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Wairarapa places

by  Ben Schrader

This is a comprehensive guide to the towns, coastal and inland areas, and other places of interest in Wairarapa.



Main town of northern Wairarapa, set in the Mangatainoka River valley, with a 2013 population of 2,412. A wide garden strip dividing the town’s main street is a popular place for travellers to stop and picnic. The strip was set aside as a rail reserve, but in the end the railway bypassed the town.

Pahīatua is a rural service centre for northern Wairarapa. Industries include milk products, confectionery and engineering. The town offers homestays and farmstays and has an enthusiastic railcar society. Its rivers are known for their brown trout.


Pahīatua was established in 1881 in the densely forested area known as the Forty Mile Bush. At first it was a timber town, but once the bush was cleared it became a service centre for the dairying and sheep farming hinterland. The town was made a borough in 1892. The town’s name comes from the Māori words for resting place (pahi) and god (atua). One interpretation is that a chief escaping from enemies was led by his god to a hill, where he rested.


In 2013, 20.9% of Pahīatua’s population was over 65 (compared to 14.3% nationally), a proportion partly explained by local farmers retiring to the town. A low proportion of people had post-school qualifications, probably reflecting limited work opportunities. Incomes were lower than the national average.

Pahīatua camp

The Pahīatua camp was set up during the Second World War to intern ‘enemy aliens’, who were moved there from Somes Island in 1943. In 1944 they were sent back to the island, and the camp became home to 734 Polish children, refugees from war-torn Europe. Most of them became New Zealanders. In 1975 some came back to Pahīatua to unveil a memorial sculpture on the site, just south of the town.

Helga’s story

Helga Tiscenko, who came to New Zealand from Germany after the Second World War, stayed in the Pahīatua camp. She arrived in Wellington and boarded a train to Wairarapa, noticing that the countryside was ‘unbelievably green’. She was also fascinated by the wooden houses, which were scattered across the landscape, rather than clustered as in a European village. At the camp, everything was ‘strange’ and Pahīatua ‘seemed so small’. Later, the strangeness went and she and her family became ‘fervent kiwis’. 1


Farming settlement on the west bank of the Mangahao River, 11 km north-west of Pahīatua. Ballance is near the Tararua wind farm, the largest in the southern hemisphere. Named after Liberal politician (later premier) John Ballance, it was founded in 1886 as a government-sponsored settlement, but failed to thrive.


Township 5 km north of Pahīatua, on the banks of the Mangatainoka River, with a 2013 population of 1,560. It is best known for the Tui Brewery, set up in 1889. Its seven-storey tower is a local landmark. Associated with the brewery is the ABC bottling plant.


Settlement 60 km south-east of Pahīatua. Pongaroa is a rural servicing centre. Settled in the 1890s, the town initially supported a timber mill. Once the bush was cleared, the land became sheep and beef cattle country. Pongaroa was the birthplace of Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins (1916–2004), who won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for his contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA. It is also home to Papauma marae, established in 1904.

    • Quoted in Hugh Barlow, ‘Sharing strawberries a world away’, Wairarapa Times-Age, 19 August 2000. › Back



Small service town between southern and northern Wairarapa. Set on terraces above the Makakahi River, Eketāhuna had a 2013 population of 444. The town has suffered long-term decline and has turned to tourism to promote growth. A craft shop and café have opened, and local attractions – such as an 18-hole golf course, the Pūkaha Mount Bruce National Wildlife Centre, and farmstays – are promoted to visitors. In 2006 a 6.5-metre-high kiwi was erected at the town’s entrance to attract passing traffic, and the slogan ‘Eketāhuna Kiwi Country’ was adopted.

Sited towards the southern end of the heavily forested Forty Mile Bush, Eketāhuna was originally named Mellemskov (heart of the forest) by the Scandinavian settlers who founded the town in 1872. These government-assisted migrants were contracted to fell the bush and build roads. As the land was cleared, dairying and sheep farming developed. The town became a borough in 1907.

‘Eke’ means to land or come aground, and ‘tāhuna’ is a sandbank. One interpretation is that the site was the furthest south that canoes could travel on the Makakahi River.

Royal snub

In 1920 the Prince of Wales (who became, briefly, Edward VIII) toured New Zealand. His train stopped in Eketāhuna to take on water, but was too far away for the gathered crowd to see the prince. The town’s outraged citizens took to the main street and burnt effigies of the officials responsible for the snub, to the accompaniment of fire bells.


