South Taranaki is a district steeped in history. From Parihaka Pa – the home of 19th century prophet Te Whiti and symbol of peace and passive resistance across the world – to Turuturu Mokai – the scene of bloody battles and beheadings – South Taranaki is a history-lover’s heaven.
Like a set out of Lord of the Rings, South Taranaki was previously covered in dense forest, with the now extinct Moa, Huia and Takahe roaming the land. Early Maori made the incredible journey by waka from their homeland in the eastern islands of Polynesia, known as Hawaiiki. Turi led his people from Aotea waka overland from Kawhia to Patea, while those in Kurahaupo travelled from their landing place at Orakei to Taranaki.
The people of Nga Rauru are firm in their view that Kahui Rere already occupied the land when they first arrived. Excavations of Moa hunter sites at Ohawe and Kaupokonui have found ten species of Moa, nine now-extinct bird species, plus artefacts and 15 species of sea lion dating back to 1400 AD.
When Europeans arrived in Aotearoa, Maori had occupied the coast of South Taranaki for many hundreds of years, clearing land closest to the coast for cultivation and leaving the interior bush largely intact. By this time, a sophisticated Maori culture had developed with fortified villages or pa located throughout the district. Missionaries arrived in early 1840 and the 1860s saw the start of European settlement in South Taranaki. Early attempts to acquire land quickly lead to Maori resolving not to sell any land between Okurukuru and Kai Iwi.
As Maori resentment to European settlement built up, the Taranaki wars began, spanning nine years, from 1860. Chief Titokowaru organised his people to take up arms against the settlement of their land and settlers were harassed until they abandoned the area. In 1865, Governor Grey proclaimed all the land between the Stony River and Waitotara to be confiscated. While the wars ended in 1869, Maori resistance was not finished and Parihaka became a rallying point for Maori of many tribes. The followers of Te Whiti and Tohu were hard-working and peaceful, the village provided food for all and the elders kept law and order.
In November 1881, troops invaded Parihaka but found no resistance. Te Whiti and Tohu were taken from Parihaka and incarcerated in Addington Gaol for an indefinite period, without trial. Fortunately, in early 1883, a report came from Britain criticising the treatment of Maori in the colony and the pair were quickly released.
The end of hostilities encouraged Europeans to re-settle in South Taranaki. Early communities made their living from flax milling, saw milling, trading in cocksfoot grass and an edible fungus known as Taranaki wool. When sufficient land had been converted to pasture, dairying began to intensify and co-operative dairy factories were established. At Opunake and Patea, wharves were constructed to cope with the growth in trade, although both facilities were later closed down as land transport improved and became more commercial.
Opunake opened one of the first co-operative dairy factories in 1885, leading the way to become the district’s biggest industry. During the 1890's, the Taranaki region's population grew faster than anywhere else in New Zealand. The first 20 years in the 20th century saw 95 butter and 21 cheese factories change to 26 butter and 116 cheese factories. When milk tanker collections started in 1956, it was to be less than 20 years before the 115 dairy factories dotted around the province closed down in favour of what is now the largest single-site dairy factory in the Southern Hemisphere at Hawera.
Vast reserves of natural gas were discovered at Kapuni in South Taranaki in 1959. Ten years later, more was discovered offshore at the Maui fields. This led the way to the $2-billion Motunui synthetic petrol plant and $500-million Waitara Valley methanol plants being built, supporting a $2-billion energy industry today.
Drawing sustenance from the rich pastoral economy, the towns of South Taranaki grew and prospered. Today, the district remains prosperous and innovative, with many new industrial and research initiatives underway.