The river flows for 117 km, firstly east and then northeast, passing through the town of Waipukurau before flowing into Hawke Bay close to the city of Hastings. There, the Tukituki Valley is separated from Havelock North/Hastings by the craggy range of hills that includes Te Mata Peak.
The Maori name Tukituki roughly translates "to demolish", presumably referring to the power of the river in flood. Maori legend has it that there are two taniwha living in lake at the southern end of the river that fought over a young boy after he fell into the lake. The struggle of the two taniwha was thought to split the river into the waipawa and Tukituki river and therefore drain the lake.
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