In 2013 Eketāhuna had a relatively low number of working-age people – 58.5% of residents were aged 15–64, compared with 65.3% for New Zealand as a whole. This reflected the lack of job opportunities – the unemployment rate was 10.3%, as against 7.1% for all of New Zealand. The median income was $19,7000, compared with $28,500 nationally, making Eketāhuna Wairarapa’s most economically deprived town.


Small settlement 18 km east of Eketāhuna on State Highway 52. Alfredton was settled in the 1870s, but due to poor roading failed to prosper. It was named after Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Alfred. Its Māori name is Moroa.


Farming locality on the western bank of the Kopuaranga River, 16 km south of Eketāhuna. Mauriceville is best known for its lime works and striking Methodist church, built in 1881. It was founded by Scandinavian settlers in 1872 as a bush settlement. However, once the bush was cleared the soil proved too infertile to support small farms, and many settlers left. Mauriceville once had five primary schools, but now has only one. The town was named after Sir Maurice O’Rorke, minister for immigration in the 1870s, who encouraged the Scandinavian settlers.

Pūkaha Mount Bruce

One of Wairarapa’s few remaining pockets of lowland native forest, 17 km south-west of Eketāhuna. The 942-hectare block, which has stands of rimu, northern rātā and kahikatea, was set aside as a scenic reserve in the 1890s. A 55-hectare area became a native bird reserve, and in 1962 the government established a captive breeding programme, successfully raising takahē and other rare native species. The reserve became the National Wildlife Centre in 1982. Now called Pūkaha Mount Bruce, it is administered by the Department of Conservation, the local tribe Rangitaane o Wairarapa, and the National Wildlife Centre Trust. Kiwi, kākā and kōkako have been reintroduced in the forest. The centre also plays an important educative role.


Wairarapa’s largest town, with a 2013 population of 20,100. Masterton is Wairarapa’s main service centre and a hub for government services and schools. It has the region’s only public hospital. Each year the town hosts the international shearing competition, the Golden Shears.

Straddling the Waipoua River, Masterton has few striking natural features, but has a number of parks and reserves. Queen Elizabeth Park, with its mature trees and well-tended gardens, is the most impressive. The art and history museum Aratoi has helped foster a cultural resurgence in the region. Masterton has two main marae, Nukutaimemeha and Te Ore Ore.

Local industries include light engineering, timber processing, printing and food production. One well-known business is Hansells, which makes flavouring essences and powdered drinks.


Masterton was founded in 1854 by the Small Farms Association. The association was led by Joseph Masters – after whom the town was named – and aimed to settle working people in villages and on the land. At first Masterton grew slowly, but as its farming hinterland became more productive it began to prosper. In the 1870s it overtook Greytown as Wairarapa’s major town. It became a borough in 1877 and was reached by the railway line from Wellington in 1880. This cemented the town’s position as the region’s main market and distribution centre.

In the 20th century Masterton kept growing, but never enough to dominate the region. From the 1960s, people and businesses left for opportunities elsewhere. In the 1980s, with government deregulation and protective tariffs lifted, more businesses closed and the town declined further.

Between 2001 and 2013 Masterton’s population remained stable.

From small farms to largesse

The Masterton Trust Lands Trust has its roots in the Small Farms Association, which set up towns in the 1850s. When the association wound up in the early 1870s, surplus town land was put in trust for ‘maintaining educational establishments … and other purposes of public utility’. 1 Since then, the trust has played an important role in Masterton, funding libraries, schools, and cultural organisations.


In 2013 Masterton had a higher proportion of people who identified as European (85.4%) compared to the national figure (74%), but also a higher Māori population (19.7%, compared to 14.9% nationally). Median incomes in all areas of Masterton were lower than the national figure of $28,500. The town’s poorest citizens lived in central or eastern Masterton and near the railway. The unemployment rate (5%) was lower than the national figure (7.1%).

Te Ore Ore marae

Te Ore Ore marae is on the eastern outskirts of Masterton. The people of the marae are mainly from Ngāti Hamua, a Rangitāne sub-tribe. The original meeting house, built by the prophet and leader Pāora Te Pōtangaroa, opened in 1881. While it was being built, Pāora fell out with the master carver and prophet Te Kere. Quitting the project, Te Kere predicted the house would take eight years to finish: it was completed in three. Mocking Te Kere’s prophetic powers, Pāora named the building Ngā Tau e Waru (the eight years). In 1939 Ngā Tau e Waru burnt down, and many valuable carvings were lost. It was replaced by a new meeting house of the same name.

