New Zealand is a stunningly beautiful, almost magical land full of awe inspiring natural vistas and unique wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Here, where there are no naturally occurring mammals other than a few species of bats, other forms of life have branched out to fill the niches left void by such creatures. Among all of the various unusual endemic wildlife to be found here, one that is not a typical addition is large, reptilian, river going monsters. Yet, according to various eyewitness reports and news articles that ran for a period of time starting from the late 1800s, just such a creature allegedly made the river ways of New Zealand its domain.
The strange creature that would later be largely referred to as the Waikato Saurian in the press was a large, alligator-like animal that was first sighted prowling the waters of the Waikato River, which is New Zealand’s largest river, meandering 425 kilometers through the North Island. The creature was said to resemble a large alligator, but with a head that was described as being reminiscent of that of a tiger or large canine. Although it was described as being mostly aquatic, the Waikato Saurian was known to haul out onto land as well, and it was said to leave behind strange, clawed tracks unlike any known animal. The creature made headlines across the country when it was first spotted in the river near the city of Hamilton, and it went on to become an infamous feature of news stories in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The alleged creature was not known to be particularly shy, and was in fact mostly seen as an aggressive, bold beast, which is reflected in the fact that many of the reports involving the Waikato Saurian are of a dramatic and often violent nature, with attacks on livestock and even humans not uncommon. In the Thames Advertiser, Volume XVII, Issue 5611, 27 October 1886, Page 2, a story ran detailing the mysterious discovery of a sheep carcass that had been ravaged by some unknown animal near a place called Qualtrough and White’s Slaughter-yards, in Hamilton. According to the report, the creature had broken down a door and pulled the sheep carcass off of a hook, after which it had reportedly “picked the bones clean.” The mysterious intruder reportedly left behind tracks “unlike those of any known animal,” and led to armed groups of men patrolling and keeping watch over the area for some time after. An elaborate baited trap was even set out in the hopes of capturing the creature, to no avail. The story appeared in several other publications at the time, including the Marlborough Express, and the Wanganui Chronicle.
Another alleged attack by the beast that made the rounds in the news was reported in the Auckland Star, Volume XVIII, Issue 106, 6 May 1887, Page 5. A Mr. Charles Paton, who lived in Scotchmans Valley, reportedly lost one of his draught horses and placed the carcass in a paddock near the river. When Paton went to inspect the body the next morning, he found that it had been ravaged by some powerful animal and the carcass was reported as being partially mauled and eaten, with “crunch marks” on the bones. In addition, the horse carcass had apparently been dragged by its neck some distance towards a nearby creek, quite a feat of strength considering the size and weight of the animal.
The next evening, a man by the name of Mr. Richardson, who was in charge Paton’s farm, heard his dogs barking wildly and when he went to investigate he found them hiding in terror under the house. Although armed with a rifle, the shaken man retreated into his house from the unseen threat and decided to wait until morning to go out and take a look. When he went out to the same spot the following morning, the terrified dogs were still cowering under the house and refused to come out. Upon inspection of the area, Richardson found strange tracks, described as having a large pad with three claw marks, leading out from the vicinity of the house. Richardson tried to follow the tracks, but lost their trail when they hit hard ground. Several children in the area would later claim to have seen the bizarre monster while they were our fishing for eels. The incident prompted groups of men to patrol the area armed with revolvers and rifles and the mauled horse carcass was apparently displayed to the public, circus side show style, after being purchased by an enterprising businessman.
Other frightening reports surfaced of the mysterious beast harassing people as well. In the Wanganui Herald, Volume XXII, Issue 6429, 3 February 1888, Page 2, it was reported that the creature had threatened two men who had been crossing the Waikato in a canoe. The men had allegedly been making their way along the river near a pace called Arapuni when a monstrous animal surfaced beside their canoe and nearly capsized it. The terrified men subsequently lost control of their canoe and spilled out into the water. The canoe was swept away into rapids and the men made a desperate dash to shore, very aware that the strange creature was still lurking somewhere below them, perhaps circling them waiting to strike. When they drew close to shore, the creature menacingly swam by them again, this time drawing close enough for them to get a good look at it. They described the looming beast as being immense, with a large, somewhat canine mouth full of jagged teeth and a body that was covered with shaggy hair “like that of a dog.” Luckily, they were able to exit the water and get away before finding out what the thing had intended to do to them. This frightening story was also reported in the New Zealand Herald, Volume XXV, Issue 8966, 2 February 1888, Page 5.
