Wellington’s role as New Zealand’s capital ensures its importance, but much of the city’s charm and character lie in its harbour and hills.
Whether you approach the city by road or rail, ship or plane, its compact form is soon apparent. There is no room for sprawl. Much of the downtown area has been reclaimed from the harbour. Hemmed in by the sea and bush-covered hills, the buildings of the central city rise like a miniature Manhattan.
Wellington’s population (190,959 in 2013) is small compared to other cities, yet is enough to support a lively urban culture. Formerly a weekend ghost town, today it is the scene of creativity and entertainment into the early hours.
Wellingtonians (who have the highest per capita income in the country) frequent the city’s bookshops, boutiques, music stores, restaurants, bars and cafés. New central city apartment blocks cater for those wanting to live and work downtown. Between 2001 and 2013 the inner-city population almost doubled, from 6,726 to 12,987.
The winds are sometimes extreme, and flying into Wellington can be scary. Yet it can also be exhilarating to live on the edge of Cook Strait, where gales blow from the north and the south.
The weather underscores the changeable nature of Wellington life. It is the centre of politics, and those in power are subject to review at the ballot box. With each new government, sections of the public sector change too.
The sense of living on the edge is sharpened by frequent earthquakes. Wellington sits on a major active fault, and parallel fault lines nearby are also active. Many believe a major earthquake, like the one in 1855 which raised much of the region’s coastline, is overdue.
Wellington’s suburbs are divided by the Wellington Fault. To the north and west, the suburbs from Karori to Johnsonville occupy high ground, on the edge of an upthrust block. To the south and east, housing covers a series of ridges and valleys which become progressively lower.
In the late 19th century Wellington grew rapidly, extending far beyond the original settlement. The electrification of tramways speeded up the spread. By 1904 trams went to Thorndon, Oriental Bay, Newtown and Berhampore. Two years later they had reached the outlying villages of Brooklyn, Kilbirnie, Miramar and Seatoun.
In the late 1930s this expansion slowed as easily developed land was used up. Growth then moved to the Hutt Valley. After the Second World War, large earth-moving machinery enabled further housing development in the city. New areas – Kingston, Crofton Downs, Churton Park – were built on daunting hill country. Since the 1980s infill housing (built on subdivided sections) has increased the density of the suburbs.
Wellington’s suburbs have always been socially mixed, although some have been dominated by particular income groups. For much of the 20th century, the more affluent residents lived in the western and northern communities of Kelburn, Karori, Wadestown and Khandallah. The city’s poor lived in the historic core: from Thorndon to Newtown. Middle income people were concentrated in the south and east, such as in Brooklyn, Hataitai, Island Bay and Miramar.
Since the 1980s gentrification has transformed the inner city, and many old houses have been renovated. Expensive homes and apartments now line streets once occupied by rickety boarding houses and rundown flats.
One of the city’s oldest suburbs is Mt Victoria, perched on the western flank of the hill for which it is named. The houses are mainly 19th-century wooden villas and cottages. For much of the 20th century the suburb was home to the poor and the transient. After the Second World War it became a centre for the Greek community and then, from the 1960s, a Samoan enclave. In the 1970s the suburb attracted new residents who renovated much of the housing, while also displacing its former occupants.
Nestled beneath Mt Victoria, Oriental Bay is sheltered from the south. It is named after the Oriental, one of the first New Zealand Company ships to bring settlers to the region. In fine weather its sandy beach attracts crowds. Above the beach, a broad sidewalk extends round the bay – the city’s promenade. The colonial houses that once lined the bay are steadily being replaced by expensive, high-rise apartment blocks.
From Roseneath, at the northern end of Mt Victoria, there are superb views over Wellington harbour. Like Mt Victoria and Oriental Bay, it contains some of the city’s most valuable real estate.
These settlements were laid out in the 1840s but remained largely farmland until the 1870s, when the flat land attracted new housing development. In 1878 the area received a boost when Wellington Hospital moved from Thorndon to Newtown, eventually becoming a large regional complex.
Between 1880 and 1900 Wellington’s population doubled, creating a building boom. Facilities followed. From 1896 Newtown’s Athletic Park became the home of Wellington rugby. In 1902, a library opened in Newtown and four years later a zoo was built at Newtown Park. In Melrose, above the zoo, Plunket founder Sir Frederic Truby King built his Karitane Hospital for babies.
After the Second World War, the district became home to many Māori migrating to the city from rural areas. In the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of Pacific Island families also settled. They were followed in the 1980s by gentrifiers. During the 1990s a Somali community grew, making the district among the city’s most ethnically and culturally diverse.
Brooklyn, two kilometres uphill from the city centre, was originally known as Fitchett, after John Fitchett, whose dairy farm supplied town milk. In the 1880s it was subdivided and named Brooklyn, after the New York district, and the streets were named after American presidents. The suburb is well known for its ‘windmill’, a wind turbine on Polhill (299 metres), visible from many parts of the city.
Vogeltown was named after New Zealand’s 1870s premier, Julius Vogel.
Kingston, at the southern end of Brooklyn, grew as a suburb from the 1950s.
The gradient of tram tracks up to the hillside suburb of Brooklyn was gradual, but trams needed to brake going downhill. In 1907, only a year after the service began, the brakes failed on a descending tram. Gathering speed, it jumped the tracks and slid down a bank. One passenger was killed.
Island Bay, the most southerly suburb, is named for the island of Tapu te Ranga, which dominates the bay. The island was an important pā site in the past, but is now uninhabited. In the 1880s, farmland at Island Bay was subdivided for housing. Around the same time Italian fishermen settled there, forming a distinctive enclave.
Island Bay’s sandy beach has long been popular for recreation. Two new attractions are likely to draw more visitors, especially divers. In 2005 the frigate Wellington was sunk near the shore as a dive wreck. A marine reserve was developed off the south coast, around Tapu te Ranga Island, in 2008.
Ōwhiro Bay is a smaller settlement west of Island Bay.
The name Hataitai recalls the legendary taniwha (water spirit) Whātaitai, who tried to force his way out of the harbour long ago.
The suburb flourished after 1907 when a tram tunnel, linking it to the city, was completed.
Named after a Scottish town by the farmer James Coutts Crawford, Kilbirnie fills the middle section of the ridge that runs from Roseneath to the south coast. Kilbirnie remained part of Crawford’s extensive estate until the 1870s when it was sold for housing.
