New Zealand’s King Country: Historically off limits, still beautifully empty

It isn’t often you are able to pet a stingray while firmly standing on land.

Somehow, however, this is exactly what I found myself doing while watching the sunset in New Zealand’s Aotea Harbor. A little visited eco-outpost on the west coast of the North Island, the coastal estuary, which creeps inland, has created a sheltered harbor reputed to be the final resting place of a waka, or canoe, which originally transported the first Maori settlers to New Zealand around 1150.

The area, I would soon find out, is steeped in far greater history than just that of the canoe.

Standing on the rocks of the estuary while cooking a dinner of quinoa and vegetables, which is the type of dinner you frequently eat when you live in a campervan with no refrigeration, a large stingray decided to come up and rub his belly on the very rock I was standing on. After examining the flimsy critter for a number of minutes, there really was nothing left to do but bend down and run a hand along its slimy black wing.

“Last week we had the orcas in here,” came a voice from behind me.

Spinning around to find the voice, I found an aging Maori gentleman who had decided to accompany me along the rocks.

“Had the big bull one with that tall dorsal fin leading the others right through this harbor. Get them every few weeks or so,” he explained.

With the fading sunlight illuminating the coastal sand dunes, the image of a pod of powerful orca plying the waters of this hidden harbor was an image I desperately hoped to see. These waters are also home to Maui’s dolphin, the most critically endangered dolphin species in New Zealand whose numbers are thought to have fewer than 150 left in the wild.

You would think that a place such as Aotea, which offers stunning eco-diversity, calming views, and natural hot springs right on the beach, would be a tourist magnet that everyone had heard of. Yet strangely there is nobody here.The same went for nearby Bridal Veil Falls, a cascading 180 foot waterfall, which plunges through dripping green rainforest. Arguably the most perfect waterfall I’ve ever seen, there was nobody there to enjoy it with me.

The dirt roads were all empty, the surrounding hills were silent, and you got the feeling that tourists simply just don’t ever come here. It’s like I had stumbled into a zone where mainstream tourists simply don’t bother to go.

After further research, I learned that’s exactly what I had done. This area here is the King Country, and it’s been like this for quite some time.

With British settlers populating New Zealand en masse throughout the 1850s, inevitably, there were bound to be skirmishes with the local Maori iwi (tribes) who had been populating the land for hundreds of years. One such altercation came in the Waikato region of the North Island in 1863, where, after a decisive loss, a Maori chief by the name of King Tawhiao retreated into the heavily forested hinterlands to reassemble.

Fortifying the area with heavily armed pa sites, for nearly two decades skirmishes between Maori and pakeha (white settlers) dotted the outskirts of this semi-independent area, which would soon be known as the “King Country” for those loyal to Tawhiao. Rugged country with infertile soil not suited for farming, it was understood amongst British settlers that this was a no-man’s land for people of their kind.

One of the final holdouts of the native Maori, formal boundaries were actually drawn in 1884 delineating an area of 7,000 square miles of land loyal to King Tawhiao, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Belgium or New Jersey. During this time the King Country even published its own regional newspaper with a printing press acquired from missionaries who abandoned it due to the threat of impending war.

Finally, however, with an increasing amount of western settlers encircling the rugged outpost, an informal treaty was negotiated at the town of Raglan where agreements were made for gradually assimilating the land and the Maori population into the local economic and political landscape.

Over 130 years later, the place still has the feel as if nothing was ever signed at all. Local marae (ceremonial meeting places) seem to be clustered more densely here than in other parts of the country, and the population density of Maori is evident in the few passerby you do actually encounter on the roads and small towns.

Standing in an isolated cave set an hour away from the more popular Waitomo Caves, it’s easy to understand why King Tawhiao chose this rolling hinterland for the ultimate hideout of his people. In the silence afforded in the valley of ferns, I remind myself that the history of this region, and this country, is still in its adolescence in comparison to other nations around the world. Did King Tawhiao once stand and ruminate on the King Country, his country, from here in this very cave only a few generations before?

Though the King Country may not be at the top, or rather, far from the top of virtually all tourist itineraries and guidebooks, there are few sites in Aotearoa which offer such a strong semblance of the past — sloping hills and dense forests where history can still be felt in the present moment.

For 2 months, Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.