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Manawatu-Wanganui is a region in the lower half of the North Islandmarker of New Zealandmarker, around the city of Palmerston Northmarker and the town of Wanganuimarker.



The region covers all or part of ten Districts. Parts of five of these are covered by five other regions of New Zealand, the most of any region. In descending order of land area the Districts are Ruapehu, Tararua (part), Rangitikeimarker (part), Manawatu, Wanganuimarker, Horowhenua, Stratfordmarker (part), Palmerston Northmarker, Waitomomarker (part) and Taupo (part).


The region is dominated and defined by two significant river catchments, the Whanganui and the Manawatumarker. The Whanganui River is the longest navigable river in New Zealand. The river was extremely important to early Māori as it was the southern link in a chain of waterways that spanned almost two-thirds of the North Island. It was one of the chief areas of Māori settlement with its easily fortified cliffs and ample food supplies. Legends emphasise the importance of the river and it remains sacred to Wanganui iwi. Māori along the coast and lowland plains grew kumara and other crops.

Much of the Manawatu-Wanganui Region was fertile and bush-covered when Europeans arrived and developed the area as a source of timber. Saw milling and flax milling dominated the 19th century, followed by an influx of sheep farmers who exploited the newly-cleared ground. Deforestation, burn-offs of timber and scrub and large scale drainage combined with overgrazing, resulted in considerable environmental degradation. In the early 1900s authorities realised that careful management was needed to maintain this important agricultural area.

While the open Manawatu Plains became more densely settled by Europeans, inland Ruapehu, Rangitikei and Wanganuimarker remained more Māori-dominated, remote and independent. As late as the 1950s the Whanganui River remained a river of mystery. Since then exploitation of the river's commercial potential has opened up the area, often causing friction with local Māori, who have long-standing grievances. The region is one of the most important pastoral areas in New Zealand, its status recognised when the government opened the Massey Agricultural Collegemarker in the 1920s.


The Manawatu-Wanganui Region takes up a large proportion of the lower half of the North Island. It is the second-largest region in the North Island and the sixth-largest in New Zealand, totalling 22,215 km2 (8.1% of New Zealand's land area). The region stretches from north of Taumarunui to south of Levin on the west coast, and across to the east coast from Cape Turnagain to Owhanga. It borders the Waikatomarker, Taranakimarker, Hawke's Baymarker and Wellingtonmarker Regions and includes river catchment areas that run from the volcanic plateau to the sea. The Pacific Oceanmarker is the eastern boundary and the Ruahine Rangesmarker form a natural boundary between the region and Hawke's Bay.

The area includes a variety of landscape formations. Districts close to the Volcanic Plateaumarker are higher and more rugged, often subject to harsh temperatures in winter. The Manawatu District has a much gentler topography, consisting mainly of the flat, tree-studded Manawatu Plains that run between the ranges and the sea. The land was under the sea till about 500,000 years ago and still has a very thick layer of marine sediment, which is about five or six million years old. A block faulting system underneath the thick sediment has raised a series of domes and gentle depressions. These structures can provide natural storage areas for oil and some of the Manawatu domes have been drilled. The domes have shaped the course of the Manawatu River, giving it a meandering path which, uniquely among New Zealand rivers, begins close to the east coast and exits on the west coast. The Manawatu River begins just inside the Hawke's Bay Region, then flows through a deep gorge to the Manawatu Plains before exiting in the Tasman Seamarker. The Wanganui Districtmarker is more rugged, with canyon-like valleys and gorges carved out of the soft rock by rivers and ocean waves.

The region includes a series of mountain ranges, notably the Tararuamarker and the Ruahine Rangesmarker and the three major active volcanoes of the North Island. Mount Ruapehumarker at 2,797 m is the tallest mountain in the North Island, Ngauruhoemarker 2,291 m and Tongariromarker 1,968 m. During the last 100 years Ruapehu has experienced six significant eruptions, and last erupted in 1995 and 1996.

Three major rivers divide the region: the Whanganui (290 km), Manawatu (182 km) and Rangitikeimarker (241 km). The Whanganui is the second-longest river and has the second-largest catchment in the North Island, draining most of the inland region west of Lake Taupomarker. There are few roads in this area, which contains some of the largest surviving areas of native bush in the North Island.