Other such reports mentioned the creature threatening other people as well. One bizarre report from the Auckland Star, Volume XVIII, Issue 269, 15 November 1887, Page 8, told of a group of Maoris who had been out pig hunting and set up camp on the bank of the river. One visibly shaken member of the hunting party came rushing into camp claiming that he had been chased by an animal that was “half man and half horse.” The rest of the party did not believe his outlandish story and he was mostly ridiculed by all present. Later that night, two members of the party heard noises coming from where their supplies were kept and went to investigate. They came upon a weird creature matching the description given by their comrade earlier, which was now positioned on a hill throwing stones down onto them. The two men aroused the rest of the camp and they chased the mysterious monster intruder along the river bank, even going as far as to let loose their pigs dogs on it to bring it down, after which it jumped into the river and disappeared.
Although this encounter is undeniably weird, at least there were no fatalities. The same cannot be said for one gruesome report in particular was published in Thames Star, Volume XVIII, Issue 5520, 5 October 1886, Page 2, where it was written that a native Maori girl had been found dead in a stream connected to the river with the flesh completely stripped from one of her arms. In fact, the Maori developed a great fear of the creature, believing it to be what they call a Taniwha, a type of ferocious, predatory being from Maori folklore said to lurk within rivers, dark caves, and the sea.
The dramatic nature of such reports created great speculation as to what the creature could possibly be. In the Evening Post, Volume XXXII, Issue 139, 27 October 1886, Page 2, it was claimed that Maoris had brought alligator eggs to the Waikato River some years prior and had released them into the river. It was thought that these alligators could have survived and were behind the reports of the mysterious monster prowling the river and devouring livestock carcasses. Another theory came to light after a report published in the Auckland Star, Volume XX, Issue 34, 9 February 1889, Page 5, in which it was told that a man by the name of Mr. Bell had found what he had believed to be one of the Waikato Saurian’s offspring in his garden. The strange looking, 20-inch-long creature turned out to be a specimen of tuatara lizard, a type of lizard endemic to New Zealand that had probably escaped from somewhere since they were not known to be found in the area. It was speculated that a very large specimen of tuatara could have been behind some of the Waikato Saurian reports.
Considering how sensationalized the reports of the Waikato Saurian were, as well as the dramatic, visceral nature of the eyewitness accounts, it is perhaps no surprise that numerous attempts were made to hunt down and capture or kill the monster. Although most of these turned up nothing, there are two interesting cases that only seem to make the mystery go even deeper. In the Nelson Evening Mail, Volume XX, Issue 282, 26 November 1886, Page 2, it was reported that the monster had been captured and was found to be merely a wayward grey seal that measured 7 and a half feet long. The mystery was considered to be “solved” but obviously wasn’t considering that reports of the Saurian continued to pour in.
Then, in the New Zealand Herald, Volume XXIV, Issue 8086, 29 October 1887, Page 5, a much more sensational report was published in which it was claimed that the monster had been shot and killed, but this time it was no seal. It was reported that a Kopua native man by the name of Rawini had shot and killed the beast in Raglan Harbor. The dead creature was said to be 12 feet long, with a 6 foot girth and featuring the bizarre characteristic of two screw-like propellors in its tail. The creature’s head was allegedly like that of a leopard, with two rows of sharp, formidable teeth, 12 in each row. The skin was described as looking like “grey silver cloth.” When the creature was cut open, two “pouches” were found inside that were purportedly filled with the remains of birds and feathers. Although the article describes how the carcass was to be stuffed and displayed, it is a complete mystery as to what ever happened to it or if indeed this report is even to be believed at all.
Reports of the Waikato Saurian nevertheless continued even after its supposed death, and it was even allegedly photographed. In the Auckland Star, Volume XXXIII, Issue 286, 2 December 1902, Page 5, there is a story of a man who had found the creature in his garden in Hamilton and photographed it. The negative of the photograph was apparently going to be released for public viewing, but as is often the case with these kinds of story, the negatives were lost and the photographs never came to light. There is no further mention of the photographs that I know of and no way of knowing where they went or indeed if they ever existed at all.
In the early 1900s, whatever the strange reptilian beast was apparently went on its way and no further reports were forthcoming. Considering this and the lack of any such reports prior to the first mention of it in the media, and since the consistent reports lasted only for a relatively brief span of time, then the creature, if it was indeed real, was merely a wayward visitor here. Where did it come from and what were the reasons behind its notorious run of the Waikato River? Indeed, what was it? Was this some undiscovered mystery monster, a case of mistaken identity, or merely the figment of a spooked public’s overactive imagination perhaps mixed in with a little lurid media sensationalism? Whatever it was, the case of New Zealand’s Waikato Saurian Beast is one that has become lost to time, and perhaps forever out of our ability to explain for certain.