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East Coast region

by Monty Soutar

The East Coast was where Māori and Europeans first met, on the site of present-day Gisborne. This isolated region is known for its long and rich Māori history and heritage, its excellent surf beaches and its pleasant climate.


Boundaries and region

The East Coast is a relatively isolated region. Bounded by mountain ranges to the west and rugged country to the south, and facing east onto the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, it has fewer routes linking it with the rest of the North Island than any other area. Until the 1920s most travellers from outside the region arrived by sea. In the 21st century, only two state highways link the region with its neighbours.

The region is commonly divided into the East Coast proper, or East Cape, and Poverty Bay. East Cape is a series of bays, small river flats and townships along State Highway 35 north of Gisborne. Inland, large tracts of hill country culminate in Hikurangi mountain (1,752 m). Poverty Bay, with the city of Gisborne, the seaport, vineyards, cropland and surf beaches, resembles Hawke’s Bay, to its south.

The East Coast is the region with the highest percentage of Māori – 48.9% in 2013 (compared to 14.9% for New Zealand as a whole). In East Cape, the heartland of Ngāti Porou, over 85% of residents are Māori. In 2013 the population of the region was 43,653.

The territory of the Gisborne District Council, which covers the region, is the largest in the North Island. With an area of 8,351 square kilometres, it is 7.3% of the total area of the North Island.

The region as a whole is also sometimes referred to as East Cape and, more recently, Eastland (which can also include Ōpōtiki and Wairoa). Another name, Te Tairāwhiti – the coast of the rising sun – in the past referred to the whole eastern coast from Tauranga to Wairarapa.

Māori settlement and traditions

For centuries Māori hapū groupings populated the region, migrating from the coast to inland and back again as the seasons changed. As the populations of hapū increased and stretched available resources, warfare between groups became common. Many Māori place names throughout the region tell of tīpuna (ancestors) who were either victorious or vanquished in battle.

Deeply ingrained in the traditions of the East Coast region are the achievements of the legendary demigod Māui-tikitiki-a-Taranga. Māui is known for a number of feats, including slowing down the sun, acquiring fire and obtaining the sacred jawbone of enchantment and knowledge. But to this region his greatest feat was fishing up the North Island – Te Ika-a-Māui (the great fish of Māui). As he and his brothers hauled the fish from the depths, the seawaters receded and their canoe Nukutaimemeha was grounded on the first piece of land to emerge – Hikurangi mountain.

Many ancestors are associated with Hikurangi, the highest non-volcanic mountain in the North Island. One ancestor – who became widely known due to the internationally successful movie Whale rider (2002) – is Paikea, who took refuge on the mountain to escape great waves sent to drown him by his half brother Ruatapu.

The Tūranganui River in Gisborne is where British explorer James Cook originally set foot in New Zealand. Te Toka-a-Taiau, a rock that once stood in the river, was the site of the first meeting between Europeans (Cook’s party) and Māori in 1769.

From the arrival of Europeans

Europeans first came to the region as traders and missionaries. In the 1860s Māori faced conflict both among themselves and with the government over matters of religion and self-determination. From the 1870s onwards Māori in Poverty Bay had to deal with Pākehā settlers. Māori frequently became indebted to Pākehā traders, and often lost their land to repay the debt. In East Cape, Ngāti Porou had more success in holding on to their land and autonomy.

From the 1890s to around 1920 the settler economy boomed. Many fortunes were made and Gisborne grew from a township to a substantial urban centre. Following the economic depression of the 1930s, there was another period of prosperity in the 1950s and 1960s. From around 1970 the region faced challenges, as its economy depended on a limited range of industries.

The later 20th and early 21st centuries saw a burgeoning of economic activity around recreational opportunities, along with events such as music festivals.

In contrast to other regions, nearly half of the East Coast’s population identify as Māori..The conflict between races played a large part in the region’s history. The high Māori population gives the region its unique character.

Geology and landscape

Ranges and hill country

The Raukūmara and Huiarau ranges are composed of greywacke and argillite, formed from old, strongly hardened deep-sea sediments. They make up the two northernmost segments of the North Island’s main dividing range. The fossil clam Inoceramus is found throughout all strata (layers).

The highest peak in the Raukūmara Range is Hikurangi (1,752 m). Composed of erosion-resistant greywacke, it is the highest non-volcanic peak in the North Island. The summits along the main axis of the range are mostly around 1,400 metres, dipping to about 1,000 metres where State Highway 2 crosses the range. Maungapōhatu (1,366 m), the sacred mountain of the Tūhoe people, is in the Huiarau Range on the western boundary of the region,.

The Pukeamaru massif and the Matakaoa area, in the north-east of the region, are composed of volcanic rocks that date from well before the present mountain-building era. These rocks are generally much stronger than greywacke and form dramatic slopes and bluffs.

The central and eastern parts of the region are composed of mudstone, sandstones and argillite sediments laid down in recent geological times. These have been uplifted by tectonic movement to form steep-to-hilly, easily eroded country.

Oil seepages occur at places in the sedimentary rocks; some have been drilled but amounts that would make extraction financially worthwhile have never been found. The first probes were carried out at Whatatutu in the 1860s, on account of oil seepages there. In the first decade of the 20th century attention focused on Whatatutu again and also Waihīrere. There were further ventures during the depression of the early 1930s and again in the 1960s. In 2011 Petrobras, a Brazilian company, carried out exploratory drilling offshore from East Cape. There were protests from locals, including Ngāti Porou, concerned about the possible environmental impact, and Petrobras handed back its licences in late 2012.

There are varying depths of volcanic ash over the entire region, the result of eruptions in the central North Island.

Rivers and flats

The Waiapu River, with its tributaries, forms the principal catchment in the northern part of the region and was long a barrier to north–south communication.

The Ūawa River follows a lengthy course parallel to the coast from inland of Tokomaru Bay to just before it reaches the sea at Tolaga Bay.

The Waipāoa River drains most of Poverty Bay. The Motu River rises on the Gisborne side of the Raukūmara Range and reaches the Bay of Plenty coast 45 kilometres north-east of Ōpōtiki, via a dramatic gorge through the range.

The Hangaroa River is a tributary of the Wairoa River, which reaches the sea at Wairoa in northern Hawke’s Bay.

The largest plain is the 18,500-hectare Poverty Bay flats, which are divided into two almost equal parts by the Waipāoa River. The rich alluvial flats, with mild temperatures, produce a variety of crops. Smaller flood plains are found at Te Araroa, and on the lower Waiapu and the lower Ūawa (at Tolaga Bay).

Lakes and wetlands

The region has very few wetlands and lakes, many having been drained to increase the land area used for agriculture, horticulture and settlement.

