Story: Marlborough region

Page 1. Overview

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Marlborough is a rectangular block in the north-east South Island. It is sliced diagonally into two zones by the Alpine Fault (known in Marlborough as the Wairau Fault), which roughly follows the north bank of the Wairau River.

North of the fault, Marlborough shares Nelson’s geology and landforms. It is mostly hill country, including the Richmond Range and the coastal valleys of the Rai, Pelorus, Kaituna and Tuamarina rivers. The peninsulas separating the various Marlborough Sounds, and the large island Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island), are hills separated by valleys that have flooded since the last ice age. Red Hill (1,790 m) is the highest ‘mainland’ summit, and Mt Stokes (1,203 m) is the highest in the Sounds.

Māori history

Wairau Bar is a 13th-century Polynesian settlement site, among the earliest known in New Zealand.

The Māori history of Marlborough is in large part a story of migrations. Successive tribal groupings from the North Island side of Cook Strait established themselves in the favoured coastal districts of Te Tau Ihu o Te Waka-a-Māui (the prow of demigod Māui’s canoe), a Māori name for the upper South Island including Marlborough. The new arrivals settled in areas including the Marlborough Sounds and the wetlands of the lower Wairau River.

There were also migrations from the east coast of the North Island to the east coast of the South Island. Both Ngāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tahu followed this route, which took them to the Kaikōura coast and places further south.

European arrival

From the late 18th century Europeans started to exploit Marlborough’s resources. The northern part drew whalers, sawmillers and miners. The southern zone, apart from whaling out of Kaikōura, became the domain of large flocks of sheep.

Over time the lower Wairau, a swamp that was drained to make a plain, became Marlborough’s heartland.

However, Marlborough was sparsely populated. It was isolated from other parts of the country in colonial times, because of poor land communications and because the main shipping route between the two islands, from Wellington to Lyttelton, bypassed the province.


The roll-on, roll-off ferry introduced in 1962 made the Wellington–Picton road and rail link across Cook Strait the main axis of freight and passenger transport between the two islands.

That long-awaited transformation was followed by two less-anticipated ones – the development of viticulture (grape growing and winemaking) on a large scale in the Wairau and Awatere valleys, and the burgeoning of a recreation and gourmet-food industry throughout the province. This included the seafood and marine pleasures of the Sounds, the vineyards of the main river valleys, and whale-watching in Kaikōura. Māori have played a significant role in many of these developments.

Recent earthquakes

At 5.09 p.m. on Sunday 21 July 2013, Marlborough was affected by a magnitude 6.5 earthquake. The earthquake was centred in Cook Strait, about 20 kilometres east of the town of Seddon. The period of seismic activity continued with a 6.6 magnitude quake at 2.31 p.m. on Friday 16 August. Centred 10 kilometres south-east of Seddon, close to Lake Grassmere, the quake caused significant damage to buildings in Seddon and nearby towns.

The region was further affected by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake which struck on at 12.02 a.m. on Monday 14 November 2016. The earthquake was centred east of Hanmer Springs in northern Canterbury at a depth of 15 kilometres. Damage to buildings and infrastructure was most significant in southern Marlborough and northern Canterbury. Two people lost their lives.

How to cite this page:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Marlborough region - Overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 April 2024)

Story by Malcolm McKinnon, published 12 May 2012, updated 1 Nov 2016