    • Alan Henderson, Fortuitous legacy: the Masterton Trust Lands Trust, 1872–1997. Masterton: Trust Lands Trust, 1997, p. 89. › Back



Beach settlement 69 km north-east of Masterton. Castlepoint is famous for its lighthouse, annual horse races on the beach, and 160-metre-high Castle Point rock. It is popular for holidays and fishing, and has a safe swimming beach and tidal lagoon.

The reef, lagoon, sand dunes and Castle Point form the Castlepoint scenic reserve. Dolphins and fur seals often visit, and the reserve is home to white-fronted terns, red-billed gulls and black shags. It is also the only location of the rare Castlepoint daisy (Brachyglottis compactus).


In Māori tradition, Castlepoint was visited by Kupe, the great Polynesian navigator. He arrived from the homeland of Hawaiki, chasing an octopus that hid in a cave at Castlepoint. The Ngāti Kahungunu tribe had a settlement there, called Rangiwhakaoma.

Castlepoint takes its name from Castle Point, the impressive rock outcrop at the settlement's southern end. The rock was named by the British navigator James Cook in 1770, presumably because the landform resembled a fortress. In 1843 the missionaries William Williams and William Colenso stepped ashore, followed five years later by Thomas Guthrie, who established a sheep and cattle run. Until the early 20th century, Castlepoint was Wairarapa’s main port. But improved roading led to the port’s decline and eventual closure.

Castle Point

Castle Point is one of Wairarapa’s most spectacular landforms. It is made of successive layers of lime and sandstone, deposited over the last two million years. On the seaward side it sits on an older base of siltstone. As the land rose from the sea, the encircling softer mudstone was eroded, exposing harder limestone. The offshore reef is also limestone. Its elongated shape is due to faults that run either side.

A day at the races

Horse races have been run on Castlepoint beach since the late 19th century. Plenty of alcohol was drunk and events were often lively. One year, a Wellingtonian hustled a station hand out of his pay packet. When the crowd turned on him, he hid in a patch of gorse – which the punters set on fire. Another time, a policeman drinking at Whakataki’s Marine Hotel fell asleep while sitting next to an elderly Māori woman, also asleep. The pair woke to find themselves handcuffed together, with no key in sight.

Castlepoint lighthouse

With its strong winds, shallows, reefs and currents, the eastern Wairarapa coast can be dangerous. Since 1849, 31 vessels have foundered there, and 31 lives have been lost. In 1913, a 23-metre-high lighthouse was built on Castlepoint reef. It is New Zealand’s third highest lighthouse, and sends three flashes every 45 seconds, visible for 30 kilometres.


Coastal settlement near the Ākitio River mouth, 85 km south-east of Dannevirke. Ākitio’s attractions include boating, surf casting, deep-sea fishing, mountain biking, and swimming. It started as a small settlement of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe. From the 1850s the surrounding land was converted to sheep and cattle farming. The main access was from the sea. Wool and meat were loaded from the beach onto surf boats and rowed to waiting ships. Produce is now transported by road.


Township at the Motuwaireka River mouth, 55 km south-east of Masterton. Riversdale was founded in the 1950s by Masterton businessman Basil Bodle, who bought 40 hectares of beachfront land from Riversdale Station to set up the resort. As coastal property prices have risen, Riversdale has attracted wealthy Wellingtonians, some of whom have built substantial baches (holiday homes).

Closing up camp

Riversdale had two campgrounds for many years. However one closed in 2006 and the second was about to close in early 2007 – the owners decided to capitalise on soaring land prices. The 2006 camp closure spurred a group of long-time campers to band together, raising more than $1 million to buy back part of the land.

Kaiwhata River mouth

At low tide at the Kaiwhata River mouth, 15 km south of Riversdale, more than 20 tree stumps can be seen poking out of the sand. These formed part of a coastal forest that was drowned and buried by rising sea levels over 8,000 years ago. With the coast now rising, the ancient forest has been eerily re-exposed. The stumps have been identified as tōtara.


Sheep farming settlement 48 km north-east of Masterton, on the road to Castlepoint. Tīnui was founded in the 1860s. It thrived in the late 19th century, but today is a quiet farming village. New Zealand’s first civic ANZAC ceremony, commemorating the Australian and New Zealand troops’ landing at Gallipoli in 1915, was held in Tīnui on 25 April 1916. A memorial cross was built on the Tīnui Taipo rock outcrop above the village.



