Lake Karāpiro - roadside stories

Today a world-class rowing venue, Lake Karāpiro was created in 1947 when the Karāpiro hydroelectric dam was completed on the Waikato River. The lake flooded the site of an 1830 battle between two Māori tribes – and the Horahora power station, the first hydroelectric station on the river.


Archival audio: An engineer talks about the planning and construction of the Lake Karāpiro hydro-electric station.

Narrator: Lake Karāpiro is a man-made lake on the Waikato River. The area was flooded in order to create an artificial lake to supply the Lake Karāpiro hydroelectric station with water. This power station, along with others constructed on the Waikato River, are key components in New Zealand’s national power grid.

Most of New Zealand’s electricity is produced from hydro-power installations. The Waikato River is New Zealand’s longest, and is perfect for hydro-electricity production because it drops over 300 metres between its source at Lake Taupō and where it reaches the sea, at Port Waikato.

The outbreak of World War Two caused a serious power shortage in New Zealand, which lasted into the 1950s. It led to a government programme to develop water resources, including a massive construction project of eight hydroelectric power stations and artificial lakes along the Waikato River.

Work began on the Karāpiro dam in 1940 and it was scheduled to take three years to build. However, because of wartime shortages [of labour and material], as well as problems controlling water seepage, it took until 1947 for the 700 workers to complete the dam.

The new lake created by the dam flooded an important Māori site which gave the lake its name, Karāpiro. In the 1820s the Ngāti Maru tribe from the Hauraki Gulf were driven south by Northland’s Ngāpuhi tribe, who possessed muskets. Ngāti Maru were given refuge in the Waikato by the Ngāti Hauā tribe, but tensions soon mounted between them.

This tension culminated in the famous battle of Taumatawīwī in 1830. Victorious Ngāti Hauā chief Te Waharoa ordered that the bodies of his dead warriors be burned in case Ngāti Maru should return and counter-attack. The cremation took place on rocks beside the Waikato River. The name Karāpiro consists of the words ‘karā’, meaning rock, and ‘piro’, meaning putrid smell.

Another site to be flooded when Lake Karāpiro was created was Horahora station, a small hydroelectric power station. Opened in 1913, it was the first power station built on the Waikato River. It was constructed by the Waihi Gold Mining Company to help power their gold-mining operations in the Coromandel.

When Queen Elizabeth visited Karāpiro in 1954 during her coronation tour of New Zealand, Karāpiro’s generators were the largest in the country.

The creation of Lake Karāpiro has had a big spin-off for recreational boating enthusiasts. It is a world-class rowing venue and ideal for many other water sports, including yachting, powerboating and water-skiing. In 1950 Lake Karāpiro hosted the Empire Games rowing events, and [it] was the site of the rowing world championships in 1978 and 2010.

Today, Lake Karāpiro is rated as a world-class rowing facility and has been the base for some of our leading Olympic rowers, including gold-medal winners Rob Waddell and the Evers-Swindell twins.

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Posted: 22 Nov 2022

Not one mention of Waka Ama Nationals. A sport bathed in tradition and history and annually taking place At Lake Karapiro. All that's mentioned is pakeha sporting events. This appears to be a typical oversight on these NZ History websites.