and feel the four winds of our unlocked memory blow.

Although this sign on the Puniu River is one of the few direct references to the name, those who live there are proud of their district—it's heartland New Zealand.
Although this sign on the Puniu River is one of the few direct references to the name, those who live there are proud of their district—it’s heartland New Zealand.

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