Waikato: Journey into the past

By Dionne Christian

Waikato is the site of some of our bloodiest historic battles. Dionne Christian takes a look

The Tohu Maumahara (Symbol of Remembrance) for the Battle of Rangiriri. Photo / New Zealand Historic Places Trust
The Tohu Maumahara (Symbol of Remembrance) for the Battle of Rangiriri. Photo / New Zealand Historic Places Trust

Mum, was there really a battle here? It seems very peaceful today." Miss Eight is standing atop Rangiriri Pa, in the northern Waikato, where earth ramparts and trenches are a visible reminder of one of the bloodiest conflicts in New Zealand history.

Today, it is indeed peaceful - even with the hum of traffic from nearby State Highway 1 - but on November 20, 1863, 1500 British troops and about 500 Maori engaged in a mortal combat. Both sides suffered heavy casualties: 41 Maori, including six chiefs, died and hundreds more were seriously wounded; 132 British soldiers were killed or injured.

The village, already home to the Rangiriri Battle Site Heritage Centre, is one of 13 key sites on the Waikato War Driving Tour, developed by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and Nga Muka. It gives visitors unprecedented access to the stories of one of the defining moments in New Zealand history: the Waikato War of 1863-64, which has its 150th anniversary this year. Miss Eight and Miss Four roamed far and wide across the fertile farmland of the Waikato with their history nerd mum. The illustrated brochure took us to historic sites, many alongside State Highway 1, from Auckland to Pirongia.

Use the brochure in conjunction with a website, which has a wealth of educational material, smartphone and audio resources.

At each site we used our smartphone app to access audio explaining different aspects of the battles. Window signs at NZHPT-managed sites at Rangiriri and Whangamarino frame the existing landscape and sit next to artistic impressions of what the area looked like in 1863 and 1864. Other interpretation signs can be found at Te Wheoro and the Alexandra Redoubt and there are memorials at a number of other stops along the tour. We started at Highwic (in Newmarket), which was built in 1862 to house the wealthy - and fast-growing - Buckland family.

Painting from Waikato War Project, Battle of Rangiriri. Illustration / New Zealand Historic Places Trust
Painting from Waikato War Project, Battle of Rangiriri. Illustration / New Zealand Historic Places Trust

At the start of the Waikato War, you could look out from Highwic and see troops frantically felling dense bush and digging out volcanic rock to build the Great South Rd, which became a warpath south to the Waikato. Highwic's owner, Alfred Buckland, didn't fight in the conflict but he sold horses to Imperial troops - hence its connection to the war.

From Highwic, we headed to the Pukekohe East Church, which still bears the scars of war. Seventeen men and one 14-year-old boy held off a war party of about 200 Maori, desperate to save themselves until reinforcements arrived.

They fired guns from a half-finished stockade. Bullet holes in the church walls and ceilings are visible today. A mounted boulder in the neighbouring cemetery marks the final resting place of Maori warriors who were killed during the battle.

We then drive to Pokeno (Queen's Redoubt), Mercer (Koheroa Ridge) and Whangamarino/Meremere, before coming to Rangiriri. Nearby Te Wheoro's Redoubt is a reminder that not all Waikato Maori viewed the British as the enemy. Ngati Naho chief Te Wheoro opposed war between Kingitanga and the Crown and aligned himself with the Crown, helping to deliver supplies to the invading troops. The knoll now known as Te Wheoro's redoubt was originally part of the defences at Rangiriri.

In 1868 and 1869, Te Wheoro occupied it on the Government's behalf when it was feared another war might break out.

The drive continues south through Ngaruawahia, Paterangi, Rangiaowhia, Kihikihi and Orakau. We particularly enjoyed Kihikihi, which is the site of the Rewi Maniapoto Reserve. The settlement was once home to Kingitanga chief Rewi Maniapoto, whose home was looted by British troops shortly after he and his people fled. The reserve contains a monument for Maniapoto's tomb, donated by none other than his old adversary, Sir George Grey, and there's a children's playground.

Places for food and watering are plentiful along the tour route, but Kihikihi takes the cake. It is home to Viands Bakery, which has been a supreme winner in both the Bakels' New Zealand Pie Awards and Bakery of the Year in 2011 and 2012.

After a sumptuous lunch of pies and cupcakes, we headed east to Orakau. This, for me, was the most poignant place along the tour.

Also known as Rewi's Last Stand, the March 1864 battle raged for three days and three nights. Men, women and children were trapped inside a hastily erected pa but refused to surrender, shouting "E hoa, ka whawhai tonu matou, Ake! Ake! Ake" or "Friend, we will fight on, forever, forever, forever!" Dozens were killed or maimed when, in desperation, they fled the pa in broad daylight to face British bayonets and bullets.

Today, this is a serene and hauntingly beautiful spot which, apart from the monument, gives no hint of its bloody history.

It's a 10-minute drive from Te Awamutu to the Alexandra Redoubt at Pirongia, the final stop of the tour.

The township is one of my favourite spots in the Waikato. It was founded in 1864 when, at the end of the conflict, 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.

Driving home, the girls were a lot quieter than when we left. They were probably tired from a day of sightseeing - the views of the Waikato from a number of these spots are expansive and awe-inspiring - but I hope at least Miss Eight has started to consider the effects and results of a long-fought conflict that resonate still today.


Need to know

The Waikato War Driving Tour, map and education package are accessible through the website.

It is possible to do the tour in a day, although it would be a busy one, or divide it into sections and do bits of it over a few days. Or just stop off at some of these places next time you're heading through the Waikato.

Commemorations for the 150th anniversary of the war are planned at Rangiriri for November 20, so watch out for details at the beginning of November.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 31 Oct 2014 19:19:19 Processing Time: 640ms