Far-flung KAWHIA, 55km south of Raglan and a similar distance northwest of Otorohanga, slumbers on the northern side of Kawhia Harbour but wakes up when its population of around five hundred people is joined by over four thousand holidaying Kiwis flocking to Ocean Beach, where Te Puia Hot Springs bubble from beneath the black sand. At peak time, many come to witness the annual whaleboat races (Jan 1), when 11m-long, five-crew whaling boats dash across the bay. The only other site of note is the modest Kawhia Museum, Kaora St (Oct–March daily 11am–4pm; April–Nov Wed–Sun noon–3pm; free), covering the region’s rich Maori heritage with some good carved pieces, a fine modern flax and feather cloak and an 1880s-era kauri whaleboat.
The village centre is strung along Jervois Street, where there’s a petrol station and a handful of combined shop/cafés.
Legends tell of the arrival of the Tainui in 1350, in their ancestral waka (canoe), and of how they found Kawhia Harbour so bountiful that they lived on its shores for three hundred years. Tribal battles over the rich fishing grounds eventually forced them inland, and in 1821, after constant attacks by the better-armed Waikato Maori, the Tainui chief, Te Rauparaha, finally led his people to the relative safety of Kapiti Island.
When the original waka arrived in Kawhia, it was tied to a pohutukawa tree, Tangi te Korowhiti, still growing on the shore on Kaora Street, near the junction with Moke Street, 800m west of the museum, and reached along the waterside footpath. The Tainui canoe is buried on a grassy knoll above the beautifully carved and painted meeting house of the Maketu Marae, further along Kaora Street at Karewa Beach, with Hani and Puna stones marking its stern and prow. The arrival of European settlers and missionaries in the 1830s made Kawhia prosperous as a gateway to the fertile King Country, though its fortunes declined in the early years of the twentieth century, owing to its unsuitability for deep-draught ships.