The most important wetlands (from south to north) are the Wherowhero Lagoon at Muriwai; the margins of Lake Repongaere, near Pātūtahi; Tolaga Bay estuary and nearby Emirau (Loisels); part of the Nuhiti Scenic Reserve, inland from Anaura Bay; Mahora, near Ruatōria; and areas at Te Araroa and Hicks Bay.

Big slip


The Tarndale slip is said to be the largest in the southern hemisphere. It lies on the mudstone banks of the Waipāoa River, inland from Gisborne, and adds a considerable amount of sediment to the river. Forest has been planted on nearby former farmland to slow the growth of the slip.



Erosion is a major problem in the region, as its hill country is very liable to land slips. Extensive land clearance has exacerbated the problem, but erosion is also due to the composition and structure of rock and soils. Climate is also a factor, in particular the intense downpours from localised depressions that are common in the region. In recent years plantings of pines have helped combat erosion.

Frequent uplifting of land increases the energy of streams, which leads to the deepening of streambeds and the widening of valleys. This region is uplifting by about 4 millimetres a year, which in geological terms is very fast.


The region sits on the edge of the Pacific and Australian plates, just to the west of the Hikurangi trench, where the former is subducting under the latter. In 1947 a seemingly minor earthquake was followed by two tsunamis (the first was about 8 metres above normal sea level), which hit the coastline worst between Whāngārā and Tatapōuri.

Earthquake tremors in the region have been recorded since 1840. In 1966 a magnitude 6 earthquake struck the region. On 20 December 2007 there was a magnitude 6.8 earthquake in Gisborne. Three buildings collapsed and 23 more were barricaded off and closed. Damage to commercial buildings was $50 million and more than 6,000 insurance claims were made by homeowners.

Climate, flora and fauna


Warm summers and mild winters characterise the climate in the region. In summer daytime temperatures average 24°C. The 24-hour average at Gisborne in January, the hottest month, is 19.2°C, and in July, the coldest month, it is 9.7°C. In winter snow sometimes falls in the back country.

Poverty Bay is one of the sunnier regions in New Zealand, with average yearly sunshine of around 2,200 hours.

Snow by the sea


On 27 July 1939 snow fell for nearly three hours in Gisborne. The Evening Post newspaper reported that: ‘without precedent in living memory, there was a sustained snowfall in Gisborne this morning. Lawns and gardens were mantled in white and even in Main Street there were small drifts against the buildings and on the roofs ... On the Wharerata Range a blizzard was experienced and traffic on the main road to Napier was interrupted.’1


The East Coast is not as dry as Hawke’s Bay, Wairarapa and Canterbury. Being further north, it is more exposed to summer cyclones which bring lots of rain. Gisborne’s average annual rainfall is 1,050 mm; rainfall in the ranges can reach 2,500 mm annually.

Floods and droughts

In January 1876, after 584 mm of rain had fallen in a week, floodwaters broke out of the Awapuni lagoon in Gisborne, flattening the sandhills and reaching the bay. Marooned settlers in outlying districts had to be rescued by boat.

A four-day deluge at the end of March 1910 caused widespread damage and disruption. One man was drowned, the railway closed temporarily and the water supply to Gisborne was cut off for days.

A flood in December 1938 was reckoned by some as the worst to hit the region’s hill country. After a disastrous flood in Poverty Bay in 1948, the local catchment board instigated the Waipāoa Flood Control Scheme, which included stopbanks and two cuts to shorten the river channel.

The region’s most costly natural disaster – Cyclone Bola – came in March 1988 and had a bill of around $60 million. In 72 hours 900 mm of rain fell, nearly not far off Gisborne’s annual average. The city was cut off, the water supply severed and homes evacuated. Some people in outlying districts were stranded for days.

Droughts are uncommon, but in 1983 almost no rain fell for four months.


Much of the region was forested in 1840, but between 1880 and 1920 most of the forest was felled or burnt to clear the land. Extensive areas of indigenous forest now remain only on the main ranges.

Tawa dominated in the lowland hill country. More fertile soils hosted combinations of tōtara, kahikatea and mataī, while less fertile ridges had black beech. Vegetation around the coast included pūriri, karaka, nīkau, kohekohe and tītoki.

In the rest of the region original forest remnants tend to be small and scattered nearer the coast or inland where the cooler, wetter climate meant it was less easily cleared. Regrowth forests are more extensive. Kānuka is most widespread, while mānuka or broadleaved trees generally occur in wetter areas or poorer soils. The introduced radiata pine has been planted throughout the region, and plantation forestry is now a major land use.

Birds and animals

The demise of forests severely affected bird habitats. Noteworthy surviving native species are those that thrive in wetlands, estuaries or on the margin of scrubland. Seabirds breeding in the area include gannets, blue penguins and various shearwater and petrel species, including the black-wing petrel.

In the Raukūmara Range are found Hochstetter's frog, 10 species of native fish (including two threatened species) and long-tailed bats. Introduced animals include red deer, goats (domestic and feral), farm stock, pigs, possums and mustelids (ferrets, stoats and weasels).

Indigenous freshwater fish (eels, bullies and galaxiids, including whitebait) are widespread but low in numbers and diversity due to poor habitat conditions.

Whales and dolphins

Te Tairāwhiti has been associated with whales from the time of Paikea, who in Māori tradition arrived on the coast on a whale’s back. In more recent times, notably in 1970, mass strandings of whales have taken place.

In winter months dolphins range into coastal waters in the southern part of the region.

    • Evening Post, 27 July 1939, p. 10. Back

Māori settlement

The East Coast region is home to the related tribes of Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngāi Tāmanuhiri (previously known as Ngāi Tahupō). Ngāti Porou, the largest of these tribes, inhabits the area between Pōtikirua in the north and Te Toka–a-Taiau (a rock that once stood in the mouth of the Tūranganui River, in present-day Gisborne) in the south, covering an area of about 4,000 square kilometres. The tribe derives its name from their ancestor Porourangi. Among his descendants were many great warriors who established the heart of the tribe’s territory in the Waiapu valley.

Occupying the district south of Ngāti Porou, in the area now called Poverty Bay, are Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata and Ngai Tamanuhiri. 

Waka traditions

Several waka (canoes) made landfall in the region, the best-known being Tākitimu, Horouta and Nukutaimemeha.

The most ancient waka associated with the region is Nukutaimemeha – the vessel that the demigod Māui used to fish up the North Island. Oral tradition holds that Nukutaimemeha rests petrified on Hikurangi mountain.