Before the Haowhenua earthquake (around 1460), Miramar Peninsula was an island, and the land now occupied by Lyall Bay and Rongotai lay beneath the sea. The earthquake raised the seabed, creating an isthmus linking Miramar with Kilbirnie.
Although flying into windy Wellington can be scary, there has never been a fatal crash landing. But in 1959 the newly extended runway was opened with an air show that nearly ended in disaster. The pilot of a Royal Air Force Vickers Vulcan bomber clipped the southern end of the runway. But he managed to right the plane, and landed safely at Manawatū’s Ōhakea airport.
In 1928, relief workers levelled nearby sand dunes to make an airfield. Later the ridge and the airfield became part of Wellington International Airport.
In 1939 a 22-hectare site in Lyall Bay was developed for the centennial exhibition, marking New Zealand’s first 100 years. Later the exhibition was dismantled and the area given over to housing. Today Lyall Bay is known for its beach, a popular surfing spot.
The first Māori to occupy Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) lived on the island of Motukairangi, now Miramar Peninsula. The horseshoe-shaped island enclosed a lagoon known as Te Rotokura or Para. This was renamed Burnham Water by Colonel William Wakefield. In the 1840s it was drained by landowner James Crawford, and later became a racecourse, reputedly New Zealand’s first.
The area was called Watts Peninsula, but Crawford renamed it Miramar – Spanish for ‘behold the sea’. It remained isolated until 1907 when trams arrived, linking Miramar with the city. The highest point on the peninsula, Mt Crawford (163 metres), is occupied by a prison. In recent times, the suburb has become well known as the location of Peter Jackson’s film studios, where The lord of the rings trilogy and King Kong were made.
Strathmore Park, at the southern end of Miramar, grew after the private secondary school Scots College opened in 1919. From the 1930s it was the site of a state housing development.
The small seaside settlement of Seatoun is Wellington’s most easterly suburb and one of its most affluent. It stands on a pocket of flat land on the eastern side of Miramar Peninsula. Seatoun beach, Te Tūranganui-o-Kupe, recalls the visit of the Polynesian explorer Kupe, the first person in Māori tradition to visit the harbour. Nearby Steeple Rock is known as Te Ure-o-Kupe (Kupe’s penis) or Te Aroaro-o-Kupe (Kupe’s presence). The inter-island ferry Wahine foundered off Seatoun and sank in 1968, with the loss of 51 lives.
To the south of Seatoun lies Breaker Bay, named for the southerly swells that break on its exposed coastline. Houses – once modest, now increasingly expensive – sit beneath cliffs that lead to the harbour’s southern headland.
Taranaki tribes migrated to the Thorndon area in the 1820s and 1830s, attracted by its level terrain and its proximity to the harbour. They built a number of kāinga (villages), as well as fortified pā at Kumutoto and Pipitea. From 1840 European colonists settled the area, naming it Thorndon after the Essex home of the New Zealand Company director, Lord Petre. In 1865 Thorndon became the location for New Zealand’s Parliament.
Wellington’s founder, William Wakefield, and other early settlers are buried in Thorndon’s historic Bolton Street Cemetery. When the Wellington motorway was built in the 1960s, many of the graves were destroyed.
Plans to build a motorway through the Bolton Street Cemetery alarmed many people including the painter Rita Angus, who lived nearby. As workmen demolished headstones, graves and mausoleums, she sketched and painted the destruction. 3,693 early settlers were re-interred in a mass grave. Angus’s work endures as a record of the cemetery.
Pockets of historic Thorndon survived the motorway. Workers’ cottages remain around Sydney Street West, and there are early commercial buildings along Tinakori Road.
Steep, forested Te Ahumairangi Hill (formerly Tinakori Hill), rising 300 metres behind Thorndon, is part of the Town Belt. After severe storms in 2004, the lower slopes were cleared and replanted with native trees, especially northern rātā.
Between Thorndon and the suburb of Kelburn is the Botanic Garden, which was established in 1869 and contains native and exotic species, including rare conifers.
Aro Valley is named after a stream that once ran through it. It was settled from the 1860s as a working-class community, and for much of the 20th century had a bohemian atmosphere: home to students, artists, and musicians. Since the 1980s it has become gentrified.
Kelburn is built on the former ‘Upland Farm’ and is named after Viscount Kelburn, the son of a former governor, Lord Glasgow. Access to Kelburn improved in 1902 when a cable car from the city was built, triggering the suburb’s growth. In 1906 Victoria College (later University) was built nearby, attracting students and academics.
Northland, also named after a former governor’s son, is separated from Kelburn by a steep gully. The area was farmed until 1900, when it was subdivided for housing. It remained quite isolated until 1929, when trams reached the Northland shops.
Situated in a basin, Karori (which means ‘the rope of bird snares’) was renowned for its birdlife. Europeans settled there in the 1840s, and by 1845 there were 215 residents. In 1854 it became the site of Wellington’s Lunatic Asylum. This moved to Mt Victoria in 1873, and Karori Normal School was built in its place.
Karori is known for its wildlife sanctuary. The headwaters of the Kaiwharawhara Stream, previously a reservoir, have been enclosed by a predator-proof fence to create a ‘mainland island’. Several endangered native bird species, including kiwi, have been transferred there from island refuges.
In 1891 the Karori Cemetery opened, replacing the Bolton Street Cemetery. In 1909 a crematorium was built at Karori – the first in the southern hemisphere.
Colonial Karori is described in several stories by Katherine Mansfield, whose family moved there in 1893 from Thorndon. At that time the suburb was difficult to reach. The Karori Tunnel (1900) made access easier, and by 1907 trams ran to Nottingham Street.
Karori continued to grow. By the 1960s it was one of New Zealand’s biggest suburbs, and remained so in the 2010s.
Clinging to sheer slopes, Wadestown was settled in 1840 as a working-class suburb. But it was also home to one of the city’s richest merchants, William Barnard Rhodes. In the 1920s the Rhodes family subdivided their Highland Park farm, and some of Wellington’s grandest houses were built there.
West of Wadestown is Wilton. Situated in an area Māori called Ōtari, it is named after Job Wilton, who farmed Ōtari in the 19th century. He left an area of his farm in native bush, which now forms the basis of the 100-hectare Ōtari–Wilton’s Bush. It includes a 5-hectare native botanic garden, established by the botanist and schoolteacher Leonard Cockayne in 1926. Wilton developed as a suburb from the 1920s.
