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Wairarapa region

by  Ben Schrader

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


Wairarapa has a sense of space. If you arrive from Wellington by car, the zigzag road over the Remutaka Range offers glimpses of the plain below. At Featherston the hills part to reveal the land’s flatness and breadth. To the left are the blue-green peaks of the Tararua Range. To the right are the rolling grassy hills of the eastern uplands. Above is a vast sky.

Turning south, you pass muddy Lake Wairarapa on the way to Palliser Bay’s wild coastline. To the north along State Highway 2 are the towns of Greytown, Carterton and Masterton.

Approached from the north, Wairarapa is signalled by the swooping blades of the Tararua wind farm. At Woodville, State Highway 2 turns south, following a narrow plain to Eketāhuna. Here you can head to the eastern coast through the Waewaepa and Puketoi ranges or continue south to Mt Bruce, a remnant of native forest in the exotic grassland. Towards Masterton the vista opens to reveal the expansive spaces of southern Wairarapa.

Glistening water

On reaching the Remutaka Range summit from the west, the Māori explorer Haunui spied the lake below, and named it Wai Rarapa (‘glistening water’). At first the name referred only to the lake and its environs, but later it came to designate the whole region.


Rectangular in shape, Wairarapa is bordered by the sea to the south and east, and the Tararua Range to the west. Its northern edge is an imaginary line running from the Manawatū Gorge to Cape Turnagain.

The region is usually divided (around Mt Bruce) into northern and southern zones. The north is part of the territory served by Horizons (Manawatū–Wanganui) regional council. The south is served by the Greater Wellington regional council.

Beyond meat and butter

Wairarapa is one of New Zealand’s most rural regions. Only 71% of its people live in urban areas, compared to 85% nationally. Agriculture is the largest single industry and employer. Previous over-reliance on livestock farming exposed the region to a boom–bust trading cycle, and recently its economy has diversified. Once largely known for meat and butter, Wairarapa now produces quality wine and fine food. It is also promoted as a holiday and lifestyle destination.

Wairarapa people

Archaeological sites show that Māori first settled in Palliser Bay in the 14th century. Later, people from the Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu tribes established a strong presence in the region. From the 1840s European farmers joined them. Turning bush into pasture, they colonised the landscape, many growing rich off the sheep’s back (wool) and the cow’s udder (milk, butter and cheese).

Towns were established from the 1850s, attracting more people to the region. Relations between Māori and Pākehā were friendly – Wairarapa stayed out of the New Zealand wars – but as Pākehā prospered, Māori lost most of their land and wealth. After 1945 many Māori moved to towns and found jobs alongside Pākehā in rural processing and other industries.

Social problems

In the 1980s many jobs were lost through economic restructuring. This enlarged the urban underclass and made chronic social problems worse, with high rates of deprivation and abuse.

Since then, the rural communities have become wealthier than the urban ones, especially as affluent lifestylers have arrived from Wellington.

Boundaries and identity

Wairarapa is shaped like a rectangle, about 130 kilometres long (from Palliser Bay north to Woodville) and 65 kilometres wide (from the Tararua and Remutaka ranges east to the coast). The Ngāti Kahungunu tribe’s boundary for the region is similar, stretching from Pōrangahau to Turakirae. It is the southernmost of their three rohe (homelands) running down the eastern North Island from Wairoa. For the Rangitāne tribe, Wairarapa is part of a wider homeland that includes Manawatū and Horowhenua.

In the 19th century Wairarapa was administered by the Wellington provincial government, along with Hawke’s Bay. When Hawke’s Bay broke away in 1858, the province’s new northern border stretched from the Manawatū Gorge east to Cape Turnagain.

Regional identity

Wairarapa acquired a distinct identity after the Wairarapa and Bush rugby unions were formed in the 1880s and 1890s. They often combined to play touring teams. A sense of regional unity was reinforced by local newspapers, including the Wairarapa Daily Times and the Wairarapa Age. These merged in 1938 to form the Wairarapa Times-Age, the region’s sole surviving daily.

Ground-breaking Georgina

Wairarapa’s most famous politician is Georgina Beyer. Elected to the Carterton District Council in 1993, she was New Zealand’s first transgender councillor. Two years later the town made her the world’s first transgender mayor. She achieved another world first in 1999 when she became a member of Parliament.

However, regional identity was not as strong as in other areas, largely because Wairarapa has never had a capital city. Masterton quickly became the largest centre, but has never been big enough to dominate the region. People in southern Wairarapa think of Wellington as their ‘big smoke’, and those north of Eketāhuna look to Palmerston North.


The north–south divide was reinforced in 1989, when local authority boundaries changed. The new Tararua District Council covers northern Wairarapa and southern Hawke’s Bay. Central and southern Wairarapa was divided into three district councils: Masterton, Carterton and South Wairarapa.

In terms of national politics, when the proportional representation electoral system was introduced in 1996, the Wairarapa electorate expanded to include southern Hawke’s Bay.

Regional loyalties may eventually be realigned because of these changes, but for now Wairarapa’s (unofficial) northern border remains Manawatū Gorge to Cape Turnagain.

Land and climate

Wairarapa has three main landscapes: the western mountainous zone, the central lowlands and rivers, and the eastern uplands.

Western mountainous zone

The Remutaka and Tararua ranges are part of the North Island axial range and stretch from the south Wairarapa coast to the Manawatū Gorge. They are formed from blocks of greywacke and argillite rock. The landscape is geologically young, as shown by 1–2-million-year-old marine and alluvial deposits on the top and western slopes. The mountains are more than 1,500 metres high west of Masterton, falling to 400 metres near the Manawatū Gorge.

Central lowlands and rivers

The lowlands comprise three basins:

  • The Pahīatua basin extends north-east from Mt Bruce into southern Hawke’s Bay.
  • The Masterton basin reaches from Mt Bruce to Carterton.
  • The Wairarapa basin stretches from Carterton to Palliser Bay.

