David Cook


The journey covers a 20 kilometre stretch of river and road, from the city of Hamilton, through rural areas, and on to the township of Ngāruawāhia.

Colonial settlers cleared and drained much of the native forest wetlands that once dominated the Waikato. Remains of the old forest can be seen in the timber of Dr Beale’s cottage, built in 1872 from locally sourced kahikatea and kauri. Pasted over the milled timber are fragments of nineteenth century wallpaper, picturing the transformation of the wild country into pasture, road, industry and home.

The PS Rangiriri was commissioned by the colonial government in 1864 for use on the Waikato River during the New Zealand Land Wars. It arrived too late for the wars but was used as a supply and transport vessel on the Waikato River. In 1889 it ran aground at the site of a former timber mill.

European settlement of Hamilton was formally established after the Land Wars in 1864, when Captain William Steele disembarked from the PS Rangiriri and set up the first military redoubt near what is now known as Memorial Park. The park is now populated with exotic specimen trees imported from the northern hemisphere.

Running through The Waikato Diocesan School for Girls is a gully that drains into the Waikato River. The school is part of a city-wide gully restoration programme, removing exotic invasive plants and replanting with locally sourced native flora.

The flood of July 1998 was a great media spectacle. Farms were swamped, riverbanks reshaped and jetties lost.

Rare riverside section for sale – 548m².

The Yang Cheng Takeaway serves Chinese food, burgers and fish & chips. The potted rubber plant, Ficus elastica, is native to northeast India through to Indonesia.

Despite a widespread fear of dangerous currents and poor water quality, the Hamilton Mafia Triathlon Club regularly trains and competes in the river.

Positioned precariously on a high bank overlooking the Waikato, the Horsham Downs Golf Club is built with the shower and toilets facing the river.

The suburb of Flagstaff is populated with street names derived from Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery in the Pacific: Discovery Drive, Endeavour Avenue, Eclipse Rise, Meridian Place.

The Pukete storm-water outfall is designed to deliver excess surface water from suburban streets to the Waikato River.

The river flow through Hamilton fluctuates between 150 and 630 cubic metres per second, largely controlled by eight power station dams.

In recent history the Waikato habitat has been transformed dramatically from native wetland forest to open pasture. Consequently some native species have lost their habitat, but the pūkeko has thrived in the new environment. They love to forage for food and collect grit beside motorways.

Four thousand chickens live under one roof at a broiler breeder farm.

Beef cattle graze under an exotic alder grove on the left bank of the river.

During the Land Wars of the 1860s much of the region's Maori land was confiscated by the colonial forces. In 1940 Te Puea Herangi was able to buy back this farm land. She ran it as a dairy farm business, to sustain the people of Turangawaewae.

Ngaruawahia school children restore native plants to the banks of the lower Waikato River.

The Hakarimata Range, on the horizon, is covered in native forest, including scattered pockets of kauri. Hakarimata is named after the ‘raw feast’ of animals and plants that inhabits its slopes.


I’m a New Zealander making images in my own backyard; searching for significance in my everyday travels.  I’m also an ecologist of sorts.  I can’t help but see things through an ecological frame.

This series of images is based on a journey through my world; following the parallel arteries of River Road and the Waikato River as they snake their way from my home city of Hamilton to Ngāruawāhia. It’s a journey of only 20 kilometres, but the mosaic of shifting ecologies in these spaces is magnificent.  The journey was repeated many times, in the hunt for images that speak about the ecological past, present and future.

Being a trained ecologist I took a ‘transect’ approach, pausing to take photographs at 600 metre intervals on this route. The method is a type of sampling that builds up a sequential, linear picture of a space. In reality I applied the method in a pseudo-scientific manner; taking liberty in straying from these points, directed by my intuition and knowledge.

In the course of my journey I discovered that I may have an innate nostalgia and longing for an ecological past that I didn’t know.  This journey wrestles with that sense of loss.


DAVID COOK is a New Zealand based documentary photographer and lecturer in the School of Media Arts, Wintec, Hamilton. His photographic projects are based in his immediate environment, and deal with aspects of ecology and community. During his former job as a photographer at the Waikato Museum, David launched a long-term project exploring the impact of coal mining at Rotowaro, just north of Hamilton.  This project has continued since 1984, resulting in various exhibitions and the book, Lake of Coal: The Disappearance of a Mining Township (Craig Potton Publishing/Ramp Press 2006). His latest project, River Road: Journeys Through Ecology (David Cook, Wiremu Puke, Jonty Valentine), was published by Rim Books in 2011.

David studied ecology and botany at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand (B.Sc. 1984). He gained a Master of Fine Art through RMIT, Melbourne, in 1998.