Waikato: In the footsteps of the soldiers

By Geoff Chapple

Waikato's Whangamarino River. Photo / Kenny Rodger
Waikato's Whangamarino River. Photo / Kenny Rodger

Those who've studied the Land Wars know this area as the New Zealand rubicon. Back in the 1860s the Mangatawhiri Stream was the northern boundary of Waikato Maori. It was the British decision to cross the stream under arms that signalled the commencement of hostilities.

But for us, a call from a construction manager to say that work had finished on 3km of track from Mercer - where the Mangatawhiri joins the Waikato River - up to the Whangamarino River, was rather more auspicious, signalling the completion of another piece of the jigsaw that is Te Araroa, the national walkway.

So on a bright Saturday we drove down from Auckland to have a test walk on this route through the old warzone, a tranquil place these days, of interest mainly to duck hunters.

Things would have been more hectic on July 12, 1863, when Lieutenant-General Duncan Cameron marched 500 troops across the stream close to its junction with the Waikato.

Maori rushed immediately to defend their territory.

They knew that if Cameron was to move south, he wouldn't drag his carts and guns through the swampland that bordered the river, he'd use the high ground east of the river, the Koheroa Ridges.

Maori defenders dug in across those same ridges - four defensive positions in all. The British advanced, skirmished and grouped at one point for a full-scale charge that overwhelmed the most tenacious Maori position. Waikato warriors fell back on to their base at Te Teoteo Pa, then melted away south. Thirty men, including the chief, Te Huirama, had been killed in the fighting. The British had lost one soldier.

The Koheroa Ridges are now privately farmed, and the new track can't follow the old battleground. Instead it loops over the spurs that lie west of the contested ridge, descending twice into swampland.

No worries - we weren't planning to haul artillery that day, only lunch. And besides, just a month past when building the track, we'd ordered two truckloads of metal specifically to raise a path through the swamp. The metal had been dumped beside the highway and we'd commissioned a sub-contractor to barrow it in. Dry boots are always nicer and we expected to keep them that way.

We started the tramp, climbing steeply up past domestic hens scratching on the side of the first hill. The track follows an old paper road, but it's unfenced from a nearby house, and the hill is also foraged by a goat and ducks. We reached the hilltop and looked down on the wide and silent Waikato River.

We climbed a second hill. State Highway 1 and the Main Trunk Line were now visibly squeezed beside the river. Looking down, I could see the remnant shadow of our metal dump beside the highway, but the metal itself was gone. Excellent - or so I thought - the sub-contractors, as requested, had barrowed the metal into the swamp that lay directly ahead.

Except, as we descended, there was no sign of the planned path. If the metal was no longer heaped on the highway, and if it hadn't appeared at its destination either, then it'd obviously been stolen. As I lurched across the unreconstructed swamp with wet boots, I cursed the light-fingered denizens of the lower Waikato.

Beyond the swamp the track zig-zagged uphill, and we walked finally on to the high ground of the Koheroa Ridge itself.

Here our track joined to the existing Department of Conservation Whangamarino Redoubt Access Track that comes up from Oram Rd.

We were surrounded by military history.

To the west was the small hill the British had ringed with rifle pits, giving them a field of fire across the pa and river. It sat now within the wide median island separating the north- and south-bound highways.

More formidable was the wide flat expanse of General Cameron's Whangamarino redoubt, not signposted now, but still easily identifiable. After Maori retreated off the Koheroa Ridges, the British took over Te Teoteo Pa and built this substantial stockaded redoubt beside it.

The Waikato fighters had by then regrouped at Meremere, 2.5km further south. They were entrenched on high ground with palisades and rank on rank of musket positions. They had a huge swamp in front and a wide river beside them. Their three old ships' guns loaded with whatever scrap iron was to hand prevented any passage up the river.

General Cameron waited. Three months on from that first crossing of the Mangatawhiri, he wheeled two big Armstrong guns on to the redoubt and pounded Meremere with explosive shells. By then he'd also received delivery of the Pioneer, a specially built river gunboat from Sydney, and a smaller vessel, the Avon. He surveyed the Maori position from the Pioneer, coming close in, then used the two gunboats and armoured barges to leapfrog 600 troops upriver, past Meremere.

This was the history, and we ate lunch looking up the gleaming river, remembering the old strategies and the tangled history.

As we chewed we also tried to figure how two truckloads of metal had simply vanished, but we untangled that one a week later. A Transit New Zealand work gang, happening upon an unusual dump of metal beside the road, figured it must be theirs and used it for another job altogether. They apologised, duly replaced it, and as we write it's been barrowed into the swamp ready for laying. Your boots now stand a better chance of staying dry.

Thanks to the Perry Foundation for a $25,000 grant to complete this track, and to the Nga Muka Development Trust, mana whenua on this land.

From Auckland, take the Mercer exit off the Southern Motorway,
bear left on to Koheroa Rd for 200m, park the car and walk up
Skeet Rd a short distance to the northern beginning. The southern
end of the track begins off Oram Rd, just north of Meremere.

Distance - 3 km. Time - 90 minutes one way. Tramping track standard - wear boots. No dogs.


Geoff Chapple is CEO of Te Araroa Trust, the organisation putting a continuous walking track the length of the country.

* * *

Te Araroa's opening date is set at November 2010. Just 15 months'
away, and the largely volunteer organisation still has about 300km of
track to put into place.

Roughly half that will be constructed by the Department of Conservation, which is now a partner to take Te Araroa across the public estate. But the other half is still dependent on Te Araroa's volunteers.

Part of their job is to scrape together funding for such formidable
projects as the $650,000 Paekakariki Escarpment Track leading into Wellington.

It's a challenge, but the volunteers don't seem to sleep, and progress on the route remains steady.

The 3km Whangamarino Track is another small step. On August 2, a Te Araroa Trust ally, the Upper Clutha Tracks Trust, opened the 11km
Hawea River track.

That same weekend a small Te Araroa gang near Clevedon cleaned
out gorse on a 2km track up the Wairoa River to take walkers through to the Hunua Ranges Regional Park.

As that new river track enters the park, the rangers have welcomed it in by constructing a set of steps, and have plotted its onward course
through the Hunuas.

- NZ Herald

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