All were created over the last million years out of alluvial gravels carried by rivers from the Tararua Range. The rivers cut valleys and gorges to the basins, where they formed large fans, terraces and flood plains. The main rivers are the north-flowing Mangatainoka and Mangaone, and the south-flowing Ruamāhanga, Waingawa, Waiohine and Tauherenīkau. The Mangatainoka and Mangaone rivers flow into the Manawatū River. The others drain into Lake Wairarapa or Lake Ōnoke, on the edge of Palliser Bay.

Eastern uplands

Wairarapa’s eastern uplands – including the Waewaepa and Puketoi ranges – are made of uplifted sandstone, mudstone and limestone. The landscape has broad valleys and steep hill country, rising to 800 metres. Many slopes are unstable. Landslides are common after heavy rain, a problem made worse by deforestation and overstocking. To the south is the Aorangi Range, distinguished by its greywacke basement rock.


Wairarapa is prone to earthquakes. The coast is about 90 kilometres north-west of the Hikurangi Trough, where the Pacific tectonic plate meets the Australian plate. As the plates collide, the oceanic crusts concertina, splintering into blocks along the Wairarapa and associated fault lines. Some of these have tilted upward to form the Tararua Range and eastern uplands. Wairarapa has a large number of strike-slip faults – faults that move sideways rather than vertically.

1855 earthquake

New Zealand’s largest recorded earthquake occurred in 1855 along the Wairarapa fault. It had a magnitude of 8.2 and (unusually) ruptured the surface. Evidence in the landscape shows that the fault moved as much as 6.4 metres vertically and 18 metres horizontally. It was the greatest deformation and rupture of land that geologists had ever known.

When the earth moved

In June 1942, a young Tīnui soldier was on leave from Carterton camp and taking a bath at his grandmother’s house. When the first quake struck the water began sloshing violently. His first impulse was to take cover under a door frame, but he feared exposing himself to his grandmother, so clung on in the bath. Back at camp, he was woken by his bed shaking, and thought his mates were playing a joke – but it was another quake.

1942 earthquakes

In 1942 a chain of earthquakes hit Wairarapa. The first jolt was on the morning of 24 June, followed by a 7.2 magnitude tremor that evening. Centred near Masterton, the earthquake triggered landslides, damaged buildings, and toppled chimneys as far away as Wellington. An estimated 4,700 Wairarapa chimneys came down. In early August the earth moved again, demolishing many rebuilt chimneys. Some fell again in a final shake in mid-December.


Partially sheltered by the Tararua Range, Wairarapa has a dry, warm climate. It receives between 800 and 1,200 millimetres of rain each year, with western areas wetter than the east. Masterton’s annual sunshine hours average just under 2,000.

Summer weather is warm, dry and mostly settled. Typical maximum daytime temperatures range between 20 and 28°C, sometimes rising above 30°C. Winters are cool to mild, but frosts are common. Maximum winter temperatures are usually between 10 and 15°C.

Strong north-west föhn winds can occur in spring and summer. These gather strength as they come down the Tararua Range, and can reach 170 kilometres per hour at Castlepoint. Wairarapa is exposed to heavy rain from the south and east, which can cause flooding.

Plants and animals


Before humans arrived, Wairarapa was largely covered in conifer–broadleaf and beech forest. By the time Europeans came, burnoff by Māori and natural fires had left large areas of grass, fern and scrubland in the south and east. The Tararua Range and the north were still heavily forested. As farming began, most of the lowlands and eastern uplands were cleared of native grasses and resown in exotic varieties, or given over to horticulture.

The Tararua Range was largely unaffected, and became New Zealand’s first Forest Park (conservation area) in 1954. On the Wairarapa side, there are three main types of vegetation: alpine tussock and scrub, subalpine silver beech forest, and lowland conifer–broadleaf forest.

Wall of flames

Many birds fell victim to the bush-clearing fires:

‘Nor did the birds escape … in the newly felled areas, wekas abounded and loved to hunt among the logs and stumps, some pukekos and ducks were always to be found in the creeks and swampy places while fantails, parakeets, warblers, tomtits and owls all wandered in. As the bush was ring fired around its outer edges, all these unfortunates were trapped inside a complete and mounting wall of smoke and flames too high for them to surmount … few escaped.’ 1

Clearing the Forty Mile Bush

The Forty Mile Bush extended from Kopuaranga to Woodville (it was the southern part of the Seventy Mile Bush, which reached Norsewood). It was a conifer–broadleaf forest in which the largest trees were tōtara, rimu, rātā and mataī, growing through an understorey of tawa, hīnau, makomako, kōnini, poroporo, kōwhai and lancewood. From the early 1870s the forest was cleared by government-assisted Scandinavian immigrants (and others), who then settled on the land.

The bush was cleared in a two-step process. The undergrowth was felled in winter and left to dry. Next winter it was set ablaze, engulfing the whole forest. The smoke could be a kilometre across and billow up to 6,000 metres high. Grass seed was sown on the cooling ashes.


Old man’s beard, the tree-smothering clematis, is established across the district. Gorse, blackberry and broom can be a nuisance for farmers, but provide shelter for regenerating native species. Crack willow has infested some waterways. Coastal sandhills were once covered with pīngao (native sedge), but this has mostly been stifled by marram grass. The native Castlepoint daisy (Brachyglottis compactus) is also threatened.

Birds and wildlife

Birds and other wildlife live in three main zones:


The Tararua Range is home to many native birds, including bellbird, tūī, kākāriki, fantail, morepork and kererū. The long- and short-tailed bat, tree wētā, skinks, geckos and Wainuia snail also live there.


These are now mostly farmland, dominated by sheep and cattle. Important habitats exist around Lake Wairarapa for ducks, shags, gulls and terns. Birds found there include the grey teal, pūkeko and black stilt.

Coastal areas

With no harbours and few tidal inlets, the coastal zone is largely a narrow strip beside farmland. The red-billed gull, black shag and banded dotterel all have habitats, and the native katipō spider can be found on some eastern beaches. After being over-hunted by Palliser Bay Māori, fur seals have re-established a breeding colony at Cape Palliser.

Rediscovered bat

In 2000, short-tailed bats were caught and photographed for the first time in the Waiohine valley, west of Carterton. The bats, which are eaten by rats and stoats, were thought to be extinct in the Tararua Range. Little is known about them, except that they feed on the ground and change roost sites regularly to evade predators. Their presence suggests that the forest is in good health.


