Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.

Bay of Plenty region

by  Malcolm McKinnon

Golden beaches, abundant marine life, a benign climate and luxuriant forests: the features which inspired James Cook to name the Bay of Plenty are still attractions today. Equally enduring are landmarks such as the mountain Maungapōhatu, Ōhiwa Harbour and Whakaari (White Island), sacred to the tribes of this curving coastline.


Standing on Kōhī Point, high above the ocean at Whakatāne, the onlooker scans an impressive expanse of coastline. Far to the west, at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour, lies Mt Maunganui. Looking north out to sea, Mayor Island is discernible, and closer in, Mōtītī and White (Whakaari) islands. Moutohorā (Whale Island) dominates the foreground. To the east, the spurs of the bush-clad Raukūmara Range drop sharply to the coast.

Shared names

Several landmarks in Bay of Plenty are known by both their Māori and English names:

Mt Maunganui – Mauao
Mt Edgecumbe – Pūtauaki
Mayor Island – Tūhua
White Island – Whakaari
Whale Island – Moutohorā

A line of territory

More than almost any other New Zealand region, Bay of Plenty is defined by a coastline, rather than an area. The Māori inhabitants, descendants of the people of the Mataatua canoe, identify the boundaries in a saying: ‘Mai Ngā Kurī a Whārei ki Tihirau’ – from the Bowentown Heads to Cape Runaway. For their Pākehā neighbours the line was first the sea and then the railway, but it has since become a highway.

Regions within the region

The region is commonly divided into the western Bay, centred on Tauranga, and the eastern Bay, centred on Whakatāne. The regional council's boundaries also include the Rotorua district, which lies within the Volcanic Plateau region.

Bay of Plenty can be subdivided into several zones:

  • Out to sea, the offshore islands.
  • Hugging the coast, beaches, dunes, shallow harbours, estuaries and wetlands.
  • Inland, alluvial plains, the hub of production and population.
  • Further inland, rugged, dissected, often bush-clad ranges, notably Kaimai in the west and Raukūmara and Huiarau in the east. Most of Huiarau is the domain of the Tūhoe people.

Two names – two worlds

The ancestors of Māori originally voyaged from Eastern Polynesia to the region, and other parts of New Zealand, around 1250–1300 CE. They named the Bay Te Moana a Toi (the sea of Toi). Toi, or Toitetuatahi, was an early explorer to whom Māori throughout the North Island are linked.

Later, Pākehā knew it as the Bay of Plenty. The name was given by Lieutenant James Cook, who circumnavigated New Zealand in the Endeavour in 1769–70. Cook was alluding to the region’s abundant natural resources.

However, the name seemed over-optimistic in the 150 years after Cook’s voyage. Contact between Māori and Pākehā through missionaries and traders in the early 1800s turned to war in the 1860s. As a result, many tribes were dispossessed of their best land. Pākehā settlers arriving later found it difficult to make a living from a region that proved less productive than hoped.

In the 20th century, the drainage of swamp land, improved communications and the development of forestry helped the region live up to its name. Holidaymakers and retired people flocked to the golden sands along the coast. But the economic advances have not been shared equally. The Bay’s Māori and English names continue to reflect two different worlds.

Sea, coast and lowland

The sea comes first in the Bay of Plenty. A sweeping curve defines the bay, from Ngā Kurī a Whārei to Tihirau (Bowentown Heads to Cape Runaway). A more generous definition would begin further north at Ahuahu, the largest of the Mercury Islands, off Whitianga.

Volcanic features

The volcanic zone extends beyond the coast to the sea floor. The three volcanic islands – Mayor Island (Tūhua), Moutohorā (Whale Island) and Whakaari (White Island) – are prominent reminders of this. Recent work by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research has shown a zone of faultlines through Moutohorā to White Island and beyond.

The coast from Katikati to Ōpape (not far east of Ōpōtiki) is a curve of sandy beach. It includes Matakana Island, but is interrupted by volcanic promontories at Katikati entrance, Tauranga entrance, Maketū and Whakatāne.

Harbours and wetlands

Tauranga and Ōhiwa harbours formed when the sea level rose after the last ice age, filling the river valleys. The harbours are very shallow, with large areas of mudflat and stunted mangroves exposed at low tide. The southern limit of mangroves is just south of Ōhiwa Harbour. Ōhiwa Harbour and Maketū, Kaituna and Waihī estuaries are major feeding areas for migratory and local wading birds, including the New Zealand dotterel.

Swamps developed around the Tarawera, Rangitāiki and Whakatāne rivers, and around the lower reaches of the Kaituna and Pōngakawa rivers. For Māori these wetlands provided food – shellfish, fish and birds. But for Europeans they limited both settlement and overland communication.

Most of these swamps were drained in the first half of the 20th century in government-funded projects. Recently there have been initiatives to restore the wetlands, which are important habitats for indigenous plants, birds and animals.


Coastal Bay of Plenty has one of New Zealand’s mildest and sunniest climates. Tauranga's mean annual rainfall is 1,198 millimetres, and it averages 2,260 hours of sunshine.


The volcanic ash that covers much of the region makes good soils, particularly where time has allowed the weathering of the ash into clays. The climate helps. Coupled with the high soil temperatures, these volcanic loams are suited to subtropical horticulture. This is particularly the case around Te Puke. Soils at Ōpōtiki and Katikati resemble those at Te Puke, but do not hold quite as much moisture.