Tākitimu was a sacred waka captained on its journey from Hawaiki (the legendary homeland of Māori) by Tamatea Arikinui, high chief and tohunga, and carried a number of tohunga. After its arrival in Aotearoa (New Zealand) it made many trips, including along the East Coast.

The Horouta waka, captained by Pāoa, is celebrated for bringing the first kūmara (sweet potato) tubers to the region. The vessel’s haumi (wooden piece used to lengthen a waka) was damaged at Ōhiwa, in Bay of Plenty, causing the crew to explore the hinterland for a replacement. They visited various locations along the East Coast, naming features as they went, until the repaired waka beached at Tūranga (now Gisborne).


Several stories have been handed down as to why Tūranganui-a-Kiwa was so named. One has it that a canoe in which Kiwa’s son went fishing was blown out to sea. Each day Kiwa stood on the beach gazing out to sea anxiously awaiting the return of his son, and so the spot became known as Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa (the long waiting place of Kiwa). In another story, Kiwa halted at the river mouth after he had set out on foot from Māhia to explore the land to the north. Tūranga-nui-a-Kiwa in that sense means the stopping place of Kiwa. 

Some traditions acknowledge Kiwa as the first person to set foot on the land. Thereafter the area became known as Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (the long waiting place of Kiwa). Horouta eventually broke up near Muriwai, south of Gisborne, and was submerged in nearby Te Wherowhero Lagoon.


Pāoa is also associated with a very famous whare wānanga (school of learning) in Wairarapa, where he and Rongokako were students. Pāoa was a master navigator, while Rongokako was capable of giant strides. The two learned of beautiful Muriwhenua, who lived in Hauraki (near present-day Thames), and agreed the first to reach her would claim her for his wife. Pāoa set off in his waka while Rongokako travelled along the coastline. Rongokako stepped from bay to bay, at each place leaving his footprints, which can be seen today – one at Cape Kidnappers in Hawke’s Bay, another at Whangawehi at Māhia, and another at Whāngārā. Near present-day Te Puia township Pāoa set a trap (Tāwhiti-a-Pāoa), but Rongakako strode over it to Reporua. He next stepped to Horoera and across to Matakaoa Point, then on into the Bay of Plenty and up to Hauraki, where he arrived first and claimed Muriwhenua.


Eight generations after Pāoa and Kiwa, their descendant Ruapani was the paramount chief of the Tūranga tribes. Ruapani had three wives who between them bore 25 children, including sets of twins and triplets. He had a great , known as Popoia, on the western bank of the Waipāoa River at Waituhi. Among those who could claim descent from him were the East Coast chief Te Kani a Takirau, the Te Heuheu dynasty of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Te Whatuiāpiti leader Hēnare Tomoana, war leader and prophet Te Kooti, members of Parliament Wī Pere, James Carroll, Māui Pōmare and Apirana Ngata, and many other prominent Māori leaders.

European impact on Māori, 1769 to 1869

First landfall

British explorer Lieutenant James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour landed at Tūranga on 8 October 1769. The historic first meeting with Māori took place in the middle of what is now Gisborne harbour. The British stayed only 36 hours, but in that time, over-reacting to actions by locals, they killed or wounded nine Māori. Cook dubbed the place Poverty Bay because ‘it afforded us no one thing we wanted.’1

The Endeavour also visited Anaura and Ūawa (Tolaga) bays. Cook named them Tegadoo and Tolago Bay respectively – Tolago was possibly ‘teraki’, referring to a southerly wind blowing into the bay. Here the Europeans had more positive interactions with Māori, before leaving the region.

Musket wars

It was almost half a century before the influence of Europe was felt again, this time in the form of muskets brandished by the northern tribes who decimated the region. The availability of muskets, which Māori acquired from European traders and settlers, led to the intensification of inter- and intra-tribal warfare. Kaitangata (cannibalism), slavery and the pursuit of utu (revenge) were at their worst during this period.

Traders and whalers

In the 1830s traders, whalers and missionaries arrived, bringing change for Māori. Traders in flax, muskets, blankets, tobacco and other products were present from the early 1830s, and shore whaling thrived for around a decade from 1837. Traders such as Barnet Burns, John Harris, Manuel José and Thomas Halbert strengthened their positions by marrying into local hapū – Halbert married six times. From the 1840s Māori engaged in long-distance trading, shipping produce to a burgeoning Auckland.

Man with a mission


In 1838 William Colenso, with fellow missionaries William Williams and Richard Matthews, made an overland trip down the East Coast from Hicks Bay to Poverty Bay. The main objective was to find a mission site, but Colenso also engaged in botanical research and established useful contacts with local Māori. Later, Colenso ventured inland. He adopted the rather unsystematic practice of stuffing botanical specimens down the front of his shirt while on the move.



Anglican missionary William Williams established a station at Tūranga early in 1840. He gathered chiefly signatures to the Treaty of Waitangi later that year – 24 at Tūranga and 16 along the coast. By 1843 the Anglicans also had missions at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), Waiapu and Kawakawa (Hicks Bay). Many Māori converted to Christianity, and the Anglican diocese of Waiapu was established in 1859.

Conflict in the 1860s

In the decades after the Treaty of Waitangi the Crown stationed resident magistrates at Tūranga and Ūawa for periods, but in practice the East Coast remained beyond the reach of the colonial government. This sense of independence, coupled with a number of government actions outside the region, notably the invasion of Waikato, created some disillusionment among East Coast Māori as to the Crown’s commitment to the treaty. In 1863 some joined the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) forces fighting the Crown in Waikato.

Pai Mārire

In 1865 the pendulum swung further and many in the region converted to Pai Mārire (also known as Hauhau), a religion whose proponents promoted Māori self-determination. This led to six months of war between Pai Mārire supporters and other Māori forces, with many skirmishes in the Waiapu River valley, and a five-day siege at Waerenga-a-Hika in Poverty Bay in November 1865. In these conflicts the government supported those fighting against Pai Mārire, and Pai Mārire were defeated.

A high price to pay


In its report on the Tūranganui-a-Kiwa claims, the Waitangi Tribunal stated: ‘we estimate that approximately 240 adult men, or 43 per cent of the adult male population of Turanga, were killed in armed conflict with the Crown. This is an extraordinary level of loss for any community anywhere. It is, we believe, the highest casualty rate suffered by Maori in any region in New Zealand during the land wars.’2


Te Kooti

After the siege at Waerenga-a-Hika around 300 local Māori were held without trial in the Chatham Islands. Nursing a sense of resentment over this injustice, the prisoners, under the leadership of Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, escaped. They captured a supply ship and sailed back to the mainland, landing at Whareongaonga, to the south of Poverty Bay, on 10 July 1868. The group started to move inland towards Te Urewera.