Stoats, cats and rats were partly responsible for the huia’s extinction in the early 1900s. They continue to threaten native species. Rabbits are another pest, reducing stock ratios and exposing soils to erosion. In the 1880s one farmer reported seeing a hillside of rabbits ‘moving slowly like a vast blanket’. 2 More recently, possums, goats and deer have severely depleted forests in the Aorangi Range. Clearing, culling and poisoning have contained pests and weeds, but none have been eradicated.

    • Quoted in C. J. Carle, Forty Mile Bush: a tribute to the pioneers. Pahīatua: North Wairarapa News, 1980, pp. 24–25. › Back
    • ‘A blanket of rabbits,’ Dominion, 25 October 1927, p. 17. › Back

Māori settlement

First arrivals

Archaeologists believe Māori settled in Palliser Bay in the late 1300s. They lived on small birds, fish, seals and kūmara (sweet potato). There is evidence that about 300 people lived in six separate communities on the eastern side of the bay. By the 1600s these settlements had gone. A rising population and falling food supplies – caused by over-hunting, a cooling climate, and lower soil fertility – may have led to the exodus. Some communities may have resettled in the fertile Ruamāhanga valley.

Quick work

A tradition tells that the early Polynesian explorers Kupe and Ngake camped by the Mangatoetoe Stream. The two argued over who could make a sail first. Kupe finished his by midnight; Ngake took until dawn. Ngā-Rā-o-Kupe (Kupe's Sails) can be seen in the form of a triangular rock face above the stream. This large sandstone slab, originally deposited on the sea floor about 15 million years ago, is 2 kilometres east of Ngāwī.

Māori migrations

The Rangitāne, Ngāti Ira and Ngāti Kahungunu tribes settled in Wairarapa. Rangitāne migrated south from Heretaunga (around Hastings) to occupy Tāmakinui-a-Rua (Dannevirke) and Wairarapa.

Ngāti Ira left Tolaga Bay when their leader Te Whakaumu decided to join Wairarapa relatives. Te Whakaumu married Hineiputerangi, the daughter of the Rangitāne leader Te Whakamana, and settled in Palliser Bay. Their descendants later moved to Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington).

Ngāti Kahungunu arrived after their leader Rakaiwerohia died in battle. Fearing further losses, his son Te Rangitāwhanga led the tribe from Heretaunga to join relatives living at Lake Ōnoke. Wanting to settle, they offered the Rangitāne leader Te Rerewa some patu and mere (clubs) and garments in exchange for land. He replied, ‘I will not part with my home for your cloaks, but I should do so for the bowl [canoes] of your ancestors.’ 1 A swap took place, and Te Rerewa moved to the South Island with some of his people. These events roughly coincided with the depopulation of Palliser Bay in the 1600s.

Peace and war

Rangitāne and Ngāti Kahungunu lived in relative peace, intermarrying extensively. In 1821 a Ngāti Whātua and Ngāti Maniapoto war party entered Wairarapa, killing those who opposed them. Further invasions by Taranaki tribes followed. Ngāti Tama settled on the western shore of Lake Wairarapa and built a , Te Tarata, with Ngāti Kahungunu’s help. The alliance was short-lived. Hearing Ngāti Tama planned an attack, Ngāti Kahungunu struck first. In revenge, Ngāti Tama and their Taranaki allies breached Pehikatea pā, forcing some Kahungunu people to retreat to Māhia Peninsula.

Meanwhile, Rangitāne remained around present-day Pahīatua and Woodville, moving into the forest during enemy raids.

In the 1830s the Ngāti Kahungunu leader Nuku-pewapewa attacked the Te Āti Awa people at Tauwharerata (near Featherston). Their leader Te Wharepōuri escaped, but his daughter Te Kahape was captured. In exchange for her return, Nuku-pewapewa insisted that all Ngāti Kahungunu’s lands be restored. Te Wharepōuri and his allies agreed.

By this time Europeans had begun exploring Wairarapa with a view to settling there.

    • Quoted in Roberta McIntyre, The canoes of Kupe: a history of Martinborough district. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002, pp. 21–22. › Back

European settlement


The British explorer James Cook sailed along Wairarapa’s coast in February 1770, naming the large bay on the southern coast after his friend and patron Sir Hugh Palliser. The first European to enter Wairarapa was William Deans, who walked along the coast from Wellington to Palliser Bay with a Māori guide in 1840. Deans thought the land ideal for pastoralism, and considered squatting there until he was drawn to greener pastures in Canterbury.

Sheep in the surf

The first flock of sheep in Wairarapa was driven around the coast from Wellington to Palliser Bay by Charles Bidwill in 1844. At the Mukamuka rocks, every sheep had to be carried through the surf to the other side. Many sheep in later drives drowned, until the 1855 earthquake raised the land and created a beach.

In 1841, a New Zealand Company party from Petone led by Robert Stokes sought an inland route to the Wairarapa. After negotiating the Hutt and Pākuratahi valleys, Stokes scaled the Remutaka range and saw Lake Wairarapa in the distance: ‘An immense plain lay at our feet stretching to a distance of between thirty and forty miles from the head of the Lake.’ 1 Stokes returned to Wellington and confirmed the region’s potential for farming.

Colonising the land

In 1844, five Wellington entrepreneurs arranged pastoral leases with Wairarapa hapū at £12 per year. Others soon followed. The runholders’ relations with their landlords were cordial. Māori sought Pākehā neighbours because it gave them mana (status), trading opportunities and protection from enemies. Pākehā depended on Māori for food, labour and transport.

As more colonists settled in the region, the value of leases increased. Runholders, worried that high rents would make Māori unwilling to sell their land, lobbied the government to buy and then freehold Māori land. The government agreed, negotiating land sales through a carrot-and-stick approach. It promised to set aside Māori reserves and provide schools and hospitals, while threatening to relocate runholders if owners refused to sell. The first purchase was made in 1853.