In the early 1840s, a track up the Ngaio Gorge led to Porirua. As settlement increased, the track was widened to a road. But the Ngāti Toa people, who knew the road would hasten the settlers’ access to their land, harassed the road builders. Governor George Grey responded by building a series of forts to protect the project. One was on Sentry Box Hill (now Box Hill in Khandallah). Others were at Johnson’s Clearing, now Johnsonville, and Glenside.
Beyond Wilton, the northern and southern branches of the Kaiwharawhara Stream join to flow down the Ngaio Gorge into the harbour. Crofton Downs lies above the stream’s forks. Settled from the 1960s, it is now the site of the (private) Bowen Hospital, which used to be in Bowen Street, Wellington city.
Ngaio was originally called Crofton, after the home of its most prominent settler, Sir William Fox. It grew after the opening of the Wellington–Manawatū railway in 1885. In the 1920s the Railways Department built a housing settlement in Tarikaka Street, which is now a heritage area.
Ngaio’s northern neighbour is Khandallah. An early settler, Captain James Andrew, who had served in the Indian Army, gave the area its Indian name (after Khandela, Rājasthān), and later street names have continued this tradition. With sweeping views across Wellington Harbour, Khandallah became home to the city’s affluent.
Mt Kaukau (445 metres) stands above Ngaio and Khandallah. In 1965 Wellington’s main television transmitter mast was built on its summit, making it the most visible point in the city’s landscape. It was originally known as Tarikākā (meaning ‘where parrots rested’). The name is remembered in the Tarikākā railway settlement in Ngaio.
Named after Frank Johnson (an early sawmiller), Johnsonville sits in a small basin and is Wellington city’s northern hub. It began as a small rural service town in the 19th century, growing rapidly after 1938, when a new electric train service linked it to the city.
In the 1960s Wellington’s first shopping mall was built in the suburb. It draws shoppers from the neighbouring communities of Newlands, Paparangi and Churton Park – middle-class suburbs that grew on the surrounding hills from the 1950s. With further subdivisions planned, the district is among the city’s fastest growing.
North of Johnsonville and on the way to Porirua, these communities straddle the motorway.
Tawa was originally a small farming settlement, subdivided for housing after 1945.
Linden includes a significant area of state housing. Glenside, another farming district, was once known as 'The Halfway', due to its position between Wellington and Porirua.
On the eastern side of the motorway is Grenada, developed in the 1980s. It includes an industrial and warehousing area.
West of Wellington city, sparsely populated hill country extends from Cook Strait to Mana Island, 30 kilometres to the north. This rugged area has been shaped by streams that dissect an ancient plain.
In 1770, after consulting Māori, the British explorer James Cook recorded the name of the south-western tip of the North Island as ‘Teerawitte’ (Terawhiti). The area was important to Māori because of its proximity to Te Moana-a-Raukawa (Cook Strait). From villages at stream mouths on the coast, canoes crossed the strait to trade, or raid. Lookouts on Cape Terawhiti kept watch for the approach of hostile canoes.
Cook described the area as ‘exceedingly barren; probably owing to its being so much exposed to the cold southerly winds’. 1 Still, the ‘wild west’ was farmed by early Europeans. From the late 1840s, the main pastoralist was James McMenamen, known as ‘Terawhiti Jack’. His Terawhiti Station still occupies much of the southern section. Further north, in Ōhariu Valley, smaller sheep farms and lifestyle blocks are common.
Farming in the 19th century was hard work. More enticing was the lure of gold, first discovered in the region by Māori, in the Waiariki Stream. Prospectors quickly probed the wild west for alluvial gold, with little success. Then quartz-crushing companies followed, with hopeful names such as The Lucky Hit, The Perseverance, and The Hit or Miss. But few prospered from Wellington’s gold rush.
Today, seekers of instant wealth head to the isolated coast at night, to illegally harvest the native pāua shellfish.
Although the area covers about 190 square kilometres it has only 759 residents, most of whom live in Ōhariu Valley and Makara village, or at Makara Beach – the only coastal settlement.
The area plays a part in the national power network because the Cook Strait cable (carrying electricity from the South Island to the North) comes ashore at Ōteranga Bay on the south coast. (This is also where swimmers of Cook Strait depart.) A large wind farm was opened on Makara’s Quartz Hill in 2009, to generate electricity – the first in the region.
En route from Nelson to Wellington in 1909, the Penguin sank during a southerly storm. The steamer hit Thom’s Rock, near the Karori Stream, forcing all aboard to abandon ship. Seventy-two people died, and some were never found. Four other vessels had already foundered on the ‘demon rock’, which apparently moved about. But there were no more shipwrecks after a lighthouse was built nearby in 1915.
Mariners have always been very wary near this shore. Between 1842 and 1909, 15 vessels were wrecked there.
To the east of Ōteranga Bay, a domed radar station atop Hawkins Hill guides aircraft in and out of Wellington Airport.
Near Wellington’s outlying suburb of Karori, the Makara Hill mountain bike park is an outstanding area for adventurous cycling.
Wellington’s magnificent harbour is a lake-like expanse of sheltered water surrounded by hills, with a narrow entrance to the sea.
A raised rock platform (a legacy of the great 1855 earthquake) surrounds the harbour’s edge. Today much of this is obscured by roads. In other places it is interspersed with sandy beaches.
Wellington’s nearly circular harbour (about 10 kilometres in diameter) began as a shallow basin between two tilted blocks. Repeated uplifting along the Wellington Fault raised the block on the western side, creating a cliff from Thorndon to the Hutt Valley. The block to the east tilted down towards the fault, making a depression that later filled with water.
Matiu (Somes Island) and Mākaro (Ward Island) are the exposed peaks of a submerged ridge running parallel with the extensive ridges of Miramar Peninsula and Hataitai.
In Māori tradition the explorer Kupe was the first person to visit the harbour. He was followed by Tara and Tautoki, sons of the explorer Whātonga. They settled there and named it Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the great harbour of Tara). Later, a succession of tribes lived in the area.
In 1839, the New Zealand Company chose Port Nicholson as the site for its first settlement of British immigrants.