After fending off colonial forces at Ruakituri gorge, Te Kooti and his followers, whom he called the whakarau – the unhomed or exiled – rested on the edge of Te Urewera before turning back to Poverty Bay. There, in revenge, they killed between 50 and 55 settlers and Māori at Matawhero (close to Waerenga-a-Hika), and fought several skirmishes against both government and Māori troops.

They met with a serious defeat at Ngātapa in January 1869, but Te Kooti and some of his followers escaped and returned inland. With the exception of a foray to the coast at Tolaga Bay in July 1870, Te Kooti did not revisit the region during the years he was being pursued by the government (he was pardoned in 1883). Rāpata Wahawaha of Ngāti Porou was a key figure in the hunt for Te Kooti.

    • Quoted in W. H. Oliver and Jane M. Thomson, Challenge and response: a study of the development of the Gisborne East Coast region. Gisborne: East Coast Development Research Association, 1971, p. 13. Back
    • Waitangi Tribunal, Tūranga tangata, Tūranga whenua: the report on the Tūranganui a Kiwa claims. Wellington: Legislation Direct, 2004, p. xx. Back

Pākehā settlement, 1870 to 1940

After Te Kooti and his followers withdrew to Te Urewera, peace returned and land was made available for settlement. European settlers were drawn to the region, particularly Poverty Bay. There were over 1,200 settlers in Poverty Bay in 1874, and a smaller number at East Cape. A quarter of a century later the region as a whole had a settler population of 10,000. Growth was hindered, but not deterred, by complications arising from land dealings between Māori and Pākehā.


Pākehā who enthusiastically promoted and developed the region included George Read, who had been active in the district since the 1850s, W. L. Rees, who was influential in the 1880s and 1890s, and William Lysnar, active from around 1900 and member of Parliament for Gisborne from 1919 to 1931. They lobbied the government for land for settlement, roads, bridges, ports and railways.

In 1870 most of the region was still forested. Over the next 50 years around 4,000 square kilometres – nearly half the total area – was cleared, with the peak of bush felling taking place between 1890 and 1910.

Agricultural development

Sheep were both shipped and driven into the district. Total sheep numbers rose from 200,000 in 1874, to 500,000 in 1889, 1 million in 1898 and over 2 million in 1910. At the beginning of each summer tens of thousands of sheep were sent away for fattening in regions such as Waikato, Manawatū and Canterbury.

Meat-freezing works were built at Taruheru (1880), Kaiti (1896) and Waipāoa (1916), all in or near Gisborne, and at Tokomaru Bay (1911) and Hicks Bay (1920) along the coast. The Poverty Bay trio competed against each other; the two on the coast were both soon taken over by Gisborne Sheepfarmers Frozen Meat and Mercantile Company, the owners of the Kaiti works.

Between 1895 and the early 1920s cattle numbers increased fivefold, and dairy herds also saw a fivefold increase in the first quarter of the 20th century. The total value of produce exported annually from Poverty Bay rose from £80,000 in 1884 to over £2 million during the First World War, 30 years later.

Dairy factories were established up the coast and at Motu and in the Waimata valley. Dairying grew at the expense of sheep farming. The expansion of freezing works proved to have been optimistic – Taruheru closed in 1923, Hicks Bay in 1926 and Waipāoa in 1931.


Tūranga, renamed Gisborne in 1870 to avoid confusion with Tauranga, was the hub of the region. It was incorporated as a borough (town) in 1877. The town’s progress was intermittent until the end of the century; the population had only reached 2,737 in 1901. However, in the next quarter-century it grew rapidly due to development in the surrounding region, and by 1926 there were 15,000 people living in the wider urban area.

Growth of the region

The region’s Pākehā population reached 25,000 in 1926 (the Māori population was around 7,000). Rural expansion led to the creation of new counties: Waikohu in 1908, Ūawa in 1918 and Matakaoa in 1919. Harbour boards were set up at Tokomaru Bay in 1915 and Tolaga Bay (Ūawa) in 1919. A separate Gisborne land district was created in 1922 – it had previously been part of Hawke’s Bay. In the same year the region’s sharebrokers joined the Stock Exchange Association of New Zealand.

Some had it good


Rosemary Rees, on a return visit from the UK to her Gisborne family in the summer of 1932–33, was reassured by what she saw, despite it being a time of economic depression. She wrote of being ‘motored here, there, and everywhere to luncheon parties, tennis-parties (where the assemblage of 15 to 20 handsome cars doesn’t exactly give one the impression of utter poverty!), tea-parties and picnics ... the big comfortable houses and gardens are delightful.’1


Wealth and depression

The long boom made the fortunes of many Poverty Bay and East Coast settler families, and many lived in style. Between 1918 and 1921 A. W. Buxton and Edgar Taylor landscaped a private garden at Panikau near Whāngārā, which cost their clients £1,800 (more than $150,000 in 2019 terms). Inland, at Eastwoodhill, William Douglas Cook developed a 150-hectare arboretum of exotic plants from 1910.

There were a number of large homesteads in the region. Puketītī homestead, near Te Puia Springs, was built for A. B. Williams in 1906, with major extensions carried out in 1933. Acton homestead, near Gisborne, was built for a wealthy migrant family from Canterbury in 1907–8. Architect Louis Hay designed a Frank Lloyd Wright-style house at Waiohika, near Waihīrere, Gisborne, in 1926 for Emily Gray, the widow of Charles Gray and a daughter of missionary William Leonard Williams.

The road to Wellington


In January 1934 Gisborne’s unemployed organised a hunger march to Wellington to protest against the pay and conditions under which relief work was provided. They gained sympathy, but not concessions, from the government and its Unemployment Board.


In the early 1930s prices for wool, mutton and dairy products were severely depressed for four seasons in a row. Combined with climatic factors, this caused financial difficulties for many small-scale farmers, often leaving them in debt. In Gisborne, where much work was very dependent on farm spending, unemployment grew rapidly, then fell as commodity prices improved in the later 1930s.

    • Rosemary Rees, New Zealand holiday. London: Chapman & Hall 1933, pp. 61–62. Back

Māori and Pākehā, 1870 to 1940

European settlers were eager to take up land in Poverty Bay and along the coast, and bought and leased land from local Māori until fighting broke out in 1865.

Land loss

After the first wave of fighting the colonial government found ways of punishing the ‘rebels’ in the region and acquiring land for settlement. Māori, whether they had fought against the Crown or not, were expected to make their land available. Around 453,600 hectares (about half of the region) was involved.

An independent commission, later called the Poverty Bay Crown Grants Commission, confiscated three blocks of land in Poverty Bay, totalling just over 22,700 hectares – the major ones at Pātūtahi and Te Muhunga. It also investigated and determined titles to the whole of the 453,600 hectares. There were many inconsistencies and injustices in its decisions, which affected both ‘rebel’ and ‘loyalist’ Māori.

