“A century ago and indeed for much of its history, Karamea was one of New Zealand’s remoter settlements. Isolated by mountain, bush and river and largely dependant on the sea for its contacts with the outside world, the settlement developed and fostered a unique spirit and character among its people”
1974 –William E. Rowling Prime Minister, New Zealand
On November 3rd, 1874, 4000 acres of land on the south side of the Karamea River were set aside and reserved by for a special settlement. The land made available to European settlers in Karamea was on a high terrace, which turned out to be poor agricultural land. When the settlers eventually relocated to the more fertile flats of the Karamea River, they named the southern side The Promised Land and the northern side The Land of Promise. Nowadays these areas are known by the Māori names Arapito and Umere. Most of the immigrants came from England, with a group from the Shetland Islands (north of Scotland).
In its early days Karamea was a port town, the river mouths being deep enough to accommodate shipping vessels of the day. Goods, produce and people came and went largely by ships, boats and ferries. The first bridge crossing the Karamea River, connecting the Karamea region by land to the rest of the West Coast, was not built until 1895. Although an access track was formed across the south-lying coastal hills to connect Karamea with the road and rails at Seddonville, land transport out of the district was difficult in the early days. The present route over the Karamea Bluffs to Westport was not opened until 1916. After the 1929 Murchison earthquake the mouth of the Karamea River silted up, and the only access to the area was then by road.
Agriculture and logging were largely at subsistence levels until the road to Westport was opened. The first co-operative butter factory was opened in 1911. The dairy industry gradually expanded, and the manufacture of milk powder started in the 1970s. Logging is now only a historic activity and milk is now collected daily from farms by tanker and transported to Hokitika for processing. By the 80’s and 90’s tourism had filled some gaps in Karamea’s economy, drawing travelers and holiday-makers from all over to this unique and beautiful region.
In the mid-eighteen hundreds explorers Charles Heaphy and James Mackay spent much effort exploring the northern west coast for signs of early indigenous culture. Evidence of oven remains, adzes, beds of pipi shells and a half-finished canoe indicate regular Māori occupation of the region. The discovery of a moa-hunter site at the Heaphy River in 1960 suggests that Māori occupation of the area began about 1500. Bones of the extinct giant New Zealand Haast Eagle (Māori name ‘Hokioi’) have been found in the caving systems of Karamea. Evidence of much earlier indigenous culture is under examination. Early tribal names associated with the area include the Waitaha, Hawea, Kati Wae Wae and Ngai Tahu.
(A more complete history of Karamea, compiled by local historian Dulcie McNabb, is available through the Karamea Information & Resource Centre)