Our environmental history is littered with the stories of wetlands that were drained to make way for farmland or settlements. But in the Wellington region, there is a rare example of a substantial wetland that survived this onslaught. It is an example of how – paradoxically – an environment’s utility as a source of a commercial resource can sometimes provide for its preservation.
Over the last 150 years there were a number of attempts to drain the swamp for farming, but these attempts succeeded in only partially draining the swamp. However, wedged between two hilly areas, the swamp also lay in the path of both the main trunk line, and later, the Centennial Highway (now State Highway 1). In the end it was its peaty soils and poor drainage that saved it from destruction, and both the railway and the highway were designed to skirt around the periphery of the swamp to avoid the difficult and expensive engineering problem that would be involved in constructing the rail and rail through it.
Prior to the area’s settlement by Europeans, the swamp and adjacent coastal area (now Plimmerton beach) was the site of a principal pa (fortified village) of prominent chief Te Rauparaha. This pa was strategic because it provided a base for canoes to travel in all directions. It is likely that the swamp would have been an important source of food, such as eels, as well as resources, such as flax. After Te Rauparaha’s capture in 1846 the pa was slowly abandoned.
After early attempts to convert the swamp area into farmland, in the 1880s, it was decided to utilise, rather than destroy, the swamp’s main resource – flax (harakeke). The swamp thus became one of many flax farms in the region, supplying the burgeoning flax industry [see also Flaxmilling in the Manawatu]. As the demand for flax increased, flax plants sourced from elsewhere were planted in the swamp, accelerating the natural process of succession. It is unclear when flax harvesting ceased at Taupo Swamp – some accounts suggest it had stopped by 1947 while others say that it was nearly 20 years later, in 1966.
The swamp area was purchased in 1986 by the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust, and protected by a covenant. Today, the 30 hectare wetland area is the largest remaining flax swamp in the Wellington region, and is valued both for its recreational value (for its popular cycleway and walkway – Ara Harakeke) and its ecological value, being habitat to bittern and fish species such as brown mudfish, longfin eel, redfin bully and banded kokopu [learn more of its biodiversity by downloading the Taupo Swamp biodiversity poster]. It is clearly visible to travellers along State Highway 1 between Plimmerton and Pukerua Bay.
[Photo above left: Taupo Swamp today. Photo: QEII Trust. Below right: Looking south over Taupo Swamp, 1937-38. Major earthworks occurred with the newly constructed Centennial Highway (left) and the main trunk railway line (right). The drainage ditch, which failed to drain the swamp, can be seen in the centre. Photo: Pataka Porirua Museum.]