Story: East Coast region

The East Coast was where Māori and Europeans first met, on the site of present-day Gisborne. This isolated region is known for its long and rich Māori history and heritage, its excellent surf beaches and its warm climate.

Story by Monty Soutar
Main image: Sunrise over Hikurangi

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

The East Coast is a relatively isolated region of New Zealand, with just three state highways linking it to the rest of the country. It covers both the sparsely populated East Cape and Poverty Bay, which has more residents and includes the city of Gisborne.

Landscape and geology

The region is mainly hill country, with river flats in some areas near the coast. Because of the underlying geology, the East Coast is prone to erosion and earthquakes.


The East Coast has generally warm summers and mild winters. Poverty Bay is one of the sunniest places in New Zealand. Rainstorms are common, especially in summer, and sometimes cause floods.

Plants and animals

European settlers cleared most of the native forest for farming, but it remains in pockets. Some pine forests have been planted for timber logging.

Birds and animals found in the region and offshore include seabirds, Hochstetter's frog and whales.

Māori settlement

Māori tribes have long lived in the region. It is home to the tribes of Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tāmanuhiri. There are many traditions associated with the East Coast, including the story of Paikea, who arrived from Hawaiki on the back of a whale.

Arrival of Europeans

The first meeting between Europeans and Māori took place at present-day Gisborne in 1769. Later, European traders and whalers came to the region, and often intermarried with local Māori. Missionaries arrived from 1840.

Māori resistance

In the mid-1860s followers of Pai Mārire, a religion that promoted Māori self-rule, came into the region. Many local Māori converted, but others went to war against them, supported by government forces. In the late 1860s the prophet and war leader Te Kooti and his followers also fought against government and Māori troops. After this fighting, areas of Māori land were confiscated by the government.

Pākehā settlers

From the 1870s, when the region was more peaceful, many settlers arrived in the region. They set up farms and built meat-freezing works. Gisborne, the region’s biggest town, expanded.

Māori and Māori land

A lot of land passed into Pākehā ownership, and in the early 1900s there were various schemes to develop the remaining Māori land. Āpirana Ngata, a Māori leader and member of Parliament, was involved in promoting development and farming.

Growth of the region

Agriculture boomed from the 1890s to the 1920s, and again in the 1950s and 1960s. Gisborne became a city in 1955, when its population reached 20,000. Traditional farming declined from the 1970s and factories and freezing works closed. However, new industries developed, including vineyards and wood processing.


Until the 1920s the easiest way to get around the East Coast was by horse or by ship. There were several sea ports. Even in the 2000s there were few roads in and out of the region. Because of this isolation, aeroplanes have flown from Gisborne since 1935.


The East Coast’s population has the highest percentage of Māori of any region. It has a higher proportion of people under 15 than the national average, and a lower household income than New Zealand as a whole.


In 1989 Gisborne District Council replaced a number of other smaller local councils. The region is in the East Coast electorate and the Ikaroa–Rāwhiti Māori electorate.

Arts, culture and heritage

The East Coast has a strong Māori heritage, and has been home to many Māori performing artists. There are 62 marae in the region. A number of well-known writers have come from the region, including Witi Ihimaera, whose book Whale rider was set in the East Coast town of Whāngārā. The book was made into an internationally acclaimed film.

Sport and recreation

The region is known for its surfing beaches and outdoor recreation opportunities. An annual music festival, Rhythm and Vines, attracts around 25,000 visitors each New Year.

How to cite this page:

Monty Soutar, 'East Coast region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 September 2019)

Story by Monty Soutar, published 25 Aug 2011, updated 30 Mar 2015