Since the 1850s the shape of the inner harbour has been changed by reclaiming land from the sea. This includes a massive 1960s reclamation to cater for container shipping. Containers had made much of the old port redundant.
Today Wellingtonians are resettling the waterfront with apartments, cafés, offices, boat moorings and parks.
The narrow entrance to Wellington Harbour is guarded by Barrett Reef – according to Māori legend, the reef is debris left by the taniwha (water spirit) Ngake when he escaped to the sea. Entering the harbour can be a challenge for mariners, especially in strong southerly winds. Since 1859, they have been guided by a lighthouse on Pencarrow Head. But many vessels have foundered here, including the trans-Tasman (Sea) liner Wanganella in January 1947. It stayed fast on Barrett Reef for 18 days before being pulled free by tugboats and towed to safety.
These islands were named by the explorer Kupe after his daughters, and were occupied by a succession of Māori tribes. After British settlement they were renamed Somes Island and Ward Island, after the deputy governor and secretary of the New Zealand Company.
Somes Island later became a quarantine station, then an internment camp for enemy aliens during both world wars. More recently, rats and other pests have been eradicated and the 25-hectare island has become part of the conservation estate. Volunteers from the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society have planted more than 90,000 trees since 1981. Tuatara, wētā and native birds such as kākāriki (parrots) have recently been released. About 10,000 people visit the island each year.
The much smaller Mākaro (Ward Island) has been largely ignored. Steep-sided and clothed in impenetrable taupata, it is frequented only by seabirds.
The bay bears the name of George Evans, a prominent early settler. At the southern end, land raised by the 1460 earthquake is now Wellington’s airport. Miramar Peninsula juts into the harbour, forming the east side of Evans Bay. Occasionally whales and dolphins come into the bay and other parts of the harbour.
The Hutt Valley comprises a southern basin (Lower Hutt and Petone) and a northern basin (Upper Hutt).
2013 population, Lower Hutt: 98,238
Named after Sir William Hutt, a New Zealand Company director, the Hutt River rises in the southern Tararua Range. It travels south-west along the Wellington Fault until it reaches Lower Hutt, where it turns south to Wellington Harbour.
Flooding impeded Lower Hutt’s development, and the great earthquake of 1855 sent a tsunami up the river. Three years later, a severe flood drowned nine people at Taitā. Another big flood in 1893 prompted the building of stopbanks. Once the river was contained, Lower Hutt began to grow.
Early residents such as the Ngāi Tara people called the Hutt River Te Awakairangi, ‘the watercourse of greatest value’. It was navigable by canoe far inland, giving access to plentiful food. Later tribes knew it as Te Wai o Orutu, ‘the waters of Orutu’, a Ngāti Māmoe ancestor. When European settlers arrived it was known as the Heretaunga River, after the district in Hawke’s Bay.
The area was mainly a market garden area until the 1920s, when the government bought large tracts of land for housing. By 1941 Lower Hutt had become a city. In the mid-1940s state housing for 20,000 people was built. Many of the new residents commuted by train to Wellington, or found jobs in the valley’s burgeoning industrial sector.
Lower Hutt has grown steadily. Manufacturing remains important, although it has declined since the 1980s removal of tariff protection.
During the 20th century, Petone, Alicetown and the state-housing suburbs grew largely as working-class communities. Affluent residents clustered around leafy Woburn and Eastbourne. From the 1960s, middle-class home buyers headed for Maungaraki and the western hill suburbs.
The first European immigrants settled at Pito-one (‘the end of the sand beach’), now known as Petone. The settlement lay close to the pā of Te Puni, the paramount Te Āti Awa chief who sold a vast tract of land around the harbour to the New Zealand Company for settlement. Later, flooding led many settlers to leave Petone for a new site at Thorndon.
In the early 1900s Petone’s 7,000 residents supported three brass bands, six dance bands, two orchestral societies, an operatic society, a vaudeville company, a comedy club, a literary and debating society, a chess club and several church choirs.
Those who stayed had to cope with regular floods until 1900, when the completion of a series of stopbanks reduced flooding. Petone then flourished and soon became an important industrial centre. Until the 1980s, Petone and neighbouring Gracefield had woollen mills, the railway workshops, meat processors and car assembly plants.
Many of these industries collapsed when protective tariffs were lifted after 1984. Other businesses took their place, and the site of the Gear meat works became a large retail precinct. The area has strong working-class roots, but is now characterised by its diversity.
Initially a farming settlement, Alicetown was settled from the early 1900s by workers from Petone’s factories. Situated next to the main railway and road to Wellington city, the suburb also attracted warehousing and light industry.
Moera was established by the government in the 1920s. Prefabricated housing, designed and built by the Railways Department, was sold to workers. Many residents worked in the railway workshops in nearby Woburn.
Waiwhetū is built on land largely set aside as a native reserve for its former owners, the Te Āti Awa tribe, in the 1840s. The government compulsorily acquired the land in the 1930s, building new homes for Te Āti Awa people. Waiwhetū marae (completed in 1960) was built in the centre of the new housing.
Lower Hutt’s central business district is the site of the original settlement, although few historic buildings remain. The area is dominated by Queensgate Mall, which has overtaken High Street as the main retail precinct. The valley’s best known cultural institution, the Dowse Art Museum, is also situated here.
Henry Petre farmed the Woburn area from the 1840s, naming it after the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn estate. Petre’s farm was taken over by Daniel and Harriet Riddiford after the 1855 earthquake. Their descendants built a substantial home (demolished in 1981) and gradually subdivided the farm. The northern end became an address for the valley’s affluent, while the southern end was used for new railway workshops.
Waterloo takes its name from the famous 1815 battle won by the Duke of Wellington. It has a mixture of state and private housing.
Boulcott is named after Almon Boulcott, who farmed the area in the 1840s. When Māori objected to European settlement, a garrison of regular troops were stationed on his farm. Wanting to assert their authority, local Māori attacked the garrison on 16 May 1846, killing six soldiers before being driven off.
One casualty of the Māori assault on Boulcott’s farm was the young private William Allen. Seeing an attack was coming, he raised his bugle to sound the alarm. At that moment his right arm was severed by a tomahawk blow. Grasping the bugle in his left hand he tried again, but was struck down and killed. His bravery made him a hero in colonial society.