No Ngāti Porou land was confiscated, but the Native Land Court, which had operated throughout the North Island since 1865, held hearings throughout the region with the aim of individualising communal land and certifying titles.

Inspired by the repudiation movement among Māori in Hawke’s Bay, many supporters of Pai Mārire wanted to reject all previous sales and leases of land. They also opposed the confiscations.

The prolonged court proceedings involved in establishing contested land titles put the people and the land of the region, particularly in Poverty Bay, in turmoil for years.

Māori land

Wī Pere, a prominent Poverty Bay leader, proposed that land be leased or sold on a family or hapū basis, rather than by individuals. Pere set up a successful family trust that held on to its lands. He also collaborated with fellow politician William Lee Rees in a company in which Māori put in trust land which could then be developed while they gained a rental income. The venture failed and much of the land held in trust passed out of Māori ownership.

In a capitalist society land was a realisable asset and, apart from their labour, usually the only one Māori possessed. The Tūranga tribes became a rural proletariat, often working as bushmen or shearers – and, with the rapid rise in the Pākehā population, a minority. By 1891 there were more than four Pākehā to every Māori in Poverty Bay.

Ngāti Porou, under the leadership of Rāpata Wahawaha, sold or leased only back-country land. From the 1880s Ngāti Porou engaged in sheep farming on their own account. Relatively few Pākehā families settled in their territory. However, Māori here also resorted to wage work – few could make ends meet without it.

The 1907–8 Stout–Ngata commission of inquiry into Māori land found that around 70% of all land in Cook County (Poverty Bay) had passed out of Māori hands, and of that which remained about half was leased to Pākehā. In Waiapu County (East Cape), around 45% of land had passed out of Māori hands, and about a third of what remained was leased.

Development of Māori land

A number of projects were begun to develop the land Māori still held. Hawke’s Bay landowner J. N. Williams leased 16,000 hectares in the Waipiro Bay district in 1883. He developed the land eventually handed it back to the Māori owners in 1915. Tūpāroa, near Ruatōria, for long the centre of the largest sheep station in New Zealand, reverted to Māori ownership in 1919.

Apirana Ngata, kin to Rāpata Wahawaha, and the first Māori graduate of a New Zealand university, further developed the incorporation system that had been pioneered (although not lastingly) in blocks like Mangatū. This entailed organising multiple small landholdings into a single entity for operational farming purposes. In 1912 Ngata established the Waiapu Farmers Co-operative Company, partly as a way of giving Ngāti Porou access to credit. Ngata also promoted dairying on the Waiapu valley flats in the 1920s. As a government minister he was instrumental in the Native Land and Native Land Claims Adjustment Amendment Act 1929, which made provision for state assistance for the development of Māori land.

Twenty-five development schemes were in operation in the region at the end of the 1930s. Nearly 24,300 hectares had been developed, but the land supported 2,500 people and this did not solve the problem of providing Māori a livelihood from their land.

The quality of Māori housing, health and living conditions remained precarious, as was highlighted by H. B. Turbott in his 1935 report, Tuberculosis in the Maori, East Coast, New Zealand.

Transport and communication

Horse transport

Horses have long characterised the region. Indeed the ‘Nāti’ horse breed, associated with Ngāti Porou, is an icon of the East Coast. Before 1920 there was almost one horse for every man, woman and child. From 1920 motor vehicles reduced the ratio to 1:2, but in rural areas the horse and horse-drawn dray and wagon remained a key form of transport until after the Second World War. C Company of 28 (Māori) Battalion, which drew its recruits from the region, was nicknamed the ‘Cowboys’ because of the number of horses.


A breakwater was built at Gisborne by the town’s harbour board in the 1880s, but overseas ships had to anchor in deep water until the 1960s. Nonetheless, by 1896 Gisborne was the eighth-busiest New Zealand port for exports and 10th for imports.

Shipping was critical to the settlements along the coast until the 1930s. Boats carried people, mail and goods in, and livestock, frozen carcasses, mail and people out. Ships called at Hicks Bay, Port Awanui, Tūpāroa, Waipiro Bay, Tokomaru Bay, Tolaga Bay and Whāngārā. Wharves were built or improved in the 1920s, in some instances to service freezing works.

Motor transport and better roads squeezed the life from the ports, and restrictions on shipping during the Second World War were a further blow. After the war only the Tolaga Bay and Tokomaru Bay ports operated along the coast, and their harbour boards were dissolved in 1961 and 1963 respectively.

A rough ride 

When Thomas Perry travelled in a service car to Gisborne in 1931, he recorded the trip in his diary: ‘Changed cars [at Ōpōtiki]. 8 cy[linder] Cadillac. Fine car. Climb anything. Woman in back CAR SICK all way ... Motu Gorge wonderful. 24 m[iles] only room most of way for one car to travel. Wonderful bush scenery. Terrific drops side of road in Gorge. Admire driver ... Dark night, blaze of camp fire of Maoris. Very striking ... Gave remains of whisky to woman who was car sick. Glad when I got some back!! Gisborne at last.’1


Early roads only linked Gisborne to other parts of the Poverty Bay flats; elsewhere there were only bridle tracks and some dray roads. By 1900 coaches could ply both coastal and inland routes to Wairoa, and ran north to Tolaga Bay. In 1914 a coach road was opened to Ōpōtiki via Toatoa, across the ranges from Motu. On the coast road the Waiapu River, a major barrier, was bridged by 1914 and the entire coast route to Ōpōtiki via Hicks Bay was drivable by 1929. The present-day inland route to Ōpōtiki through the Waioeka Gorge opened in 1932.

In the 1920s and 1930s, with passable roads, but no rail, the East Coast provided rich, if unpredictable, pickings for the service cars which had replaced horse-drawn coaches. By 1927 a dozen companies had come and gone on the Gisborne–Napier route. Gisborne-based Robert Kerridge, who later (and much more profitably) operated a national cinema business, ran one of them.

Gizzy ingenuity 

A New Zealand-designed bike named the ‘Maori’ was produced in England. Its designers, A. R. Bannister and George Johns of Gisborne, patented its variable speed gear in 1914. The bike was belt-driven, a design that soon lost out to chain-driven bikes. 


