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Nelson region

by Carl Walrond

Nelson is New Zealand’s place in the sun, where apples and hops ripen, and scallops are dredged from Tasman Bay. A famed holiday destination, it offers orchards, beaches, three national parks and a thriving arts and crafts community.


Nelson is the largest urban area in the upper South Island, and also the name of the region to its south and west. The Nelson region includes the area administered by the Tasman District Council. To the east is Marlborough, and to the south and west is the West Coast.

Nelson’s largely sheltered coast is dominated by two huge, shallow bays – Golden and Tasman. Much of the coast, including Motueka, Golden Bay and Abel Tasman National Park, lie further north than the southernmost parts of the North Island. Nelson city is at roughly the same latitude as Wellington.

Inland areas are hilly or mountainous, with much of the hinterland forming the headwaters of the Buller River. The Nelson region lies west of the Alpine Fault, and shares mountain ranges with Marlborough and the West Coast. As on the West Coast, the coastal lowlands are very small, but Nelson’s indented coastline is far more sheltered with a better climate. The main populated areas are the alluvial lowlands between the eastern and western ranges, and – to a much lesser degree – the Tākaka and Aorere river valleys.

Second English settlement

Nelson was New Zealand’s second planned European settlement (Wellington was the first, in 1840). In 1841 the New Zealand Company sold Nelson’s arable (cultivable) land in London. The plan was that English settlers with capital would develop the land, employing tradesmen and labourers. However, many who bought land were speculators who had no intention of settling in New Zealand. And there was insufficient land suitable for farming – when the company explored the area they found forested hills and mountains.

Nelson struggled in the 1840s, but gradually developed in the 1850s after it became a province. Gold discoveries in the late 1850s and 1860s generated trade and attracted diggers.

Transport issues

The mountains that give Nelson a favourable climate also isolate it from the rest of the South Island, and transport was a major issue in developing the region. A railway was built within the region from the 1870s, but never linked to any other line. It took many decades to construct good roads through the mountainous country. The city also lacked a deep-water port, and major development of the shallow natural harbour was needed to accommodate larger vessels.

Sunny but remote

Nelson is seen by many people as a summer holiday playground, with its high sunshine hours, beaches and national parks. Until the 1950s Nelson was a small provincial city and residents often felt overlooked by central government as large investments in infrastructure occurred elsewhere. The Nelson region was distant from both State Highway 1 and the main trunk railway line. For decades small farmers and orchardists developed the land and lived a quiet agrarian life in the sun.

Industry and population

Horticulture and forestry became important industries in the early 20th century – as did tourism, fishing and aquaculture in the late 20th century.

Since the 1970s an influx of alternative lifestylers (‘hippies’) and artisans has brought a different subculture and created a thriving arts and crafts scene, adding colour to Nelson’s established culture of farming, business and landed families. The region’s population grew further in the 1990s and 2000s, largely driven by migration from other parts of New Zealand. Almost all new residential developments have been near the coast.

Geology and landforms


Nelson’s limestones, marbles, granites, mudstones and ultramafic rocks are geologically part of rock groups found west of the Alpine Fault. These are quite diverse and complex compared to the greywacke mountains of the Southern Alps, east of the fault.

At Red Hill in the Richmond Range, there is an outcrop of ultramafic rocks, which have a striking red colour and are rich in minerals containing iron and magnesium. They form poor soils and support little vegetation. Similar rocks are found on the southern West Coast, some 480 km away – movement on the Alpine Fault has displaced them. The coarse golden-sand beaches of the Abel Tasman National Park are derived from granite.


Nelson is largely mountainous. The only extensive areas of flattish land are the Waimea Plains, the floodplains of the Motueka, Riwaka, Tākaka and Aorere rivers, and narrow coastal strips between Nelson and Motueka in Tasman Bay and Farewell Spit and Pōhara in Golden Bay.

Moutere Depression

South-east of Nelson city the Richmond Range rises to over 1,700 metres. Between these mountains and the western Arthur Range is a 25-kilometre-wide basin of lower hills, which reach 500–600 metres inland and 200–300 metres near the coast. This basin, known to geologists as the Moutere Depression, was formed by faulting. It was filled with gravel by rivers flowing northwards from the Spenser Mountains between 2.8 million and 500,000 years ago (the Buller River originally flowed north into Tasman Bay). The Motueka and Waimea rivers and their tributaries have cut into these gravel hills, creating many small valleys.

Tunnelling to Tākaka

A tunnel through Tākaka hill was first mooted in 1912. In the early 1990s a large white semicircle appeared on the rock face above Eureka Bend on the Golden Bay side of the hill – graffiti marking a proposed tunnel entrance. A 1992 investigation estimated that the cost of a 4.4-km tunnel would be uneconomic, at $200–435 million. The tunnel was never built.

Western landforms

West of the Motueka River are the Arthur Range and the Tasman Mountains. Mountains (typically 1,500 metres high) incised by rivers extend to the West Coast, making up Kahurangi National Park. Farewell Spit, New Zealand’s largest sandspit, stretches for 32 kilometres, protecting Golden Bay from Tasman Sea swells. On the western coast is Whanganui Inlet, a river system which was drowned when sea levels rose after the last glaciations. The Tākaka River valley separates the Tasman Mountains from the Arthur and Pikikiruna ranges (Tākaka hill) to the east. South of Mt Arthur, Mt Owen has New Zealand’s longest cave, Bulmer Cavern, which has been explored to over 50 kilometres in length.

Near Murchison, north of the Buller River, are huge marble and limestone outcrops in an earthquake-shattered landscape. In Kahurangi National Park many lakes have been formed by earthquake-triggered landslides blocking rivers. The Matiri Range, north of Murchison, has two spectacular plateaus – a rare New Zealand landscape. The Thousand Acres Plateau and nearby Hundred Acre Plateau (both considerably smaller than their names suggest) are unusual tussock-covered benches 800 metres above the surrounding valley floors.

Eastern landforms

Inland, the upper catchment of the Buller River dominates. Flattish land is found along the river and in tributary valleys, with settlements, farmland and roads along these narrow corridors. Nelson Lakes National Park – one of three in the region – contains Lake Rotoiti (the source of the Buller River), Lake Rotoroa, and mountains rising to over 2,000 metres in the south. These large lakes are flooded depressions carved by past glaciers, although glaciation here was less severe than further south in the higher Southern Alps.

Climate and environment

A calm, sunny climate

Nelson vies with Marlborough (and in some years Bay of Plenty) for the honour of having the country’s highest sunshine hours – and usually wins. One year the region recorded over 3,000 hours of bright sunshine, but the annual average is around 2,400 hours. Coastal Golden Bay – less sheltered from Tasman Sea weather systems – gets around 200 hours less.


Nelson’s climate is sometimes dubbed ‘Mediterranean’, but this is not strictly true, as a Mediterranean climate is characterised by wet winters and hot, dry summers. In Nelson, winters are only slightly wetter than summers.

