Early Problems of Land Settlement
There was little flat land in the new province of Hawke's Bay. The only extensive lowland leading inland to the Manawatu Gorge from the site of early Napier was by no means all easy country. Access to the southern part was barred by dense forest (for instance, the Seventy Mile Bush) that clothed much of the coastal hills almost to the sea. Much of the wide Heretaunga Plain was an almost impenetrable swamp frequently flooded by the rivers. Nor was access from the sea easy, except to the valley flats about the Wairoa River mouth where a mission station had been founded in the early 1840s, and to the shores of the Ahuriri Lagoon. The site of Napier itself was restricted by a big beach barrier of shingle across the front of the bay and widening about the base of the little isolated upland early known as Scinde Island. Here the infant town of Napier was established. Its recent extension inland was not possible until the modern engineering works of the 1940s brought the lower Ngaruroro and Tutaekuri Rivers under control. The sale of town sections on the future site of Hastings was delayed until 1873.
The lower hill country and basin plains in the middle catchments of the Ngaruroro, Tutaekuri, and Tukituki Rivers were most readily adaptable to sheep farming in the early days; Donald McLean himself became a landowner there in 1863. Road access was the first big problem facing the new provincial government. Settlement of the Seventy Mile Bush in the south was delayed until the 1870s, and the road over the ranges to Taupo by way of the Esk Valley was not opened for wheeled traffic till 1877.
Meanwhile the early settlers in northern Hawke's Bay faced special problems of their own. This was difficult country. In front of the high, steep and almost inaccessible hardrock ranges (the Kaweka and Ahimanawa) lay a broad belt of weak-rock hilly country cut by the deep, narrow channels of the rivers and trimmed off by the sea in long lines of steep cliffs. Though Hawke's Bay had no volcanoes of its own, over all the hills lay a thick mantle of fine pumice spread by eruptions in the Taupo district. Thus original fertility was low and the country was covered in fern, tutu, and manuka scrub, with patches of bush on the ranges and in the gullies. In his classic Tutira, H. Guthrie Smith has left us a detailed account of the trials of the pioneer in breaking in this kind of country.
It was through the 1880s that most rapid progress was made here. As in many other parts of the North Island, the first step was to burn the primitive cover and sow grass seed on the ashes. But the bracken fern came back and resort was had to “crushing” or “grinding” by flocks of unfortunate sheep. As Guthrie Smith himself puts it, “The early years of the run were, in fact, a compromise between murdering the sheep and ‘making’ the country”. But when fern would finally be destroyed, the much more difficult manuka scrub might take possession, to be attacked laboriously in turn by fire or the scrub cutter. The making of grassland out of this kind of country has been a monument to the tenacity of the pioneer sheep men.
Another evil incidental to the clearing of this Hawke's Bay weak-rock (papa) country has been widespread soil erosion. Most spectacular were the effects of the floods in 1938. Here the benefits of modern conservation methods and aerial topdressing with fertiliser have been most obvious. Roading, too, has been more than ordinarily difficult, and the recent completion of the East Coast railway to Wairoa and Gisborne has been a special boon. Most of this country cannot be closely subdivided, but there are smaller farms carrying dairy cattle on some of the flats in the valleys and near the coast, as at Wairoa and Nuhaka. But sheep farming for wool and store sheep is still almost the whole base of the local economy, with increasing use of beef cattle for better pasture control.
Settlement of the south posed totally different problems; the Hawke's Bay section of the Seventy Mile Bush had to be cleared; Waipukurau and Waipawa were already established near the edge of the forest. By 1867 there was a regular coach service from Napier to Waipukurau, but the road through the bush was not in use till 1874, making possible a through trip by coach to Wellington. Though the trip took three days, it brought Napier in closer contact with Wellington than it had yet been. The railway to Waipukurau and Woodville was not completed till 1887.