The soils of the lower Kaituna and the Rangitāiki developed through the erosion of pumice, deposited from volcanic eruptions. The fertile plains in the east have been built up from the greywacke rock of the main dividing range.

Rising from the ashes

The Bay of Plenty’s kiwifruit industry prospered first at Te Puke because of the district's moist, free-draining soil. The top layer contains volcanic ash from the Kaharoa eruption (around 1314 CE), and the subsoil contains much older, weathered volcanic ash.

Lowland vegetation

When Europeans arrived the original vegetation cover included magnificent stands of kahikatea on the river flats. However, it has long since been displaced by introduced grasses, shrubs and trees. Some remnant forest, including pūriri, nīkau and karaka, can still be found on the lower hills, while the scarlet-flowering pōhutukawa dominates the forest at the coast.

Ranges, rivers and forests

Western ranges

The western Kaimai and Mamaku ranges are almost entirely volcanic. They are older, lower, and more weathered than the eastern ranges.

Eastern ranges

To the east lie the Raukūmara, Huiarau and other ranges in Te Urewera. They are a continuation of the chain of greywacke mountains that runs from Cook Strait to East Cape. They have several distinctive features:

  • They are younger, higher and more rugged than the western ranges.
  • They consist of old sedimentary rocks that have been uplifted. These rocks are mainly greywacke and argillite (hardened grey sandstone and mudstone).
  • The climate is harsher than on the coast, with higher rainfall and much colder winters.


The rivers run swift. They are aligned north–south in the eastern ranges, flowing along major fault lines. The Matahina dam on the Rangitāiki River was built across a fault.

Apart from the Rangitāiki, major rivers are the Whirinaki (a tributary of the Rangitāiki), the Whakatāne and its tributary the Waimana–Tauranga. The Waiotahe, Waioeka, Ōtara, Mōtū and Raukōkore rivers all rise in the dividing range. They flow through deeply dissected hill country before reaching either the low country around Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki, or the sea itself.

The course of the Mōtū River is the most dramatic and was protected from development in 1984. The watersheds of the western ranges are closer to the coast than those of the eastern ranges. None of the rivers in the western Bay of Plenty are as substantial as those in the east.


In 1840 most of the ranges were covered in mixed podocarp–broadleaf forest, which is still found over much of the Huiarau and Raukūmara ranges. Stands of silver beech are still common above 1,000 metres. Kauri trees grew as far south as Katikati, with some further scattered stands for another 40 kilometres to the south-east.

Māori had cleared some substantial areas – for instance at Maungapōhatu in the Urewera region and in parts of the Tauranga back country. Bracken and mānuka grew on this cleared land. In places, shifting cultivation was practised, with crops being grown for a time, after which the soil was left to recover.

Europeans began milling indigenous forest in the Kaimai Range, particularly kauri, in the 19th century. Milling began in the more remote Whirinaki Forest in the 1930s.

Protecting the forests

The prospect of the indigenous forests disappearing altogether prompted the establishment of the New Zealand Forest Service in 1921. Its mandate was to gain only a sustainable yield from indigenous forests, and to plant exotic trees to meet future timber demand.

Subsequently, a new generation of conservationists opposed milling native forests. In particular Minginui, in Whirinaki, was the site of bitter disagreement in the 1970s and 1980s. On one side were the New Zealand Forest Service and locals who worked in the sawmills. On the other were the conservation activists.

A more modest but similarly acrimonious campaign to protect a small area of Kaimai native forest from being replaced by exotic trees was launched by conservationists in the late 1970s. This was prompted when a Māori incorporation leased land to New Zealand Forest Products for pine planting. The development went ahead, but some areas of bush were preserved by the Māori owners.

Birds and other animals

The eastern ranges, in particular the Urewera region, sustain populations of species that are becoming increasingly rare. One of the last reliable sightings of a significant bird, the huia (now extinct), was made there in 1907, and the area holds the largest remaining population of its relative, the kōkako. It also supports kiwi, kākā, yellow-crowned parakeets, New Zealand falcons and blue ducks, as well as more common native forest species. Other notable native animals include two species of bat, Hochstetter's frog, and giant Powelliphanta snails.

Most of these species have been under threat ever since pigs, deer, possums and other animals were released or spread into the forests. The survival of the kōkako, kiwi and other native animals has been assisted by a Department of Conservation recovery programme.

Deer cullers, possum trappers and deer and pig hunters, both Pākehā and Māori, have operated in the ranges for decades.

Māori traditions


The Bay of Plenty is the homeland of the tribes of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāi Tai, Te Whakatōhea, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, and some of the tribes of the Te Arawa confederation. The history of the bay, from the arrival of canoe voyagers from Eastern Polynesia some 700 years ago, is recorded in place names and traditions.

The Māori name for the Bay of Plenty is Te Moana a Toi (the sea of Toi), commemorating the legendary ancestor Toitehuatahi, also known as Toikairākau.

The Mataatua canoe

The Mataatua, captained by Toroa, landed at Te Mānuka Tūtahi, in present-day Whakatāne. Tradition tells of the rāhui (prohibition) imposed on the coastline by Muriwai, the captain’s sister. When her two children drowned at Tauranga Moana (Tauranga Harbour), Muriwai banned food-gathering and fishing from the area, which she defined as, ‘Mai Ngā Kurī a Whārei ki Tihirau’ – from west of the Bowentown Heads to Cape Runaway.