Nelson is one of the country’s calmest cities – one in four days is calm (average winds of less than 3.6 kilometres/hour). The predominant winds are northerly or north-easterly sea breezes, followed by south-westerlies. Mountains form a horseshoe to the east, west and south, protecting the region from bad weather. South-westerly winds have to travel across the entire South Island before reaching the region, so they seldom bring rain. Only northerlies tend to bring widespread cloud cover. Maximum daytime temperatures are typically 20–26°C in summer and 10–15°C in winter.

The north coast has a milder climate than the inland valleys, which experience intense winter frosts and fogs. The Waimea Plains often have summer droughts, while the mountains of north-west Nelson can be very windy. In general it is wetter in the west and drier in the east, and much cooler and less sunny in the mountains. The sea’s moderating effect on temperatures does not extend very far inland.

A long time dying

Former nurse Bridget Ristori remembered Nelson being promoted for its health-giving climate. ‘In early days emphasis used to be placed on the suitability of the climate for invalids, and only the other day I was talking to a particularly healthy man of 92, who had been sent out here to die when he was 24.’1

Protected areas and natural history

The region has three national parks – Abel Tasman (created in 1942), Nelson Lakes (1956) and Kahurangi (1996), New Zealand’s second-largest. There are three marine reserves, at Whanganui Inlet on the western coast, in Tasman Bay between Glenduan and Ataata Point, and at Tonga Island off the coast of Abel Tasman National Park.

The eastern inland ranges, such as those in Nelson Lakes National Park, are largely greywacke and form distinctive scree slopes which resemble Canterbury’s mountain landforms. Mt Franklin, at 2,340 metres, is the highest point in the region. North-west Nelson’s mountains are lower than the mountains further south, so they were not as heavily glaciated in recent ice ages and have acted as a refuge for many species. Isolated alpine areas have considerable diversity in plants and invertebrates (animals without backbones). For example, the land-snail genus Powelliphanta reaches its greatest species diversity in Kahurangi National Park (although these snails are absent from the central mountains, which were most glaciated).

Bird species in Kahurangi include the whio (blue duck) and great spotted kiwi, and the park is home to long- and short-tailed bats (New Zealand’s only native land mammals). There are also life forms adapted to living in the region’s caves, such as the Nelson cave spider, the country’s largest native spider in terms of leg span. At Farewell Spit, 112 bird species have been recorded – the spit sees great migrations of knots, godwits, Mongolian dotterels, curlews, little whimbrels, grey-tailed tattlers and turnstones. It is also known for whale strandings – in 1991, 325 whales came ashore.


Lowland soils are generally poor, with some fertile pockets. Coastal Nelson links cooler-climate South Island vegetation to the more temperate lowland-forest species of the North Island. Tawa reaches its south-western limit in lowland Tasman and Golden Bay. Kawaka, usually a North Island plant, is also found in western Golden Bay. Whau, which provided Māori with light wood for net floats, grows in frost-free pockets of Tasman Bay and Golden Bay, but is otherwise a coastal North Island tree.

Before Pākehā settlement, forest grew to the shore, although Māori had burnt off areas in the Waimea Plains and Motueka valley. Today, the lowland forests and swamps have been heavily reduced. Beech forests remain in the mountains, where the vegetation’s biodiversity is remarkable. Some 80% of the country’s native alpine plant species grow in north-west Nelson, with many species found nowhere else. While the alpine plants in Nelson Lakes National Park are similar to the rest of the South Island, those in Kahurangi National Park have affinities with both North and South island alpine vegetation.

    • B. Ristori, Nelson Province. Nelson: A. G. Betts & Son, 1961, p. 2. Back

Māori history

Nelson’s eight tribes

Māori know the northern South Island as Te Tau Ihu (the prow) of the canoe of the demigod Māui. There are eight mutually recognised tribes in the Nelson–Marlborough region – Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Apa and Rangitāne (Kurahaupō tribes), Ngāti Toarangatira, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Rārua (Tainui tribes), and Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa (Taranaki tribes). For Māori the region’s current boundary has little relevance – historically they traded, settled and interacted in an area that included coastal Nelson–Marlborough and across Cook Strait to the North Island.

Earlier tribes

Nelson’s Māori history is marked by a series of tribes arriving, mainly from the North Island, and ousting those already in residence (who had usually ousted someone else). Early tribes included Rapuwai, Waitaha, Ngāti Wairangi, Hāwea and Ngāti Māmoe.

Ngāi Tara occupied the Waimea area from about 1550, and spread out from there before being displaced by Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri (originally from Taupō) in the early 1600s. Ngāti Tūmatakōkiri dominated for two centuries. They, too, were ousted in the late 1790s by surrounding tribes, including Ngāi Tahu from the West Coast, Ngāti Kuia and Rangitāne from eastern Nelson–Marlborough, and Ngāti Apa, who were assisted by people from the Rangitīkei and Kāpiti areas (Kurahaupō tribes).

The Kurahaupō tribes were in turn overwhelmed in 1828 by Te Rauparaha’s confederation – Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa from Taranaki, and Tainui tribes Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Koata and Ngāti Rārua.

Settlements and lifestyle

Radiocarbon dating shows that Māori have been in the Nelson region since the 1300s. Early settlements along the Golden Bay shores include Tata Beach, Ligar Bay, Pōhara, Pākawau and Pūponga. Archaeologists have recorded around 300 Māori occupation sites in Golden Bay, including sites, gardens, fishing settlements, urupā (burial sites), kōiwi (human remains) and middens (rubbish dumps). People lived a mobile lifestyle, centred on seasonal fishing, gathering and horticulture. Māori had extensive kūmara (sweet potato) plantations on the Waimea Plains, where they added gravel, sand and wood ash to soils – probably to improve drainage and warm the soil.

Early contact

Golden Bay is the site of the first recorded contact between Māori and Pākehā. Four crew members from Dutch explorer Abel Tasman’s ships were killed by Māori near Separation Point, at the eastern end of Golden Bay, in December 1642. In 1827 the French explorer Dumont d'Urville spent time in Tasman Bay, where he met Māori, probably Ngāti Kuia and Ngāti Apa. The 1820s brought an influx of European sealers, whalers and associated traders to the shores of Cook Strait. Kūmara, potatoes and corn were traded at whaling stations, where Māori also worked as builders and crewed on whaleboats.

Solid as a rock

For Māori stone was crucial. Argillite, a hard, tough rock quarried around Motueka, Nelson and D’Urville Island, produced flakes suitable for cutting and filleting fish. Argillite adzes were used to build boats and houses. Other tools were made to pound, bore and scrape. Flint, black obsidian, quartz and pounamu (greenstone) were also important.