Money on the table

Some Māori did well out of land sales, as the Dominion newspaper reported in 1927:

[Mr L. Nix of Masterton] recalls an early incident … at the time the Taratahi block was sold by the Maoris, and for which Wi Kingi [Tu-tepakihi-rangi], the chief of the tribe, was paid in banknotes. After the transaction, he and a number of other Maoris came to Mr. Nix’s home to have dinner. Mr. Nix’s mother was laying the tablecloth. “I show you the table-cloth,” and producing his notes, laid them on the table so that not an inch was left uncovered. He was very proud of it. And off this kingly covering the company dined. 2

The Small Farms Association

Concerned that large runholders were stopping working people from accessing Wairarapa farmland, Joseph Masters formed the Small Farms Association in 1853. Masters lobbied for a 100-acre town on the Wairarapa plain whose citizens would each own a one-acre town section and a 40-acre dairy farm. By the end of the year, the government had approved two settlements. The association would buy and sell the town sections; farms would be bought directly from the Crown.

The first town, Greytown, was sited on the recently purchased Tauherenīkau Block. After negotiations with Ngāti Hamua leader Te Retimana Te Korou, land beside the Waipoua River was bought for the second town, Masterton. The first settlers arrived in both towns in 1854. When the association was dissolved in the early 1870s, the unsold town sections were put into land trusts to benefit each community.

Bush settlements

In 1871 the government recruited Scandinavian and other settlers to build roads and railways in the heavily forested northern Wairarapa (Forty Mile Bush). In exchange for work, each male immigrant would be given 40 acres of farmland.

Land was bought from the Rangitāne iwi and the first settlers arrived at Kopuaranga in April 1872. Farms were allocated around the new towns of Mauriceville and Mellemskov (Eketāhuna). Much of this land was swampy and densely forested, and clearing the bush and sowing pasture was back-breaking work. Most of these farmers ran dairy cattle.

Blood and sweat

The Scandinavians who cleared the Forty Mile Bush were admired for their strong work ethic. One visitor to Mellemskov (Eketāhuna) noted that residents lit fires so they could work on into the night. ‘They take their dinner standing up and in a quarter [of] an hour are at work again’. The Norwegians and Swedes were skilled at clearing forests, but the Danes were not. ‘Some could be seen working doggedly on with hands wrapped in blood-stained bandages.’ 3

Land loss

There was no fighting in Wairarapa during the New Zealand Wars. This was largely due to the strong ties between Pākehā and Māori communities. Even so, some Wairarapa Māori fought alongside Taranaki kinfolk, selling land to buy arms. Many supported Māori sovereignty and the Kīngitanga (Māori king) movement. By the end of the wars, most Māori land in Wairarapa had been sold and few Māori had the resources to buy any of it back. Unable to return to their traditional lands and way of life, many Māori found work on settler farms.

    • Quoted in John Pascoe, Exploration New Zealand. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1971, p. 39. › Back
    • Quoted in ‘Dining off banknotes.’ Dominion, 25 Oct 1927, p. 17. › Back
    • A. G. Bagnall, Wairarapa: an historical excursion. Masterton: Hedley’s, 1976, pp. 262 and 264. › Back

A farming economy

Wairarapa's economy is dominated by pastoral farming. The industry is dominated by sheep and beef cattle, and dairying. In 2012 the region, including all of the Tararua district, had 10% of New Zealand’s sheep (3.1 million) and 3.6% of its dairy cattle (232,400). Deer, goats and pigs are also farmed.

Sheep and beef cattle

In 1844 Wairarapa’s extensive grasslands spurred several Wellington entrepreneurs to try farming. By 1851 there were 20,000 sheep and 2,000 cattle in the region. From 1853 the government bought Māori land, much of which ended up in the hands of large runholders.

Runholders faced many challenges. Merinos were the first sheep in the area, but were prone to foot rot. Romneys were better suited to the region. Scab – a skin-burrowing mite that causes wool to fall off, leaving a greenish scab – was a major problem until the runs were fenced and stock regularly dipped. Rabbits were introduced for sport, but reached plague-like proportions in the 1880s, damaging pasture and reducing stock ratios.

In the 20th century, livestock numbers grew as more land was brought into pasture and new technology increased production. This included aerial topdressing with phosphate and lime, which improved grass growth.

Since 1990 a drop in demand has curbed production. Sheep and beef cattle numbers have fallen and the sector has responded by becoming more efficient and increasing lambing percentages.

Tragedy at Ngakonui

In the 1860s four brothers – Peter, Robert, James, and Donald McLaren – settled in Wairarapa, buying the 15,000-acre farm Ngakonui. Tragedy soon struck. Robert was charged by a horned merino ram and died from his injuries. Donald was killed when he fell from his horse, and James bled to death after a dog triggered his muzzle-loader. Peter survived, married Sarah Morrison, and had five children. His descendants still farm parts of Ngakonui.

Golden Shears

Every March Masterton hosts the Golden Shears competition, promoted as the world’s premier shearing and wool-handling championship. The first event in 1961 was an immediate success. Contestants compete to shear a set number of sheep in the shortest time, with the least faults. Over the years organisers have introduced new contests – wool processing, wool handling, Miss Golden Shears (a beauty pageant, later discontinued) and a Shearable Arts (fashion) show.


Dairying began in the 19th century with the Small Farms Association and bush settlements. These set up budding farmers on small blocks of forested land, mainly in the west. Once grass had replaced trees, farmers ran herds of 20–25 cows.

Growth was held back by the sector’s small scale and a lack of entrepreneurialism. Attempts in the 1880s to start up cheese factories were hindered by farmers’ inability to guarantee milk supply. In the early 1900s farmers established cooperative dairy factories, the butter and cheese from which found ready markets. When milk tankers were introduced from the 1930s, the industry was rationalised and many factories closed. In 2019 only the Pahīatua factory remained open.

Since the 1960s the trend has been towards fewer farms, larger herds and higher production. In 1965 the average farm size was 70 hectares, on which 83 cows each produced 126 kilograms of milk fat. By 2013/14, these numbers were 132, 366 and 206 respectively. Total cattle numbers grew, with some sheep and beef farmers switching to dairying to benefit from rising prices.