Toi’s son Awanuiarangi, and his great-grandson, also named Awanuiarangi (and a grandson of Toroa), are important ancestors for Ngāti Awa. Inland, the Ngāi Tūhoe people trace descent from Tūhoe-pōtiki, who had ancestors from the Mataatua canoe, and local forebears.

How Whakatāne got its name

When the Mataatua canoe landed near the site of present-day Whakatāne, the men went ashore. While they were gone, the canoe began to drift out to sea. Ngāti Awa tradition says that Wairaka, the daughter of the captain, Toroa, seized a paddle and cried, ‘Me whakatāne au i ahau nei!’ (I must act like a man!). She and the other women saved the canoe. Wairaka is now commemorated by a statue on a rock at Whakatāne.

The Nukutere canoe

The Nukutere landed near Ōpape, east of Ōpōtiki, carrying the chief Tautūrangi. One of his descendants was Tūtāmure of the Te Whakatōhea tribe. He married Hine-i-kauia, the daughter of Muriwai who arrived on the Mataatua. This union linked the Nukutere and Mataatua lineages.

The Te Arawa and Tainui canoes

The coupled canoes Te Arawa and Tainui first landed at Whangaparāoa, beneath Cape Runaway. To the west, Maketū was the final landfall of Te Arawa. The steersman Tamatekapua claimed the Maketū headland, crying, ‘That point there is the bridge of my nose.’ Other chiefs followed suit, establishing their authority over different parts of the western Bay.

The Tākitimu canoe

The Ngāti Ranginui people of Tauranga trace their descent from the Tākitimu canoe. An important ancestor is Tamatea-pōkai-whenua (Tamatea who circled the land). The tribe now shares the area with Ngāi Te Rangi, who have Mataatua affiliations.

The rise of Ngāi Te Rangi

Many generations ago the chief Te Rangihouhiri and his people conquered Maketū from the descendants of the Te Arawa people. Te Rangihouhiri died, but under his son Kotorerua the tribe also wrested Mauao (Mt Maunganui) from the Ngāti Ranginui and Waitaha tribes. Today the tribe is known as Ngāi Te Rangi.

The Waitaha people migrated inland while Ngāti Ranginui retreated to the forest margins of the western Bay. Subsequently, strategic marriages interlinked the Māori people of Tauranga.


Whakaari (White Island) has important tribal associations for Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Te Whakatōhea and Ngāti Awa. Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe) is significant for the people of Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau, who are close kin. Whanokao, in the Raukūmara Range, is an important boundary marker between Te Whānau-ā-Apanui and Ngāti Porou.

Tūhua (Mayor Island) is a source of volcanic glass (known as obsidian or tūhua), an invaluable cutting material. Archaeological research shows that Mayor Island obsidian was dispersed not just in the Bay of Plenty but throughout New Zealand. Investigations have also revealed many areas of cultivation and fortification in the Bay, as described in Māori oral traditions.

Māori and European: 1769 to 1869

James Cook

Lieutenant James Cook sailed across the Bay of Plenty in the Endeavour in 1769, but the region had little contact with Pākehā in the wake of that visit. This was partly because the harbours lacked the good anchorages and accessible timber of the Bay of Islands and the Hauraki Gulf. Bay of Plenty Māori may have occasionally encountered Pākehā when they travelled north. Potatoes, a new food, were already being cultivated when the missionary Samuel Marsden visited the region in 1820.

An isolated harbour

In 1820 missionary Samuel Marsden climbed the summit of Mt Hikurangi, near the Katikati entrance to Tauranga Harbour. ‘As far as I could see no ships had been at Tauranga since Captain Cook, and I saw an old chief who remembered seeing that great navigator. They are much in want of tools of every kind as they are not visited by Europeans.’ 1

Intertribal conflict

Bay of Plenty Māori had many dealings with other Māori, not always happily. Ngāpuhi invaders wreaked havoc from 1818. In the late 1820s, sub-tribes from Hauraki attacked Te Papa (present-day Tauranga). This marked another phase in a long-standing competition between Hauraki and Tauranga people over the western harbour. Ngāpuhi war parties returned in the early 1830s to attack both Tauranga and Ngāi Tūhoe.


The Europeans who had reached the region by the early 1830s were valued for their trading goods. Some of them settled around Tauranga Harbour. In 1830 the Danish trader Phillip Tapsell moved to Maketū, and he operated outposts at Te Papa and Matatā. Although he was protected by the people of Te Arawa, his premises were destroyed by rival tribes in 1836.


In the early 1830s a number of missionaries travelled through the region. In 1835 the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS) established Te Papa mission station. Here the English missionary Alfred Brown collected signatures for the Treaty of Waitangi, in April and May 1840. The trader and former missionary James Fedarb did the same at Whakatāne, Ōpōtiki, Tōrere and Te Kaha.

Impact of trade with Auckland

After 1841 Auckland, the new government town on Waitematā Harbour, attracted commerce in the upper North Island, including the Bay of Plenty.

John Lees Faulkner and Peter Dillon traded at Te Papa. Faulkner built boats at Ōtūmoetai, as did George White at Matatā and Richard White at Whakatāne. Phillip Tapsell was active in Whakatāne and Maketū along with his son-in-law George Simpkins.