Land purchases and conflict

From 1839 to 1842 the New Zealand Company negotiated with some Māori to establish the Nelson settlement in Whakatū (Tasman Bay) and Taitapu (Golden Bay). The lack of flat land caused Nelson settlers looking for grazing land to survey the Wairau valley. Te Rauparaha objected. The New Zealand Company believed they had bought the land, but Te Rauparaha considered they had merely acknowledged his mana over and ownership of it. On 17 June 1843 there was a clash at Tuamarina, Marlborough, in which 22 settlers (including Captain Arthur Wakefield) and at least four Ngāti Toa were killed. This became known as the Wairau affray. After this Church Hill, at the head of Trafalgar Street in Nelson, was fortified as a defence against possible attacks from Māori. Further land was acquired from Māori by the Crown between 1853 and 1860.

In 2008 the Waitangi Tribunal ruled that the Crown had breached the Treaty of Waitangi, including by failing to set aside ‘Native Tenths Reserves’ (which reserved one-tenth of land sold for Māori). In 2014 the Te Tau Ihu Treaty settlement legislation was passed.

European settlement

Sealing gangs established seasonal camps at Toropuihi and Kahurangi on the west coast of the Nelson region from the early 1800s until the 1820s. Whalers came next, until the 1840s. They killed seals in the whaling off-season.

New Zealand Company settlement

In October 1841 three small ships, the Arrow, Will Watch and Whitby, sailed from Wellington under 42-year-old Captain Arthur Wakefield to decide on the location of Nelson, which was to be the second New Zealand Company settlement, after Wellington. They anchored at Astrolabe Roadstead on the west coast of Tasman Bay and explored Riwaka, Moutere and areas around the Motueka and Waimea rivers.

Māori had told Wakefield of their fishing grounds at Te Whakatū (present-day Nelson city). On 19 October 1841 a party in a boat – Captain Moore, a Māori named Pito and two others – went over to the eastern shore of Tasman Bay to investigate. Behind a natural breakwater – the 13-kilometre Boulder Bank – they saw the harbour that became known as Nelson Haven. Wakefield chose this as the settlement site, as the level land (the Maitai River flats) was both adjacent to a good harbour and close to the Waimea Plains.

‘The long-sought Wairoo’

In 1843 a party of 10 early Nelson residents explored the hills behind the city, hoping to find an easy route to the Wairau valley, which was being eyed up for grazing. Edward Stafford, who was to be Nelson’s first provincial superintendent, wrote in his journal: ‘Before us lay range over range in twisted and distorted shapes, each o’erlapping each, till, stern, gloomy and impassable rose the rugged range bounding on the West the long-sought Wairoo.’1

Company town

There was some haste to establish a settlement, as the immigrant ships had already left England and were expected in early February 1842. There were three months to survey town sections and farms and build shelter for the new arrivals. The first immigrant ship, the Fifeshire, was sighted on 1 February 1842. Ships continued to arrive, and within a few months the town had a population of several thousand. Settlers spread from Nelson Haven to land around the Waimea and Motueka rivers and to Motupipi in Golden Bay, setting up farms and sawmills.

Organised immigration was suspended in 1843 as the company was running out of money. The scheme had been hastily conceived and poorly thought out. There was also a lot of space between buildings – the result of selling 1-acre (0.4-hectare) sections, many of which remained unsold.

An umbrella and a box

In the early 1840s Nelson’s first houses were often built from little more than fern branches, as one writer commented: ‘I was passing one of this description one day situated on low land near the river, and ventured to express an opinion that fern thatch could not afford much protection from rain, and that I thought some danger was to be apprehended from the rising of the river, when the matron of the house replied: “Oh! the river often rises, and the rain pours through the roof, and then we stand on top of a big box, and hold up an umbrella all night.”’2

By 1858 Nelson had 434 wooden buildings and 27 made of brick or stone. A small wealthy class of about 60 families held balls, informal dinners and parties in each others’ houses. However, sections took years to allocate, with many far from town. There was little investment or employment, so many Nelson labourers squatted on vacant sections.

Runholders in Marlborough had their main residences in Nelson, and sheep were driven inland to Amuri in northern Canterbury. The settlement struggled, with too many labourers and not enough capital. There were also difficulties establishing rights to land acquired from Māori following the Wairau affray. The New Zealand Company was wound up in the early 1850s. When the Taranaki War broke out in 1860, influential Taranaki families such as the Richmonds and Atkinsons relocated to Nelson.


While most settlers were from the United Kingdom, 140 Germans arrived on the St Pauli in 1843 and another 141 on the Skiold in 1844. The Skiold Germans, under their leader Fedor Kelling, established the settlement of Ranzau (later called Hope). Germans also settled in the Moutere Hills at Sarau (now Upper Moutere), Rosental (Rosedale) and Neudorf. Germans were among the first to introduce commercial winemaking, and also specialised in growing fruit trees and hops.


Churches were established in town, and by the end of the 1850s all major denominations had clergymen and churches. As much of the back country was isolated and transport was difficult, small communities also built their own wooden churches, which became a focus for community gatherings on Sundays. Ministers would walk to remote churches to preach.

Anglicans were more prominent than in many other New Zealand cities. Edmund Hobhouse, the first bishop (from 1859 to 1865), was a great walker, visiting remote areas. His successor, Andrew Suter, who was bishop for the next 25 years, also loved walking, as well as nature and art. By the late 1870s he was one of the city’s most influential leaders.

    • Quoted in Ruth Allan, Nelson: a history of early settlement. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1965, p. 404. Back
    • William Pratt, Colonial experiences, or, Incidents and reminiscences of thirty-four years in New Zealand / by an old colonist. London: Chapman & Hall, 1877, p. 12. Back

Sea and air transport and communications

Sea transport

From the 1840s Tasman Bay was Nelson’s main transport route. Small white sails dotted the bay as locally built vessels traded between Murderers’ Bay (Golden Bay) and the fledgling town of Nelson. Along Tasman Bay families of settlers took up leases, or squatted, eking out an existence logging, building boats or farming the more fertile flats. Boats were built in bays where there was suitable timber. Most were small cutters or schooners, from one to 20 tons, which were dubbed ‘Blind Bay [Tasman Bay] hookers’.


Pigs and potatoes arrived in Tasman Bay in vessels from Golden Bay, and from North Island ports as far north as Manukau and Whangaroa. Livestock came from Australia, and coal, lime and timber from Golden Bay. A pilot boat was needed for larger vessels due to the narrow entrance and shallow harbour. A cast-iron lighthouse 18 metres high, the second in New Zealand, was erected on the Boulder Bank in 1861. As the closest port to the West Coast gold rush, Nelson flourished. Gold and coal discoveries in the 1860s brought wealth, trade and population – but also sometimes robbery and violence. The Burgess gang robbed and killed five men on the Maungatapu Track near Nelson in 1866.

Coastal steamers began to replace sail, and Nelson became a major coastal shipping port in the 1860s, supplying both the West Coast and Marlborough with imports. The number of ships and tonnages of imports and exports slumped in the depression of the late 1870s and early 1880s. Trade recovered in the 1890s, but the shallow port’s natural limitations were now obvious.

