"Waikato is the people, Waikato is the name of the river," explains Motu Katipa as this history of our longest river unfolds.

The documentary, one of eight projects to mark the millennium taken on by the Waikato Millennium Foundation Trust, begins with a karanga and traces the river's importance, first to Maori but also to Pakeha.

Among those reminiscing about their childhoods next to the river is Sir Robert Mahuta, who died in February and to whom the documentary is dedicated.


He talks about playing on its banks all day and laments its loss of water quality as industries began to dump waste into the Waikato.

The project was two years in the making and includes historical footage of regattas and sideshows that were frequently held, including the fantastic canoe hurdle and something called "Chase the Bride".

The Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, remembers how many more sideshows and events were held than today, and remarks how she was partial to a bit of Scottish dancing.

"The river was the overall dominant deity," says Wiremu Puke. He describes how the Miropiko pa at Hamilton would have looked, with its palisades along the river bank.

Puke and Dr Garry Clayton also explain how the tribes of the area were subject to a demand by Governor Grey that they swear an oath of allegiance to Queen Victoria or be displaced from their land, and how the river was perfect for the shipping of General Cameron's armies into the heartland.

As reward for sending the natives packing, soldiers were granted land. This story is recounted from the other side, by Les Jones, who tells of his Irish grandfather, a Sydneysider who came to fight and won his parcel of land in Hamilton.

We learn of Caesar Roose, the so-called King of the River, who in the 1920s started the Roose Shipping Company, and owned paddle steamers, a coal mine and a flax mill. The hulk of the Rawiti paddle steamer still sits on the river bank.

The paddle steamers and ferries were a huge part of Hamilton life. Kids would scramble into their row boats when the steamer approached to catch a ride in the wash. In the Depression, Roose sent boatloads of children to a camp at Port Waikato.

But by far the biggest impact came in 1929 with the building of the Arapuni Dam, which drained the river and led to the establishment of industry along its banks, especially after the war.

"The eels had had an oily taste about them," says Sir Robert.

Others describe offal coming down the river and the loss of freshwater mussels, whitebait and watercress.

The river's health has improved since the 1970s, but interviewees express their fears about the development still to come, not least the water pipeline which is going to feed into Auckland's supply, and dairy farming, which is threatening the health of Lake Taupo.

Cooperation for the future will be the key, and certainly this documentary is a worthy aid to understanding the river not only as a resource but a toanga.

* Waikato is the Name of the River, TV One, Saturday, 5 pm