Town 14 km south-west of Masterton, with a 2013 population of 4,686. Stretched along High Street (State Highway 2), Carterton promotes itself as New Zealand’s daffodil capital, hosting a spring festival where crowds flock to pick flowers in outlying fields. The town has a small manufacturing sector, and has benefited from the growth of tourism in Wairarapa. Carrington Park, nearby wineries, and antique and second-hand shops attract passing traffic. The railway station, used by Wellington commuters, is also a local history museum.

Building Black Bridge

In 1857 a contract to bridge the Waiohine River, south of Carterton, was awarded to John Ashmore. But he soon upset his workers by insisting they stick to the eight-hour day. They wanted to work longer hours and petitioned politician Charles Carter for permission. Ashmore was unable to complete the contract and Carter took over. The Black Bridge – named after the tar that sealed the wood – was finished in 1859.


Originally called Three Mile Bush, Carterton was established in 1857 as a base for workers building the road from Greytown to Masterton. In 1859 its name was changed to Carterton in recognition of Charles Rooking Carter, a strong advocate of Wairarapa’s small farm settlers and a member of the Wellington provincial council. When the road was finished, workers turned to bush cutting. The cleared land was converted to dairying and cropping. Along with timber milling, these provided Carterton’s economic base. In 1887 the town was made a borough. By 1900 it was Wairarapa’s second largest town.


Compared to national figures, in 2013 Carterton had a high proportion of residents aged over 65 and people without educational qualificationss. Residents also had a lower median income.

Carter Scenic Reserve

In 1896 Charles Carter set aside 30 hectares of his estate along the Ruamāhanga River as protected land. It was made a reserve in 1921. This rare mix of grassland, wetland, shrubland, and lowland forest was once typical of the Wairarapa. On the wetland edge, kahikatea forest changes to tītoki and mataī; tōtara grows on the drier slopes. The reserve is 12 km south-east of Carterton and has several bush walks.


Farming settlement on the Mangahuia Stream, 15 km south-east of Carterton. Gladstone is part of the Wairarapa tourist and wine trail, with cafés, a winery, a wheelwright shop and several homestays. Every spring a Scarecrow Festival is held in the fields. Nearby is the Hurunui-o-Rangi marae. The settlement was named after the 19th-century British prime minister William Gladstone.

Stonehenge of the south

Stonehenge Aotearoa is a full-scale adaptation of Stonehenge in England, on privately owned land 10 km south-east of Carterton. When viewed from the centre, the stones mark the daily rising and setting positions of the sun. The stone circle also forms a Polynesian star compass, showing the bearings taken by Polynesian seafarers travelling to and from New Zealand.


The main eastern entrance to the Tararua Forest Park, 25 km north-west of Masterton. Holdsworth has short bush walks and longer tramps up Mt Holdsworth and beyond. The picturesque Atiwhakatu Stream flows through the area, providing swimming holes, with camping and picnicking spots on its banks. The locality is named after Joseph Holdsworth, commissioner of crown lands for Wellington from 1870 to 1884.




Township 15 km north-east of Featherston on the Waiohine River terraces, with a 2013 population of 2,199. Crammed with cafés, boutiques, homestays, hotels, and antique shops, Greytown has become Wairarapa’s wealthiest and most fashionable town. It is also the oldest, with New Zealand’s most complete main street of wooden Victorian buildings.

Greytown remains an important rural servicing centre, with light engineering, pip-fruit and timber processing industries.


Greytown was founded in 1854 by the Small Farms Association, which aimed to settle working people in towns and on the land. The town was named after Governor Sir George Grey. It was New Zealand’s first planned inland town, although the first settlers were greeted by dense bush.

Once this was cleared, the town developed as a market and servicing centre. It was soon the region’s largest settlement, and became a borough in 1878.

However, the railway bypassed Greytown in the 1870s because of problems with floods from the Waiohine River. The town never recovered its former prominence. One benefit of the flooding was rich alluvial soils, and a pip-fruit, berry, and market garden industry was established in the 1890s.

Greytown declined during the 20th century, but was rediscovered in the 1990s. Many Wellingtonians and others were charmed by its old buildings and settled or bought second homes in the town, initiating a new period of growth.