Nelson Harbour Board

In 1901 the Nelson Harbour Board was created, bringing control of the port under one authority. Its first priority was to cut a new entrance through the Boulder Bank. This had first been proposed in 1886, as the natural entrance was too narrow and shallow, and was filling with sand. ‘The Cut’, as it has been known ever since, was completed in 1906. It was wide enough for bigger vessels to work the port – which was crucial to Nelson’s ability to export produce. The harbour board also created Haulashore Island.

New wharves were built to berth larger vessels. Large, refrigerated ships took on frozen sheep meat and chilled apples for England. Plans for further development were thwared by the 1930s economic depression and the Second World War.

On 17 April 1953, 90 years of ferries between Nelson and Wellington ended with the steamer Ngaio’s last trip. The ferry service’s demise had been hastened by improvements to State Highway 6 to Blenheim, and the introduction of regular flights from Nelson airport.

Life or death matter


The road between Tākaka and Collingwood was only completed in 1913. Before that, locals relied on vessels calling at coastal wharves. Strandings were common, and the sea was often so rough that ‘for the first half hour you were afraid you would die, and after that afraid that you wouldn’t.’1


Harbour development

Major harbour and wharf development began in the 1950s. Dredging created a deeper port, and the spoil was used to reclaim 40 hectares of land. This development was partly driven by timber plantations maturing, resulting in an export trade in logs.

The trend in international shipping was for bigger and bigger vessels. A swing basin for ship manoeuvrings was dredged out adjacent to the wharves. In the early 1980s a much larger tugboat, the Huria Matenga (named after a local Māori heroine), was purchased to handle the much larger ships that could use the deeper harbour. A marina with over 500 berths for recreational boating opened in 1987.

In the 2000s the reclaimed area housed large seafood-processing factories, log-export yards, and engineering and marine workshops. As part of local government reform in 1989, Port Nelson Ltd took over running the port.

Cable and telegraph

In 1866 Nelson was hooked up to the trunk telegraph line which extended to Bluff. Later that year it reached the North Island after the first Cook Strait cable was laid. In 1876 New Zealand’s first international telegraph link came ashore at Cable Bay, just north of Nelson city.

Nelson airport

Nelson’s airport opened in 1938. For decades it was a small regional facility, and flights went via Wellington, but by the late 1980s Nelson had direct flights to many centres. In the 2010s it was one of New Zealand’s busiest airports, although larger planes could not land there. Around 60 small planes landed or took off each day and around 1.2 million people used the terminal every year.

    • Quoted in Warren Judd, ‘The end of the rainbow.’ New Zealand Geographic 10 (April/June 1991), p. 116. Back

Land transport


European exploration was driven by a search for extensive grazing lands, for road routes to the West Coast and Canterbury, and for minerals. In 1842 the only suitable grazing land found by assistant surveyor John Cotterell was the Wairau valley – the rest was mountains. The explorers Thomas Brunner and Charles Heaphy made epic journeys in the 1840s, but found no plains.

The road that never was

Parliament allocated money for a road from Collingwood to Karamea on the northern West Coast in 1881, and it was surveyed in 1886. However, it was never completed. The route of the planned road became the Heaphy Track, popular with trampers (hikers).

Early routes

In the 1840s and 1850s horses were expensive and feet were the universal means of transport. The inland route went to Tophouse then followed the Buller River to the West Coast. The Heaphy and Wangapeka tracks were pack tracks (suitable for packhorses), used as trading routes between Nelson and the West Coast. The bridle track over Tākaka hill was upgraded to a coach road in the mid-1880s, and sealing it began in the 1950s. Its apocryphal 365 corners (one for each day of the year) in 25 kilometres still make for a slow trip. By 1860 packhorses were using the Maungatapu Track from Nelson over the Bryant Range to the Pelorus River valley in Marlborough. In 1885 the road over the Whangamoa Saddle and the Rai Saddle to Rai Valley, then on to Picton, was completed with a bridge over the Pelorus River.

Poor roads

The population was small, so roads boards levying landholders struggled to raise money to build – and then maintain – roads. Most country roads were narrow, muddy, and impassable after heavy rain. Slips and surface erosion were common. Travel was slow, and almost every rural locality along a route had an accommodation house for travellers.

Once is enough

Henry Franklin Solly, nicknamed ‘Tinny’, was a service-car driver for Newmans on the Tākaka–Nelson route for over 20 years. He had a stutter and a quick wit. On Tākaka hill a tourist inquired, ‘Do motor vehicles often go over the bank on this hill?’ Tinny replied, ‘O-o-only o-o-once – u-u-usually.’1


In 1911 the coaching company Newman Brothers (later Newmans) bought their first service car (large car used for passenger transport), and in 1912 this became the first car to drive down the Buller Gorge. Horse-drawn coaches coexisted with service cars until about 1918. In 1930 buses replaced service cars, and trucks taking produce to ports placed more pressure on roads. Relief work for the unemployed improved some roads during the 1930s depression, but the Second World War slowed progress. Earthquake damage in 1929 and 1968 led to large reconstruction efforts on State Highway 6 down the Buller River. In the 1950s most roads were metalled, and it was only in the 1960s and 1970s that many were sealed. Even in the mid-1970s, the road via the Maruia Valley to Lewis Pass was still not fully sealed.


Nelson once had a railway to nowhere – it ran from the city as far as Gowanbridge, 110 km south-west, on roughly the same route as State Highway 6. The line was meant to be part of the Midland railway, linking Canterbury with the West Coast and Nelson. In 1871 Parliament approved a 34-km first stage of the railway from the city to Foxhill. Construction began in 1873, and work continued in fits and starts. By 1912 the line had reached Glenhope – still 90 km from linking up with the Grey Valley line at Īnangahua Junction. Embankments had been cut as far as Gowanbridge by 1929.

From 1905 to 1920 the line was profitable, but construction stopped in 1931. The railway carried 40,000 people in 1929, but fewer than 5,000 in 1953. To appease disgruntled Nelson residents, from 1957 the main road from Nelson to Blenheim (State Highway 6) was treated as if it were a branch line connecting Nelson to the main trunk railway line – passenger fares and freight were subsidised, in 1961 costing the government $4.6 million (in 2019 terms). The amount of rail freight decreased as roads improved. In the 1950s the government decided to close the line, instead of completing it through the steep, unstable and earthquake-prone country alongside the Buller River.

    • Norrie Wadsworth, Fleeting moments: a few fond memories from a lifetime in Takaka. Tākaka: N. A. Wadsworth, 1996, p. 92. Back

Population and society

Sparsely populated

Nelson has never been heavily populated. In 2013 just 2.2% of New Zealand’s population (93,591) lived in the region. The Māori population before Pākehā settlement was probably only ever in the thousands. Nelson city’s early situation was much like Wellington’s – both were surrounded by hills, and in the mid-1860s both had populations of around 4,700. While Wellington boomed after becoming the capital and gaining road and rail access to the large hinterland of the lower North Island, Nelson stagnated. In 1906 the city’s population was 8,164. It remained below 12,000 until 1936, and grew markedly only after the Second World War.