In such enterprises Māori were partners or employers as well as customers. The promise of trade encouraged peacemaking – for instance between Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Tūhoe in 1834, and between Ngāi Te Rangi and Te Arawa in 1845. It also enabled missionaries to range more widely. After a request from French traders at Te Puna, Catholics were active at Te Papa and Ōpōtiki from 1840 and at Maketū from 1841. More CMS missions were established at Ōpōtiki in 1840 and Maketū in 1851. But few settlers arrived, as there was plenty of land closer to Auckland.


In 1863 British forces invaded Waikato as part of a campaign to enforce government authority and obtain fertile lands for European settlement. Māori hapū from the East Coast sent war parties to support the Waikato people and the Māori sovereignty initiative known as the King movement.

At Te Kaokaoroa near Matatā on 27 and 28 April 1864, Te Arawa forces allied to the government defeated East Coast supporters of the Māori King movement. Then at Gate Pā in Tauranga on 29 April, the British were defeated by Ngāi Te Rangi defenders. The British had their revenge at Te Ranga two months later.

A prayer for the milkman

After he was pardoned by the government, the leader and prophet Te Kooti travelled through the Bay of Plenty in January 1884. Threatened with lynching by Europeans, he travelled with a bodyguard of 200 men. ‘On Judea Hill near Tauranga the party met a milkman on his early morning rounds. Crowding round him they sang hymns and prayed for his conversion, till the terrified tradesman dropped his cans and fled.’ 2

In 1865 and 1866, along the Bay of Plenty coast, the activity of the prophetic movement Pai Mārire drew Ngāti Awa and Te Whakatōhea tribes into conflict with the government. This flared after the killing of missionary Carl Völkner at Ōpōtiki on 2 March 1865, and government interpreter James Fulloon and others at Whakatāne four months later. Subsequent confiscations deprived Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Awa, Te Whakatōhea and Ngāi Tūhoe of much of their best land, although some was later returned.

Te Kooti

The region saw more military activity during the pursuit of the outlawed Māori leader Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Turuki between 1869 and 1872. Government forces moved deep into tracts of the Urewera where no Europeans, apart from a few missionaries, had ventured.

    • J. R. Elder, ed. The letters and journals of Samuel Marsden. Dunedin: Coulls, Somerville, Wilkie and A. H. Reed for the Otago University Council, 1932, p. 268. › Back
    • Quoted in Evelyn Stokes, A history of Tauranga County. Palmerston North: Dunmore, 1980, pp. 44–45. › Back

Settlers struggle: 1870 to 1900

Before the fighting in Bay of Plenty, a few Pākehā co-existed with many Māori. By 1870 trade between Māori and Pākehā had waned, and the missions had closed. Bay of Plenty became a fortified zone bordering a Māori interior.

Redoubts (forts) were maintained at Tauranga, Maketū, Whakatāne and Ōpōtiki, and soldiers of the Armed Constabulary built roads throughout the region.

European settlement

For the first time there was organised European settlement:

  • Near Tauranga and Ōpōtiki in the 1860s, pensioned-off military forces were given confiscated tribal land.
  • Protestant Irish immigrants from Ulster settled at Katikati and Te Puke in the 1870s and 1880s.
  • In the 1890s, settlers from Canterbury in the South Island moved to the Rangitāiki swampland.

Economic problems

Unlike southern New Zealand provinces, Bay of Plenty did not prosper. Farmers could not run large sheep flocks because the climate was too mild and moist, the soil too poor, or the land too forested. Gold was only found outside the district. And hopes of tourist through-traffic to the ‘Hot Lakes’ at Rotorua faded once this scenic area became accessible by road from Waikato in 1883. They were dashed with the completion of a rail link along the same route in 1894.

Transport difficulties

The lack of roads and railways made it hard to move around the region. People usually travelled by boat. For Katikati in the early days of settlement, communication with Tauranga was mainly by water. The boats ran irregularly, and sometimes became stuck in the mangroves. There was no way through Rangitāiki swamp except by canoe. Before 1900 the main road in the vicinity of Whakatāne was the beach, while a ferry took travellers to Ōpōtiki across the entrance to Ōhiwa Harbour.

The struggle to survive

The settler groups did not flourish. There were reports from Tauranga of residents leaving by boatloads, many for the Thames goldfields. Most settlers on 50-acre (20-hectare) lots in the Ōpouriao valley sold their land to the Whakatane Cattle Company in the early 1870s. Opening in 1875, the Ōhinemuri goldfield, east of Paeroa, attracted other recent arrivals.

Money-making schemes

Struggling to survive, the first settlers in the Bay of Plenty experimented with sorghum, beekeeping, tobacco, and a cheese and bacon factory (all unsuccessful), and brick kilns (successful). The vicar at Katikati had an ostrich farm to supplement his meagre income. It continued until about 1920, when the last ostrich was chased by dogs into the Waitekohe River.

Capital carried some people through. At Woodlands in Katikati, William Shaw at one time had 26 men clearing and ploughing land. He, John Killen and Joseph R. Smith employed so many men that relief works were never necessary there.

But nearly half of the settlers at Katikati failed in the 1880s. The Canterbury migrants temporarily abandoned their homes during massive flooding of the Rangitāiki River in 1892. They finally left a few years later after drainage problems proved too daunting.