Show business

At the 2001 Wairarapa A & P show, Dale Collie revealed she had ‘never missed a show in my entire life’. When she was growing up, children were given the day off school to attend. ‘My mother had four daughters and we all had a new dress for the show. She made them all. My father exhibited Friesian cattle … We always brought cows to the show. I’ve grown up with it.’ 1

A & P shows

The Wairarapa’s first A & P (agricultural and pastoral) show, displaying exhibits from the farming industry, was held in Masterton in 1871. In 1877, the Wairarapa and East Coast Pastoral and Agricultural Association was set up to run a more permanent event. They found a venue in Carterton in 1878, but in 1885 split into southern and northern factions. The northerners formed the Masterton Agricultural and Pastoral Association and established their own event, now based at Masterton’s Solway showgrounds. The southerners stayed in Carterton.

    • Quoted in Lynne Haigh, ‘Early Carterton shows recalled.’ Wairarapa Times-Age, 27 Oct 2001. › Back

Forestry, fishing and horticulture

While pastoral farming is the Wairarapa’s main industry, forestry, fishing and horticulture are important and growing players in the economy.


Wairarapa (including the whole Tararua district) had around 67,900 hectares planted in exotic forest in 2014. The first major forest was planted by the state at Ngaumu in the 1940s to stabilise hill slopes, use marginal land, and supply building timber. From the 1960s many farmers planted forests. Institutional investment doubled plantings in the 1990s. Most trees are radiata pine, milled after 30 years.

In 1990 the government sold the Ngaumu cutting rights to the Japanese company Juken Nissho, which opened a mill and laminated-veneer plant at Waingawa. It is Wairarapa’s largest manufacturer, employing about 300 workers and processing up to 30,000 cubic metres of wood each year.


Fish was a major source of protein for Wairarapa Māori, who fished inshore and managed a large eel fishery in Lake Ōnoke. In the 1840s John Wade established a short-lived whaling station at Te Kopi in Palliser Bay. Since then the lack of a sheltered port has limited the size of the industry. Boats are launched from beaches, mainly at Castlepoint and Ngāwī. The most important commercial fisheries are crayfish and pāua. These species have high market returns, which sometimes leads to problems with poaching.


Horticulture and arable farming make up 5% of Wairarapa’s economy and use 2% of its land area. After mixed cropping (mainly barley and peas), grape-growing for wine dominates the sector.

Fruit and vegetables

In the early 1900s, Greytown’s rich alluvial soils attracted orchardists. Among them was James Kidd, who bred new apple varieties, including Gala and Kidd’s Orange Red. A berryfruit and vegetable-growing industry followed and Greytown soon became Wairarapa’s ‘fruit bowl’. Its heyday was the 1950s and 1960s, when there were strong domestic and international markets. Because of rising costs and poor organisation, this growth was not maintained. Between 1994 and 2004 the number of pip-fruit growers shrank from 35 to 10. The industry’s future is uncertain.


Olive growing began in 1991 with a grove of 60 trees in Martinborough. The industry now reaches as far as Masterton and has 70,000 trees. Boutique enterprises produce high-quality oil, mainly for the domestic market. The growers produced about 12% of New Zealand’s olive oil in 2014.


Wairarapa is New Zealand’s sixth-largest winemaking region, focusing on premium wines. In 1996 the region had 174 hectares in grapes. By 2013 the area was 972 hectares – 3% of the national total.

Sweet music

One of Martinborough’s most colourful early winemakers was the snowy-bearded Stan Chifney. He and his wife Rosemary arrived in 1980 after a career making vaccines in the Middle East and Nigeria. Their first vintage was in 1984, and their red wines helped establish Martinborough as a premium winemaking district. An accomplished musician and shameless romantic, Stan often played the violin to his grapes.

Wine grapes were first grown in the 1880s by Masterton pastoralist William Beetham, who made wine and encouraged others to have a go. Prohibitionists crushed the fledgling industry by voting the district dry in 1908. It stayed that way until 1946.

In the late 1970s a few wine enthusiasts bought land in Martinborough and planted vineyards. The gravel soils and warm climate were ideal for growing grapes, and the district is now renowned for its pinot noir.

The early winemakers’ success attracted others. By 2014 the region had almost 40 wineries. Several were north of Martinborough, at Gladstone and Ōpaki. 

Diversifying the economy

Pastoral farming has dominated the economy since the 1840s. It still accounted for 20% of the Wairarapa workforce in the 2010s.

Boom and bust

Reliance on farming has been a mixed blessing. Towns serviced the pastoral economy with saleyards, slaughterhouses, and transport depots. Few had industries independent of agriculture, and Wairarapa’s fortunes relied on farming. When returns rose, it boomed; when they fell, it slumped.

In the 19th century, large farms employed many workers. But as agriculture became more mechanised, many people looked for work in towns, such as at Masterton’s Waingawa freezing works. Twentieth-century improvements in roading and transport made it more profitable to centralise rural industries. While Masterton grew, Eketāhuna shrank.


Even Masterton did not grow enough to attract substantial new investment. With reduced prospects, thousands of young people left the region, never to return. Between 1951 and 2001, New Zealand’s population doubled, but Wairarapa’s increased by just 25%. Since the 1980s the region has lost more people than it has gained.

Trust House

An unusual player in Wairarapa’s economy is Trust House. This is mainly owned by the Masterton Licensing Trust, formed in 1947 to control the local liquor trade. It owns the ‘Liquor Plus!’ liquor chain, hotels, eateries and supermarkets. Having bought the region’s stock of state houses in the 1990s, it is also the main provider of social housing. Profits go to community groups.

Boosting the economy

In the 1970s the government tried to halt Wairarapa’s decline through regional development policies. In 1976 it built a (now privatised) government printing office in Masterton, employing some 600. A new tobacco factory also opened. However, the boost from these ventures was short-lived. When trade barriers were lifted in the 1980s, several textile and other manufacturers failed. A further 700 people lost their jobs in 1989 when the Waingawa freezing works closed.

Despite these setbacks, the region’s economy continued to diversify. The agricultural base was broadened into viticulture and forestry. In the 1980s Martinborough became the centre of a thriving wine industry, and in 1992 a Japanese investor opened a large wood-processing plant near Masterton. Sales and service industries employ a growing proportion of workers.


