Story: Southland places

Page 8. Riverton / Aparima

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2006 population: 1,431

This district lies 38 km west of Invercargill, close to the sea on both sides of the estuary of the Aparima River (also known as the Jacobs River).

It is the oldest Pākehā settlement in Southland and Otago. Before the arrival of Europeans, it was home to a substantial Māori called Aparima, the inhabitants attracted by the harbour and ample seafood. In the mid-1830s, Captain John Howell established a whaling station there. He took a Māori woman of high rank as his wife and thereby acquired a lot of land. Today, a large memorial beside the Aparima River estuary commemorates Howell.

Farming has been the most important economic activity in the district, but there has also been timber and flax milling, gold mining and fishing. Chinese miners worked at Round Hill – about 300 were there in 1888. The port was active for commerce until a railway opened to Invercargill in 1879. Since then it has only been used for fishing and recreation.

Riverton has kept many colonial buildings, and cribs (small holiday homes) have been built on the west side of the estuary, and at the Rocks, on Howell Point. Pleasure craft and fishing boats ply the adjacent seas. Known as ‘Southland’s Riviera’, it is a mecca for artists and craftspeople. The Riverton Racing Club’s two-day Easter carnival is Southland’s best-known race meeting. Te Hīkoi, the Riverton heritage centre, opened in 2007.

Riverton firsts

As Southland’s oldest Pākehā settlement, Riverton/Aparima won a number of firsts for Southland province: the first school was opened in 1837, and within a few years there were three, including one for Māori. The first hospital opened in 1861. Also in 1861, the first recorded horse race was held at a newly built track on the edge of town.

Colac Bay/Ōraka

Colac Bay/Ōraka is 12 km west of Riverton/Aparima. The area has a long history of Māori settlement. European settlers arrived to mill timber in the 1850s, and the settlement boomed after the railway arrived in 1881. By 1900, the township contained some 2,000 inhabitants, and a post office, hall, school, blacksmiths, various shops, three hotels and even a sail maker. Nearby were the Chinese gold diggings at Round Hill.

Today there are sheep, deer and cattle farms, and it is a popular holiday resort with a tavern, cafeteria–bar, shop, camping ground and many holiday homes. Also sited there is the Takutai o te Tītī marae of the Ōraka-Aparima rūnanga of Ngāi Tahu. The local surf beach is the most popular in Southland.


Orepuki is a farming centre 30 km west of Riverton/Aparima, on the eastern side of Te Waewae Bay. The name is a corruption of Aropaki (‘bright expanse’). The area is said to have been named by a group of Ngāi Tahu people as they emerged from the dense forest of Pahia Bush Hill and saw the bay for the first time.

The discovery of coal and shale in 1879 put Orepuki on the map. Shale was extracted in huge amounts by the London-based New Zealand Coal and Oil Company. A mine was built, and extraction and processing works operated between 1899 and the beginning of 1903. The workers who stayed turned their hand to sawmilling, but this ended in the 1950s.


From 1880 Thornbury was an important junction, at which rail lines from Invercargill to Riverton and to Nightcaps separated. Its former dairy factory is now a tannery for slink-skins (baby lambskins), which are sent from all over New Zealand.

Aparima River

Formerly known as Jacobs River, this 104-km river rises in the hills between Mossburn and Ōhai, and flows into the sea through a large estuary at Riverton (still named for Jacobs River). It is Southland’s whitebait river. Fisherfolk in their hundreds line the river upstream from Riverton during the season, seeking the tiny, tasty fish. Fishermen also catch brown and rainbow trout, flounder and mullet in the estuary.

How to cite this page:

David Grant, 'Southland places - Riverton / Aparima', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

Story by David Grant, published 8 Sep 2008, updated 25 May 2015