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Port Waikato was an important port during the New Zealand Wars of the 19th century. It was the first of the colonial settlements to be constructed after the wars, being started in 1863. It had until then been called Putataka, but soon the present name was in general use. The Māori name remains for the 354 m (1,161 ft) hill above the town.
For many years Port Waikato was the transhipment point between ships of the Northern Steamship Co and the river steamers of the Waikato Shipping Co, run by Caesar Roose. The frequency increased to twice a week in 1924. At the same time a Cambridge to Port Waikato excursion was being run 2 or 3 times a year, taking 12 to 14 hours downstream and a few hours longer upstream.
Port Waikato is a well-known surfing and whitebaiting destination and a popular holiday spot. Fish can be caught off the rocks and surf beach, and off the sand dunes that border the river mouth. Flounder and mullet are also plentiful using drag nets. Port Waikato is a location where sedimentary rock formations of 65–85 million years' antiquity are found, and a Jurassic-period dinosaur fossil was found there. Weathertop footage from the Lord of the Rings was filmed in limestone outcrops just south of the town.
The Port has a Wharf Store, established 1893, a take-away shop, café, campground, library, community hall, fire station, surf lifesaving club, yachting club and an active fishing club. A school camp was established near the town in the 1920s, which boasts a well-formed BMX track. Port Waikato also serves as a popular wedding destination.
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- Port Waikato electorate
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