At the beginning of the 20th century, East Coast was alone amongst North Island regions in having no railway. It had been too remote during the rail-building drive of Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel in the 1870s, and was distant from the island’s main trunk route. In the first decade of the 20th century work began on two lines from Gisborne – one north and cross-country to Bay of Plenty, the other south to Napier. The goal was an ‘eastern island main trunk’, following roughly the route of what was to become State Highway 2. The route to Bay of Plenty reached Moutohorā, 50 kilometres beyond Te Karaka, in 1917, but went no further – leaving a more than 100-kilometre gap to the eventual Bay of Plenty terminus at Tāneatua. A coast route south was delayed by the 1930s economic depression the loss of 21 lives in a 1938 flood, war, and engineering challenges, including the 3-kilometre-long Tikiwhata Tunnel and the 1.5-kilometre-long Waikoura Tunnel. It eventually opened in 1942. The line to Moutohorā, which always ran at a loss, closed in 1959.

First flight 

In 1922 Harry Barker, later to be a long-serving Gisborne mayor, was on the first direct flight from Gisborne to Auckland. Anticipating that air travel would be critical in lessening Gisborne’s geographical isolation, he launched a campaign that resulted in the borough council buying land for an airport. 

Air transport

Like other isolated regions, Gisborne took speedily to the air and had its first timetabled air service in 1935, before its first rail link. East Coast Airways of Gisborne initially operated the Gisborne–Napier service with DH84 aircraft, and later extended its services to Palmerston North. In 1938 it amalgamated with Palmerston North-based Union Airways. By 1939 it was possible to fly from Gisborne to Auckland (via Ōpōtiki and Tauranga) and Palmerston North (via Napier). Air links north and south have remained important for Gisborne ever since.


Gisborne local Percy Stevens was making radio broadcasts as early as 1921. He established the station 2YM (later 2ZM and 2XM) in 1923. The Labour government bought out most other stations from 1936, but 2YM remained in Stevens’s ownership until his death in 1963.

    • Thomas Perry diary, 3 September 1931, Alexander Turnbull Library. Back

Growth and challenge, 1940 to 2010s

The Second World War

The East Coast gave massive support to the war effort. At one stage it held the record for the rate of voluntary enlistment per head of population. At least half of Māori men aged between 18 and 35 from the region enlisted and served overseas, mainly in 28 (Māori) Battalion’s C Company, which was predominantly recruited from Ngāti Porou.

Post-war, 1945 to 1970

The region profited from generally buoyant prices for agricultural exports. Using aerial topdressing to spread fertiliser on pasture helped increase stocking rates. Overall though, the region’s rate of increase in sheep and cattle numbers was below the national average. In difficult hill country numbers declined – dairy cows in milk fell from 20,000 in 1951/52 to 14,000 in 1959/60. The Tokomaru Bay freezing works closed in 1952 and the Ruatōria dairy factory closed in 1954.

After severe floods in 1948 the Poverty Bay Catchment Board started the Waipāoa River flood control scheme. This encouraged the development of horticulture on the Poverty Bay flats. In 1951 James Wattie planted his first sweetcorn crops, and he established J. Wattie Canneries (Wattie’s) the following year. By 1959–60, 400 hectares in Poverty Bay was devoted to vegetable production for processing and canning, and 300 hectares was in orchards.

In the 1950s the fishing industry expanded with the arrival of individuals such as Bartolo Zame and Snow Higham. Wattie’s bought its own fleet and made its first shipment of frozen fish in 1955.

Gisborne grows

A Gisborne 30,000 club – a progress group that aimed to swell the population to 30,000 – had been formed in 1936. In the post-war years the town resumed its growth, although not at as fast a rate as it had grown around 1900. In August 1955 Gisborne’s population reached 20,000, and it was designated a city. It was one of New Zealand’s most prosperous cities through the 1960s, and in 1971 the population finally did reach 30,000.

From 1967 overseas ships could berth at the port. Gisborne hosted the national celebrations for the 1969 bicentenary of the arrival of James Cook in New Zealand. Thousands of national and international visitors went to Gisborne, as did nine ships from five navies.

Challenges, 1970 to the 2010s

Hill-country farming struggled to remain profitable; by 1994 tracts of land capable of supporting around 150,000 stock units had been converted to forestry. A drought in 1982–83 was followed by floods in 1986 and by Cyclone Bola in 1988, which caused around $60 million in damage. In Ruatōria a spate of arsons and other crimes took place in the mid- to late 1980s.

In 1983 there were 143 registered fishing vessels operating from Gisborne, and in 2011 perhaps two-thirds of that number, with Gisborne Fisheries and Moana Pacific the principal operators.

The Kaiti freezing works closed in 1994, partly because of the conversion of pasture to forest. Economies of scale led Wattie’s to close its canning plant in 1997. These two closures resulted in the loss of 950 jobs. Cedenco, which had processed tomatoes in the region since 1986, shifted its operation to Australia in 1996. Dairy cattle numbers rose in the 2010s and reached almost 18,000 by 2012, but the region still had no dairy factory. However, small-scale milk-bottling companies Ata Milk (established in 2013) and Gizzy Milk (2014) both sourced milk from local herds.

The population in rural areas continued to decline slowly, while that of the region as a whole was almost static – 45,742 in 1976, 44,262 in 1991, 44,460 in 2006 and down slightly in 2013 to 43,656. The Gisborne urban area’s population stayed around 30,000 in the 1990s and early 2000s.

New industries

As traditional agriculture declined, the region’s industry diversified. In 1988 one of New Zealand’s first truffle plantations was established near Gisborne. Japanese company Juken Nissho opened a wood-processing mill in Gisborne in 1994. Pultron Composites uses specialised resin technology to make high-performance, corrosion-resistant rods, bolts and related items, products it exports to over 70 countries.

Other new industrial firms in the 1990s included Harvest Cider, Tolaga Bay Cashmere, Waimata Cheese and the Gisborne Gold Brewery. Cedenco restarted tomato processing in 1999. Vineyards accounted for just over 2,000 hectares from 2007 to 2011, and 1,600 in 2014

Meat processing returned in 1997, and in 2011 Ovation’s Gisborne plant specialised in vacuum-packed cuts of lamb sourced from within the region.

In 2018/19 Eastland Port (the name of Gisborne’s port since 2003) shipped nearly 3 million tonnes of exports (eight times the volume shipped in 2005), 99.5% of it logs.

A social profile

In the 2013 census 48.9% of the East Coast population identified as Māori, compared with 14.9% nationally and 32.4% in Northland, the region with the second-largest proportion of Māori. Of the Māori population in the region, just over 30% were bilingual in Māori and English.

The population was youthful, with 24.6% under 15 compared with 20.4% nationally in 2013.

The economic profile of the region was relatively undeveloped in 2013 – 19.5% of the employed population were labourers, compared with 11.1% nationally. This was partly because of the large workforce involved in farming, forestry and fishing – 22.4%, compared with 5.7% nationally.