The 1990s and 2000s saw no growth in small rural towns such as Murchison, Tapawera and Tākaka, but rapid growth along the coast in areas such as Kaiteriteri and rural Waimea (around Richmond, Wakefield, Brightwater, Māpua and Wai-iti). Motueka and Nelson city had reasonable growth – much of it driven by internal migration, with two-thirds of migrants from other parts of the country (especially the South Island) and the rest from overseas.

In the 2010s Nelson had an ageing population, as younger people moved away for tertiary education and work, and older people retired in the region. Residents had few high-income job opportunities, with the economy reliant on primary production and tourism. Surging house prices in the 21st century – largely driven by lifestyle migration and retirement – put home ownership beyond the means of many younger locals.

Ethnic diversity

The Nelson region was New Zealand’s least ethnically diverse area in 2013, with over 90% of the population identifying as European (in much of the South Island, the proportion of Europeans was just under 90%). There were fewer people of Pacific, Asian or other ethnic descent than in most other parts of the country – a trend that was even more marked in rural areas. In 2013, 8.5% of the Nelson region’s population identified as Māori, compared with 14.9% for New Zealand overall.

From farmers to hippies

In the 1970s alternative lifestylers (‘hippies’) were attracted to rural Tasman Bay and Golden Bay by cheap land prices, the mild climate and beautiful environment. The Golden Bay population at the time was mostly established dairy-farming families and workers at the Tarakohe cement plant. The status of ‘local’ could take more than a generation to earn, and there was a divide between the earlier residents and the new arrivals. The hippies often eschewed full-time work, choosing freedom over economic security. Many turned their hands to crafts to make a living, and marijuana cultivation was common.

Since the 1990s different types of lifestyler – wealthy people from Germany, the United States and other countries – attracted by the climate and environment have bought coastal land in Golden Bay and Tasman Bay.

Inland Nelson is sparsely populated – mainly by farming families, some of whom have been on the land for generations. St Arnaud is a small tourist town and Murchison a rural service centre.


Communes were established mainly from the mid-1970s, although the Riverside community in Upper Moutere traces its origins to 1941, long before the first hippies. Riverside was set up by a small group of Methodist pacifists interested in social justice. In Golden Bay, the Rainbow Valley community up the Anatoki River valley was set up in 1974, and the Tui community in Wainui Bay in 1984.


Early agriculture

In the late 19th century Nelson’s inland areas were regarded as ‘a back of beyond’.1 Agriculture was difficult to establish due to isolation, rugged landscapes and highly variable soils (with some very fertile pockets). The Riwaka and lower Motueka river floodplains were fertile, but the Moutere Basin hills and upper Motueka valley were not. Swamps had to be drained and bush cleared before farms could be established.


Land was originally divided into 50-acre (20-hectare) ‘suburban sections’, which were closer to the town, and 150-acre (60-hectare) ‘rural sections’. The smaller sections were intended to produce goods for the farmers and the local market, and the larger sections crops for export. The lack of open grazing land meant that the Nelson region never had the large landholdings common in much of New Zealand in the late 19th century.

Sheep were imported in the 1840s and wool slowly became an export product. Farming developed in the 1850s, with produce shipped to other New Zealand cities and to gold-rush Victoria, Australia. Towns grew near the more fertile farmland at Richmond, Hope and Motueka. By the 1870s farmers intensively cultivating their smallholdings supported small but vibrant rural communities. They sold grain, potatoes, fruit and vegetables, bacon, butter, cheese, poultry, eggs and other produce direct to town storekeepers. This was near the coast – inland it was a much harder life, breaking in bush country on poor soils. Out in the backblocks farmers helped each other out, creating small communities based on reciprocal work.

Sheep and beef

Pastoral production in the Nelson region was originally based on sheep and beef farming, with less land used for dairying. Wool and lamb prices were low and Nelson farmers struggled to get their stock to market. For decades drovers took sheep overland to the West Coast, Christchurch or Picton. A freezing works finally opened in Stoke in 1909.

In 2000 a new $9 million plant was built on a site beside the original works, putting an end to its ‘rotten egg’ stench. The plant was one of Nelson's largest employers, with 220 staff. It processed around 700,000 lambs a year, and contributed around $60 million to the region’s economy in 2009, its centennial year.

Out of the ashes

Farmers were loath to take up land covered in flax and scrub, believing that the heavier the bush, the better the soil. They cleared the trees themselves or employed bushwhackers. Much of the land had poor soils and ‘match farming’ was practised – the bush was burnt, and grass seed was sown in the ashes.


Small butter-making factories opened in rural areas from the 1880s and a dairy factory was built near Tākaka in 1894. In the 1940s the number of dairy farms dropped but their average size increased. The Nelson Town Milk Supply Company was set up in 1945, supplying the region with milk. Golden Bay, with its higher rainfall, has long been a dairy-farming stronghold, and since the 1990s many farms in valleys in the Buller River catchment have converted to dairying. In the 2010s milk powder was produced at Tākaka and Brightwater for export – the region’s drinking milk came from Canterbury. In 2008 the Tākaka plant employed nearly 50 staff, pumping $3 million in wages into the Golden Bay economy. Brightwater’s plant had 30 staff and paid more than $1.5 million in wages.

    • J. N. W. Newport, Footprints: the story of the settlement and development of the Nelson back country districts. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1962, p. 13. Back



Hops was an early cash crop, first grown in Nelson in 1842. It is ideally suited to the calm, warm, sunny climate. Autumn hop-picking was part of the rural calendar, done mainly by women and children. Local breweries produced ale from locally grown barley and hops in the early 1850s. Hops was exported as well as supplying breweries in other centres. A boutique-brewery revolution began in 1981, when McCashin’s Brewery in Stoke brewed its first beer using locally grown hops. Many other micro-breweries have since been established, including Founders in Nelson city and the Mussel Inn at Onekakā in Golden Bay.

Sour swede juice

Nelson beers have only recently acquired good reputations – two long-standing19th century local beers, Dodsons and Harleys, were described as ‘the worst beers sold in New Zealand, resembling at best sour swede juice’1.


Tobacco was grown for personal use from the 1840s. In the 1880s farmers around Riwaka grew it as a cash crop, and around 1918 the firm E. Buxton and Co. began promoting commercial growing. In 1926 there were 150 tobacco growers in Waimea county. By 1933 around 90% of the country’s tobacco came from 700 growers in the Nelson region, and the growers’ typical greeting was, ‘Good day, how’s your baccer?’2 The industry employed around 1,500 people and offered job opportunities to young women, who made up half the workforce. In 1935 a Tobacco Board was established to license growers, prevent oversupply and ensure adequate returns.