Tree town

Greytown was the site of New Zealand’s first Arbor Day. On 3 July 1890, children from Greytown School, residents, and dignitaries planted 153 trees at the southern end of the town. Twelve of these survive. It was a somewhat ironic gesture, as native forest had originally been felled to establish the town. Greytown is now noted for its many mature trees.


In 2013 Greytown’s residents had higher educational qualifications and income than those of other towns in the region. The town also had a high proportion of people aged over 65 – almost twice the national average – and of couples without children.

Waiohine Gorge

Situated 15 kilometres north-west of Greytown on the edge of the Tararua Forest Park, the spectacular Waiohine Gorge was carved out by the Waiohine River. It is a popular swimming, tubing, camping and picnic spot, and a long swing bridge spans the gorge.

Pāpāwai marae

Pāpāwai is one of the most important marae in New Zealand. In the late 19th century it was the focus of Kotahitanga, the Māori parliament movement. Pāpāwai was established in the 1850s when the government set aside land for a Māori settlement near Greytown. It built a flour mill and the Anglican church opened a (short-lived) school, St Thomas’s.

The dominant leader of Pāpāwai was Te Mānihera Te Rangi-taka-i-waho of the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe. He supported pastoral leases and engagement with Europeans. Te Mānihera was succeeded in the 1880s by Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku.


Under Mahupuku, Pāpāwai experienced a growth spurt. Hikurangi meeting house was opened in 1888. A large T-shaped structure (the Aotea meeting house and another building, Te Waipounamu) was built for the Kotahitanga or Māori parliament. This sat at Pāpāwai for sessions in 1897 and 1898. It passed a resolution to end Māori land sales and was visited by Lord Ranfurly, the governor, and by Premier Richard Seddon.

In 1898 Pāpāwai hosted a large hui (meeting) to discuss government plans to administer Māori land. Mahupuku believed this would give Māori a degree of independence. He sided with the government, and split the Kotahitanga movement.

Mahupuku also began the newspaper Te Puke ki Hikurangi. Published intermittently until 1913, it was a mouthpiece of the Kotahitanga and a valuable record of tribal tradition and whakapapa (genealogy).

A symbol of unity

In 1911 the government erected a marble memorial to Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku at Pāpāwai, for his role in bringing Māori and Pākehā together. The unveiling by acting prime minister James Carroll attracted up to 4,000 Māori and 2,000 Pākehā. The accompanying banquet included 275 sheep, 20 bullocks, 45 suckling pigs, 48 tons of potatoes and several dozen geese and turkeys.

A palisade

Just before Mahupuku died in 1904, he built a palisade around the marae. It was later enhanced by 18 tōtara whakairo (carved figures). The male and female figures represented famous individuals, including the leader Nukupewapewa and the local Pākehā settler, William Mein Smith. Unusually, they faced inwards to represent peace between Māori and Pākehā, rather than looking outwards to confront enemies.

Fall and rise

From the 1910s Pāpāwai declined. Gales in 1934 damaged the Aotea and Te Waipounamu complex. The marae fell into disrepair. Despite calls by Sir Āpirana Ngata in 1946 to preserve it, little was done until the 1960s when conservation work began on the whakairo figures. In the late 1980s these were fully restored. Hikurangi was moved to become the new meeting house, behind a restored gateway. Today, the marae is a vital part of local life, with new buildings including apartments for elders. It offers courses, including t'ai chi and line dancing.



Township at the southern gateway to Wairarapa, 34 km south-west of Masterton at the foot of the Rimutaka Range. With a 2013 population of 2,253, Featherston is a rural servicing and distribution centre, and home to many Wellington commuters.

Until recently, it was the ‘ugly duckling’ of south Wairarapa’s towns but, like Greytown and Martinborough, it is presently being gentrified. Antique and collectible stores now line the main street, and new cafés have opened.

The Fell Engine Museum houses the world’s only Fell engine (once used on the steep Rimutaka Incline, over the Rimutaka Range). The Featherston Heritage Museum explores the history of the Featherston Military Camp.


Featherston was first known as Burlings, after Henry Burling, who opened an accommodation house near the Māori settlement of Pae-O-Tu-Mokai in 1847. In 1856 the provincial government surveyed the spot for a town, naming it after its superintendent, Isaac Featherston. The town’s initial development was hindered by high land prices, but after the railway came through in the 1870s it became an important service town. It was made a borough in 1917.