In the early 20th century the Avalon area was renowned for its market gardens, but these were turned into mainly private housing from the 1930s. Avalon Studios (film and television) and the Wellington office of GNS Science are sited here.
Sited on hill country between the Hutt Valley and Porirua, Belmont Regional Park has panoramic views and open space for walkers, mountain bikers and horse riders.
Designed to accommodate 20,000 people, these state-housing suburbs were built from the mid-1940s. They featured the latest town planning ideas, such as curving streets, playgrounds, reserves and community centres. The community centres were to be the social hub, but only a minority of residents became regular users. At first, a consumers’ cooperative – in which residents held shares – dominated retailing, but private enterprise eventually performed better, and the co-op closed.
From the 1950s many tenants bought their homes from the state, but there is still a large area of state housing, where some of the valley’s poorest residents live.
In the early 1950s the spotlight fell on Lower Hutt when police claimed that adolescents were engaging in underage sex. In 1952, 61 charges were laid by the police. In 1954 this rose to 107. A government committee of enquiry laid the blame on working mothers, Hollywood films and boredom, among other factors. Some thought this response was overblown. A copy of the committee’s report was sent to every New Zealand home before Christmas 1954.
Named after the 1840s surveyor Robert Stokes, the valley was milled from 1858 and converted to farmland. In the early 20th century it attracted holidaymakers, some of whom built baches (holiday homes). During the Second World War an American base was built at the foot of the valley. After the war the Lower Hutt City Council developed the area for housing.
Korokoro and Maungaraki were set up by the Liberal government in the early 1900s, under its village settlement scheme. But they remained quite small until the 1960s, when the Lower Hutt City Council developed Maungaraki for private housing. Large earthmoving machinery cut hilltops and filled valleys. It was the largest local government subdivision in New Zealand.
Housing soon spread to the neighbouring hills of Normandale and Kelson.
2013 population: 40,179
A succession of Māori tribes occupied the Upper Hutt basin until 1820, when the most recent, Ngāti Ira, were decimated by a war party of musket-bearing northern tribes that swept through the region. A prominent pā, Whakataka, on the western side of the Hutt River, was one of many sacked in the region. Survivors fled the area.
In 1839 the New Zealand Company scientist Ernst Dieffenbach explored the upper Hutt Valley. But it was not until the 1860s that Europeans began to settle there. More than any other district in the Wellington region, Upper Hutt evokes the pioneers and their struggles. Dense forests have been cleared, rivers bridged and its isolation eased by roads and the railway.
The most significant achievement was the Remutaka incline railway, built in the 1870s to link Wellington with the Wairarapa. It took trains over the Remutaka Range, using a raised centre rail that was gripped by horizontal wheels under the locomotive to climb the steep Wairarapa side.
Upper Hutt remained a farming community until after the Second World War when extensive housing spread over arable land, from Pinehaven and Silverstream in the south to Totara Park and Te Marua in the north. In 1966 it became a city. Many residents commute to work in Wellington city.
The settlement towards the southern end of the Upper Hutt basin is Trentham, well known for its army camp, racecourse and memorial park.
In 1841 John Barton purchased a large area beside the Hutt River. He named it Trentham after his childhood home in England. Much of his land was cleared, but significant tracts of forest survived and in 1950 were purchased as Upper Hutt’s Second World War memorial. These remnants are reminders of the tawa–podocarp forest that once covered the Hutt Valley.
One kilometre south-east, Trentham Army Camp occupies a large area. During the First World War the army built a large training camp there. It was used again during the Second World War and has since become a permanent facility.
Nearby is Trentham Racecourse. Its buildings, erected by the Wellington Racing Club in 1906, were used during the Second World War as a military hospital and also to house American troops. Since the war, Trentham has been extended, and is now one of the country’s finest racecourses.
This farming settlement is on the banks of the Mangaroa River, 4 kilometres south of Upper Hutt.
Across the harbour from downtown Wellington is a line of seaside settlements backed by beech forest – a peaceful contrast to the city’s bustle.
Flat land is limited to Lowry Bay, Days Bay and Eastbourne. Elsewhere houses cling to hillsides. Eastbourne, named after a seaside resort in southern England, is the largest. It occupies a foreland built up by the meeting of sediment-laden currents.
For centuries Māori occupied kāinga (settlements) in the sheltered bays, and more substantial pā on the headlands. Pā sites include Ngāmatau (Point Howard) and Oruamatoro (Days Bay), as well as Matuaiwi and Korohiwa, to the north and south of what is now Eastbourne.
These pā were essential because the nearby Remutaka Range was the boundary between the Ngāti Kahungunu tribe in the Wairarapa and the tribes of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour). Frequent raids on the area meant that Māori were always vigilant.
From the Hutt Valley, a track followed the coast around to the Wairarapa.
William ‘Okiwi’ Brown, the first European to settle in the eastern bays, provided overnight grazing, and accommodation en route to the Wairarapa.
Whaler William Brown built a shack at Brown’s Bay (now Rona Bay) in the early 1840s. In 1846, a boy in his employ was murdered. Six years later, a man seen arguing with Brown died violently soon after. Brown was arrested and his wife, whom he had beaten, testified against him. However, he was acquitted, and she stayed with him. He died in 1885, but she lived with his corpse in the shack for a month before police broke in, removed her and burnt the dwelling.
Access to the Wairarapa improved after the massive 1855 earthquake, which raised the eastern shore of the harbour by 2 metres.
This bay was originally known as Brown’s Bay. In 1892 it was renamed Russo Bay after Italian immigrants Bartolo and Italia Russo settled there. They started several enterprises, including fishing, horticulture and a hotel. Relatives from their home of Stromboli (an island near Sicily) also migrated, and the bay became a thriving fishing village. Rona was the name of Russo's boat.
At the same time, the eastern bays became Wellington’s seaside playground, famously depicted in Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘At the bay’, which recalls her family’s summer holidays at Muritai, now part of Eastbourne.
Lowry Bay was an exclusive retreat, in contrast with Days Bay which catered for the general public. Developed in the 1890s, Days Bay had a large pavilion for dining and dancing, a hotel and an amusement park. For the more energetic, there were cricket grounds, tennis courts and hockey fields.
Days Bay’s golden era ended before the First World War, when John Williams’s land was subdivided for housing. The hotel became a school, known today as Wellesley College. Williams Park is still a popular picnic place.
