Huka Falls, Waikato River
New Zealand’s longest river narrows to a 15-metre cataract of whitewater at Te Waiheke o Huka, where some 220,000 litres of water per second tumbles over six-metre drop. The flow would fill an Olympic swimming pool in 11 seconds.
The falls also divide the territories of Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa river iwi, and separate the ecology of the tributary of Lake Taupō from the upper reaches of the Waikato River itself. There are no eels—for instance—above the falls, they can’t pass the falls or climb the steep rock walls.
Tutukau Gorge, Waikato River
Paddle a waka
Students from Reporoa College recreate history, paddling a double-hulled waka hourua—a cultural programme run by Aotearoa Waka Experiences—through the infamous Tutukau Gorge, a section of the Waikato River two kilometres south of Orakei-Korako.
The walls of the gorge soar 50 metres above the river, providing a vantage point from which local Māori would keep watch and protect their rohe from marauding waka like this. History recounts bloody battles in this reach of the river, causing even the hurtling jetboats to slow to an idle out of respect for the dead.
Lake Ohakuri, Waikato River
Endemic species coexist with invasives in the highly modified ecology of the Waikato River. Shortfin eels writhe around the camera, while introduced rudd—the ‘possums of the waterways’—circle at a safe distance.
Rudd were deliberately introduced to New Zealand and distributed widely in the North Island, Nelson and Christchurch. Oxygen weed, Glyceria and Mexican daisy are also invasive species, forming ‘meadows’ that choke our native aquatic weeds.
Lake Karapiro, Waikato River
Mike Holmes pulls shortfin eels from a fyke net, under the watchful eye of his hound Jack. A decent day returns 150 kilograms—six bags—to make up his 20-tonne quota for the year.
Holmes has seen a lot of change in the ecology of the river over the years, particularly the eutrophication of the waterway. He used to get ‘beautiful eels’ in the deep stretches, but now there’s little oxygen in the deeper areas of the lakes. He has been transferring elvers from below the hydroelectric dam into the lake above it since 1990—a couple of million every year.
Lake Ohakuri, Waikato River
Ohakuri local Nik Gibson has won the national wakeboarding champs four times, and travelled to the Worlds in Korea, Doha, Italy and Australia, first time at age 14. Here he lines up the wake outside his family’s tourism operation at Orakei-Korako, as his two-month-old son sleeps soundly in the roaring boat.
There’s been a dramatic increase in the invasive weed Glyceria on lake, says Gibson, as well as rotting mats of algae in the river during the hottest months of summer.
Tutukau Gorge, Waikato River
Ride in a jet boat
Searing up the green highway at 90 kilometres per hour, punters on the New Zealand River Jet get a whistle-stop tour of the upper Waikato.
Invented in New Zealand, the jetboat is as successful as a driver of thrill-seeking tourism as it is a product in its own right.
Lake Atiamuri, Waikato River
Fly over a power station
Atiamuri Power Station was the third of eight hydroelectric power stations to take advantage of the massive vertical potential of the Waikato River. Four generators each produce 21 megawatts, which is plumbed directly into Transpower’s grid.
Together, the power stations on the river generate some 4000 gigawatt hours every year—around 13% of New Zealand’s total electrical generating capacity.
Lake Maraetai, Waikato River
Inside a power station
It’s Craig Caldwell’s last day in ‘the office’ before his retirement as production technician of Maraetai Power Station. He makes a quick visual inspection of the spinning turbine that turns falling water from the mighty Waikato into enough electricity to power 100,000 households, largely in Auckland. While hydroelectric power is renewable, the dams significantly change the structure and ecology of the river, flooding valleys, modifying the natural flow and blocking the passage of fish.
Broadlands Forest, Waikato
The upper reaches of the Waikato writhe like a serpent through the fertile farmland of Broadlands Forest. The land is a patchwork of agriculture—from enormous pivot irrigators that orbit paddocks of dairy cows, to the corduroy fields patrolled by combine harvesters.
Dense vegetation on the river banks protects the river from fertilisers and stock effluent, but in the places where that riparian margin is thin, it flows into the river from farm ditches, culverts and tributaries. In these headwaters the river still runs clear, but everyone along its banks is culpable for the state of the river at its mouth at Port Waikato.
Orakei-Korako, Waikato River
At Orakei-Korako, the immense Taupō Volcanic Zone brushes the surface, superheating water to form the largest geyser field in New Zealand. Kurapai Geyser is erupting on the hill behind the terraces.
The sinter steps are formed in much the same way as the long lost Pink and White Terraces of Tarawera. A large portion of the structure, including two of the world’s largest geysers, was inundated when the lake level was raised 18 metres for the Ohakuri Power Station.
Reids Park Farm
Dive the Waikato
The water draining from Lake Taupō is crystal clear at Reids Park Farm, the out-point for daring drift divers following the current downstream. Miss this out-point and the next stop is Huka Falls.
Invasive oxygen weed clings to the banks, over-reached by wilding pines and weedy willows—a flora drastically altered from the forest that would have once fringed this waterway.
State Highway 30
Ride a log truck
Allan Bryant guides his log truck up Waipa State Mill Road to the Whakarewarewa weighbridge to check through a load of pine from a farm wood lot near the river. From here he’s off to the Port of Tauranga where the logs will be exported.
Forestry forms the centrepiece of the central North Island economy and lines the banks of the Waikato and its tributaries. It’s better for wildlife than open farmland, as ponga and ferns form an understorey and provide shelter and shade to native species. When forestry blocks are converted to pasture, however, there is a serious risk of erosion into waterways and contributes to further nutrient loading downstream.
Hinemoa’s Needle marks the end of a massive escarpment of Te Horohoroinga o nga ringa o Kahumatamomoe—where Tutanekai washed his hands after burying bones. The mountain is cloaked in native bush, but over-run by predators.
Beyond, a quilt of farmland stretches out from Horohoro toward Reporoa along the Wai-o-Tapu, an important tributary of the Waikato River.
Kerosene Creek, Rotorua
Soak it up
Tourists take a load off at Kerosene Creek, a natural hotspring on the Wai-o-Tapu tributary that ultimately runs into the Waikato.
The Waikato River is the country’s longest, and cuts through one of the most populated rural landscapes in New Zealand, posing a unique challenge for conservation and the primary sector alike. It is tapped for power, for irrigation, and invasive species have replaced natives in many places. There may be no going back, but the mauri of the river—it’s life-giving force—can be restored.