Before the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, ‘The Independent’ newspaper ran a story telling their British readers that there was a violent underbelly to New Zealand society, citing gang troubles in the northern Hawkes Bay town of Wairoa as evidence. The examples they used were graphic, including gang shootings and a culture of conflict between the two rival gangs the Mongrel Mob and Black Power. Dig deeper, and you find a town affected by its isolation, poor transport links north and south, unemployment and depopulation (by some 20% in the last 15 years to 0.02 persons per hectare).
All of which makes grim reading and suggests that Wairoa is a place to avoid.
Today it is primarily a stopping place for drivers en route between Gisborne and Napier, with a few petrol stations and eating places to replenish cars and occupants. Few people stay for long for there is always a journey ahead – and more’s the pity. A few hours spent in the town and they might see the people and place a little differently.
Here I must declare my hand. Wairoa is my home town and while I have lived abroad for some 18 years, I return regularly to visit the town where my father was a doctor for some 30 years and where my mother still lives. So it is no surprise that, while conceding the problems that occasionally beset it, I have seen another, more gentle and caring side.
Wairoa (meaning ‘long water’) is the centre of a farming area with a national park and lake (Waikaremoana) to the north, thermal springs and superb beaches to the east on Mahia Peninsula. The town itself, described by the same journalist as ‘an edgy town bisected by a broad river’, is, in fact, the centre of a rural hinterland that has been facing a constant decline over the past twenty years or more. Yet dig beneath the economic decline and there is still a sense of community in this once thriving service town; people speak to you, in shops and in the street; there is kindness, charity and a sense of care not apparent in more sophisticated towns and cities. People look after each other each other, ask after them, watch over them, and you sense family, and the extended family (the whanau) are still very important. Yes, there is evidence of poverty (all strictly relative, of course – this is New Zealand), a certain lawlessness and long-term economic decline, evident from the many shop closures, but there is also a spirit that comes through in community events, in the revival of the town’s cinema and epitomised by my favourite New Zealand café (the East End café) which manages to be quirky, friendly (as well as serving excellent food and coffee). Yes, the outside of the town is gruff and even angry at times, but within is a community suffused in humanity that speaks volumes of those who live there.
Sometimes, you have to live in a place to know its heartbeat.
With vineyards north (in Gisborne) and south (in Hawkes Bay), rich fertile soil, an attractive river setting and as good a climate as anywhere in New Zealand, Wairoa has a lot to offer. It just needs jobs; it just needs some economic injection; it just needs a chance to become the town it was in its heyday.
An interesting summation Peter & an enjoyable read!
Would be fascinated by an updated version now there is Rocketlab at Mahia, a revived town centre about to emerge, maybe the richest most genuine living Maori culture embodied by the multiple active surrounding marae – in NZ, an invigorated push to grow more natives plants and clean up our waterways in the process and generally a thriving metamorphosising little town!
I have lived away from home for nearly 50 years now but until COVID, returned multiple times a year to visit friends & whanau & also hope to spend my retirement years “ back home”.
Our family have many fond memories of your dad who was our family Dr for years, nana – Betty Rangi – was your dads secretary/ receptionist/ nurse for several years, I went to school with Alison & spent a few enjoyable holidays with her & your parents in the Mahia bach your family owned.
All treasured memories
Very best regards Peter – keep on writing !
Nice to hear from you Jeni – I remember Betty very well and others of the family when they lived in Ruataniwha Road. I think Moi also worked with dad.
I have been in the UK for 20 plus years now, but until recently got home every year and even though family have all gone, I always go back – it’s home!
I’m excited to see the new town centre when I’m next out. I have three grandchildren at Mahia and two at the really impressive school now where my youngest daughter lives (in the old bach). I’ve now got to learn Te Maori to keep up with them!
Thank you for replying and commenting and very best wishes
Thank you Peter Tait for this perceptive account of Wairoa.Having spent all my married life in Wairoa where my husband and I raised a family of five I can vouch for the strong sense of community and the great link between the county and the town.I knew your parents and your younger sister was at school in Havelock with two of my daughters.
The outdoor pursuits enjoyed by family groups in the great Te Urewera park,at the excellent beaches,on the Wairoa river and exploring other river systems in rafts afforded much adventure and camaraderie for all.Although I now reside in Napier Wairoa remains my hometown.Other ex Wairoans here stoutly maintain their allegiance to Wairoa and remember it as the best place to raise a family during the years when people initiated their own fun and had freedom to enjoy organised sport,individual pursuits,seashore surf casting or angling for trout in the rivers and lakes.
So many fondly recalled friends and activities to warm one’s cockles in advancing years.I have lived abroad also but my country upbringing in outreaches of Wairoa have been affirmative of life in a unique small town .My father also had fostered a respect for the fabled cricket pitch at Kaiwaka.
Thank you Cherry – it is a special place and good to share memories.
very impressed with this article ,my home town too, and the town is as you describe it, good kind community.But the negative image remains. I go there often and introduce my frienns to the hidden side ,they are amazed at the Gaity theatre end .
Hopefully, its image will change in time without losing what is truly special about the town.