Of the population aged 15 and over, 28.3% had no educational qualifications, compared to 20.9% in New Zealand as a whole. The median income in 2013 was $24,400, compared to $28,500 nationally.


Provincial government

When Auckland province was established in 1853, Poverty Bay and the East Coast down to just north of Wairoa were included. The region only gained a seat on the provincial council in 1873.

Local government

Cook County, covering the whole region, was set up when the provinces were abolished in 1876. In 1877 Gisborne gained its own borough council and in 1890 the isolated north became the separate county of Waiapu. The introduction of Waikohu, Uawa and Matakaoa counties followed between 1908 and 1920. Matakaoa ran out of money, was placed under a commissioner in 1933 and rejoined Waiapu in 1965. Uawa rejoined Cook County in 1964. In 1989 the Gisborne District Council replaced all of these authorities, and also its catchment boards.

Mayors of Gisborne

By 2019 Gisborne had had 25 mayors, all men, who mostly came from commerce or the professions. Long-serving mayors have included John Townley (1889–1908) and D. W. (Bill) Coleman (1928–33 and 1935–41). From 1950 Harry Barker held the office for nine successive terms and was reputedly the longest continuously serving mayor in New Zealand. John Clarke was the district council’s mayor from 1989 to 2001. Mayor Meng Foon was elected for a sixth term in 2016 and retired in 2019.

Parliamentary electorates

The East Coast electorate came into existence in 1871; at that time it also included all of Bay of Plenty.

Cardboard vote winner


During the East Coast election campaign of January 1876, pieces of cardboard distributed by supporters of candidate George Read were accepted as legal tender in Gisborne hotel bars. Read polled highest in the election, but a parliamentary committee of enquiry looked into the matter. The committee found that Read had not broken any laws, but the House of Representatives decided that Read was to lose his seat to the next highest polling candidate – George Morris.


In 1893 East Coast was replaced by the Waiapu electorate. This was in turn replaced in 1908 by Gisborne, which existed until 1993. Its longest-serving member of Parliament was Bill Coleman (also a mayor), who held the seat for five terms (1931–1949), the only lengthy period when Gisborne had a Labour member.

The East Coast proper was part of the Bay of Plenty electorate for most of the period from 1908 to 1963, followed by 15 years as part of the Gisborne electorate. East Cape electorate was created in 1978 and took in much of the coast.

New electorates with more voters were established in 1996 on the introduction of the MMP (mixed-member proportional) electoral system. Until 2002 the electorate covering East Coast was called Māhia; from 2002 it was East Coast. In 2019 the MP was Anne Tolley (National), who first won the seat in 2005.

Māori electorates

The region was in the Eastern Māori electorate from 1867 to 1996. James Carroll, who lived in Gisborne, represented the electorate from 1887 to 1893, when he won the Waiapu general electorate and was replaced by Wī Pere, whom Carroll had defeated in 1887. In 1905 Wi Pere was defeated by Apirana Ngata, who held the seat for 38 years.

When MMP was introduced Eastern Māori was replaced by the Te Tai Rāwhiti electorate. In 2020 the electorate, now called Ikaroa–Rāwhiti, was represented by Meka Whaitiri (Labour).


In 2011 the region had five secondary schools: Gisborne Boys’ High, Gisborne Girls’ High, Campion College and Lytton High School, all in Gisborne, and Ngata Memorial College at Ruatōria.

Another five schools also catered for secondary students – Tolaga Bay Area School, Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o te Waiu o Ngati Porou in Ruatōria, Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o te Kawakawa Mai Tawhiti in Hicks Bay, Te Kura-a-Rohe o Te Waha o Rerekohu in Te Araroa, and Sonrise Christian School in Gisborne.

The major providers of tertiary education were Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Tairāwhiti Polytechnic. The polytechnic merged with Hawkes Bay’s Eastern Institute of Technology in 2011.


In 2011 Gisborne Hospital was the principal hospital in the region and the base of Tairāwhiti District Health, established in 2001, which serviced the whole region. It had service contracts with primary health organisations, Māori health providers, general practitioners and disability health providers.

The only other hospital in the region was located at Te Puia Springs, 100 kilometres north of Gisborne on State Highway 35. The hospital was established in 1907 in the aftermath of a typhoid outbreak in Ruatōria, and its primary role for a long time was as a tuberculosis sanatorium, that illness being widespread amongst Māori until the 1950s. In 2011 it was operated by local health provider Ngati Porou Hauora.

Treaty of Waitangi claims settlements

In 2011 the Crown acknowledged unjustified land confiscations caused by acts or omissions by the Crown when it settled all historical Treaty of Waitangi claims of Ngāti Porou and the Tūranga tribes

Arts, culture and heritage

Museums and art galleries

Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne is the region’s main museum and art gallery. It has a strong emphasis on Māori history in the region. The museum also boasts Wyllie Cottage — the oldest European house still standing in the Gisborne area.

Wyllie Cottage 

Wyllie Cottage was built in 1872 for James Ralston Wyllie and his wife, Kate (Keita), a Rongowhakaata woman of mana and daughter of early English trader Thomas Halbert. The cottage has seen a number of changes over the years and was once nearly condemned to demolition. Its brick chimney was reconstructed after it collapsed during the 2007 Gisborne earthquake. 

Two other smaller museums were the Gisborne Aviation Preservation Society Museum at the airport and the East Coast Museum of Technology at Mākaraka.

Art galleries included the Paul Nache Gallery, which specialised in contemporary New Zealand painting including contemporary Māori art; the Studio West Gallery, which displayed local artist Roger Shanks’s watercolour paintings; and Kahukura Gallery, which exhibited contemporary art.

Gisborne Art in Public Places (AIPP), or Toi Whanui Tairawhiti, established in 1999, installed artworks in locations around the district.

Public library

The H. B. Williams Memorial Library, along with 12 community libraries, serves the region. The region’s first library, Turanga Library, was opened in 1869 in a room in the courthouse. In 1967 the Williams family gifted a new building in memory of their father. The building is a classic example of 1960s architecture.


Wī Pere was one of four Waikohu district leaders who invited Te Kooti, after he had been given amnesty, to return to his home district. In preparation for the visit the beautiful meeting house Rongopai was built at Waituhi, near Pere's own residence. His mother Rīria and his son Te Moanaroa led the work. When the prophet's visit became imminent and the house was not complete, Rīria encouraged the young men to paint, rather than carve, the interior decorations. The result is one of the country's artistic treasures. The decorations include a painting of Wī Pere in parliamentary attire, with Rīria perched on his shoulder like a watching owl. In the event, Te Kooti never made a return visit to Poverty Bay.