Since the Second World War, better roads and cars have turned Eastbourne and the bays into affluent Wellington suburbs. This trend continues today, and residents can commute to the city by ferry.
Wellington’s harbour is surrounded by hills. Beyond its eastern shores, the bush-clad ridges of the Remutaka Range dominate the view. Here the southernmost section of the North Island’s mountainous spine meets the sea.
The Remutaka Range extends from the Remutaka Hill Road (north of Upper Hutt) to the harbour’s entrance. Although lower than the Tararua Range to the north, the Remutaka Range is still formidable, with peaks from 700 to 940 metres.
This is the popular name for the southern section of the Remutaka Range, including the peak Orongorongo (816 metres).
This rugged country is scarred by slips, caused by the massive 1855 earthquake that lifted the range by 3 metres. Estimated to have a magnitude of least 8, it was the most recent upthrust of the West Wairarapa Fault, which lies east of the Remutaka Range. It is the most active fault in the region.
Two rivers, the Orongorongo and the Wainuiomata, drain the Remutaka Range, following older fault lines that run parallel with the West Wairarapa Fault.
Today the Orongorongo riverbed can be reached via Five Mile Track or from the south coast. In the 1930s, people began building huts in the valley, using four wheel drive access up the river. By 1975 there were 74 dwellings. There is also a research station for studying possums and their effect on the environment.
Wainuiomata occupies a basin at the headwaters of the Wainuiomata River, between the eastern Hutt hills and the Orongorongos. There is little evidence of Māori occupation of the area before 1840, probably because it was covered in dense forest and large swamps.
The 1855 earthquake raised these swamps and encouraged European settlement. Wainuiomata remained a small sawmilling and farming community until after the Second World War, when new housing soon transformed it into a working-class suburb of Lower Hutt. During the 1950s many young families lived there, earning it the nickname ‘Nappy Valley’. Perhaps its most famous son is the former All Black captain Tana Umaga.
From Wainuiomata the road follows the river to the coast where the Remutaka Range abruptly meets the sea. Three prominent headlands – Pencarrow, Baring and Turakirae heads – dominate the exposed, rocky coastline.
At Turakirae a series of ancient beaches now form terraces well above the present sea level. They were raised from the sea by earthquakes, generated by movement of the West Wairarapa Fault over the past 6,500 years.
Close to Pencarrow Head, 10 kilometres west of Turakirae, two once-tidal inlets have been isolated from the sea by the rising land. They are now the freshwater lakes Kōhangapiripiri and Kōhangatera.
The Māori name for Pencarrow Head, Te Raeakiaki, means ‘the headland where the sea pounds’. Gravel carried into the harbour by the Orongorongo and Wainuiomata rivers is thrown back onto this coast by southerly storms. As much as 40,000 cubic metres of sand and gravel form there each year. Much of it is removed for building.
The windswept, rocky coastline is a danger to ships entering Wellington Harbour. New Zealand’s first lighthouse was built in 1859 at Pencarrow and operated until 1935. It was replaced by a stronger electric lighthouse on nearby Baring Head.
2013 population: 51,717
After the Second World War, the government acted on an urgent need for new housing. As the site for a new city, Porirua was ideal. It had plenty of cheap land and was already linked to Wellington by rail, and a new motorway to the area was about to be built.
Work began in 1960 on reshaping the landscape. The village of Porirua (dating from the 1860s) disappeared, the Kenepuru Stream was straightened and more than 770,000 cubic metres of rock and soil were dumped at the head of the Porirua Harbour. By 1966, the new city centre was finished. The total cost was £1 million.
East of the motorway the suburbs of Cannons Creek and Porirua East grew out of rolling farmland. More than 2,700 state houses were built.
The new city obscured much of Porirua’s history. The earliest human habitation dates back to 1450 CE. A succession of tribes lived around the twin inlets of Porirua Harbour. The name Porirua, a corruption of Pari-rua, means ‘the tide sweeping up both reaches’.
The Ngāi Tara people were succeeded by Ngāti Kahungunu, then Ngāti Ira who, in turn, were displaced in the 1820s by Ngāti Toarangatira.
In 1846, tension between Ngāti Toa and European settlers culminated in several skirmishes. The fighting was inconclusive, but Ngāti Toa’s foremost chiefs were removed – Te Rauparaha was arrested, and Te Rangihaeata retreated to the Manawatū.
In 1865 the first coach service, Cobb & Co., linked Wellington with Porirua and places further north.
Porirua remained isolated enough to become the new site (in 1877) of Wellington’s ‘lunatic asylum’.
By 1910, Porirua Mental Hospital had 738 patients. In 1942, earthquakes damaged the main building, a massive Victorian brick structure, which was demolished soon afterwards. New villa-style accommodation provided better conditions for patients.
During the early 1990s, the Porirua city centre was rebuilt at a cost of $50 million. Its centrepiece, a giant new shopping mall, has revitalised Porirua.
The Māori village of Takapūwāhia is near the head of Porirua Harbour. In the 1840s, the provincial government laid out a number of new inland villages to entice Māori from dilapidated coastal villages. A survey in 1850 recorded 252 residents at Takapūwāhia.
Traditionally, residents of Takapūwāhia relied on seafood from the nearby harbour. In the late 1940s the prized seafood bed was destroyed by land reclamation, in spite of Ngāti Toa protests. When Porirua city was built in the 1960s, more land was reclaimed. Again, the tribe’s requests for compensation were ignored.
Takapūwāhia became a Wesleyan mission, and after a visit by Mormon missionaries in 1887, it attracted Mormon adherents. Eventually Porirua became the main Mormon centre in the region.
In 1889 Takapūwāhia became the main Ngāti Toa marae, which it remains today. The first meeting house, Toa Rangatira, was built in 1901 and has since been replaced.
Takapūwāhia is not as visible as it once was, with housing now surrounding the village.
The legendary Polynesian navigator Kupe landed at Komanga Point, 3 kilometres west of Tītahi Bay, leaving an anchor stone which today can be seen at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Later arrivals built pā on both headlands at Tītahi Bay, as well as at Komanga Point.
The first European residents were whalers operating from Korohiwa, between Tītahi Bay and Komanga Point.
Tītahi Bay is known as the family home of Michael Campbell, New Zealand’s top golfer. In 2005 he won the US Open, and the richest prize in golf, the £1,000,000 HSBC World Match Play Championship. He joined the bay’s golf club at the age of 10, and learnt to play on the local course.