Dwindling population

Gold discoveries at Waihī, just outside the region, provided a boost as returns from the goldfields at Thames and Ōhinemuri waned. In 1906 Waihī, with a population of 5,594, far overshadowed even the largest Bay of Plenty town, Tauranga, which had only 1,047 people – fewer than in 1881.

Success: 1900s to 1930s

Dairying booms

In the early 1900s dairy production transformed coastal Bay of Plenty into a thriving agricultural region.

In the western Bay, dairy factories opened in Katikati and Te Puke in 1902, and in Tauranga in 1905. The output of butter at Katikati was only 29 tons in 1907–8, but reached 726 tons by 1935–36.

In the eastern Bay, dairy factories opened at Ōpōtiki in 1895, Ōpouriao in 1900, Waiotahe in 1904, Waimana and Ōtangihaku in 1907, Rūātoki (mostly supplied by Māori) and Whakatāne in 1908, Matatā in 1909, Otakiri (known as Tarawera until 1928) in 1912, and Awakeri (which later moved to Edgecumbe) in 1915.

Butter spreads prosperity

In 1938 writer Alan Mulgan wrote of his home town: ‘If the roads of Katikati are not paved with the gold of the immigrants’ dreams, they are paved to-day with butter, and the wheels of commerce and pleasure run smoothly upon them.’ 1

Other industries

No other product rivalled butter and cheese in importance, although some citrus fruit was grown and there was also sea fishing. Maize, which had been quite widely grown, was abandoned partly because in the late 1900s a succession of frosts destroyed the crops and nearly ruined many farmers. Flax milling waned, as the swamps where flax grew were drained for farmland.

Towns grow

Prosperity in the country districts meant growth in the towns, and a new sense of confidence. Tauranga’s population finally grew. The drainage of the Rangitāiki Plains, which gathered momentum from the 1910s, brought the biggest single stretch of land yet into pasture, mostly for dairying, and boosted Whakatāne.


At the start of the new century the sea was the highway. The main event of the week in the large centres was the arrival of a Northern Steam Ship Company ship from Auckland. Not until 1908 did the government commit itself to a Waihī–Tauranga–East Coast railway, allotting £1,500,000 for the job. Work started from Tauranga. Te Puke, to the east, was reached in 1913 and Matatā in 1916. Work languished on the western sector, in part because of the challenge of laying track through swampland. In 1921 an energetic minister of public works, Gordon Coates, pushed it forward.


Also fundamental to the future were the roads, used by ‘service cars’ (a kind of long-distance taxi) and later buses. Rail and road between them put paid to the steamship service. Passenger-ship services to the eastern Bay ended in 1921–22, and those to Tauranga in 1929.

Māori in the new century

Māori lived on the margins of the newly prosperous Bay of Plenty. The non-Māori population rose from around 4,600 in 1896 to around 22,000 in 1936. The Māori population also increased, but did not reach 10,000. Māori farmers supplied some of the dairy factories, for instance in Rūātoki, and many Māori found work shearing or road making. In contrast, work on the goldfields or in flax processing diminished in the early 1900s as the resources were depleted.

Māori in the small rural communities lived in less adequate conditions than their Pākehā neighbours. In the 1918 influenza epidemic, 56 European deaths were recorded in Bay of Plenty, while at least 263 Māori died. Very few Māori lived in towns: only Ōpōtiki had more than 100 Māori inhabitants in 1936. Most marginal – geographically, socially and politically – were Ngāi Tūhoe communities in Urewera. Rua Kēnana’s community at Maungāpohatu was raided by police in 1916, at the cost of two Tūhoe lives.

    • Alan Mulgan, Introduction to Arthur James Gray, An Ulster plantation: the story of the Kati Kati settlement. Dunedin: Reed, 1938, p. xv. › Back

Depression and recovery: 1930s to 1970s

Economic depression

As in the rest of New Zealand, the economic depression of the early 1930s halted growth in Bay of Plenty. The dairy trade was hit hard as prices for butter and cheese reached rock-bottom in the all-important British market.

The timber industry

At the same time, a new Bay of Plenty was being forged on the poor soils of the Volcanic Plateau. Through the 1920s and 1930s the plateau had been planted in pines. One reason was that stocks of native timber were diminishing (many of the mills working native logs closed in the 1940s and 1950s). In 1941 a paper mill opened at Whakatāne.

The Second World War slowed development, but in the early 1950s the government reached an agreement with private investors for the processing of timber from its Kaingāroa Forest. Tasman Pulp and Paper, the company established for the purpose, built a large new mill beside the Tarawera River, where it runs below Mt Edgecumbe. Kawerau, a new town built nearby in 1953, had a population of 2,740 by 1956. Young Māori from the eastern rural settlements and further afield migrated to the ‘timber towns’ for work, as did many others.

The port at Tauranga

Much of Kawerau’s timber was to be exported. A 1919 report had observed that Tauranga’s natural harbour could be developed into a first-class port. It favoured new wharves at Mt Maunganui, with deep-water berthage. In 1950 the government agreed: a port at ‘the Mount’ would also be the terminus of a rail link from the forest at Murupara to Kawerau, and from Kawerau to the East Coast main trunk line.

