It is hard to imagine the Waikato, with its flat grassy plains and gently rounded country, ever being anything other than benign and peaceful. But look to its mountains, rising abruptly from fertile farmland, and the geological unrest of the past becomes more apparent. For these mountains are volcanic; produced as the Earth's molten interior escaped through faults torn in its crust. Two of the most recent and least eroded of these volcanoes, Pirongia and Karioi, form part of Pirongia Forest Park. Although now forest clad, many volcanic features, like sharp edged cliffs, rocky outcrops, deep gorges, conical peaks and domes, still define the landscape.
The forest park, with its rugged terrain, abundant forests, and different habitats, is an important refuge for many native plants and animals - an island of natural values in an agricultural sea. It's not a perfect paradise - there are problems with pests and predators, but the park does protect distinctive communities that were once far more common in the Waikato.
Pirongia and Karioi fall within the Maori tribal rohe of Tainui. To the Tainui people these mountains and the rivers that flow around them are bound together, an intimate part of their history and traditions. They have a whakatauki or proverb that says:
'E kore ahau e tu mokemoke, ko nga tuituitanga, a tai, a awa, ki etahi ano o nga maunga, e mau nei ki te toka maru.
'I (Pirongia) do not stand lonely and alone. I am bound by the tide (Kawhia) to the rivers (Waipa and Waikato) and to other mountains (particularly Karioi and Taupiri), strong and unmoveable.'
Today the park is managed by the Department of Conservation. They maintain tracks and other recreation facilities, monitor forest health and undertake pest control.
As well as having important natural and cultural values the park is popular for recreation. There are many excellent opportunities for walking, tramping, camping, hunting and picnicking.
For local communities the park and the mountains are a part of their identity. They dominate the view, affect the weather and help create a sense of belonging to the land.