Soil and climate

Soils in the region are productive with the addition of fertiliser. In the Manawatu and Horowhenua Districts there are sandy soils and swampy hollows around the coast with loess-covered terraces and river flats inland. These river flats and swamp areas contain fertile alluvial and organic soils. On the drier terraces inland yellow-grey earths predominate. The flatter more fertile soils suit intensive sheep farming and cropping while the hill country of Rangitikei favours semi-intensive sheep and beef farming. Areas close to the volcanic plateau consist largely of pumice soils which lack some essential trace elements but within the region much of this land is occupied by national parks.

The region has a comparatively mild climate with greater climatic extremes inland. Chateau Tongariromarker experienced the lowest temperature recorded in the North Island, falling to -13.6 °C on 7 July 1937. In summer the region is warm, with a maximum mid-summer daily average of between 20.1 and 22.9 °C. Sunshine hours approximate the national average for much of the region (1,800-2,000 hours per annum) but Palmerston North is defined as cloudy with an average of 1,725 sunshine hours. In the winter the minimum mid-winter daily average for coastal areas is 4.0 to 7.9 °C, while inland areas are considerably colder. Waiourumarker has a minimum mid-winter daily average of 0.1 °C.

Rainfall on the plains is slightly below average, with Palmerston North receiving 960 mm, while the rest of the region receives the New Zealand average rainfall of 1,000-2,000 mm.

Conservation and parks

The region contains areas of great ecological significance, reflected in the designation of approximately a seventh of its land area as part of the nation's conservation estate. Tongariro National Parkmarker is the largest park in the region (795.98 km2) and is the oldest national park in the country, established in 1887. The volcanoes Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe are sacred to Māori and were gifted to the nation by Te Heuheu Tukino IV, paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa. They form the nucleus of the park, which is designated a world heritage area.

Whanganui National Parkmarker is slightly smaller (742.31 km2) and was established 99 years later when a series of reserves were incorporated into one area and given national park status. There are two state forest parks in the rugged, bush-clad Ruahine and Tararua Ranges. The four parks offer skiing, tramping, jetboating and white-water rafting and the opportunity to appreciate the environment.

The regional council, responsible for managing natural and physical resources, provides flood protection and monitors environmental problems such as pest infestation and pollution. Invasive plant pests such as African feathergrass, goats rue and nodding thistle pose a threat to pastureland in this heavily agricultural-dependent region, and the regional council has instituted control campaigns. The regional council has also instituted animal pest control programmes. Possums are perceived as the major animal pest since they damage native forests and endanger cattle production through the spread of bovine tuberculosis. Eradication programmes also concentrate on rabbits, rook and feral goats, while other exotic species such as Parma Wallaby (Macropus parma) wallaby, wasps, ferrets, stoats and weasels are a source of concern.


Population density in the Manawatu-Wanganui Region at the 2006 census.
The region had a usually resident population of 222,423 people at the 2006 Census, the fifth-largest population in New Zealand. The region has a lower than average population density, 10.3 people per square kilometre, compared with 13.1 for New Zealand. Between the 2001 and 2006 censuses the population rose by 1.6%, or 3,477 people.

There are two major urban areas in the region. Palmerston Northmarker, with an estimated resident population of , expanded as an educational centre and a supply centre for the surrounding rural hinterland. It became a city in 1930. The other major urban area is Wanganuimarker, with an estimated resident population of Other urban centres include Levinmarker, Feildingmarker, Dannevirkemarker, Taumarunuimarker, Foxtonmarker, and Martonmarker.

City life does not dominate the region, as half the population live outside a large urban area, over a third in small towns or rural areas. While manufacturing has become an important part of the region's economy, most businesses are agriculturally based and agriculture remains the regional linchpin. The dominance of agriculture, combined with the relatively small scale of most urban areas, gives a rural quality to the region, quite distinct from neighbouring Wellingtonmarker. The region's rugged interior has also become one of the main training areas for New Zealand's defence force, which maintain three bases in the region.