Once the Wellington–Manawatū railway reached Porirua, Tītahi Bay became a popular seaside resort. It grew slowly until the end of the Second World War. A massive state housing programme then transformed the bay into a modern suburb.
Porirua’s double harbour evolved from an ancient river system, which was drowned by the rising sea about 5,000 years ago. Pāuatahanui, the name of the northern arm, means ‘big shellfish’.
In 1839, the London-based New Zealand Company acquired land around both arms of the harbour, and planned a township at Motukaraka on the Pāuatahanui Inlet. Ngāti Toa objected to the purchase of their land without their consent. In 1846, part of the tribe fought British troops in the Horokiri valley. Eventually their chief, Te Rangihaeata, retreated, allowing Europeans to settle around the harbour.
As settlers cleared the bush, increased erosion filled the Pāuatahanui Inlet with sediment. A road was built round the southern shore, then through the Horokiri Valley to Paekākāriki. This route was used by the coach service from 1865. Pāuatahanui soon had three hotels catering for travellers.
From 1886 Pāuatahanui declined with the completion of the Wellington–Manawatū railway, which crossed the inlet at Paremata, reducing traffic through the settlement. The village’s eclipse was hastened in 1936 when the Paremata road bridge opened followed by the completion of a highway between Pukerua Bay and Paekākāriki. This removed the need to drive round the Pāuatahanui Inlet.
In the 2010s Pāuatahanui remained a village, known for its tidal flats and the diverse bird life they attract.
Established in the early 1970s as a middle-class subdivision, Whitby was built around an artificial lake. The area was named after James Cook’s home town in England, and some of the streets bear the names of his ships.
When Ngāti Toa people took control of the area in the 1820s, their senior tohunga, Nohorua, built a palisaded village near Paremata Point. In 1835, Joseph Toms, the first European to settle in the Porirua district, built a whaling station nearby.
Joseph Toms, who ran a tavern at Paremata, added water to rum to make it go further. Then he bolstered it by adding turpentine, disguising the taste with bluestone (copper sulfate). As he was the sole supplier of liquor in the area, he could sell his ‘chain lightning’ and still retain his customers.
Toms had seven boats, crewed by Europeans and Māori. One of his best whalers was Te Ua Torikiriki, Nohorua’s daughter, who became Toms’s wife.
Toms also ran a tavern, famous for its home-made liquor, known as ‘chain lightning’.
Paremata remained a fishing village until the completion of the Wellington–Manawatū railway in 1886. With better access, Paremata, Plimmerton (named after John Plimmer, one of the railway’s chief promoters) and Pukerua Bay soon became seaside resorts.
In the early 1900s, yachting became common on the Porirua Harbour. In 1923 the Paremata Boating Club was formed, followed two years later by the Plimmerton Boating Club at Karehana Bay. Today windsurfing is also popular.
Hau, an early Māori tohunga (priest), pursued his wife Wairaka, and her lover, Weku, down the west coast of the North Island. He caught up with them near Pukerua Bay. After killing Weku, he sent Wairaka into the sea to collect shellfish, then turned her into stone. She can still be seen today, at the end of the headland beyond Pukerua Bay.
Hidden by a headland from Karehana Bay is the Māori settlement at Hongoeka Bay.
Further north is the small settlement of Pukerua Bay, its houses and seaside baches (holiday homes) clinging to the slopes of the Wairaka Range.
2013 population: 49,104
The Kāpiti Coast stretches for 30 kilometres from Paekākāriki to Ōtaki. It is named for Kāpiti Island, which dominates Wellington’s west coast.
The terrain consists of alluvial debris and windblown silt, overlaid by sand dunes. It was once covered with a mixture of dense coastal forest and extensive wetlands, but much of this was cleared in the 19th century for dairy and sheep farming.
In the early 1900s the district developed as a series of seaside resorts. In 1940 Paraparaumu airport opened, handling passengers and freight for Wellington. Secondary industry developed at Ōtaki and Paraparaumu.
From the 1950s the more equable climate attracted retired Wellington people and commuters. House building boomed. In 1969 the Coastlands shopping mall opened at Paraparaumu. It was then among the few retail centres allowed to trade on Saturdays, and proved a magnet for the region’s shoppers.
In the early 21st century the Kāpiti economy was among the fastest growing in New Zealand. Growth was driven by the manufacturing, building and business services sectors.
2013 population: 1,665
The southern gateway to the Kāpiti coast is hemmed in by hills and sea. Immediately to the north lies Queen Elizabeth Park, Kapiti’s largest coastal reserve.
Paekākāriki (‘perch of the green parrots’) is popular with artists and writers, and retains some of its bohemian character despite increasing gentrification.
2013 population: 26,838
Paraparaumu has grown rapidly. It has expanded to include the nearby settlements of Raumati (to the south) and Ōtaihanga (to the north), creating a continuous urban area.
Paraparaumu is the administrative and commercial centre of the Kāpiti Coast. Its airport is an important regional facility, as is the sprawling Coastlands shopping centre, where the plethora of consumer goods belies the meaning of Paraparaumu – ‘scraps from an earth oven’.
At Paraparaumu Beach the view is dominated by Kāpiti Island, a world-famous bird sanctuary 5 kilometres offshore. Visitors leave from here to visit the island.
2013 population: 10,635
Waikanae is the second-largest settlement on the Kāpiti coast. In the early 19th century it was an important centre of contact between European and Māori.
Kāpiti’s rapidly growing population is putting pressure on its services, especially sewage and water. Between 1996 and 2013 the population grew by 27% (the national figure was 17%). It attracts retired people, and residents aged 65 or older made up 25.3% of the population in 2013 – twice the average for the Wellington region.
It is now known as a holiday and retirement centre – many of its residents are elderly. People retire there to garden on the rich alluvial plain created by the Waikanae River.
2013 population: 5,778
Like Waikanae, Ōtaki was a site of contact between Māori and Europeans. The missionary Octavius Hadfield and Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha together organised the building of the Rangiātea Church, opened in 1851.
In 2013 Ōtaki remained a distinctively Māori community, with more than double the national percentage of Māori residents.