Many professional couples are escaping to a new life in the country. Typically they buy several hectares of farmland and build a new house. Some might run a few sheep or goats and keep working part-time. Others start up cottage industries, such as cheesemaking, or plant vineyards or olive groves. Many work harder than before, but find the lifestyle rewarding.


Tourism is also a growth area. Under the banner ‘New Zealand’s Capital Country’, the region has pitched itself at visitors from Wellington who want a country experience with city comforts. Cafés, restaurants, hotels, homestays, craft and antique shops have mushroomed. Regional festivals, fairs, and race meetings attract thousands. Lifestyle blocks and weekend holiday homes are now more common, and are keenly sought by Wellingtonians.

    • Tanya Katterns, ‘Baby breeders wanted for Wairarapa growth,’ Dominion Post, 28 July 2005, p. A5. › Back


Landed gentry

In the 19th century, farming made many runholders very rich. Wairarapa families such as the Riddifords, Pharazyns and Martins became substantial landowners and managed large workforces. They had a paternalistic relationship with their staff, providing shelter, board and a wage in exchange for labour. As their wealth increased, the families copied the customs of the British upper class, sending their children ‘home’ to be schooled in England, and holding garden parties and similar events. Some runholders became unofficial squires of their communities and had considerable power. John Martin even founded his own town (Martinborough).

From grey to pink

Greytown has attracted a vibrant gay community, and in the 2010s it was colloquially known as Gaytown. In a newspaper report, retailer Annabel Cowdery said the pink dollar (money spent by gay people) had benefited the town: ‘We have lots of gay visitors shopping and going to restaurants.’ But Chris Jackson thought the name was derogatory and exclusive. ‘When people call it Gaytown I think, “hello, gay men aren’t the only people in the world”.‘ 1

Class divisions

Nineteenth-century Wairarapa was a two-class society, with a small landed élite and a large working class. This changed in the 20th century as dairy farmers and professionals increased the power and influence of the middle class. Still, aspects of the old social structure remain. Some of the early runholding families – including the Riddifords and Martins – still have major landholdings and influence. While schooling in England is now rare, English-style private schools (such as Rathkeale College) have taken its place.

The working class makes up a smaller proportion of the population, but remains an important group. Some are Māori who moved to towns to find work. Prejudice meant that most ended up in low-skilled or irregular employment. They often experienced greater poverty, health and social problems than non-Māori.

Social institutions


Small district hospitals in Greytown and Pahīatua closed in the 1990s. Wairarapa’s only public hospital is in Masterton. Set in the hospital grounds is the Selina Sutherland Hospital, a private surgical hospital built in 1996. Selina Sutherland was a nurse who founded Masterton Hospital in 1879.


Wairarapa’s first school was set up in Greytown in 1856. When primary education was made compulsory in 1877, state education expanded and many new schools opened. As rolls declined in recent years, some closed and others merged.

Secondary schools

In 1896 a technical school was established in Masterton. In 1902 the Masterton Primary School was converted to a district high school (serving both primary and secondary students). The secondary component was removed when a separate high school opened in 1923. In 1938 the technical and high schools merged to become Wairarapa College.

Since then, other schools have opened, including Kuranui College (Greytown), Makoura College (Masterton), and Tararua College (Pahīatua). Masterton also has four integrated private schools.

Tertiary education

The Wairarapa campus of the regional polytechnic UCOL, in Masterton, offers courses ranging from business to nursing. The Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre outside Masterton had 250 staff and 2850 students in 2018.


Christianity is the main religion in Wairarapa, although there are also members of other faiths. Until the 1970s churches were an important part of community life and were well attended. As society has become more secular, their influence has waned. Some churches have fallen into disuse or been sold.

Tribal authorities

Rangitaane o Wairarapa was set up in 1989 to improve the lot of Wairarapa Māori (who make up 16.4% of the population) through advocacy and health and social services. Its success led to greater cooperation between the Rangitāne people and the region’s other main tribe, Ngāti Kahungunu. In 2006 Ngāti Kahungunu established a federation of hapū (sub-tribes) for Wairarapa.

In the 1990s the two tribes made a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal over the loss of their land and resources. The tribunal heard the inquiry in 2004–5, and reported back in 2010. The Rangitāne claim was settled in 2016, with financial redress of $32.5 million. The Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa claim was settled in 2018, with commercial and financial redress of $93 million.

    • ‘Gay time in the provinces’, Herald on Sunday, 26 March 2006. › Back

A divided region

Population divide

Census data show a geographical and rural–urban divide in Wairarapa. After a long period of decline, the region’s population stabilised in the early 2000s, then grew by 5% between 2006 and 2013. The population had grown in the south, but continued to decline in the north. Carterton, South Wairarapa and Masterton districts grew by 15%, 7% and 3% respectively in this period. Northern Wairarapa declined by 4%.

The fall is probably the result of rationalisation in the farming sector. The rise is largely due to growth in lifestyle blocks, viticulture and timber processing.

Rural–urban divide

The rural–urban divide is more complex. In 2013, 29% of the region’s population was rural (double the national proportion of 14%). Farming and fishing were the main rural occupations. In the towns, service and sales workers predominated. Compared to town dwellers, rural people were younger, better educated, and had higher incomes and lower unemployment. They were more likely to be non-Māori, and to live in two-parent families with children.

Children at risk

Statistics in 2004 showed that Wairarapa children were twice as likely to be hospitalised for accidental burns and poisoning as other New Zealand children. Teenage pregnancy rates were higher than elsewhere, and 15- to 24-year-olds were dying in car accidents at a rate 40% above the national average. 

This contrast is due to a number of factors. Since the 1840s Wairarapa’s wealth has been made on the land. Towns have provided rural workers in economic good times and taken them back in bad. For low-income earners, single-parent families, and beneficiaries, life is often easier in towns, where support and social services are within reach. Retired people from the country also often move into town.

Conversely, farmers have long been high earners, and lifestylers also tend to have higher incomes and education levels.