In 2013 Featherston had a higher proportion of people with no educational qualifications (almost 30%) than the national average (21%). Its median income ($23,900) was lower than the national average ($28,500), and the unemployment rate (10.5%) was a third higher than the national rate (7.1%). Featherston was one of Wairarapa’s most economically deprived towns, second only to Eketāhuna.

Featherston Military Camp

Featherston Military Camp was established in 1916 to train soldiers heading to the battlefields of the First World War. Accommodating 8,000 men, the camp was larger than the town and included 16 dining halls, six cookhouses, 17 shops, a picture theatre, hospital, and post office. After training, men marched over the Rimutaka Range for embarkation at Wellington.

Camp riot

During the Second World War the Featherston Military Camp held hundreds of Japanese prisoners of war. Prisoners were assigned daily work duties, such as cutting gorse or cleaning.

Not so peaceful

After the Second World War, Featherston Military Camp was demolished and small memorials erected to the Japanese prisoners of war and their guards. In 1995 Nakamato Toshio – head of Masterton’s Juken Nissho timber plant – proposed a peace garden be erected on the site. New Zealand veterans, still angered by Japan’s war aggression, opposed the plan. The South Wairarapa District Council deferred to the veterans and rejected the proposal.

On 25 February 1943, 240 prisoners refused to parade for work and sat down in their compound. A spokesman for the strikers, Toshio Adachi, demanded a conference with the camp’s commander, Donald Donaldson, who refused to meet Adachi until the strikers paraded for work. A stand-off resulted. Guards tried to seize Adachi, but he fell back into the crowd, who began throwing stones. The camp’s adjutant, James Malcolm, fired a warning shot to restore order. After a second shot wounded Adachi, the prisoners rushed the guards, who opened fire. Thirty seconds later 31 Japanese were dead and a further 31 injured. Seventeen later died, and one New Zealander died from a ricochet wound.

A military court of inquiry decided the shooting could not have been avoided. Tension had been building for weeks, partly a result of cultural differences. Some prisoners considered the camp regime slack, and striking was one way to assert their authority. Many also felt great shame for being taken alive and imprisoned; having to work was a further humiliation. After the shooting, there were no more serious incidents at the camp.



Township 18 km south-east of Featherston, with a 2013 population of 1,470. Since the 1980s Martinborough has been transformed from a quiet backwater into the capital of the region’s wine industry. It remains an important rural servicing centre for southern Wairarapa, and is the seat of the South Wairarapa District Council.

Roads of empire

Wanting to imprint a strong symbol of empire on the landscape, runholder John Martin designed Martinborough in the shape of a Union Jack. Radiating from the central square, the streets were named after prominent people or places Martin had visited on his 1875 grand tour. Names include Bismarck, Cologne, Dublin and Kansas. Due to patriotic fervour in the First World War, Bismarck Street was renamed French Street after the British general John French.


Martinborough began in 1870 as the township of Wharekaka, close to the Māori settlement of Waihenga. In its first decade churches, a school, hotel, general store and post office opened. In 1879 John Martin, a wealthy local runholder, purchased neighbouring land and founded a new town, naming it after himself.

The 1880s depression meant Martinborough grew slowly. The town provided a stopover for workers heading to the coast, so transport and accommodation became key industries.

Unlike in other towns, Māori retained a significant presence. Residents included Niniwa Heremaia, the eldest daughter of Ngāti Kahungunu tribal leader Heremaia Tamaihotua; and Maata Mahupuku, great-niece of Pāpāwai marae leader Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku and a childhood friend of Katherine Mansfield.

Martinborough grew steadily in the early 20th century and became a borough in 1928. From the 1960s it declined as businesses were centralised elsewhere. Wanting to revitalise the town, some looked to dairying, others suggested stone fruit, and a few considered grapes.

A wine village

Grapes for wine production were planted near Martinborough in the late 1970s. Since then, the wine industry has had a dramatic impact on the town, providing work and economic stimulus. Cellar door sales and new restaurants encouraged visitors. Hotels and homestays were set up, and property prices leapt as Wellingtonians bought holiday homes. Historic buildings were moved from other places and placed in the main street to create a ‘wine village’. An annual wine and food festival, Toast Martinborough, was first held in 1992. Along with the twice-yearly Martinborough Fair, it attracts thousands.

