The Waikato is New Zealand’s fourth-largest region, covering 25,000 square kilometres of the upper central North Island. The region is bounded by Auckland to its north, Bay of Plenty and Hawke’s Bay to the east, and the Manawatu and Taranaki to the south. To the west, the region extends to the Tasman Sea coast, a largely rough and hilly expanse that does however offer a renowned series of surf breaks around the popular beach town of Raglan.
The Waikato’s population is an estimated 418,500. The region’s largest city is Hamilton, with 179,000 people; the remainder of the population are spread over more than 20 smaller towns across numerous territorial districts.
The region takes its name from the Waikato River, New Zealand’s longest, which has its mouth at Port Waikato and its origin in Lake Taupo. The Maori name Waikato translates as ‘flowing water.’ The Tainui tribe, one of New Zealand’s largest, regard the Waikato River with some reverence as a source of their mana - a concept broadly encompassing pride, spiritual power and authority. The river was historically an important transport and communications link for the people surrounding it, and in modern times is both a popular spot for boating and other recreation activities, and a site for hydro-electricity generation.
Waikato’s economy is heavily derived from the agricultural sector, particularly dairy. The second-largest sector in the Waikato is business services, contributing 8% of gross regional product (compared to 13% from the dairy sector.)
The Waikato region is also home to New Zealand’s largest population of horse operations and racing personnel. Much of the Waikato’s horse breeding district is centred around the town of Cambridge, the ‘Equine Capital of New Zealand,’ which has the distinction of being the birthplace of 13 Melbourne Cup winners.
The Waikato offers a diverse range of tourist and leisure activities. Hobbiton, the Hobbit movie set turned tourist attraction, is located in Matamata, 45 minutes east of Hamilton. The Waitomo Caves, south of Hamilton, offer an underground experience ranging from the tame - a boat or walking tour to view the beautiful limestone formations and native glow worms - to the adrenaline filled, including underground blackwater rafting, abseiling and ziplining through the darkness. The Waikato River provides boating, fishing, jet boating and rafting along its considerable length. Lake Taupo, the Huka Falls, the black sand beaches of Raglan, and Hamilton City itself are all popular destinations as well.