Pirongia: Waikato's frontier town

By Dionne Christian

Pirongia has a rich history but as Dionne Christian discovers, on multiple trips, it is a present-day delight too.

The Pirongia Historic Visitor's Centre. Photo / Dionne Christian
The Pirongia Historic Visitor's Centre. Photo / Dionne Christian

Many people who stop in Pirongia have their eyes on one thing: Mt Pirongia, the 959-metre extinct volcano, which, from its position at the heart of Pirongia Forest Park, imposes over a large chunk of the Waikato and Waipa districts. According to ancient legend, it is home to fairy folk and magical creatures known as patupaiarehe.

Though there are numerous walks through the forest park, on the day we first visited our thoughts were on getting home after a long weekend away.

We stopped for lunch along the tree-lined SH39 as it passes through Pirongia, at the Mountainview Bakery which was a great choice for far better-than-average Kiwi lunch staples: meat pies and sandwiches.

But we quickly decided we wanted to spend more time in Pirongia. The main street was pretty, especially given that it is a thoroughfare to many other parts of the Waikato and King Country; the historic buildings are well-preserved and obviously valued by the local community and a sign declaring Pirongia to be Waikato's frontier town intrigued.

The town is also gaining a reputation for its arts and crafts scene and we were keen to see examples of this.

We returned for a day trip on the last Sunday of the month when the Pirongia Country Markets, an all-weather affair held at the Memorial Hall, were on. Our visit could have been doomed because Transpower had cut power from 8.30am-4.30pm to carry out maintenance work. It meant a number of places we wanted to see were closed.

However, the market was in full swing and we could see first-hand why Pirongia is becoming a creative centre.

We came away with a piece of hand-forged copper jewellery from the Rustic N Wrapt stall, a gorgeous scented soy candle from Glow's Anne Kingscott, who recycles old teacups, vases and other crockery to use as candle holders, a set of hand-painted glass coasters from River Rainbows, delicious cakes, great-tasting sausages from the Pirongia Bacon Company's stand and bagloads of fresh fruit and vegetables.

After shopping at the market, we crossed the road and lunched at the Persimmon Tree Cafe which, with a generator to power the business, was doing a thriving trade. The Cafe is clearly a focal point for the community and visitors alike and despite being busy, the service was friendly and efficient and the food delicious, reasonably priced and as sophisticated as any big city cafe.

Heading back to Auckland, we spied a sign for Cloudy Mountain Cheese, set up just five years ago by Cathy and Peter Lang who specialise in producing soft to semi-soft European style cheeses which have been winning local and international plaudits.

Being one of the country's smallest registered artisan cheese companies, its products are only available in the Waikato at NZFMA approved farmers' markets and the Pirongia outlet shop.

Having had such an enjoyable time, we decided to come back for the next country market and visit the places closed on our initial day trip.

When we examined the many exhibits at the Pirongia Historic Visitors' Centre, in a former church on the main road, we learned why Pirongia has been dubbed Waikato's frontier town.

The Waipa River passes close by and provided a major accessway for Tainui who first landed on the coast at Kawhia. By the time European settlers arrived in the 1820s, there were many fortified pa and villages along the river and its tributaries.

The settlement was founded in 1864 when, at the end of the Waikato Land War, Maori land was confiscated forcing local iwi and hapu to retreat to the King Country.

Pirongia, or Alexandra as it was called then, was one of a number of military settlements set up to defend the confiscation line.

The Alexandra Redoubt on Bellot St is today protected by the Historic Places Trust and remains a potent symbol of those troubled times. Just two years after settlement, in 1866, the Alexandra Racing Club started up and is today one of the oldest racing clubs in the country with its Boxing Day races a drawcard for thousands.

In 1881, King Tawhiao and his followers laid down their arms outside the Alexandra Hotel. Extended since then, the hotel is still there today and houses an antiques shop as well as the local pub. It's still called the Alexandra Hotel, although the town's name was changed to Pirongia in 1896 to prevent confusion with the South Island's Alexandra.

At the Birdsong Gallery there are further examples of excellent local arts and crafts, and this time we lunched at the Pirongia Village Cafe; again, a fine choice for hearty meals.

We'll return again in September for the town's annual Craft Day which attracts up to 10,000 visitors.

We hope also to see the famed Pirongia Clydesdale horses, owned by the van der Sande family who take the team to many events throughout the North Island.

FURTHER INFORMATION

* The Pirongia Country Market is on the last Sunday of the month at the Memorial Hall, Franklin St (on SH39) from 9am-2pm. There's an art exhibition with craft day on Saturday, September 29 followed on Sunday by the Country Market.

* The Birdsong Gallery is at 700 Franklin St, ph (07) 212-2221. Open daily except Tuesday, 10am-4pm.

* The Pirongia Historic Visitor's Centre is at 798 Franklin St, (07) 871 9018. Open Friday-Sunday & Wednesday.

* The Alexandra Hotel is at 815 Franklin St, ph (07) 871 9838.

* Mountainview Bakery and Hot Food is at 751 Franklin St, ph (07) 871 9725.

* The Pirongia Village Cafe is at 765 Franklin St, ph (07) 871 9675.

* The Persimmon Tree Cafe is at 1050 Franklin St, ph (07) 871 9288.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 26 Oct 2014 12:08:30 Processing Time: 885ms