The faw-faws

Martinborough’s transformation has not been welcomed by all. Increased house prices mean that some locals can no longer afford property. As holiday homes proliferate, some residents no longer have permanent neighbours. Others resent the influx of outsiders, nicknamed ‘faw-faws’ for ‘the sound of their braying laughter’. 1

Hau Ariki marae

Hau Ariki marae in Regent Street was founded in the early 1980s as an amenity for the people of south Wairarapa, both Māori and Pākehā. It is used for weddings, hui (meetings) and tangi (funerals) and is the site of the town’s kōhanga reo (Māori language preschool). The meeting house is named after the Ngāti Kahungunu priest Tūpai, who travelled from Polynesia on the ancestral canoe Takitimu.


In 2013 Martinborough had a relatively high median income ($28,900), which was slightly above the national figure. The unemployment rate (4.2%) was lower than the national one (7.1%).

Ruakōkoputuna glow-worm caves

Limestone caves on Dyerville Road, 18 km from Martinborough. Glow-worms can be seen in the caves, which can be visited with permission from the landowner.

    • Helen Bain, ‘Boomtown on the plains.’ Dominion Post weekend magazine, 9 February 2002, p.3. › Back

Palliser district

Ruamāhanga River

Wairarapa’s principal river. Beginning in the central Tararua Range, the Ruamāhanga River flows south-eastwards across the Masterton basin, then turns south-west down the east side of the Wairarapa basin. Directed along an artificial channel at Lake Wairarapa, it drains into Lake Ōnoke. The river and its tributaries are known for trout fishing and swimming. Jet boating and canoeing are popular on the lower reaches.


Farming locality 29 km south-west of Martinborough. Pirinoa is the site of Kohunui marae, which features the Tuhirangi meeting house, opened in 1956. The marae is available to all sub-tribes of the south Wairarapa.

Hau Nui wind farm

Wind farm 20 km south-east of Martinborough. Built in 1996, Hau Nui was New Zealand’s first commercial wind farm. It generates enough energy to power 1,500 homes.

Lake Ferry

Small fishing and holiday settlement on the eastern side of the outlet of Lake Ōnoke, 35 km south-west of Martinborough. It was once the site of a ferry service that operated across the lake outlet.

Palliser Bay

Rugged Palliser Bay stretches from Turakirae Head to Cape Palliser. The coast is fully exposed to southerly swells. Its mudstone cliffs are undermined by waves, and prone to collapsing. Palliser Bay’s isolation and spectacular scenery has recently seen the construction of a number of luxury lodges, catering for wealthy New Zealand and international guests.

A real cliff-hanger

In 2007 a cliff-top house with panoramic sea views at Whatarangi, in Palliser Bay, sold for $40,000 – remarkably cheap for coastal property. Prospective buyers worldwide showed interest because of the low price. But there was a down side – erosion from waves had already destroyed half the section, and the house sat on the cliff edge and was no longer safe to inhabit. Other houses in the area have fallen into the sea entirely.

Aorangi Forest Park

Forest area in the Aorangi Range, between Martinborough and Cape Palliser. The park contains sites of early Māori occupation, including the Pūtangirua site. Vegetation includes forests of beech, hīnau, mahoe and mataī, with shrublands of tauhinu, mānuka and kānuka at lower altitudes. There are small areas of subalpine shrubs on the peaks. The park is popular with trampers and hunters, and has populations of pigs, goats and deer.

Pūtangirua Pinnacles

Dramatic eroded landforms 10 km south-east of Lake Ferry in Aorangi Forest Park. Soaring like skyscrapers, the pillars are made of old alluvial gravels (conglomerate). The pillars formed as heavy rain washed away softer rock, leaving more resistant rock behind. In time individual earth pillars (hoodoos) developed, protected by a boulder or hard surface on top. Some are thought to be over 1,000 years old. They are eroding by about 1 centimetre per year.


Wairarapa’s main fishing settlement, on Palliser Bay, 60 km south of Martinborough. Ngāwī has no harbour, so fishing boats are launched by bulldozers from the beach. The town is known for its annual fishing contest, held in February.

Cape Palliser

Headland at the south-eastern end of Palliser Bay. At the foot of the Aorangi Range, Cape Palliser is the North Island’s southernmost point. The 18-metre lighthouse at the tip of the cape sits on a hill 80 metres above sea level. Captain James Cook named the cape and Palliser Bay in 1770, after his friend Sir Hugh Palliser. Earlier, Māori called the cape Mātakitaki-a-Kupe (the gazing of Kupe), after the famous Polynesian explorer. The cape is home to the largest fur seal breeding colony in the North Island.