During the Second World War women did most of the tobacco picking (previously a male domain). In 1941 tobacco accounted for 40% of Motueka’s horticultural income. The crucial time of the season was when the leaf was picked and kiln-dried – during these months growers got little sleep. By the mid-1960s there was a considerable tobacco surplus, and grower numbers declined. In the early 1980s the requirement for some local tobacco leaf in New Zealand-processed cigarettes was dropped, and government payouts helped growers shift to crops such as kiwifruit. The last commercial tobacco crop was planted in 1985.

Horsing around

On 15 September 1919 Mahana Fruitgrowers held their inaugural dance at the Māpua packing shed. Organiser Paxton Salmond described the preparations: ‘The Shed had to be cleaned out first and the floor polished. One of my horses, “Dick”, was used to doing the polishing. He was first blindfolded and sacking pads tied to his feet. A sack of oats was towed around the floor until it became fit for dancing. Bill Argue used to take charge of Dick, and had to carry a half kero tin in case of accidents.’3


Apples and other fruit were grown from the 1840s, and by the late 19th century Nelson was the country’s major producer of currants and raspberries. In the 1890s Samuel Kirkpatrick built his Nelson jam factory with spare capacity, with an eye to the future growth of horticulture. Apples and other fruit grew splendidly, but transport to market was difficult, so pulping, canning and jam-making were the only options. From the early 1900s apples were planted in much larger acreages on previously infertile clay land in the Moutere Hills, and shipped out from Māpua wharf.

As Nelson’s port developed to handle larger ships, exports of apples took off. In the 1920s and 1930s the Cawthron Institute’s scientists addressed many fruit-growing problems (poor soils, pests, and brown rot in apples). Horticulture boomed. By 1960 the estimated value of agricultural production in Waimea county was £5.5 million ($255 million in 2020 terms) – two-thirds of it from fruit, tobacco, hops and vegetables.


While grapes were grown in the region from the 1840s, commercial viticulture was slow to emerge. In 1991 there were only 81 hectares of vineyards. However, growth was rapid in the 1990s and by 2008 there were 794 hectares. Nelson is still a minor wine-producing region – neighbouring Marlborough had 15,915 hectares of vineyards in 2008. In the 2010s Nelson marketed itself as a producer of aromatic wines, such as gewürztraminer, riesling and pinot gris.

    • Jim Henderson, The exiles of asbestos cottage. Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1981, p.165. Back
    • J. N. W. Newport, Footprints: the story of the settlement and development of the Nelson back country districts. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1962, p. 386. Back
    • Quoted in Bernard L. Wells, The fruits of labour: a history of the Moutere Hills Area served by the Port of Mapua. Nelson: B. W. Wells, 1990, pp. 96–97. Back

Mining, quarrying and energy

Nelson’s complex geology and large hinterland gave early settlers great hopes of mineral wealth – most of which were not realised.

Copper and chromite

In 1852 copper was found in the Maitai River headwaters. A railway – the country’s first – was completed in 1862 from Dun Mountain in the hills behind Nelson city down to the harbour. About 5,000 tonnes of ore was mined between 1858 and 1866, but the amount of copper and chromite recovered was paltry.


Traces of gold were found in the Aorere River valley as early as 1853, and from 1857 larger alluvial gravel deposits were worked by around 2,500 diggers near Collingwood. While the quantities recovered never matched richer fields in Otago and on the West Coast, gold still generated trade – and gave Golden Bay its name. Nelson was the nearest port to the West Coast goldfields until 1866, when Buller gold began to be exported from Westport.

Hard rock reefs were mined on the west coast at Taitapu, but most of the region’s gold was alluvial. Dredging was tried unsuccessfully in the Wangapeka and Aorere river valleys. In back-country valleys, farmers also tried their hand at gold mining – a nugget here and there helped develop farms. In the 1930s a government scheme paid unemployed men to try their luck in remote areas. In the winter of 1932, there were around 200 men mining In the Howard River (between Lakes Rotoiti and Rotoroa).


New Zealand’s first coal was dug from a small seam at Whanganui Inlet and shipped to Wellington in the Jewess in 1840. Mines at Pākawau and Pūponga were developed in the late 1890s, with Pūponga coal shipped to Nelson, Taranaki and Wellington. In 1911, at its peak, Pūponga employed 70 men and yielded 30,000 tonnes of coal. In 1913 the mine flooded and it was never again profitable.

Ochre and iron

Māori used ochre deposits at Onekakā and Parapara to decorate carvings and as body paint. In 1920 a company was set up to mine the deposits and make iron. Coke ovens, a blast furnace, water race and aerial cableway were built and the first pig iron was smelted in 1922. In 1923, 41,000 tonnes of iron was exported. Pig-iron bars were carried on a tramway across Onekakā inlet to a 370-metre-long wharf, where they were loaded onto ships after West Coast coal had been offloaded. By the mid-1920s Onekakā was producing large cast-iron water pipes. However, the ironworks could not compete with cheap imports of Indian iron, despite a government subsidy, and it wound up in 1932.

At nearby Parapara, from the 1880s to 1906, the New Zealand Haematite Paint Company produced red, yellow and orange pigments from ochre. This paint was used on many New Zealand railway wagons and goods sheds. From 1926 the Nelson Paint Company used Parapara ochre to make paint in the city – its first colours were purple-brown and dark red.


Lime was first burnt for agricultural use in 1842. In 1909 a cement works was established at Tarakohe in Golden Bay, near limestone, marl and clay deposits, and with good shipping access. ‘Golden Bay’ cement was used by generations of home handymen. There were layoffs in the early 1980s due to overcapacity in New Zealand production, and the plant closed in 1988. The closure removed 8% of the wages bill from Golden Bay’s economy.

Tākaka marble has been worked from a number of quarries on Tākaka hill since the early 1900s, and was used in Wellington’s Parliament buildings. Granite was also quarried briefly at Tonga Bay on the west coast of Tasman Bay, and this was used for the steps at the head of Trafalgar Street in Nelson.

Mt Burnett, overlooking Collingwood in Golden Bay, is New Zealand’s only source of dolomite, a mineral used as an ornamental stone and a concrete aggregate. Clay was dug from pits near Tapawera to supply the Nelson Brick and Pipe Works, and was also found at Puramāhoi and Parapara in Golden Bay. From the 1950s potters made use of local clay.

Dick the Scorpion and Brandy Mac


Gold miners often used nicknames. Some of the names remembered many years later by Robert Win of Hope Junction (later called Kawatiri) were Jack the Russian, Billy the Native, Jimmy the Rambler, Mouth Almighty, French Joe, Brandy Mac, Dick the Scorpion, Tommy the Robin, Blackguard Jack, Jack the Christ Killer, White Peter and Louis the Christian.



Asbestos deposits occur in the upper Tākaka River. From about 1913 until the 1950s a reclusive couple, Henry and Annie Chaffey, lived in this remote area, accessible only by several hours’ walking. After a road was built to a hydroelectric dam at the headwaters in the 1930s, the Tākaka River deposits were mined from 1940 to 1945, and again from 1949 to 1955. About 5,000 tonnes of asbestos fibre was produced.


Planning for the Cobb hydroelectric scheme began in the 1930s. A private company began the venture but the government bought it out in 1939. Expected to take two years, it took 20 more. A dam was formed in the upper Cobb River valley, and water piped down to the power station on the banks of the Tākaka River. In the early 1950s a workforce of 500 laboured in the high, cold valley, completing the permanent earth dam in 1956.

Forestry, fishing, manufacturing and tourism


Small sawmills operated in many valleys in the 19th century as lowland forests were cleared. Exotic forestry in Nelson began around Tapawera. Land was granted to returned servicemen after the First World War, but many of the farms failed due to poor soils. The Golden Downs Forest was planted in the upper Motueka River valley from the late 1920s. By the mid-1950s the area’s exotic forests were second in extent only to the great forests of the central North Island. Log exports began in 1959, and from 1967 pine chips were exported.

Native beech trees were also turned into wood chips for export, but this drew protests. A large sawmill and chip mill was built near Brightwater in 1986, and in the same year Nelson Pine Industries opened a large medium-density fibreboard plant near Richmond. Large piles of wood chips and logs awaiting export on the wharves have been a daily sight for Nelsonians since the mid-1960s, and forestry remained an important contributor to the region’s economy in 2010.

Fishing and aquaculture

For many years fishing was relatively minor, with small boats fishing inshore. In the 1980s deep-sea fishing changed that. Nelson’s central location, close to many fishing grounds, encouraged a massive expansion. The deep-water species orange roughy and hoki were exploited in the 1980s and 1990s, and the industry became a major employer. In 2010 Talley’s and Sealord, two of New Zealand’s largest deep-water fishing companies, were based in Nelson. Talley’s head office was at Port Motueka. In the 2010s Nelson was the largest fishing port in Australasia. Seafood industries and aquaculture employed almost 2,200 workers, 5% of the employed population.

Motor assembly

In 1962 a factory to house a cotton mill was being built at Stoke when the government pulled the plug on the project. A car company, Standard-Triumph, bought the building and set it up as an assembly factory in 1965, churning out Triumphs and Leyland light commercials, and, later, Rovers and Jaguars. Production slowed in 1977 and in 1982 the factory switched to assembling Hondas. It closed in 1998, after tariffs on imported cars were removed.


Nelson has varied landscapes and tourist attractions – snow-covered mountains, golden-sand beaches, limestone caves, trout-rich rivers, orchards, vineyards and craft trails. The Nelson art guide, published regularly since 1994, includes a craft trail of potters, jewellers, sculptors, artists, weavers and others. Tourism has boomed since the 1980s, and in the 2010s was a significant, if seasonal, contributor to the region’s economy. In the early 2000s it was the third-largest industry in the region. Domestic tourists were about 70% of visitors in 2008, but international tourism was growing more rapidly.


Provincial government

In 1853 a provincial government system was introduced, and Nelson became one of six (eventually 10) provinces with its own small parliament, responsible for land, education, immigration and public works. Until 1876 it administered an area much larger than the current Nelson region – initially all the land north of a line from the mouth of the Hurunui River on the east coast to the mouth of the Grey River on the West Coast.

Thieves and supper

Early local politics was dominated by the Original Land Purchasers’ Association, formed in the 1840s to protect the interests of landholders against the New Zealand Company. It was dubbed ‘the Nelson Supper Party’, as members took turns holding evening gatherings. A less kind name for the group was ‘the Forty Thieves’.

Marlborough was gazetted as a separate province on 4 October 1859. In 1876 the provincial system of government was wound up and county councils were created. Roads boards, which had been set up to build and maintain rural roads, amalgamated with county councils from the 1890s. By 1920 there were four counties, two boroughs and one city in the region.

Tasman District Council, based in Richmond, was formed in 1989. In 1992 it became a unitary authority, responsible for environmental management as well as municipal affairs. In 2020 the council administered the entire region except for Nelson city (covered by Nelson City Council, also a unitary authority).


While the Richmond Range separates Nelson and Marlborough, the two are often linked. Many organisations, government and non-government, have had the hyphenated title Nelson–Marlborough. Examples include Fish & Game and the former district health board.

National politics

In the 2010s the region had two general electorates. Nelson covered Nelson city and its surrounds. The rest of the region was part of the West Coast–Tasman electorate. Nelson was part of Te Tai Tonga Māori electorate.

Domett’s doggerel

Early Nelson politician Alfred Domett published a 14,000-line epic poem, Ranolf and Amohia, in 1883. The tale of a Pākehā sailor and a Māori princess, it was praised by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning, but verged on doggerel. James Cowan, writing in 1934 in the New Zealand Railways Magazine, was being kind when he noted that ‘the poem greatly needs pruning.’1 Domett is commemorated by the Domett Range and Mt Domett – and by Mt Ranolf and Amohia Peak in Kahurangi National Park.

Nelson politicians

William Stafford became Nelson's first superintendent when was elected in 1853. His system of free, secular and compulsory education became the model for New Zealand, with the ‘Nelson system’ introduced to all state primary schools in 1877. Alfred Domett arrived in Nelson in 1842. An important provincial politician, he was premier of New Zealand in 1862–63.

An eccentric politician from Nelson was the anti-Semitic and right-wing Arthur Field. Better known are prime ministers Keith Holyoake and Bill Rowling. Orchardist Holyoake was prime minister for two months in 1957 (when Sidney Holland stepped down) and again from 1960 to 1972. Rowling was prime minister in 1974–75 following Norman Kirk’s death in office. Geoffrey Palmer from Waimea West was prime minister in 1989–90. Nick Smith was defeated in 2020 after 30 years in Parliament, initially representing Tasman, and from 1996 Nelson.

Wakatū Incorporation

Wakatū Incorporation, a Māori incorporation, had its origins in 1977 when surviving native reserve titles to land worth around $11 million in Nelson city, Motueka and Golden Bay were transferred to the body. The organisation had over 3,000 shareholders in the 2010s, representing four iwi – Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rārua, Ngāti Tama and Te Āti Awa. The incorporation had interests in aquaculture, property development, tourism and viticulture.

    • ‘Ranolf and Amohia.’ New Zealand Railways Magazine 9, no. 2 (1 May 1934). (last accessed 11 June 2010). Back

Arts, culture and science


In the 1940s the artist Colin McCahon met Toss Woollaston, who had moved from Taranaki to Riwaka to work on an orchard when he was 18. For seven decades Woollaston painted modernist landscapes of the region, such as ‘View from Takaka Hill’ (1976). Along with McCahon he pioneered New Zealand modernism. McCahon did not spend many years in Nelson, but he began to flourish there with works such as ‘Takaka: night and day’ and ‘The promised land’ (both 1948).