A ‘dark underbelly’

Wairarapa’s social divide was highlighted in the 1990s and early 2000s when the towns experienced a series of murders, often of children. These revealed deep social problems within its urban underclass.

In response to this violence, Wairarapa MP Georgina Beyer spoke of a ‘dark underbelly’ of abuse in the region. Families were growing up accustomed to violence and mistreatment that was often inflamed by drug and alcohol abuse. Edwin Perry, a spokesperson for Ngāti Kahungunu, thought problems among Māori stemmed from urbanisation and the breakdown of whānau (family) support.

Working against violence

In the early 2000s, Masterton mayor Bob Francis launched the Violence Free Wairarapa campaign. A task force was set up to help co-ordinate social agencies working with at-risk families. Ten years later, the number of family violence incidents being reported in Wairarapa was declining, despite a national trend in the opposite direction



Wairarapa has no natural harbours, so access was tricky at first. While Māori had a system of tracks and waka (canoe) landing sites, Europeans walked round the coast from Wellington or were ferried from boat to beach, as at Castlepoint.

Roads connected the coastal settlements to inland towns. The 1856 completion of a road over the Remutaka Range improved access to and from Wellington. As settlement pushed north, tracks became roads and rivers were bridged. In the 20th century travel times were reduced as roads were upgraded and new ones built.

There are three state highways in the region. State Highway 2 runs along the western side from Featherston to Woodville. Highway 52 runs north-east from Masterton to Pōrangahau, while Highway 53 links Featherston to Martinborough. Major roads are sealed, but many minor roads – especially in the eastern uplands – are metalled (gravel). Slips can close roads for days or even weeks.


In the early 1870s a route was chosen over the Remutaka Range for a railway from Wellington to Wairarapa. The Wellington side had a moderate grade up the Pakuratahi valley, but the Wairarapa side was too steep for anything but Fell engines. The line opened in 1878. The only major accident occurred two years later, when high winds swept three carriages off the line and over a bank. Three passengers were killed, and another died three weeks later from injuries.

The railway reached Masterton in 1880 and Eketāhuna in 1889. In 1897 it reached Woodville and joined the Napier–Palmerston North line. The railway helped to populate the region by improving access, not least to the vital Wellington market. Passenger trains now travel only between Wellington and Masterton.

The last Fell engine

The Fell System was invented by John Fell in 1863 to drive trains over the Mont Cenis Pass between France and Italy. It had a central (third) rail, gripped by horizontal wheels under the engine, which pulled the train uphill. The Wairarapa line’s first Fell engine was called Mont Cenis, but was later known as H199. When the line closed in 1955, the engines were scrapped, except for H199. It was moved to a Featherston playground, to be clambered over by several generations of children. In 1980 a group was formed to restore and house H199, which now sits in its own museum in Featherston.

Remutaka tunnel

Access improved further when the 8.8 kilometre Remutaka rail tunnel was completed in 1955. It was the first in New Zealand to be bored by the ‘full-face’ method, in which the tunnel is driven to its full size from the start, rather than dug out in halves. Construction began in 1951 and proceeded smoothly until an explosion triggered a cave-in which killed one worker and trapped 33 others for two days. Two others died in later explosions.

The tunnel cut the travel time between Upper Hutt and Featherston from three hours to 45 minutes, making it practicable to travel from Wairarapa to Wellington for work. Many commuters are former Wellingtonians attracted by cheaper housing, a better climate and a slower pace of life.

Air travel

From 2009 to 2014, there were commercial flights between Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome. and Auckland  Since then the nearest passenger airports have been Palmerston North and Wellington. Small planes and helicopters offer charter services from Hood Aerodrome.

Arts and heritage

Many Wairarapa towns have small history museums, and antique and craft shops. Museums include the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston, the Museum of Childhood in Masterton and the Eketahuna/Mellemskov Museum (which boasts a Matchbox toy collection).


Aratoi: the Wairarapa Museum of Art and History opened in Masterton in 2002. The complex, which has won architectural awards, incorporates the former Wesley Church as a gallery space. Aratoi grew out of the Wairarapa Arts Centre, and collects art and objects relating to the region’s history. It acts as kaitiaki (guardian) to a growing collection of taonga (Māori treasures), including several cloaks. In 2006 it became home to an important private art collection – the Rutherford Trust Collection, built up by the Department of Electricity. This includes paintings by Colin McCahon, Toss Woollaston, Ralph Hōtere and other nationally prominent artists.

But is it art?

Ratepayer funding of the Aratoi museum was contentious. Pat White, a local artist, argued that Aratoi’s value ‘was priceless’ and could not be judged ‘in accountants’ columns’. Rod McKenzie, a dairy farmer, had once visited the Wairarapa Arts Centre ‘and saw an old railway sleeper with a bit of wire on it. I thought it was going to trip someone up so I went to pull it out when someone told me it was a display’. He thought ratepayers’ money would be better spent on regional sport. 1

Wairarapa Archive

The archive, part of the Masterton library, is a storehouse for many of the region’s important documents and archives. It also publishes books on local history.

Artists and writers

The region has been home to a number of nationally important artists, including printmaker Gary Tricker, potter Jim Greig, textile artist and painter Rhondda Greig, and sculptor Sean Crawford.

Novelist and autobiographer Sylvia Ashton-Warner was educated in Wairarapa, and fiction writer Nigel Cox was born in Pahīatua and spent part of his childhood in Masterton. His 2004 novel Tarzan Presley was set in Wairarapa.


Awareness of Wairarapa’s cultural heritage has increased in recent decades. Archaeologists have found some 250 sites relating to early Māori settlement, including rectangular storage pits near Tūranganui Stream at Pirinoa. More recent historic Māori sites include Pāpāwai Marae, outside Greytown, and the ornate Nukutaimemeha meeting house in Masterton.

Important Pākehā buildings include the Anzac and Kiwi halls in Featherston (built to serve soldiers training at nearby Featherston Military Camp during the First World War) and the Tui brewery tower at Mangatainoka.


