Highwic, one of Auckland’s most well-known historic houses, sits at the head of the warpath trod by hundreds of British soldiers streaming south to the Waikato.
It was built for the family of Alfred Buckland, a respected businessman who sold horses to the British troops. In 1862 his brand new house was just a few minutes’ stroll from the start of the Great South Road, which became a main supply route for the invasion the next year.
This tiny church built by the pioneers of Pukekohe bears the scars from one of the most dramatic battles of the Waikato War. On a spring morning in 1863, 17 men and one 14-year-old boy held off a war party of about 200 Māori until reinforcements arrived, firing from a half-finished stockade. There are still bullet holes evident in the walls and ceiling.
The Māori warriors hid the bodies of their slain in the hollows and branches of large trees around the church. A mounted boulder now marks their resting place in the cemetery.
Partially restored earthworks near Pokeno mark where the British launched their crushing invasion of the Waikato. Queen’s Redoubt was the largest built by Imperial troops in New Zealand. Here, some 450 men waited for word to attack. The redoubt lay just north of the Mangatāwhiri stream, the aukati – a 'line that should not be crossed' – between settler Auckland and the Māori King’s lands. On 11 July 1863, Governor Grey ordered the Waikato chiefs to pledge allegiance to Queen Victoria.
When he issued his ultimatum, Governor Grey also accused Waikato Māori of planning 'to ravage the Settlement of Auckland and to murder peaceable settlers'. The accusations were unfounded. The next day – before the message had been received – his soldiers crossed the stream. War had begun.
By crossing into Kingite territory, the British had declared war. Both sides now fought for control of the lower Waikato River – the main route for supplies and communication. Imperial troops soon had the advantage, winning the high ground known as the Koheroa Ridge.
The British troops were supported by a fearsome flotilla of armoured gunboats and smaller barges. At Te Paina (aka Mercer) you can see a turret from one of the gunboats, the Pioneer, with the Koheroa ridge forming a half-circle in the distance.
With its commanding river views and access to eel-filled swamplands, this high point next to Te Teoteo’s pa had long been valued as a place of sanctuary and restocking for local iwi.
From here, in the opening weeks of the war, Kingites ambushed British messengers and burnt some of their supply depots. But they were soon forced to retreat south. The British occupied the pa and built the Whangamarino Redoubt nearby. With long-range artillery, they began bombarding the first major line of Māori defence some 2km south at Meremere.
'Bloody Rangiriri' was the key battle in the Waikato invasion. It threw open the river basin to imperial troops, but at a huge cost. The British suffered more casualties than in any other conflict in the New Zealand Wars. Rangiriri Pā boasted steep ramparts, clever escape routes and fern-covered rifle pits. But its warriors were outnumbered nearly three to one.
Today you can walk the remaining earthworks and picture the Māori defenders firing muskets loaded by women who fought and died with their men.
Not all Waikato Māori saw the British as the enemy. The Ngāti Naho chief Te Wheoro had opposed the idea of war between Kīngitanga and the Crown, but during the war aligned himself with the Crown, helping to deliver supplies to the invading troops.
This knoll, 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.
Here, in 1858, at the tranquil point where the Waikato and Waipa rivers meet, the elderly warrior Te Wherowhero became the first Māori king. He was a symbol of Māori unity and defiance, and his 'capital' Ngaruawahia was a thriving port, surrounded by fertile farmland.
When British troops surged up the river to occupy Ngaruawahia in 1863, the Kingites had already fled. The Union flag was hoisted high on the Te Wherowhero’s flagstaff. It was an immense political victory. From here, the British tightened their grip on the lower Waikato.
Today Ngaruawahia is still the official home of the current Māori monarch, King Tuheitia, who was crowned following his mother’s death in 2006.
Here, on a summer night in 1864, some 2000 Māori warriors were hoodwinked by their colonial foe.
The Pāterangi line, with its formidable trenches and palisades, was the largest Māori fortification ever built in New Zealand. On 20 February it was bristling with fighters from a dozen iwi. The British had no intention of attacking. Instead, under cover of darkness, 1200 imperial soldiers and dozens of horses shuffled silently past in single file. It was a bloodless victory. There had already been casualties, however. This memorial marks the graves of six British soldiers killed some nine days earlier at a bathing hole nearby Waiari.
Early on a Sunday morning in the summer of 1864, the women and children of the village of Rangiaowhia woke to a British invasion.
Most of the village’s fighting men were away at Pāterangi. Those who were left ran for cover in churches and whare (houses) as cavalry stormed into the village and opened fire. Whare were torched and people were gunned down. One of the churches, St Paul’s, is still standing.
Rangiaowhia was the Kīngitanga’s agricultural base. With its wheat fields, mills and schools it was coveted by Auckland’s merchants and settlers. The loss of this area was a stinging blow to the Kingites.
As they tightened their grip on the Waikato, the British occupied the farming settlement of Kihikihi, the home of the revered Kīngitanga chief Rewi Maniapoto.
The soldiers looted and torched Rewi’s house. But he and his people had already abandoned their land and extensive plantings. Hundreds of Māori were seen driving their horses and cattle to safety south of the Puniu River.
Today it is the site of the Rewi Maniapoto reserve where you will find the monument for Rewi Maniapoto’s tomb donated by Sir George Grey, his old adversary.
This memorial overlooks the site of 'Rewi’s last stand' – one of the best-known battles of the New Zealand Wars.
In March 1864, the Kīngitanga leader Rewi Maniapoto agreed to offer a final show of resistance to the British. A pa was hurriedly built in a peach grove at Orakau. Attacked by the British for three days and nights, the men, women and children trapped inside the pa ran short of water and food. When their supply of bullets depleted they, out of desperation, fashioned pellets from peach stones and plugs of wood.
Offered one last chance to surrender, the defenders gave the now famous reply:
E hoa, ka whawhai tonu mātou, Āke! Āke! Āke!
Friend, we will fight on forever, forever and forever!
When they made a final, desperate charge out of the pa in broad daylight, only half survived the chase given by the British bayonets and bullets. Many of those who were injured, or who lost their lives, were left to perish in the swamplands.
For many Waikato Māori, this hilltop has a heart-breaking view. From here, you can see the Puniu River, which marked the border of the region of exile now known as the King Country.
After the war, the government confiscated more than a million acres of Waikato land, forcing tribes who had lived there for hundreds of years to move south. This vantage point, the Alexandra Redoubt, is the best preserved of all surviving military earthworks in the region.