Wairarapa has no natural harbours, so access was tricky at first. While Māori had a system of tracks and waka (canoe) landing sites, Europeans either walked round the coast from Wellington or were ferried from boat to beach, such as at Castlepoint.
Roads connected the coastal settlements to inland towns. The 1856 completion of a road over the Rimutaka Range improved access to and from Wellington. As settlement pushed north, tracks became roads and rivers were bridged. In the 20th century travel times were reduced as roads were upgraded and new ones built.
There are three state highways in the region. State Highway 2 runs along the western side from Featherston up to Woodville. Highway 52 leads north-east from Masterton to Pōrangahau, and Highway 53 from Featherston to Martinborough. Major roads are sealed, but many minor roads – especially in the eastern uplands – are metalled (gravel). Slips can close roads for days or even weeks.
In the early 1870s a route was chosen over the Rimutaka Range for a railway from Wellington to Wairarapa. The Wellington side had a moderate grade up the Pakuratahi Valley but the other side was too steep for anything but Fell engines. The line opened in 1878. The only major accident occurred two years later. High winds swept three carriages off the line and dropped them over a bank. Three passengers were killed, and another died three weeks later from injuries.
The railway reached Masterton in 1880 and Eketāhuna in 1889. In 1897 it reached Woodville and joined the Napier–Palmerston North line. The railway helped to populate the region by improving access, not least to the vital Wellington market. Passenger trains now travel only between Wellington and Masterton.
The last Fell engine
The Fell System was invented by John Fell in 1863 to drive trains over the Mont Cenis Pass between France and Italy. It had a central (third) rail, gripped by horizontal wheels under the engine, which pulled the train uphill. The Wairarapa line’s first Fell engine was called Mont Cenis, but was later known as H199. When the line closed in 1955, the engines were scrapped, except H199. It was moved to a Featherston playground, to be clambered over by generations of children. In 1980 a group was formed to restore and house H199. It now sits in its own museum in Featherston.
Access improved further when the 8.8 kilometre Rimutaka rail tunnel was completed in 1955. It was the first in New Zealand to use the ‘full-face’ method, where the tunnel is driven to its full size from the start, rather than dug out in halves. Construction began in 1951 and proceeded smoothly until an explosion triggered a cave-in, killing one worker and trapping 33 others for two days. Two others died in later explosions.
The tunnel cut the travel time between Upper Hutt and Featherston from three hours to 45 minutes, making it easier to travel to Wellington for work. Many commuters are former Wellingtonians, attracted by cheaper housing, a better climate and a slower pace.
Wairarapa does not have a commercial airport. Passengers fly from either Palmerston North or Wellington. Small planes and helicopters offer charter services from Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome.