Ancient volcanic ranges and the alluvial floodplain created by the Waikato River have led to an area rich in native flora and fauna, and a variety of habitats from wetlands to bush-clad hills. Visitors are offered up-close experiences that include a guaranteed sighting of New Zealand’s iconic bird, the Kiwi, and the region offers a wide range of walks through native bush, from easy strolls to overnight hut stays.
The jewel in the crown is the Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari (Maungatautari Ecological Island Reserve), a short scenic drive from Hamilton, Cambridge and Te Awamutu. It is the product of the determined local community who formed the Maungatautari Trust with the goal of restoring a patch of New Zealand to the way it once was hundreds of years ago. The sanctuary is the largest inland conservation ‘island’ in New Zealand and endangered species are beginning to thrive behind its 47km-long pest-proof fence. Among its introduced inhabitants are the Kiwi, the Hihi (stitchbird), the cheeky Kaka, the brightly coloured Takahe and the Kokako. Further species continue to be released, while during restoration work others have been rediscovered already living in its 3400 ha of native bush. The showcase southern enclosure has the greatest concentration of protected species and a 16 m high viewing tower. Cheeky Kaka are regularly sighted near the tower during their daily feeding times and a guided night walk is available, while the walk right across the mountain takes about five to six hours.
Nearby, in Otorohanga, is the well established Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park, where you can view Kiwi in specially created nocturnal houses. Other native birds are also on show in a large dome aviary along with New Zealand’s ancient reptile, the Tuatara and other indigenous fauna.
Elsewhere, the country’s tallest recorded Kahikatea is on the slopes of Mt Pirongia, which also boasts a leg of the national walkway, Te Araroa. To the south of the region, Pureora Forest Park offers serious tramping and the sight of the buried forest, created by a Lake Taupo eruption 1800 years ago. There are plenty of other options, including a network of walks and biking tracks at Mt Te Aroha and a walk to a grove of Kauri in the Hakarimata Ranges near Ngaruawahia.
The region also features three impressive waterfalls made accessible by walking tracks. The Wairere Falls in the Kaimai ranges between Te Aroha and Matamata are the highest in the North Island at 153m. The 5km track takes walkers past Nikau, ferns and Totara and the lookout platform provides magnificent views over the Waikato Plains. On route to the 35m high Marakopa Falls, walkers will pass the 25 million year old fossilized oysters which are exposed in the limestone outcrops, while to Raglan in the east, it is an easy 10 minute walk to the spectacular 55m high Bridal Veil Falls.
The Waikato region once had huge tracts of wetlands created by the wandering Waikato River, providing a haven for native wildlife. Some impressive wetlands remain, including the internationally significant Whangamarino in northern Waikato, which is home to the Australasian bittern and the fernbird, along with native sedges and rushes. Lake Ngaroto between Hamilton and Te Awamutu is one of the largest peat lakes in the region. The community restoration project has seen extensive re-planting take place around the lake.