Going green

The primary school at Kahutara, south of Featherston, is known as an enviroschool. It runs a worm farm to reduce waste. Rubbish bins are divided into biodegradable (green, worm-friendly) and non-biodegradable (red, not worm-friendly), and school waste has been reduced from about six bags a week to one. The school has established an organic garden and is encouraging native plant growth.


A farming and fishing locality at the Awheaiti Stream mouth, 45 km south of Martinborough. Tora was the site of the large Te Awaiti run owned by the Riddiford family. Part of this was subdivided into farms for resettlement of soldiers after the Second World War. Tora offers holiday and small conference accommodation.

Wairarapa lakes

The southern Wairarapa has two major lakes. About 18 km long and 6 km wide, Lake Wairarapa is shallow – mostly less than 2.5 metres deep. Covering 7,800 hectares, it is the biggest wetland in the lower North Island, and has long been an important Māori eel fishery. Lake Wairarapa drains into tidal 650-hectare Lake Ōnoke, to the south. Lake Ōnoke is separated from the open sea of Palliser Bay by a 3-km gravel spit.

Originally, Lake Ōnoke’s mouth at the eastern end of the spit opened and closed in response to weather and other conditions. When closed, the lakes’ levels rose, sometimes causing flooding.

Europeans farming the land wanted to open the spit to reduce flooding. Māori resisted, believing it would threaten their fisheries.

Battle of the spit

In 1886 Pākehā formed the Ruamahanga River Drainage Board to control Lake Ōnoke. In May 1892, they attempted to open the spit. This was resisted by the Ngāti Kahungunu leader Piripi Te Maari-o-te-rangi and his followers. As digging began, they grabbed the workers’ shovels, halting the work. Pākehā onlookers linked hands, forming a chain around the diggers. Several Māori women dived under the link and started filling the trench. Unable to complete the task, the board decided to prosecute for obstruction. Happy to get a court hearing, the protesters performed a celebratory haka (war dance). They then allowed work to continue.

The Supreme Court found in favour of the board, but in 1895 Piripi Te Maari-o-te-rangi petitioned Parliament. An inquiry found he had been wronged and recommended his grievances be redressed.

A meal of eels

When the Lake Ōnoke spit was closed off from the sea, often in late summer, Māori caught eels by digging a trench in the sand between the lake and sea. As water started to rush through, the eels followed, believing it was a passage to the sea. The opening to the trench was then filled in, trapping the eels, which were dried or smoked and used for trade.

Gifting the lakes

In 1896, after Te Maari-o-te-Rangi’s death, Hāmuera Tamahau Mahupuku gifted the lakes to the Crown. This ensured the mana (spiritual power) of the lakes remained with Wairarapa Māori. In exchange, the Crown paid £2000 and promised to set aside land for Māori. However, only one reserve was set aside. This was part of the Pouakani Block in faraway southern Waikato, comprising swamp and bush-covered hills, with infertile pumice soils.

Lake management

The government allowed areas of the lake edge to be drained and converted to pasture. After a severe flood in 1947 the lower Ruamāhanga River was diverted to flow directly into Lake Ōnoke. A 1980s plan to reclaim more of the lake bed for farming was stopped because of environmental concerns, and in 1989 a conservation order was placed over the lake to protect its wildlife. Two years later local interest groups formed the Lake Wairarapa Co-ordinating Committee. Issues include reducing runoff from pasture, managing hunting and gathering rights, and protecting the habitats of rare native species.

Plants and animals

Lakes Wairarapa and Ōnoke are among the North Island’s most important wetlands.


The lake edge supports over 40 species of native aquatic turf plant, such as swamp grass, raupō and flax. At the edge of wetlands there are large areas of mingimingi, kānuka and mānuka. There are also stands of kahikatea and cabbage trees. Crack willow, hawthorn and alder are the main exotic species.


The eastern side of the lake is the most significant area for wildlife, providing a habitat for the bar-tailed godwit, golden plover, banded dotterel, Japanese snipe and Caspian tern. The lake supports a range of waterfowl, including grey and mallard ducks, grey teal, and paradise shelduck. Three species of shag and the pied stilt also live in the wetlands.


Two nationally threatened fish species, the brown mudfish and giant kōkopu, live in the wetlands. Eel and black flounder migrate from the sea from midsummer to autumn. Exotic fish – brown trout, perch and (noxious) rudd – are established, but their impact on native species is not known.

External links and sources

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How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa places', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 March 2018)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 29 Mar 2007, updated 11 Jun 2015