Opotiki is situated between the mouths of the Waioeka and Otara Rivers where they enter the head of Opotiki Harbour, an estuarine lagoon opening to the south-eastern shore of the Bay of Plenty. The town occupies flat land. The surrounding alluvial plain, known as the Opotiki Flats, extends 5–10 miles south into the foothills of a mountainous hinterland. The Whakatane-Gisborne section of main highway via Waimana and Waioeka Gorges passes through the town. By road Opotiki is 38 miles east of Whakatane and 93 miles north-west of Gisborne (218 miles via Te Araroa). Taneatua, the nearest railhead, is 31 miles south-west.
The main farming activities of the district are sheep and cattle raising, dairying, and agricultural farming. Maize is an important crop. Milling of native timber is carried on in the vicinity of Toatoa (23 miles south-east). Opotiki is the chief commercial centre of the south-eastern Bay of Plenty district. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of butter, clothing, joinery, and concrete products; bacon and ham processing; and sawmilling.
Opotiki was originally the most populous of several Maori settlements in the vicinity of Opotiki Harbour and was known as Pakowhai. It was a main settlement of the Whakatohea tribe. In August 1861 the Rev. Carl Sylvius Volkner arrived at Pakowhai to establish a mission station and, with Maori help, built a church. When the Whakatohea allied themselves with the Maori “King” movement in 1864, Volkner took his wife to Auckland for safety. During his absence Hauhau emissaries converted most of their tribe to the cause and, subsequently, the mission station was sacked. Volkner was brutally murdered when he returned in March 1865. A punitive expedition arrived by sea on 8 September 1865 and landed at the present town site. Fighting ensued and the hostile inhabitants fled. Intermittent skirmishing with the Hauhaus continued in the immediate district until about the middle of 1868. Most of the original Opotiki settlers were members of the 1st Waikato Regiment who were allotted sections. With the expansion of farming the town grew as a market centre. Opotiki was linked to Gisborne by road by 1900. Until May 1955 Opotiki was a minor port used by small vessels and berthage was provided in the Otara River at the town. Goods for the town and surrounding districts were also landed at Kutarere on the eastern side of Ohiwa Harbour and were carried by road 12 miles to Opotiki. The port of Opotiki was reopened during 1956 and was used up to March 1959. Kutarere was used until October 1959. Opotiki was created a town district in 1874 and in 1911 became a borough. Opotiki is said to be a contraction of Opotikimaitawhiti, which was the name of a spring on the coast near the present town. The literal meaning of the present name is “the place of children”.
On 11 and 12 March 1964 the Opotiki district experienced the worst flood within living memory. The Otara and Waioeka Rivers broke their banks and flooded the business area of the town; and, when the Waimana River burst its banks, the nearby settlement of that name had to be evacuated. In Opotiki two people lost their lives during the flood.
POPULATION: 1951 census, 1,998; 1956 census, 2,346; 1961 census, 2,559.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.