Tawatawa’s History

Tawatawa Reserve wasn’t always protected. Here’s what we know about the history of the whenua.

In te reo Māori, tawatawa can mean either “mackerel” or “maidenhair ferns”; it is not known whether one of these meanings is the one that caused the area to be so named. It may also be a plural of the word “tawa”, which could simply indicate that the pre-European vegetation was largely tawa.

Early in the period of European settlement of Te-Upoko-o-te-Ika-a-Māui Wellington, all the hills running along the true left of the Ōwhiro Stream catchment were referred to as the “Tawatawa Range”.

There appear to have been no pā sites in the reserve, but the land around the Pouwhenua is said to be a former Māori urupā (burial ground).

Around 80 percent of Aotearoa New Zealand was covered by forest before people arrived on its shores. About 6.7 million hectares of forest were destroyed before 1840, and between 1840 and 2000 another 8 million hectares destroyed, Wellington’s forests included.

Before deforestation, Tawatawa’s forest canopy would have been dominated by tawa, kohekohe, hīnau, māhoe and nīkau and would have stretched some 10–15m toward the sky.

Through this canopy, tall trees such as kahikatea, tōtara, rimu, pukatea and mataī would have emerged and grown to heights of 25–35m. The interior of the forest would have been dense with shrubs and saplings, ferns and tangles of native vines.

Following forest clearance, the hills around South Wellington were sown with rough pasture grasses and farmed. Farming was not very successful on this coastal hill country close to the developing city, and much of the land south and west of Karori and Brooklyn was retired.

After de-stocking, a scrub cover of tauhinu, mānuka, gorse or broom would quickly have become established. Over the next decades, native broadleaf shrubs would have grown up in the shelter of the pioneer scrub cover and overtopped it. Radiata pine were planted on the slopes of the valley.

In the 1970s, Tawatawa Valley was used as a private landfill. This was closed after four years, covered and capped with an impermeable clay, which now limits what grows on the flats.

The valley was then included in plans for a housing subdivision, but this was put on hold after environmentalists started lobbying for it to be restored to forest.

In 1999, Tawatawa Bush, at the head of Tawatawa Valley, was included in an inventory of primary forests in Wellington, put together by prominent ecologist Geoffrey Park for Wellington City Council.

Species found in this remnant included akiraho, kānuka, kohekohe, māhoe, mamaku, ngaio, thin-leaved coprosma and whārangi. The ngaio in particular appear to be some of the largest, and therefore possibly some of the oldest, in Wellington.

The existence of this forest remnant was one of several reasons for the area gained reserve status in 2009.

There are a great many people who have contributed to the work at Tawatawa Reserve over the years. We are grateful to all, from those that turned up to plant a tree to those that have worked tirelessly for close to 30 years to make Tawatawa what it is. We’d like to acknowledge the work and support of these people and organisations in particular: 

  • Gareth Morgan
  • Gona Pandian
  • Jenny Hartley
  • June Epsom
  • Jennifer Bennett
  • Ken New & Ruth Pemberton
  • Maggy Wassilief
  • Pam Smith
  • Robert Logan
  • Wellington City Council, including past and present councillors, officers and rangers