The magic of New Zealand’s longest river

At 425 kilometres, the majestic Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river. It starts its journey to the sea from high in the central North Island volcanic zone.

From there it cuts through the volcanic plateau of the central North Island before ending its journey at Port Waikato, where it flows into the Tasman Sea.

Waikato River Explorer

The river has always played a crucial social and economic role by providing sustenance and a means of transportation for local communities. For local iwi, the river also has great spiritual significance.

To experience it first-hand, consider a scenic Waikato River cruise with Waikato River Explorer or, if you’d enjoy exploring by kayak, Cambridge offers hire options and tours, including the glowworm kayak tour. Both the river cruise and kayak hire are popular Waikato River activities with domestic and international visitors to the Waikato region.

The river as an ancestor

The name 'Waikato', meaning flowing water, originated during the journey of the Tainui waka (canoe) from Polynesia to New Zealand. Arriving just off the mouth of the river, the crew remarked upon the kato (the pull of the river current in the sea) and thereafter the name Waikato (wai meaning water) was given to the river.

Waikato River is central to the identity of the Tainui people.

To Waikato-Tainui, the Waikato River is a tupuna (ancestor) which has mana (prestige) and in turn represents the mana and mauri (life force) of the tribe. The river has its own mauri, its own spiritual energy, its own powerful identity. It is a single indivisible being

Tim Manukau, Waikato-Tainui Environmental Manager

This spiritual relationship is summed up in a famous saying, where taniwha, the legendary water monsters, are used as a metaphor for chiefs: “Waikato taniwha rau, he piko he taniwha” (Waikato of a hundred taniwha, every bend a taniwha).

The river as a resource

Historically, the river provided physical and spiritual sustenance to Māori living along its banks. It was a source of fish, eels and plants, as well as an important waka (canoe) route. For this reason, Māori tended to locate their settlements at the mouths of rivers.

Waka on Waikato River, Ngaruawahia, NZ

Turangawaewae Annual Regatta - Waikato River

For European settlers in the 1840s and 1850s, the Waikato was the main access route inland for traders and missionaries. It also helped sustain agricultural activity, and to transport goods. By the early 1900s, the river became a resource for generating electricity.

The Waikato region now generates more power than any other region in New Zealand. There are eight hydroelectric dams, capable of generating 1450MW of electricity, in the middle reach of the river.

The river is also an important source of recreation, with many cycling and walking tracks along its banks, and is at the centre of many popular Waikato tourist attractions. Lake Karapiro, the largest hydro lake on the river, and the Mighty River Domain are home to a wide variety of cultural and sporting events, from rowing, boat racing and water skiing to classic car shows and vintage tractor swap meets.