Otaki is situated near the north bank of the Otaki River on the narrow coastal plain between the Tararua Range on the east and the sea coast on the west. The North Island Main Trunk railway and Wellington-Levin main highway pass 1 mile east of Otaki through Otaki Railway, now contiguous with the borough. By road Otaki is 50 miles northeast of Wellington, 14 miles south-west of Levin, and 45½ miles south-west of Palmerston North. (The respective distances by rail from Otaki Railway are: to Wellington, 47 miles; to Levin, 12 miles; and to Palmerston North, 40 miles.)
The main rural activities of the district are dairying, market gardening, commercial flower growing, poultry farming, and sheep raising. Much of Wellington's whole-milk supply comes from the Otaki district and there is a large treatment station near Otaki Railway. There is a sawmill at Manakau (4 miles north-east). Otaki is a trade and servicing centre. Industrial activities include the manufacture of clothing, joinery, and pre-cut furniture, and concrete products; and general engineering. The Western Hospitals' District Sanatorium (tuberculosis) is situated at Otaki. At Otaki Beach there is a large health camp for children. Otaki Beach has developed as a popular marine resort and, together with the historic Rangiatea Church at Otaki, attracts many visitors.
The Otaki district was closely settled in pre-European times. The Waitaha people appear to have been the earliest inhabitants, but were later succeeded by the Ngati Mamoe who in turn were driven out or absorbed by the Rangitane, Muaupoko, and Ngati Apa tribes. During 1820 the district was ravaged by a war party led by Te Rauparaha and others. In the late 1820s Te Rauparaha returned from Kawhia with his Ngati Toa and allied Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Awa people and occupied an area from the Whangaehu to the Otaki district. In the early 1830s Te Rauparaha appealed to the Church Missionary Society for a missionary and, subsequently, the Rev. Octavius Hadfield was sent. Hadfield arrived on 19 November 1839 in company with the Rev. Henry Williams who continued on a journey overland. In this same month the Tory arrived off Kapiti and Colonel William Wake-field negotiated land purchases for the New Zealand Company. Hadfield established himself at Waikanae (about 10 miles south-west), a little to the north of the present township of Paraparaumu Beach. In the early 1840s Hadfield built a church at Waikanae Mission, but there were delays in the building of Rangiatea Church which was first used for services in 1850. Hadfield taught the Maoris to cultivate wheat, and by 1850 several hundred acres at Waikanae and Otaki were being used for that purpose. During the early 1850s water-driven fiourmills were erected at Otaki and, for a time, the industry flourished. Flour was sold to the Wellington market. Small trading vessels provided access by sea and, until 1886, often entered the mouths of the Ohau and Otaki Rivers.
In 1858 a regular mail-coach service was begun between Wanganui and Wellington, and Otaki became a staging place. The Wellington and Manawatu Railway Co. began construction of a line between Wellington and Longburn in 1882 and it was completed on 3 November 1886. For a short time the railway station serving Otaki was called New Otaki. European settlement of Otaki and district was slow. The earliest residents appear to have been ex-whalers turned traders. In the late 1890s the large areas of alluvial soil at Otaki began to be used for market gardening. In 1912 Otaki was created a town district and on 1 April 1921 was constituted a borough. The name is said to mean “the place of a staff stuck in the ground”, and to allude to Hau's pursuit of his wife.
POPULATION: 1921 census, 2,496; 1956 census, 2,722; 1961 census, 2,981.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.