Story: Wairarapa region

First settled by Māori in the 14th century, Wairarapa later became a farming area known for its meat and butter. Today this largely rural region also produces wine and olives. Lifestylers and holidaymakers enjoy its quiet towns, rugged coastline and forested mountains.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: Lake Wairarapa

Story summary

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In the south-east of the North Island, Wairarapa stretches from the Tararua Range to the east and south coasts. Its northern border runs from the Manawatū Gorge to Cape Turnagain.


Masterton is the main town. Other towns include Carterton, Greytown, Featherston, Martinborough, Pahīatua and Eketāhuna.


Wairarapa has three main landscapes:

  • the western mountains of the Remutaka and Tararua ranges, which are covered in forest
  • the central lowlands, created from gravels carried by rivers over the last million years
  • the hilly eastern uplands.

Wairarapa is prone to earthquakes. New Zealand’s strongest recorded earthquake (magnitude 8.2) occurred on the Wairarapa fault in 1855. 

Māori history

Archaeological sites show that Māori settled around Palliser Bay in the 14th century. The Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu tribes moved into the region later, and still live there today. The two tribes lived peacefully, and often intermarried. They fought off invading tribes.

European arrivals

Europeans arrived in the Wairarapa in the 1840s. They farmed land leased from Māori, and founded the towns of Greytown and Masterton.

In the 1870s, settlers from Scandinavia and other places came to clear the dense forests of the Forty Mile Bush, in northern Wairarapa. They farmed the cleared land and built towns.

Māori and Pākehā

During the New Zealand wars of the 19th century, there was no fighting in Wairarapa – relations between Māori and Pākehā remained good. Still, by the end of the wars, Māori had sold most of their land and couldn’t afford to buy any back. Many Māori found farm work or, much later, moved to the towns.


Wairarapa once made most of its money from sheep, beef cattle and dairy farming. Farming is still important today, but so are other industries, including forestry, fishing and horticulture.

In the late 1970s, grapes were first grown near Martinborough to make wine. Since then, many wineries have been set up. Tourism has also increased. Many visitors come from Wellington.

Wairarapa people today

Since the 1980s, some businesses have closed, and people have moved away. But others have moved to the region from Wellington to enjoy a quieter lifestyle.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 29 March 2007, updated 1 March 2017