Oxford was the name first given to the small South Waikato of Tirau, a place that peeps out from the strong arms of Kiwi farming country — the English name was a nod to its sisterhood with nearby Cambridge, a 25-minute drive away.
The town was renamed Tirau in 1986, meaning 'place of many cabbage trees'. These trees were so abundant back in the day that it was deemed worthwhile renaming the town, though many have been removed since that time and it's more famous now for having the largest corrugated iron buildings in the world: in the shape of a sheep, a ram and a dog.
'Take a break, take in Tirau' may be the slogan attached to the town, but 'Corrugated Iron Capital of the World' is another (perhaps more popular) name. It may be middling but the slogan means things can only improve . . .
Arriving in Tirau, a quaint and utterly charming place, the giant animal-shaped buildings seem a distraction from the loveliness of the area.
Tirau is a farming town, but it's also fashioned itself well as a hub for tourists. Main Road is so chocka with enticing shops that it’s difficult to pass through without taking advantage of it and fitting in a tea break while you're at it.
The Queen visited Tirau in 1953. The day she arrived it was reportedly blazing hot and the town’s population of 600 exploded to 7000. Writing about the event at the time, an eye witness remembered, 'the Queen stopping her car on several occasions to accept bouquets from the hot little hands of children on the roadside, children who had waited for hours for this enchanting, fleeting, never-to-be-forgotten moment'. She would have seen a very different Tirau back then.
Now, with a population of around 800 people, Tirau is a major junction between state highways and traffic on any given day is estimated to be in the tens of thousands.
In 1991, an antique dealer realised there was an opportunity for Tirau to become a handy stop off and he opened one of many shops along the main drag selling antiques and collectables, though the flavour of stores has diversified since that time. There are so many places to eat in Tirau that you could spend weeks trying them all. Ice creams are also a plentiful commodity down the main street. Really, you could find just about anything along that stretch.
Want a greenstone treasure to remind you of your visit? You’ll be able to pick a nice one up at the Tirau Shell and Jade Factory. Want a city-grade coffee from a café that roasts its beans on-site? You’ll be able to get one at Heidi’s on the Hill. Want sweets, home goods, honey, merino, art, lingerie? You got it.
Some people visit Tirau to shop and eat and return home, but most pass it by on their way somewhere. Ideally, you would take the time to stop in at some of the other appealing places along this stretch of the countryside.
Heading 30-odd kilometres south of Tirau, Tokoroa, or Toke as it's known by locals, is a town well known for the mile-long list of professional rugby and league players it produces thanks to an extremely strong club culture and school teams. On weekends, a large proportion of the township can be found at the sports grounds on Mossop Street and the sound of drums, chanting and cheering make it a colourful way to spend your Saturday morning.
Tokoroa was once the centre of New Zealand’s forest, timber and paper industries. Since the cutbacks at the Kinleith Mill, the town has never taken off in the way it could have and the population is in decline. In saying that, it has a strong community feel, an excellent secondhand bookshop on Bridge Street, and it is one of the few places in the country where it is possible to buy a home in the $100k range.
The recreational lake Moananui, built in 1975, has been registered as a wetland for forest and bird since 2009 and has a walking track around it that takes about 30 minutes. There are mountain bike tracks and cycleways that are part of the Waikato River Trail.
Try Sweet Rose Café on Bridge Street for a bite, and take it to the Colson Hill lookout, a popular place for a lunch break as it's just a few minutes away from the main street. It has a great view over Tokoroa town and the surrounding greenlands of hearty Waikato country.
You may be expecting to drive through this part of the country, only stopping for necessities on your way somewhereelse , but look a little deeper and it will definitely be a pleasant surprise.