From a total of 40,000 tonnes of timber in 1954, the port was handling more than a million tonnes by 1965, and more than 3 million tonnes in the early 1970s.

Increased trade

The port expansion allowed the export of logs and pulp and paper products, and prompted the development of related industry, notably fertiliser and chemical works. The port also captured trade from further afield when the Kaimai railway deviation, including a tunnel, linked the Bay of Plenty with the Waikato region in 1978. Tauranga then became accessible by rail for timber products from the large Kinleith mill on the western side of the Volcanic Plateau.

A new identity

Dairying recovered from the depression. Summer resorts such as Waihī Beach, the ocean side of Mt Maunganui, and Ōhope became increasingly popular. But it was the timber industry that transformed the Bay of Plenty in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1962 a regional survey noted that the integration of the coastal and inland areas, once considered completely separate, was having a significant effect on development. The Bay of Plenty’s identity was evolving, along with its economic fortunes.

Economic ups and downs: 1970s to 2000s


Orchards producing citrus, passionfruit and tamarillos (tree tomatoes) were common in the Bay of Plenty in the first half of the 20th century. Later, kiwifruit became the new driver of the regional economy.

In the 1950s the Hayward cultivar was planted, especially around Te Puke, with an export trade getting under way from the 1970s. Volumes increased from 4 million trays in 1982 to 10 million in 1983 and 46 million in 1987. Bust followed this boom – low returns shook out those who had overborrowed.

Even so, the Bay of Plenty had 9,912 hectares in kiwifruit in 2012, 77.7% of the national total. They were mainly in Katikati, on the Rangitāiki Plains and around Ōpōtiki. As vines were pulled out around Tauranga for housing subdivisions, new ones were planted further east.

Avocados and timber

Avocados were another crop planted extensively from the 1970s, but without kiwifruit’s boom or bust. In 2012 the region’s avocado planting (2,081 hectares) accounted for half the national total (4,149 hectares).

The Volcanic Plateau timber industry has survived, but with a smaller labour force and more modest growth than in the 1950s and 1960s.

Tauranga port

In the 2000s Tauranga port remained important, despite a less buoyant timber market. Port of Tauranga, the company which took over from the Bay of Plenty Harbour Board in 1988, has maintained the port’s viability by competing vigorously for business throughout the North Island. In 1999 it established a ‘dry port’ or ‘metroport’ in Manukau City (south Auckland). Here, cargo such as NZ Steel containers are stockpiled for transfer to the port at Tauranga, where businesses can take advantage of lower port fees. In the 2010s Tauranga took over from Auckland as New Zealand’s busiest port.

Challenges for smaller towns

Jobs were lost when milk processing was moved to a single plant in Edgecumbe. Kiwifruit reinvigorated some country districts, but smaller towns in both the western and eastern Bay shared a similar dilemma – how to thrive when it was easy for people to visit big retail outlets in Tauranga or Whakatāne. In Katikati and Te Puke a bypass for heavy traffic was the favoured solution. Ōpōtiki promoted attractions such as the Mōtū Challenge and the Fibre and Fleece Awards.

Tauranga – a new kind of city

For its part, Tauranga is a New Zealand example of the American sunbelt phenomenon. Climate and lifestyle, rather than employment, draw newcomers from all over the country. But more people mean more cars, more congestion, and more competition for land. The city also has fewer cultural amenities for its size than Whakatāne. Nonetheless, with over half of the population of the region, Tauranga now dominates the western Bay. Whakatāne plays a similar role, on a smaller scale, in the east.

Population: 1840 onwards

From 1840 to the 1920s

In 1840 the Bay of Plenty had a population of not more than 10,000, virtually all Māori. Through the rest of the 19th century the Māori population declined, and the number of Pākehā (non-Māori) grew only very slowly. The biggest increase in Pākehā numbers came in the 1900s and 1910s as the dairy industry thrived:

  • 1874: 1,425 Pākehā and approximately 8,000 Māori (including Rotorua and Taupō)
  • 1901: 4,882 Pākehā and 5,772 Māori (excluding Rotorua and Taupō)
  • 1921: 15,708 Pākehā and 6,274 Māori (excluding Rotorua and Taupō).

From the 1930s to the 1960s

In 1936 the total population of the region was 31,764, of whom 9,751 were Māori.

After 1945, forestry and farming opened up the interior, and farming continued on the coast. The rapidly growing population was typically young and male, particularly in new towns like Kawerau. The Māori population grew with the rest, and many younger Māori moved to towns and cities. In 1945 Māori numbered 11,311 (out of a total population of 37,867). By 1961 they numbered 17,857 (out of 81,290).

Bay of Plenty people today

In 2013 the total population was 205,971. The region had the third-highest proportion of people who identified themselves as Māori (24.4%), after East Coast and Northland.

As in most North Island regions outside the main centres of Auckland and Wellington, numbers of Asian and Pacific peoples were small – Asian people were 4.8% of the population and Pacific Island people 2.5%. This was under half the New Zealand averages of 7.4% (Pacific) and 11.8% (Asian). Moreover, the percentage of New Zealand-born people in Bay of Plenty (82.5%) was higher than for the country as a whole (74.8%).


In 2013 the Bay was a region of Māori and Pākehā. There were more Pākehā in the west, partly because other North Islanders had migrated to Tauranga. The east had a higher proportion of Māori.