  • Pre-1769 Approximately 3% of Māori lived in the Wanganui Basin and 8% on the Taranakimarker coast. Coastal Māori garden and gather food but life for Māori further inland is more difficult, relying on hunting and gathering.
  • 1820-1840 Ngati Toa and Te Atiawa iwi displace local iwi from their lands.
  • 1830 Te Rauparaha (Ngati Toa) lay siege to Putiki in retaliation for an attack on Kapiti Islandmarker, sacking the pā and killing its inhabitants.
  • 1831 European traders arrive in Wanganui, led by Joe Rowe, supposedly a dealer in preserved heads (moko mokai). A dispute with local Māori leads to the death of three of his party and his own head is cut off and preserved.
  • 1840 Edward Jerningham Wakefield (Edward Gibbon Wakefield's son) purchases of land under dubious circumstances, for the New Zealand Company, including the Wanganui town site. The first European settlers start arriving in Wanganui.
  • 1842 The first organised European settlers in Horowhenua arrive at Paiaka.
  • 1847 In July the "Battle of St John's Wood" occurs when 400 Māori clash with an equal force of British Regulars.
  • 1848 The Crown purchases Wanganui, , of which are supposed to be set aside as a reserve.
  • 1855 Paiaka settlers move closer to the coast at "Foxtonmarker", which becomes a port handling flax, timber and agricultural produce.
  • 1856 The Wanganui Chronicle is first published.
  • 1860s Scandinavians settle in the Tararua District, later founding Eketahunamarker, Dannevirkemarker, and Norsewoodmarker.
  • 1865 A battle ensues between the Hau Hau adherents (who were largely upper Whanganui Māori), who want to expel the Pākehā at Wanganui, and the Māori of the lower river.
  • 1866 Palmerston Northmarker (Te Papai-oea) is founded. It is surrounded by forests with the Manawatu River serving as its only link with the port of Foxton and the outside world.
  • 1870s The bush is gradually felled and the Manawatu opened up for European farms and settlement. Former Danishmarker Prime Minister, Bishop Ditlev Gothard Monrad, organises a settlement of Danes near Awapuni.
  • 1871 The first sawmill is established at Palmerston North.
  • 1872 Wanganui becomes a borough.
  • 1875 The Manawatu Times is published for the first time at Palmerston North.
  • 1876 A railway opens between Foxton and Palmerston North via Longburn, later named the Foxton Branch. Wellington Province abolished.
  • 1877 Palmerston North becomes a borough.
  • 1878 A railway line opens between Palmerston North and Wanganui. The first portion later became part of the North Island Main Trunk Railway, between Aramoho and Wanganui the Wanganui Branch, and the rest part of the Marton - New Plymouth Line.
  • 1884 The Sanson Tramway, built and operated by the Manawatu County Council, opens to Sanson, New Zealandmarker from the Foxton Branch at Himatangimarker.
  • 1885 Mother Mary Joseph Aubert starts her community of the Daughters of Our Lady of Compassion at Jerusalemmarker, founding a home for Māori orphans, the elderly and infirm. The private Castleciff Railway opens between Wanganui and Castlecliff.
  • 1886 The Wellington and Manawatu Railway opens between Wellingtonmarker and Longburn railway (later the North Island Main Trunk), superseding the Foxton link and ensuring Palmerston North's growth.
  • 1889 Levinmarker is founded because of the construction of Wellington & Manawatu Railway
  • 1908 The North Island Main Trunk reaches Taumarunuimarker and thence Aucklandmarker, opening up the inland districts for development.
  • 1906 Levin becomes a borough.
  • 1930 Palmerston North becomes a city.
  • 1939 Ohakeamarker Air Force Station commences operations.
  • 1945 The Sanson Tramway closes.
  • 1953 New Zealand's worst rail disaster occurs at Tangiwaimarker on the North Island Main Trunk, as the railway bridge collapses because of a lahar flow from the crater lake on Mount Ruapehumarker. A train with Christmas holiday-makers plunges into the flood, killing 151 people.
  • 1956 The private railway between Wanganui and Castlecliff is purchased by the government and incorporated into the national railway network as the Castlecliff Branch.
  • 1959 The Foxton Branch railway closes.
  • 1960s Famous New Zealand poet James K. Baxter sets up a commune at Jerusalem.
  • 1963 Massey Universitymarker is formed by a merger of a branch of Victoria Universitymarker (at Palmerston North) with Massey Agricultural College.
  • 1991 In formal recognition of its original name the government renames the Wanganui River the Whanganui River.
  • 1995 Occupation of Moutoa Gardens (Wanganui) in protest at the slowness of the Waitangi Tribunal claim settlement process and loss of control of the Whanganui River.
  • 1995-1996 A series of small eruptions occurs on Mt Ruapehu, throwing ash over a wide area.
  • 2004 Sustained heavy rain in February caused the region's worst flooding in over 100 years.