Māori culture and built heritage

Several well-known traditional and contemporary artists and musical composers have their roots in the region including songwriters Tuini Ngāwai, Ngoi Pēwhairangi and Wiremu Kerekere.

Tairāwhiti is recognised nationally as a centre of excellence for kapa haka (traditional performing arts). A number of Tairāwhiti kapa haka groups, including Waihīrere and Whāngārā, have won prizes at the national Te Matatini competition.

There are 62 marae in the region, 47 of them north of Gisborne. Noted carvers Pine and Hōne Taiapa worked on many of these marae as part of Apirana Ngata’s cultural renaissance programme in the 1930s and 1940s. Some of the finest examples of Māori art are represented in the wharenui (meeting houses) at Porourangi (Waiōmatatini), Uepōhatu (Ruatōria), Te Poho-o-Rāwiri (Gisborne) and Rongopai (Pātūtahi) marae.

Promoting Gisborne 

In 2010 the Gisborne District Council launched the Tairāwhiti Navigations Project, which aimed to use the region’s rich culture and heritage for economic, cultural, social and environmental initiatives. Some initiatives focus on such things as paths and signage in the inner harbour, emphasising the meeting of two cultures – Māori and Pākehā – in the area. Others will promote the region’s wine industry. The project will also connect with other places where James Cook landed, so that it is integrated with the international ‘Footsteps of Cook’ tourism initiatives. 

Writing and writers

The Poverty Bay Herald was first published in Gisborne on 5 January 1874. Its name changed to the Gisborne Herald in 1939. In 2019 it was one of the last remaining privately owned and operated daily papers in New Zealand. Neighbouring Muirs Bookshop, established in 1905, has long been one of the best independent bookstores in New Zealand.

Joseph Angus Mackay, a newspaper man who lived in Gisborne from 1911, was active in gathering local history and published the book Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast in 1950.

Rosemary Rees, daughter of pioneer William Rees, made a career as an actress and then as a writer of popular romances in the 1920s and 1930s.

David Ballantyne, who grew up partly in Hicks Bay and Gisborne, published two novels with Gisborne settings: the semi-autobiographical The Cunninghams (1948) and Sydney bridge upside down (1968).

Cartoonist Murray Ball, who lived near Gisborne, achieved greatest recognition for his long-running strip Footrot Flats (1976–1994).

Witi Ihimaera was one of the first Māori writers to gain prominence in English, and was the first Māori to publish both a collection of short stories and a novel. His early works drew heavily on his experiences growing up in Poverty Bay, and his novel Whale rider, made into a highly successful film in 2002, drew on the traditional story of Paikea.

Sport and recreation


Rugby in the region started with a competition with neighbouring Hawke’s Bay. The Poverty Bay union was established in 1890 and the East Coast union in 1921. Among the region’s All Blacks have been George Nēpia, Richard ‘Tiny’ White, Ian Kirkpatrick and the Gear brothers – Rico and Hosea. Ian Kirkpatrick played 39 tests for the All Blacks in the 1960s, nine of them as captain.

Beginning of the civil war 

On 22 July 1981 the first match of the controversial rugby tour by the South African Springbok rugby team was played in Gisborne. It was also the first time hundreds of tour opponents, protesting against the South African apartheid regime, clashed with police and tour supporters. Most were unprepared for how violent the clashes would become during rest of the tour. 

Gisborne City was one of the country’s leading football teams in the late twentieth century. In 1984 it won the national league and three years later the Chatham Cup, the country’s premier knockout tournament.

The region boasts a past coach (Leigh Gibbs) and captain (Sandra Edge) of the national netball side.

Joe Hogan won British and world croquet championships between 1986 and 1990. Tom Heeney was the first New Zealand-born boxer to fight for the world heavyweight championship, in New York in 1928.

Water sports

Gisborne is famous for its surfing beaches, with Makorori Point being especially known for its great surfing breaks. Some of New Zealand’s top professional surfers, including Maz Quinn, Jay Quinn and Bobby Hansen, call Gisborne home.

Surf lifesaving is also big in the region, with clubs at Waikanae, Midway and Tolaga Bay. Local surf lifesaver Cory Hutchings won the World Ironman Championship three times.

Kayakers Alan Thompson (two) and Grant Bramwell won gold medals at the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984.

Outdoor recreation

The region’s temperate climate, clean lakes, forests, streams and beaches attract tourists. Tramping, hunting, white-water rafting, canoeing, fishing, surfing, golf, yachting and all types of wilderness activities are catered for.

Recreation and tourism industries, based mainly on the attractions of the coast and coastal marine area, are popular and have steadily become a more significant component of the coastal settlements.

In 2011 the Gisborne District Council maintained a number of walkways, mountain-biking and fitness trails. Tītīrangi Domain (Kaiti Hill), once a , provided great views of Gisborne city and across the bay towards Māhia. There were bush tracks amongst its native trees and a very popular fitness trail.

The walkway along the Taruheru and Tūranganui riverbank, which included heritage signs, allowed an appreciation of the history of the city. It connected with a walkway and cycleway to Waikanae Creek.

Department of Conservation walks and tracks included Gray's Bush Scenic Reserve, Te Kurī Farm Walkway, Ōtoko Walkway, Okitu Scenic Reserve, Cooks Cove Walkway in Tolaga Bay, Anaura Bay Walkway, and Mount Hikurangi – Te Ara ki Hikurangi.


The first Rhythm and Vines music festival was held at Waiohika, near Gisborne, in 2003. The event, held over three days at New Year, attracts audiences of up to 25,000 – more than half the population of the district.

Facts and figures

Land area

  • East Coast : 8,351 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Gisborne)

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

  • Mean temperature, January: 19.2°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 9.7°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 996 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,218 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • East Coast : 44,460 (2006); 43,656 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • East Coast: 60.8%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • East Coast: 48.9%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • East Coast: 3.8%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • East Coast: 2.4%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • East Coast: 0.4%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes and sub-tribes

Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki, Rongowhakaata, Ngāi Tāmanuhiri

Population of major urban area, 2013

  • Gisborne : 30,960

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • East Coast: 24.6%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • East Coast: 61.4%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • East Coast: 14.0%
  • 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

  • East Coast: 22.4%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Health care and social assistance

  • East Coast: 12.2%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Education and training

  • East Coast: 9.7%
  • New Zealand: 10.9%

Unemployment, 2013

  • East Coast: 9.3%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • East Coast: 1,547,294
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • East Coast: 17,095
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • East Coast: 267,599
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Monty Soutar, 'East Coast region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Monty Soutar, i tāngia i te 25 o Ākuhata 2011, updated 1 o Māehe 2015