The region was also divided economically. In 2013 median incomes were higher in the west, while unemployment rates were lower. The Kawerau district stood out – its unemployment rate was 24.7% (compared to 7–11% for the rest of the region), while its median income was $18,800 (compared to $20,000–$27,000 for other areas). Kawerau was badly affected by the downsizing of the timber and paper milling industries in the 2000s.

    • A regional profile: Bay of Plenty. Wellington: Statistics New Zealand, 1996, p. 10. › Back


Early days: law and enforcement

The reach of government in the Bay of Plenty, with its mainly Māori population, was limited in the 1840s and 1850s. The outbreak of conflict between the Crown and the Māori King movement changed this, and a thousand soldiers were deployed to Tauranga early in 1864. The soldiers gave way in 1867 to an Armed Constabulary combining military and policing roles, and in 1886 to a regular Police Force. Magistrates at Tauranga, Maketū and Ōpōtiki reported on Māori affairs to the Native Department, as well as handling regular civil and criminal cases.

Local government

When the provinces were abolished in 1876, they were replaced by a variety of new local authorities which grew as the region developed. At the regional level, a Bay of Plenty united council was established in 1981 and succeeded in 1989 by a regional council: Environment Bay of Plenty. This took over catchment boards and responsibility for regional transport. Acknowledging the lack of Māori representation in a region with a significant Māori population, Environment Bay of Plenty created two Māori wards in time for the 2004 elections. In 2019, three Māori wards elected three of the 14 councillors.


There have been a number of changes in the region’s electorate make-up. Before 1907 the name and boundaries of the electoral district changed several times; from 1908 the number of electorates varied between two and four; from 1972 the Tauranga parliamentary electorate covered only the city. In 2017 parts of Bay of Plenty fell within five electorates.

Māori electorates

On the formation of four Māori electorates in 1867, Tauranga was placed in Western Māori. The rest of the Bay, whether of Te Arawa or Mataatua affiliation, came within Eastern Māori. In 1954 the Eastern Māori electorate was extended to include all of the Bay of Plenty. From 1993 the Bay of Plenty was in the Waiariki electorate (except for the area from Waihī Beach north, which was in the Tainui electorate, later called Hauraki–Waikato).

State schools, 1900s–1970s

The first public secondary schools in the Bay of Plenty were district high schools: Tauranga (established 1900), Whakatāne (1920), Ōpōtiki (1922) and Te Puke (1924).

Tauranga College was established in 1946 and separated into girls’ and boys’ colleges in 1958, the year Mt Maunganui College was founded. Whakatāne High School dates from 1950, Ōpōtiki College from 1953, Te Puke High School from 1954 and Katikati College from 1966.

The 1960s and 1970s saw more secondary schools established: Edgecumbe College (1962), Kawerau College (1963), Ōtūmoetai (1965) at Tauranga, and Trident at Whakatāne (1973).

Māori ventures

In the 1980s local government, education and health were all restructured. New policies in health and education allowed many Māori organisations to provide services. Among the education providers are Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiarangi, a significant tertiary institution in the country as a whole. Anamata is a Ngāi Tūhoe training establishment based in Whakatāne.

Life and leisure

Show days

The annual Agricultural and Pastoral (A & P) shows became important events on the calendar for the whole community. They were held first in Ōpōtiki (1892) and Tauranga (1893). The Whakatāne association started in Tāneatua in 1907, moving to Whakatāne in 1933. Te Puke’s first annual show was held in 1905 and Katikati’s in 1913. In that and following years visitors and exhibitors came to Katikati from around the Bay of Plenty and as far away as Hamilton.


The first rugby competitions were held in Ōpōtiki, Katikati and Tauranga in the 1880s. The New Zealand Natives, a mainly Māori team which toured Great Britain and Australia in 1888–89, included five Warbrick brothers from Matatā. David Gallaher, captain of the renowned 1905–6 New Zealand team, grew up in Katikati. Rugby unions were formed in Te Puke in 1906, Whakatāne in 1908, Ōpōtiki in 1910 and the Rangitāiki Plains in 1923.

The Bay of Plenty union, including Rotorua, dates from 1911. It holds union-wide competitions including the Kusabs Cup, the premier Bay of Plenty rugby trophy which began in 1912. Bay of Plenty won the inaugural National Provincial Championship in 1976. In 2004, Bay of Plenty won the Ranfurly Shield (the premier trophy in provincial rugby) for the first time. In 2019 Bay of Plenty won promotion to the Mitre 10 Cup premiership, which is contested by the top seven provincial teams.

Surf lifesaving

Improved roads, as well as the railway, brought holidaymakers to Waihī Beach, Mt Maunganui and Ōhope from the 1920s. The oldest surf lifesaving club in the region was established at Mt Maunganui, now one of New Zealand’s principal surfing locations, in 1914. In 2003 its membership of 500 was one of the largest in the country, and lifeguards were on duty for 6,000 hours every summer. Surf Lifesaving BOP unites 16 surf lifesaving organisations from Hot Water Beach near Whitianga to Ōpōtiki.

Horse racing

Horse racing was popular from early settler days. Races were held at Ōpōtiki from the 1870s, the Tauranga Jockey Club was formed in 1874, and the Whakatāne racing club about 1886.

Motor sport

Motor sport has a strong following in the Bay of Plenty. Local fans had their proudest moment in 1967, when Te Puke’s Denny Hulme became world Formula One champion.