The economy


Agriculture dominates the economy in the region. A higher than average proportion of businesses were engaged in the agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, 6.3% compared with 4.4% nationally. Businesses engaged in retail trade were dominant numerically. In 1997 there were 2,300 businesses in the region, employing a total of 10,380 full-timeequivalents (FTEs). The percentage of businesses engaged in manufacturing was slightly higher than the national average and manufacturing employed the greatest number of people (12,830 FTEs).


Unlike its neighbour Taranakimarker, Manawatu-Wanganui has not been a major producer of energy or minerals. There are some new power schemes operating within the region including the southern hemisphere's largest collection of wind farms, with 194 installed turbines and more planned.


The region is known for its strong agricultural base, which prompted the establishment of an agricultural college there in the 1920s. The government wanted to promote scientific farming and established colleges in two of the most important farming areas, Canterburymarker and the Manawatu. Research by members of the college into animal genetics in the 1930s led to the development of new breeds of sheep, the Drysdale and the Perendale, which became commercially significant after World War II.

Agriculture dominates land use in the region although there are areas of forestry and horticulture. Soils and climate favour pastoral farming. There were 6,344 farm holdings in the region on 30 June 1996, which was almost a tenth of all farm holdings in New Zealand. Farming occupied 72.5% of land in the region, which was much higher than the national average of 60.1%. Approximately 80% of this land was used for agricultural purposes (grazing, arable, fodder and fallow land). In the Manawatu, Rangitikei and Tararua Districts this percentage rose to over 90% of total land.

The region is one of the most important areas of pastoral farming in New Zealand. The region had 7,216,177 sheep (at 30 June 1996), the largest number of sheep in the North Island and the fourth-highest figure in the country behind Canterbury, Southlandmarker and Otago. The region also produces a significant proportion of vegetables in the North Island and is particularly noted for its abundant potato crop. Barley, which is used for the manufacture of stock feed and for malting, is grown in the region. The region produces the largest quantities of barley in the North Island, providing 10% of the national refined crop of 302,804 tonnes in 1995.


The region is one of the most significant forestry areas in the southern North Island. The predominant soil type in the region, yellow-brown earths, when enhanced by the use of fertilisers, is very suitable for forestry. Forestry has a long history in the Manawatu since Palmerston North developed as a saw-milling town and the region's initial prosperity depended on heavy exploitation of native timbers. But land use practices inhibited the long term viability of this indigenous forestry industry. Severe burn-offs destroyed large areas of native forest and subsequent overgrazing affected the region's soils. Forestry largely disappeared until the early twentieth century. In an attempt to combat erosion problems in sandy soils the government planted forests in the Foxton/Levin area in the early twentieth century. Inland forests were planted later. Some private native forest in the region has been set aside for sustainable logging but most forestry in the region depends on exotic plantings.


For the eight quarters between September 1996 and June 1998 the region averaged 4.1% of total guest nights in New Zealand. This was close behind Wellington at 6.7% and greater than Hawke's Bay, which averaged 3.1%. Occupancy rates, at 20.1%, were the fourth-lowest in the country for the June 1998 quarter. Rates for the city of Palmerston North were significantly higher than the national average (39.5% compared with 25.8%) whereas districts such as Ruapehu are far more seasonal with fairly low occupancy rates except in the peak ski season.


The region includes State Highway 1, the main state highway, and the North Island Main Trunk Railway, the main railway line, which link Aucklandmarker and Wellingtonmarker. The Palmerston North - Gisborne Line and State Highway 3 follow the Manawatu Gorge, linking the region with Hawke's Bay. The Marton - New Plymouth Line provides a railway link with Taranaki, and from this line a short branch line runs to Wanganui. Road and rail transport give the region's exporters easy access to ports.

The region has approximately 16% of the North Island's road length. There are 8,732 km of road, of which two-thirds are sealed. Approximately 12% of roads in the region are classified as urban and three-quarters as rural, with almost half of the rural roads being unsealed. With 945.9 km the region has the second-highest length of State Highways in the North Island, after Waikato.




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