The South Wairarapa coastline features some of New Zealand's oldest inhabited sites, and local tradition states that the explorer Kupe lived there for a period. The southernmost point of the North Island, Cape Palliser, is known to Maori as Matitaki a Kupe, and other points along the coast also commemorate Polynesia's most famed explorer.
Even today, the careful observer can note ancient stone walls along the coast, boundary markers for garden sites.
The first pakeha to see Wairarapa were those who arrived with Captain Cook in 1770. Groups of Maori from Matakitaki a Kupe paddled out to the ship, to trade with Cook's crew. The first pakeha to live in the district were whalers, sealers and flax cutters who plied their trades from the coast. Some stayed to found families with their Maori wives.
South Wairarapa was the cradle of large scale sheep farming in New Zealand, when flocks of Australian-born Merinos were herded around the coastal route from Wellington, and used to establish the country's first sheep station in 1844 at Wharekaka, near the site of present day Martinborough. By 1851 extensive farming was well established with 20,000 sheep. The Government started buying Maori land in 1853 and much of the land was purchased and on-sold to pakeha farmers.
The first planned inland towns in New Zealand were Greytown and Masterton which were established in 1854. Featherston followed in 1857 with Martinborough being established in the early 1880's. Shortly following the Rimutaka Incline railway which used a fell locomotive was constructed, which allowed the districts butter, cheese, wool and livestock to be carried over the hill for export.
An extensive military camp was built in Featherston in 1915 which housed NZ troops before their embarkation overseas. Greytown later became established as a prominent fruit growing area, and later still Martinborough became home to a vibrant grape growing and winemaking industry. Long periods of little growth in the townships, coupled with settled farming communities, has left the district with a wonderful built and coastal heritage.
Today increased access to Wellington has facilitated township growth with many people now living in the villages and commuting to Wellington for work. Visitors are drawn to the district each weekend to sample the produce of the region, and to enjoy the natural and cultural heritage of South Wairarpa.
For more information on what the South Wairarapa and wider Wairarapa has to offer today visit www.wairarapanz.com.
(information from Wairarapa Archives)