Speedway is now the dominant motor sport. In 2001 Bay Park Stadium opened at Tauranga. It includes a speedway track and seating for 17,500 people. Regular race events draw large crowds.

Creative arts and heritage

Māori culture

Many fine meeting houses throughout the Bay of Plenty attest to the vitality of its Māori society, past and present. Particularly noteworthy are those of Te Whai-a-te-Motu near Ruatāhuna, and Wairaka marae at Whakatāne. Māori churches such as those at Raukōkore and Tōrere have also played a major part in community life for many decades.

There are a large number of carved meeting houses around Tauranga, notably the refurbished Tamatea-pōkai-whenua at Hūria (Judea).

European heritage

Having historically lacked the cultural infrastructure of cities such as Dunedin and Christchurch, the Bay of Plenty’s Pākehā cultural life is a tribute to the enthusiasm and dedication of a host of serious amateurs.

The Whakatāne and District Historical Society, established in 1952, has produced a journal since 1958 and helped establish a museum in 1972. A Tauranga Historical Society journal was published from the mid-1950s until the early 1980s.

The Elms, the original Te Papa mission station at Tauranga, survived thanks to the work of its owners, the Maxwell family, who eventually set up the Elms Trust.

The arts

The Tauranga Repertory Society was established in 1936, partly through the enthusiasm of some English residents. It acquired its own theatre in 1955 during the heyday of amateur drama in New Zealand, and more than survived the advent of television – at the time of its 60th jubilee in 1996 the society had over 200 productions to its credit.

The National Jazz Festival at Tauranga, founded in 1962, has been billed as the longest-running jazz festival in the southern hemisphere, and attracts musicians from throughout the country. The Tauranga Arts Festival, held for 10 days every two years since the late 1990s, is hugely popular. Whakatāne has established a Summer Arts Festival, which includes the Molly Morpeth Canaday Art Exhibition, product of a bequest from the estate of Whakatāne-born artist Molly Morpeth.

Plenty of ideas

The Bay of Plenty has inspired some prominent writers. Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1908–1984), author of the novels Spinster (1958) and Teacher (1963), taught in schools in the Bay from the 1930s to the 1960s. Barry Crump (1935–1996), who hunted deer, pigs and possums in the Urewera and the Kaimanawa ranges in the 1950s, used those experiences as the basis of his best-selling novel, A good keen man (1960).

Newspapers and radio

The region’s oldest newspaper, the Bay of Plenty Times, has been published continuously since 1872. Its principal beat is the western Bay. Rotorua newspapers reached Whakatāne from the late 1880s. The Whakatane Press was published under various titles from 1907 to 1939, and the present-day Whakatane Beacon began as the Bay of Plenty Beacon in 1939.

Private commercial radio stations have broadcast to the Bay for over 30 years. The first was Radio 1XX at Whakatāne, which went to air on 30 June 1971 and is still broadcasting.

Culture in Katikati

Katikati’s most noteworthy cultural artefacts are its open-air art – murals and a haiku trail.

The murals, in the main and adjacent streets, depict the town’s history. The project was started by local artists in 1991 when it was feared that a by-pass road would destroy the town. It was inspired by a similar project in the Canadian town of Chemainus, British Columbia, after its timber mill closed. Katikati’s by-pass did not proceed but the murals did, and by 2004, artists were among those advocating a by-pass, this time to save the town centre – and its murals.

The haiku trail, a pathway of boulders carved with poems, was a millennium project. Leading haiku poets from around the world gave permission for their poems to be used, and locals are also represented.

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Bay of Plenty: 9,858 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Tauranga)

(National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research data, 1981–2010)

  • Mean temperature, January: 19.4°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 10.2°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 1,180 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,345 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Bay of Plenty: 194,904 (2006); 205,971 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Bay of Plenty: 78.4%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Bay of Plenty: 24.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Bay of Plenty: 2.5%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • Bay of Plenty: 4.8%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Bay of Plenty: 0.5%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa ki Kawerau, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Manawa, Ngāti Whare, Ngāi Tūhoe, Te Whakatōhea, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāi Tai

Population of major urban areas, 2013

  • Tauranga: 114,789
  • Whakatāne: 17,310

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Bay of Plenty: 21.1%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Bay of Plenty: 60.4%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Bay of Plenty: 18.5%
  • New Zealand: 14.3%

Employment by industry, 2013

(Figures are for workers aged 15 and over, in selected industries in which the region’s employment pattern is most distinctive)

Agriculture, forestry and fishing

  • Bay of Plenty: 9.6%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%


  • Bay of Plenty: 6.7%
  • New Zealand: 6.4%

Wholesale trade

  • Bay of Plenty: 4.0%
  • New Zealand: 5.4%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Bay of Plenty: 8.6%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012

(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)


  • Bay of Plenty: 141,821
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Bay of Plenty: 245,190
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Bay of Plenty: 66,689
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

Horticulture, 2012

Kiwifruit (net area planted)

  • Bay of Plenty: 9,912 ha
  • New Zealand: 12,757 ha

Avocado (net area planted)

  • Bay of Plenty: 2,081 ha
  • New Zealand: 4,149 ha

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Malcolm McKinnon, 'Bay of Plenty region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 5 o Tīhema 2005, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2016