Down by the river, Nicholas Reid

The Waikato – A History of New Zealand’s Greatest River
Paul Moon
Atuanui Press, $70.00, ISBN 9780994137616

At 425 kilometres, the Waikato is the longest river in New Zealand. The case Paul Moon makes in The Waikato – A History of New Zealand’s Greatest River is that it is also the most culturally significant.

The river starts in the snows of Mt Ruapehu on the central plateau and exits, a little disappointingly, into the Tasman Sea at Port Waikato, which has never been a satisfactory port. Its upper reaches are now called the Tongariro River. This narrow river feeds into the southern end of Lake Taupo. Moon asserts that “the Lake holds the river in temporary abeyance, rather than absorbing it”. Yet the huge lake is also fed by other water sources before a river flows out at its northern end. So can we really say that from Ruapehu to the sea is all one river? There’s another problem with the river’s “greatness”. With natural obstacles like waterfalls and rapids, and with the many power stations that have been built along it, the river is not navigable for much of its length. Only in its lower third does its rate of descent level off. Nobody will ever write a book about cruising the whole of the Waikato. 

Logically, Moon includes details on some of the deep pre-historical geological forces that formed both the river and its environs. This includes the vast eruption 27,000 years ago that created Lake Taupo and changed the river’s course ‒ though I am interested to note that Moon does not mention how the river, before this ancient cataclysm, used to drain into the Firth of Thames and over what are now the Hauraki Plains. 

No matter. This large, extensively illustrated, 400-plus page hardback is mainly interested in the more recent history of the river as it now is, and in the cultural interface of Māori and Pākehā which is illustrated by that history. Some of the interface was peaceful and benign, charmingly illustrated in the anecdote Moon tells of the missionary Richard Taylor conversing with Te Heuheu on the nature of the divine. It is a cordial discussion in which the rangatira defends his own beliefs without rancour and is listened to with respect. More commonly, though, the interface was harsh and brutal, like the lethal confrontation, in 1869, between Te Kooti’s men and the armed constabulary at Moutere on Lake Taupo’s east coast. 

As his narrative moves from source to sea, Moon notes how often Pākehā settlements arrived as part of colonial conquest of the Waikato region. The town of Taupo was set up as a base for armed constabulary. Cambridge, another part of the conquest, strove to be an English town. Moon waxes a little ironical over this, especially as early British visitors, such as Anthony Trollope, saw Cambridge as being on the very edge of a daunting, and very un-English, wilderness. The foundation of Hamilton – sited near wonderfully fertile land, depopulated by earlier intra-Māori war – was a base for military manoeuvres. After the 1860s wars, it was at first peopled by land grants to soldiers. 

There is much more that Moon has to say about Hamilton – not least its recent population explosion and the difficulties raised in building the city’s successive bridges – but the most forceful part has to do with cultural relations. Given this approach, it is understandable that one of the book’s longest chapters concerns Ngaruawahia, with all the ramifications of the King Movement and the setting up of the Turangawaewae marae in the 1920s. In some ways, this hub of modern Māori culture is a riposte to the Pākehā culture that now dominates so much of the river.

A major part of the cultural contest Moon sees in the river’s history is the tension between ecology and tradition, on the one hand, and the acclimatisation of exotic species and desire to modernise on the other. In the Tongariro River, introduced trout overtook the native kokopu and European heather flourishes on the hills of the central plateau. Says Moon: “Botanical colonisation served here as a metaphor for the equally invasive cultural and ethnic colonisation that had taken place in the same region.” He strikes a similar note when reporting on the planting of pinus radiata forests at and near Mount Pohaturoa, and the making of the Kinleith mills. 

Apart from the towns and the city of Hamilton, the most obvious symbols of modernisation along the river are the many power stations. One’s attention may wander as Moon scrupulously outlines the origins, design and capacity of each, but even here much cultural commentary is evident, especially in the way he chronicles the insensitivity to conservation in the decades when the power stations were constructed. The one at Turangi was on the site of Te Heuheu’s pa, but it was built when ancient Māori settlements were not considered important enough for archaeologists to dig. Right up to the 1940s, the Huka Falls, now a major tourist attraction, were seriously considered as a possible site for power generation. A geothermal power station was built at Wairakei in the 1950s, but its extraction of steam has resulted in the loss of 22 geysers and hot springs in an area that had previously been a magnet for artists and visitors. 

Damming and construction of power plants created an artificial lake at Orakei-Korako and another at Karapiro in the 1940s. Moon finds a different sort of downside to modernisation in Huntly, the town built on coal, with its past history of colliery disasters and strained industrial relations. Highlight of this discourse is his account of the building of the “temporary” town at Mangakino to accommodate workers and staff in constructing the Maraetai power station (the largest on the Waikato). Quoting Bill Pearson and others, Moon gives a convincing view of the pressures upon Māori staff to conform to Pākehā social norms, even up to the 1960s. 

It would be unfair in all this to suggest that Moon is only concerned to call out the deficit side of modernisation and monocultural assumptions. Moon is aware of the need for power as population grew. The ingenuity of the engineers and hard work of the labourers are given their due, as is the aesthetic appeal of some of the power plants constructed. The lake at Karapiro may be artificial, but teams of international rowers would be at a loss if it didn’t exist. Things change and have to change. Even so, a good part of The Waikato – A History of New Zealand’s Greatest River has a tone of lament rather than celebration. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this capacious book, as much for its incitement to nostalgia as for its information. In this respect, a great part of its impact is in the many photographs, which are an excellent stimulus to wool-gathering. All those ancient shots of dusty, unpaved villages that are now large towns. All those 19th-century portraits of rangatira or soldier. All those images of hills or bluffs that have long since been bulldozed away. This is a clear window into the past – as all good history books should be.

Dr Nicholas Reid is an Auckland historian, poet and critic who conducts the book blog Reid’s Reader.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review
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