Manawatu is the broad coastal plain running north and west from the Tararua Range, up to the southern end of the Ruahines and across to the Rangitikei River. The region includes Horowhenua and its main town, Levin, in the south, and Palmerston North, one of NZ’s major provincial cities, to the east.
The Manawatu River, which rises in the Ruahine Range, flows 160 km through the Manawatu Gorge and across the plain into the Tasman Sea at Foxton Beach.
Until the 1870s the region was covered with dense bush, through which the only access was the river, and a number of Maori hapu were dotted along its banks. Manawatu was one of the areas considered for settlement by the Canterbury Association in the early 1850s, but European occupancy was delayed because of the obvious time and expense involved in clearing and developing the land.
Clearing the thick bush for settlements at Palmerston North and Feilding began in the 1860s, and timber and flax were the commodities on which early commerce was built. Flax production in the low-lying basin of the lower reaches of the Manawatu River continued until after World War Two, with the town of Foxton the major processing centre.
The Manawatu Gorge is the major access through the mountain system of the Tararuas and Ruahines from the west into southern Hawke’s Bay. The first track through the gorge was cut in the late 1860s, and ten years later a road was built to take wheeled traffic. The railway line, a brilliant engineering feat, clinging to the northern bank of the steep gorge, went through at the beginning of the 1890s.
The Manawatu today is one of the most fertile, intensively farmed regions in NZ, supporting sheep farming (with a high proportion of stud sheep breeders), cropping and market gardening, dairying and fruit growing.