Drive through Ngāruawāhia, and all you’ll see is a dilapidated main strip—the butcher, the dairy, the pharmacy, the op-shop—that doesn’t spread further than two half-boarded-up blocks. The town’s name, however, stems from celebration, abundance and romance.
A marriage arranged to unite two Waikato tribes fell through when the bride, Heke-i-te-rangi, ran away with the groom’s younger brother, Te Ngaere. It was a diplomatic nightmare. But the birth of the couple’s first son provided an opportunity for reconciliation, in the form of a great feast attended by both tribes. During the festivities, Te Ngaere declared, “Wāhia ngā rua!” or, “Break open the food pits!” And so this place became Ngāruawāhia, the opened pits. The Hākarimata Range overlooking the town is named after the same feast—hākari kai mata, mountains of food.
Later, the area became a battleground, when Pākehā land hunger played out in the Waikato Wars. Ngāruawāhia was occupied by British troops in 1863 after the Battle of Rangiriri; they renamed it Queenstown, then Newcastle. In 1877, these efforts were abandoned, and the town’s original name restored.
Today, it seems the state couldn’t care less about inhabiting Ngāruawāhia. The town is neatly bypassed by State Highway 1, instead cut through by the forgotten end of Great South Road.
Yet in the 19th century, Ngāruawāhia could have become our capital. It was at the confluence of trade routes, and an important port for steamboats trading on the Waipā and Waikato rivers. It bustled with industry: a brewery, flour mill, flax mill, several sawmills and a brickworks. In the early 20th century, Te Puea Hērangi—Princess Te Puea—established Turangawaewae Marae here. She’d wanted to create a hospital for a community still reeling from the 1918 flu pandemic, and when the Ministry of Health refused, instead established a receiving hall for the Māori King. Ngāruawāhia became the seat of the Kīngitanga, the Māori king movement.
This is where New Zealand Geographic invited 21 photojournalists from around the country. Hosted at Turangawaewae—sleeping in the wharemoe and eating in the wharekai—photographers heard from some of the world’s best photojournalists, edited their portfolios, and shot new assignments. Each photographer was assigned a local story to capture, creating a 10-frame photo-essay, captured in the video below (edited by Melanie Burford).
They documented the land, the people, the river, and the connections between them. Photographers visited people’s homes at dinner time, turned up to milking sheds at dawn, and attended rugby matches played by staunch rivals who were about three feet tall. Rather than being “taken”, the photographs were gifts to the community, returned at a final gathering and presentation on Sunday afternoon. The workshop closed with participants standing in a circle, each taking a turn to reflect. For them, photography is a way of taking notice, active care, and a conduit to forming relationships and acting in the world. The course was not about the complicated lenses, the metallic shutter sound, or even the light. It was about people, people, people.