Named by the legendary traveller Hau, who bestowed many of the names on the Kāpiti Coast, Ōtaki (where Hau ‘held his staff as he spoke’) is home to Te Wānanga o Raukawa, New Zealand’s first Māori tertiary educational institution. Founded in 1981, the wānanga (house of instruction) had 2,508 students in 2014. It is Ōtaki’s largest employer.
Ōtaki is also well known as a market gardening centre, supplying the capital with fruit and vegetables.
The Tararua Range forms part of the North Island’s backbone. It consists of parallel ranges interspersed with deep river valleys. The Tararuas cover 3,168 square kilometres from the Manawatū Gorge to the Remutaka Range, 100 kilometres to the south.
The Tararua Range is renowned for the wind and rain it attracts. This is due to its proximity to Cook Strait, which acts as a funnel. Prevailing westerlies are boosted into north-westerly gales, which dump up to 5,000 millimetres of rain on the exposed western slopes every year.
Different vegetation grows either side of the range. On the west it is often a tangle of conifers, ferns, shrubs and vines. On the east, where it is drier, beech predominates and the forest is more open.
The range consists of two distinct regions, each dominated by a central peak – Arete in the north (1,516 metres), and Mt Hector in the south (1,529 metres). The latter is the highest of the southern peaks, named after the scientist Sir James Hector. Its Māori name is Pukemoumou, or ‘hill of desolation’.
The uniform height of the Tararua summits (most are between 1,300 and 1,500 metres) shows that they were once part of an ancient plain. About 10 million years ago, remnants of this low-lying land were squeezed upward. Erosion has since worn away most of the original plain, leaving the mountains we know today.
The severe climate and rugged landscape of the range make it a challenging but rewarding area for recreation. The Tararua Tramping Club was formed in 1919, the first of its kind in New Zealand.
Today this is one of the most frequented alpine areas in the country. Surveys suggest that between 120,000 and 150,000 people visit Tararua Forest Park each year. The popular trip across the southern Tararua peaks is known as the Southern Crossing.
The southern Tararua mountains lie between the Wellington and Akatarawa faults. The Akatarawa River follows the Akatarawa Fault south, joining the Hutt River north of Upper Hutt.
Akatarawa means ‘trailing vines’, probably referring to the dense supplejack vines that often make these forests almost impenetrable.
Today a narrow road follows the Akatarawa River from Upper Hutt to the Kāpiti Coast. To the west of the road, a vast area of native forest is cut by vehicle tracks. This area, once the last refuge of the now-extinct huia bird, is popular with trail bikers and four-wheel drive enthusiasts. An annual cycle race, the Karapoti Classic, is held there, and also an annual four-wheel drive endurance contest, the Deadwood Safari.
Between Upper Hutt and the southern Tararua Range lies Kaitoke, the northernmost of a series of depressions east of the Wellington Fault. Here the Hutt River’s headwaters are captured and carried by tunnel to large storage lakes at Te Marua. These supply much of Wellington’s water.
Roads built in the 1950s for this scheme now give access to Kaitoke Regional Park, 12 kilometres north of Upper Hutt. The park covers 2,860 hectares of forest and bush, and is a popular picnic and camping spot. It is also the starting point for trips down the Hutt River Gorge.
Kāpiti, a roughly rectangular island of 2,000 hectares, lies off Wellington’s western coast opposite Paraparaumu.
Twenty-two kilometres to the south is the much smaller island of Mana (216 hectares), square and flat-topped, which guards the entrance to Porirua Harbour.
Māori tradition tells of Kupe, the legendary explorer who reached New Zealand perhaps 800–1,000 years ago, creating Kāpiti and Mana with a single blow of his mighty patu (club). European scientists suggest that seismic activity made these islands. Kāpiti, once part of a series of ridges in the Tararua Range, has been cut off and made an island by the rising sea. Mana’s flat top recalls the ancient plain that was the Wellington region, about 40 million years ago.
Fault lines run along the eastern and western sides of Kāpiti and Mana islands. They are apparent from the air, or out at sea – their western sides (not seen from the mainland) are sheer cliffs.
The name Mana is an abbreviation of Te Mana o Kupe ki Aotearoa, ‘the ability of Kupe to cross the ocean to Aotearoa’. ‘Kāpiti’ refers to Te Waewae Kāpiti o Tara rāua ko Rangitāne, the dividing line between the tribal lands of the Ngāi Tara and Rangitāne peoples.
Both islands were important to Māori because of their proximity to Te Moana-a-Raukawa (Cook Strait). Whoever controlled the islands also controlled the strait. At various times almost all the tribes of the lower North Island have occupied Kāpiti and probably Mana.
Kāpiti is renowned as the stronghold of the Ngāti Toa tribe during the 1820s and 1830s, when the great chief Te Rauparaha made it the centre of an extensive empire. He was assisted by his nephew, Te Rangihaeata, who lived on Mana.
The first Europeans to frequent Cook Strait – adventurers, traders, whalers and missionaries – often called at these islands. Ngāti Toa encouraged Europeans, and repeatedly sold parts of each island to them. The new settlers stocked both the islands with sheep and cattle. New Zealand’s first exported wool came from Mana Island.
After the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, most Ngāti Toa left Kāpiti and Mana to live on the mainland.
European leaseholders farmed Kāpiti until 1897, when the Crown took most of it for a bird sanctuary. Mana continued to be farmed until 1973 when the Ministry of Agriculture made it an animal quarantine station. This was abandoned after an outbreak of the sheep disease scrapie made it untenable.
The Department of Conservation is restoring the biodiversity of Kāpiti and Mana, where pests such as mice and rats have been eradicated. The islands are now at the forefront of regional conservation – Kāpiti as a sanctuary for forest birds, Mana as a refuge for seabirds. While the revegetation of Mana lags behind that of Kāpiti by almost a century, it has been hastened by volunteers who have planted nearly 450,000 trees and shrubs between 1987 and 2011.
Because Mana is an open sanctuary, visitors do not need to have permits. To land on Kāpiti, they must first get permission from the Department of Conservation. Daily visitor numbers are restricted.
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Bremner, Julie. Wellington’s northern suburbs, 1840-1918. Wellington: Millwood, 1983.
Butterworth, Susan. Petone: a history. Petone: Petone Borough Council, 1988.
Maclean, Chris. Kapiti. Wellington: Whitcombe, 1999.
People of Porirua City. Porirua: Pataka Museum of Arts and Culture, 2006.