Whakatane is situated on the eastern bank of the Whakatane River mouth in the Bay of Plenty. The business section of the town extends along the waterfront below the precipitous slopes of a hilly promontory called Whakatane Heads. The main residential area occupies alluvial flats immediately upstream. To the east and south-east of the district the land rises to hills, but elsewhere comprises level plain. The Bay of Plenty branch railway terminates at Taneatua (9 miles south). A railway station at Whakatane West (6 miles south-west) serves the town. By road Whakatane is 61 miles south-east of Tauranga, 57 miles northeast of Rotorua, 20 miles north-east of Kawerau, and 39 miles north-west of Opotiki. Whakatane is a river port with facilities at the town for vessels of light draught.
The main farming activities of the district are dairying and fat-lamb production. Cheese is made at Ruatoki (15 miles south) and butter at Edgecumbe (11 miles south-west). Lime is quarried at Awakeri (7 miles south-west) where there are also developed hot springs. The exotic forests of the Kaingaroa Plain are located within 12–30 miles south-west and logs are hauled to Whakatane for milling. There is a large cardboard and container-board factory on the west bank of the Whakatane River opposite Whakatane. Wooden boxes are manufactured at Piripai (about 1 mile west). There are sawmills and a timber-treatment plant at Edgecumbe. Whakatane is the principal commercial and industrial centre of the Rangitaiki area of the Bay of Plenty district. Town industrial activities include the manufacture of joinery and furniture, concrete products, and knitwear; bacon and ham processing; sawmilling; and general engineering. There is a popular marine resort at Ohope Beach (4 miles east).
According to Maori tradition Toi te Huatahi, later known as Toi Kairakau, landed at Whakatane, A.D. c. 1150, in search of his grandson, Whatonga. Failing to find Whatonga, he decided to settle in the locality and built a pa on the highest point of the headland now called Whakatane Heads, overlooking the present town. Some 200 years later Mataatua, one of the canoes of the Great Migration, landed at Whakatane. Motuhora Island (6–7 miles north-west) provided shelter for Cook'sEndeavour in 1769. Flax traders are believed to have visited the locality in the early 1800s. The Church Missionary Society's vessel Herald visited Whakatane in 1828. During March 1829 the trading brig Hawes was captured by local Maoris off Motuhora Island, brought into the river and looted. Philip Tapsell became established at Whakatane as a trader in the 1830s. During 1865 the schooner Kate was cut off at Whakatane by local Hauhau converts who murdered James Fulloon, the master, and two of the crew. This outrage led to the temporary military occupation of the settlement. Te Kooti's Hauhaus sacked Whakatane in 1869 before being driven back into the mountainous Urewera Country.
In addition to agriculture, flaxmilling became an important activity towards the end of the century and fibre was shipped out by scows from Thornton (5 miles north-west) and Whakatane. About 1890 the Rangitaiki Plain area was opened for settlement, but large tracts were unfarmable because of swamps. The Government took over the drainage work in terms of the Rangitaiki Land Drainage Act 1910 and, since 1911, have converted most of the area into farming land. Dairying commenced with the establishment of a cheese factory at Opouriao (12 miles south) in February 1899. The railway planned originally to link Gisborne with the North Island Main Trunk line was opened for traffic through Whakatane West to Taneatua on 2 September 1928. Whakatane was constituted a borough in 1917. The name Whakatane commemorates an incident occurring after the arrival of the Mataatua. The men had gone ashore and the canoe began to drift. Wairaka, a chieftainess, said “Ka Whaka tane au i ahau” (“I will make myself a man”), and commenced to paddle, and with the help of the other women saved the canoe. (There are other versions.)
POPULATION: 1951 census, 3,777; 1956 census, 5,445; 1961 census, 7,169.
by Brian Newton Davis, M.A., Vicar, St. Philips, Karori West, Wellington and Edward Stewart Dollimore, Research Officer, Department of Lands and Survey, Wellington.