Other artists attracted by seasonal employment on tobacco farms in the 1940s were Rita Angus and Doris Lusk. Lusk created such works as ‘Two tides at Onekaka’ and ‘Tobacco fields’. Born in Tākaka and descended from German immigrants, Leo Bensemann painted the karst landscapes of his birthplace from the 1960s to the 1980s.


In the early 1960s potters such as Harry and May Davis (from Cornwall, England), Jack Laird, and Mirek Smisek (originally from Czechoslovakia) established Nelson’s reputation as a pottery centre. Nelson has since become home to many artisans. Danish silversmith Jens Hansen settled in Nelson in 1968, setting up shop and teaching students.

By 1985 around 400 people in the region were working as artisans, with annual earnings of close to $3 million. In 1987 the first World of WearableArt show – the vision of sculptor Suzie Moncrieff – was held in Spring Grove. In 2005, the show moved to Wellington.

The Suter and Nelson Provincial Museum

After Andrew Suter (bishop of Nelson for 25 years) died in 1895, his wife Amelia gifted land, money and the couple’s art collection as the basis of a public gallery for the city, which opened in 1899. Important works held there include 19th-century rural Nelson landscapes by John Gully, a portrait of Huria Matenga by Gottfried Lindauer, and many of Toss Woollaston’s modernist landscapes.

The Nelson Provincial Museum has an extensive photographic collection dating from the 1860s. The Tyree Studio Collection includes over 100,000 images taken and collected by Nelson photographers the Tyree brothers.

School of Music

A Harmonic Society was active from the 1860s. In 1894 a School of Music was set up after the society advertised for a full-time conductor. The gifted young German string player Michael Balling took the job and stayed for three years. In 1901 a 360-seat auditorium was constructed, with funding from generous locals. In the 2010s the school taught students and the auditorium hosted about 70 concerts a year.

Once were Gatherings


Starting on 31 December 1996, a large outdoor dance party (alcohol-free but not drug-free), known as The Gathering, was held each New Year’s Eve on Tākaka hill (at an altitude of 600 metres), attracting thousands of revellers. After a cold, wet 1999/2000 party, the last two gatherings were held at a lower altitude in the Cobb River valley. The last party was on New Year’s Eve 2001/2.



Jim Henderson grew up on Tākaka hill and wrote many non-fiction books chronicling rural life. Gunner inglorious, about Henderson’s Second World War experience (in which he lost his left leg), is one of the few New Zealand publications to have sold over 100,000 copies.

Initially producing books of landscape photography and photographic calendars, Nelson photographer and publisher Craig Potton diversified into non-fiction and fiction in the 2000s.

Renowned novelist Maurice Gee returned to Nelson to live in 2006. He had lived there from 1977 to 1989 and set some of his novels in Nelson, which he fictionalised as ‘Saxton’.


Scientist Ernest Rutherford was born at Spring Grove, near Brightwater, in 1871, and went on to make outstanding contributions to atomic physics. Nelson’s Cawthron Institute is the largest non-government science research organisation in the country, set up in 1914 with a £240,000 ($39 million in 2020 terms) bequest from businessman and benefactor Thomas Cawthron. Much of the institute’s early work contributed to the success of horticulture in the region. More recently it has focused on aquaculture.

Sport and recreation

Early sport

Before cars and good roads, sports days in isolated parts of the region were local affairs held in paddocks. Horse racing was very popular in the late 19th century, with meetings at Murchison on Boxing Day and Tākaka on New Year’s Day.

Sporting fixtures were much easier to organise in the city. One of New Zealand’s first rugby games was played at Nelson on 14 May 1870 between the Nelson Rugby Football Club (the country’s first) and Nelson College. Each side had 18 players, and the game did not much resemble the modern version. For many years Nelson Bays was the region’s representative rugby team, playing in the second division of the National Provincial Championship.

Since 2006 the Tasman Makos have represented Nelson–Marlborough in the Mitre 10 Cup competition. After three losing appearances in the final, the Makos won the premiership for the first time in 2019. The Seddon Shield is a Ranfurly Shield–like trophy contested by the four northern South Island unions – West Coast, Buller, Nelson Bays and Marlborough.

Fishing and hunting

Nelson’s rivers and streams are ideal for trout, and the region offers some of the best brown trout fishing in the world, attracting many international anglers. Red deer were liberated in the region in 1860 and fallow deer in 1864. The search for huge stags in the Nelson backcountry and further south has been detailed in books such as Newton McConochie’s You’ll learn no harm from the hills (1966), Gordon Atkinson’s Red stags calling (1974), Charlie Shuttleworth’s In search of the wild red deer (1991) and Max Curtis’s Around the rivers bend (1991). Wild pigs supplied early gold miners, bushwhackers and settlers with meat, and hunting them is still popular.

Outdoor sport

Nelson’s forested mountains are a tramper’s paradise. The three national parks, plus the Richmond Range in the hills behind Nelson city, offer thousands of kilometres of tracks and around 100 huts. The Heaphy, Abel Tasman and Travers–Sabine tracks are the best-known. Mt Arthur and Mt Owen have the country’s deepest and most extensive cave systems. Sea kayaking, especially along the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, boomed in the the 1990s and 2000s, becoming a major tourism business.

Early skiers headed onto the Mt Arthur tablelands in the late 1920s, and in 1929 they tried out Mt Robert on the Travers Range. In 1944 a club was formed and the Mt Robert Hut built. Rope tows and accommodation huts were constructed over the following decade. However, the site’s low elevation and lack of consistent snow saw it abandoned in 2005. The focus of skiing shifted to the Rainbow skifield in the nearby St Arnaud Range.

Mountaineers are attracted to the higher peaks of Nelson Lakes National Park (Mt Travers and Mt Hopeless), and those to the south in the Spenser Mountains (Mt Una and Faerie Queene). None of these is especially challenging, except in winter. Rock climbing is popular on the limestone bluffs at Paynes Ford near Tākaka, and rapids on the Buller River near Murchison attract white-water kayakers.

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Nelson: 10,231 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km


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

Nelson city

  • Mean temperature, January: 17.8°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 7.2°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 960 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 2,472 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

  • Nelson: 87,516 (2006); 93,591 (2013)
  • New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013


  • Nelson: 91.2%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Nelson: 8.5%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Nelson: 1.4%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian incl Indian

  • Nelson: 3.2%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Nelson: 0.4%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes/sub-tribes

Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō, Ngāti Kuia, Ngāti Koata, Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Tama. Te Ati Awa

Population of major urban area, 2013

  • Nelson: 46,437

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Nelson: 19.4%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Nelson: 62.9%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Nelson: 17.7%
  • 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

  • Nelson: 13.4%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Finance and insurance

  • Nelson: 1.3%
  • New Zealand: 2.8%

Public administration

  • Nelson: 2.8%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Nelson: 3.2%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012


  • Nelson: 283,343
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Nelson: 71,956
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Nelson: 40,149
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Carl Walrond, 'Nelson region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Carl Walrond, i tāngia i te 7 o Hepetema 2010, updated 1 o Ākuhata 2015