Wairarapa’s mixed economic fortunes after 1945 ensured many historic buildings survived. Because Greytown’s sluggish growth discouraged rebuilding, the town boasts New Zealand’s most complete colonial wooden main street. Greater prosperity in nearby Carterton led to a main street makeover. Ironically, by 1990 Greytown’s lack of change had raised its heritage value, encouraging gentrification and new growth. Martinborough and Featherston followed suit. 

    • Quoted in ‘Fitting art and history into society.’ Wairarapa Times-Age, 14 July 2001. › Back

Leisure and sport

The Wairarapa hosts many sporting and leisure activities, from athletics to wrestling. Popular leisure events include Summer Hummer (an outdoor music concert in February) and the Martinborough Fair in February and March. At a national level, Wairarapa is best known for rugby, race meetings and back-country recreation.


Wairarapa’s first club rugby game was played at Greytown between Carterton and Greytown in 1879. Greytown won. The Wairarapa Rugby Union was formed in 1886. In 1893 a separate union was formed in the north of the region and named Bush, after the Forty Mile Bush.

Sometimes the unions combined to play visiting teams. In 1971 they amalgamated as Wairarapa–Bush, and became a formidable force. In the 1980s Wairarapa–Bush had a six-year stint in the first division of the National Provincial Championship, before sliding into the third division. The side won the third division title in 2005 and the Meads Cup in the new Heartland championship in 2006.

The Union’s most famous player is Sir Brian Lochore, who made his All Black debut in 1963 and played 25 tests for New Zealand, 18 as captain. In 1983 he was appointed an All Blacks selector, and he was the national coach from 1985 to 1987, a tenure capped by victory in the first Rugby World Cup competition. Lochore then became an administrator. In 2007 his contribution to sport was recognised when he was appointed to the Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest honour.

Horses and hāngī 

The Kotahitanga Māori Racing Club was established at Akura by Ngāti Kahungunu and Rangitāne leader Hoani Parāone Tūnuiārangi and others in 1893. Both Māori and Pākehā entered horses. Māori horses represented the hapū (sub-tribe), increasing the competitive edge. Meetings were usually followed by a hāngī (meal cooked in an earth oven).


The region is celebrated for annual race meetings at Castlepoint and Tauherenīkau. Conditions permitting, the Castlepoint races are held in March, and are run along the sandy beach. The races began in 1872, but did not become an annual event until the 1930s. The meeting has a festive ambience, attracting dozens of competitors and hundreds of spectators.

Equally ebullient is the New Year meeting at the Tauherenīkau racecourse. Set among mature tōtara and kahikatea trees, with ornate Victorian buildings, the course is charming and picturesque. The first meeting was in 1874, with Māori joining Pākehā for a ‘huge party’ despite the rain. The festive atmosphere has survived, and the New Year meeting attracts thousands, especially from Wellington. Some are serious punters, others come for the fun. They place the odd bet, promenade past the grandstand, and picnic under the trees.

Tough tramp

The Tararua Range’s hardest tramp (hike) is the Shormann–Kaitoke, a north–south dash along the mountain tops. This requires trampers ‘to climb and descend a total of about 14,000 metres and battle sub-alpine scrub, tangled bush, jagged ridges, biting cold or parching heat’. In 1963 two contenders completed it in a weekend. Shortly after, the mountaineer Graeme Dingle (then aged 20) took just 18.5 hours. He went so fast he started hallucinating: ‘[I]n one place I saw a bear dashing around the hillside, and it even growled at me.’ 1

Tramping and outdoor recreation

Haurangi and Tararua forest parks are a popular destination for trampers (hikers), hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts. The Tararua Tramping Club (New Zealand’s first) was established in 1919, followed by the Masterton and South Wairarapa clubs. Members cut tracks and built huts.

The Tararua winds are so strong that some huts have been blown off their perches. The range has claimed over 50 lives since 1900, most from hypothermia or drowning. In recent years club activity has declined in favour of independent trampers, school groups and families.

    • Quoted in Shaun Barnett, ‘Home of rain and fog: the Tararuas.’ New Zealand Geographic 72 (March–April 2005): 110. › Back

Facts and figures

Land area

  • Wairarapa: 8,423 sq km
  • New Zealand: 268,690 sq km

Climate (Masterton)

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

  • Mean temperature, January: 18.1°C
  • Mean temperature, July: 7.6°C
  • Mean annual rainfall: 928 mm
  • Mean annual sunshine: 1,982 hours

Total population, 2006 and 2013

Wairarapa: 44,817 (2006); 47,049 (2013)

New Zealand: 4,027,947 (2006); 4,242,051 (2013)

Ethnic affiliation, 2013

(Multiple responses allowed)


  • Wairarapa: 88.5%
  • New Zealand: 74.0%


  • Wairarapa: 16.4%
  • New Zealand: 14.9%

Pacific Island

  • Wairarapa: 2.5%
  • New Zealand: 7.4%

Asian (including Indian)

  • Wairarapa: 2.1%
  • New Zealand: 11.8%

Middle Eastern, Latin American, African

  • Wairarapa: 0.2%
  • New Zealand: 1.2%

Principal tribes

Ngāti Kahungunu, Rangitāne

Population of major urban area, 2013

  • Masterton: 20,100

Age distribution, 2013

Under 15

  • Wairarapa: 20.2%
  • New Zealand: 20.4%


  • Wairarapa: 61.1%
  • New Zealand: 65.3%

65 and over

  • Wairarapa: 18.7%
  • 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

  • Wairarapa: 20.1%
  • New Zealand: 5.7%

Wholesale trade

  • Wairarapa: 2.8%
  • New Zealand: 5.4%

Accommodation and food services

  • Wairarapa: 7.5%
  • New Zealand: 6.9%

Unemployment, 2013

  • Wairarapa: 4.2%
  • New Zealand: 7.1%

Livestock numbers, 2012 1

(Agricultural Production Survey, Statistics New Zealand)


  • Wairarapa: 3,103,129
  • New Zealand: 31,262,715

Dairy cattle

  • Wairarapa: 232,432
  • New Zealand: 6,445,681

Beef cattle

  • Wairarapa: 257,737
  • New Zealand: 3,734,412
    • Includes the entire Tararua district  Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Wairarapa region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 29 o Māehe 2007, updated 1 o Māehe 2017