Whataroa, (the Long Storehouse), with its two lakes and two major river systems was a rich source of birdlife and fresh-water fish for summer food-gathering expeditions by the South Westland Maori. Fishing camps existed on both sides of the river mouths and fast-moving trading parties from the east coast may have used the Sealy Pass to cross the Main Divide.
The 19th Century
European explorers, prospectors and surveyors passed along the coast and into the valley in the mid C19th, but it was not until the 1870s that the Okarito butcher leased the Whataroa flats and drove his cattle up the river from the beach. As gold on the beaches and in the rivers was worked out, disillusioned miners followed, moving inland and establishing small farms as well as timber and flax mills. The first school opened in 1879.
Until the beginning of the C20th, there were no fences. The whole valley was a huge commonage with cattle, sheep and horses grazing wherever they roamed and the settlers cooperated to hunt and muster stock. Access to Whataroa was on foot or horseback, either down the beaches from Hokitika or after a trip on a small steamer to Okarito. All supplies and produce came and went the same way – by packhorse or packhorse and steamer. The nearest medical help was in Ross or Hokitika. The first telephone connection was installed in 1897.
The 20th Century
By the beginning of the C20th, a narrow gravel road linked Whataroa with Hokitika, Okarito and Waiau(Franz Josef). With the bridging of the dangerous Whataroa River in 1908, motorised transport became possible and isolation was at an end, although Okarito continued to be the social and supply centre for the people of the valley for many years.
Dairy farming predominated in the early years although during the hard years of the 1930s many men went back to gold panning in the river as a way of providing for their families. In the mid years there was a drift to beef and sheep, but from the 1980s, dairying again developed as the main type of primary production.
Whataroa had a very busy community life, based around the two churches, the school, the hall, the pub, and numerous clubs and societies. Highlights were dances with music provided by violin and piano, the Whataroa races, the cattle sales and the A&P Show.
The 21st Century
The advent of large-scale dairy farming has brought huge changes to the Whataroa community. Many farms have been amalgamated and the mechanisation of such operations has led to a big drop in the rural population, which threatens the viability of local businesses. Fewer people, working longer hours have less time for community activities and it becomes harder to find volunteers to serve on essential committees and staff essential services.
To address these issues the people of Whataroa are taking advantage of the wonderful wild back-country at our doorstep and our position at the gateway to the South Westland World Heritage Area to develop the town into an attractive venue for family holidays, adventure tourism and as a place where workers from the busy tourist centre of Franz Josef will be happy to live.
Credit: Many thanks to Karol London for writing this brief history.