Only town and major rural service centre in northern Hawke’s Bay, 93 km south-west of Gisborne and 119 km north-east of Napier, with a 2013 population of 4,050. Wairoa is divided into two halves by the Wairoa River. The south side contains the main shopping streets next to the river, with wide residential streets arranged in a grid pattern behind. The north side is predominantly industrial. In the 2000s it was the site of the Affco freezing works, a key employer in the town and source of business for the district’s pastoral farmers.
One of Wairoa’s most famous sons is broadcaster and politician Derek Fox, who was born in the town. He has worked extensively in television, radio and print media, and chaired the board of Māori Television. Fox was also the mayor of Wairoa from 1995 to 2001, during which time he was an outspoken advocate of the town and its prospects. He stood unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1999 and 2008.
Wairoa was originally a Māori settlement. The ancestral canoe Tākitimu travelled up the river and landed near where the Tākitimu meeting house now sits. The river was an important source of food for the community that grew on its banks.
William Rhodes established a trading station there in 1839, and missionary William Williams first visited in 1841. A permanent mission station was established in 1844. Early European squatters ran sheep and traded flax.
The town site (then called Clyde) was purchased by the government in 1864 and sections were sold to settlers in 1866. Members of the Māori Pai Mārire (Hauhau) faith arrived in the district around the same time and Wairoa became a colonial military base. Battles were fought around upper Wairoa and Lake Waikaremoana. Māori land in the district and around the lake was later confiscated by the government despite many Wairoa Māori having fought for the Crown.
Development of the town was hindered by lack of roads and difficulty navigating the entrance to the Wairoa River. The land was converted into pastoral farms and later exotic pine forestry, and dairy factories and freezing works were opened. However, Wairoa continued to be constrained by its isolation and reliance on rural industries vulnerable to economic downturns.
At the movies
Since 2005 Wairoa has hosted the annual Wairoa Māori Film Festival, which showcases Māori and indigenous films made around the world. The films are screened in the town’s Gaiety Cinema and in marae around the district.
Though Wairoa’s population grew modestly but steadily through most of the 20th century, it has been declining since the mid-1980s. Post-school qualification rates are low and in 2013, 40.2% of residents had no qualifications. Income levels are similarly low – in 2013 the median income was $20,400, compared to $28,500 nationally.
In 2013, 66.3% of Wairoa residents identified as Māori, reflecting northern Hawke’s Bay’s status as a centre of New Zealand’s Māori population.
Small rural settlement north of Wairoa on State Highway 38, with a 2013 population of 252. Frasertown was originally called Te Kapu, but was renamed by early settlers for Major James Fraser, who led military forces in Wairoa in the 1860s. The old Frasertown cemetery contains graves dating from 1875 to 1962. Frasertown has two marae, a general store, tavern and primary school.
Major river that runs down from the hill country north of Wairoa and drains to Hawke Bay below Wairoa town. The Wairoa River, with its tributaries, has the largest catchment of any river in Hawke’s Bay. A sandbar at the mouth limits navigation and caused the failure of the early town’s port.
A battle between government troops and Te Kooti’s forces occurred on the Ruakituri River (which drains into the Wairoa River) in 1868.