The valley of disappointment

Today, the Petone and Lower Hutt area is an intense conglomeration of industrial, commercial and residential buildings and infrastructure – interconnected by motorways, roads and railways – concentrated within the confines of the sea to the south and the steeply rising hills of the valley to the west and east. Within this landscape of steel, glass, concrete and asphalt, it is hard to believe that only 170 years ago, this was thickly forested floodplain and estuary, rich with teeming birdlife – including the now extinct huia, and the endangered kokako.

The first British migrants to Port Nicholson in 1840 were lured by New Zealand Company advertising replete with romanticised and illusory descriptions of the pastoral landscape that awaited their settlement. What was to become Wellington was described as a place of undulating plains suitable for the cultivation of grapevines, olives and wheat, while prospective migrants were told that “…settlers on arrival will be relieved from all the usual difficulties which assail the process of civilisation…” “…everything will be prepared for them. Houses, even, are in the course of erection and the first colony will really go out to a home.”

However, when the first shipload of migrants arrived at Pito-one beach on board the Aurora [see left], the site of the planned town of Britannia (now Petone), there was an overwhelming sense of disappointment at what they saw. One migrant later wrote: “We were all full of hope and anxiety to see what had been represented to us as a sort of earthly paradise…[but] within a few short months I was doomed to witness those very beings who were cheering and shouting as they left the land of their nativity, cast – as it were – upon a barren and inhospitable shore.” Not only were there no “undulating plains” waiting for cultivation, or houses for the settlers, the town was not even laid out, so the settlers had to build temporary huts from raupo and flax while waiting for the surveying to be completed. Instead of plains ready for cultivation, thick forest clothed the valley and the surrounding hills, giving way to raupo and flax marshlands where the Heretaunga (now Hutt) and Waiwhetu Rivers meandered into the estuary.

Furthermore, it soon became clear that while the landscape was indeed a valley, it was also a floodplain, something that can be clearly seen in satellite imagery of the valley today [see right]. The Hutt River drains mountainous terrain in the southern Tararua and Rimutaka Ranges and streams and rivers from the Eastern and Western Hutt hills, meaning that in times of high rainfall in these catchments, colossal volumes of water flow through this river and plain. Settlers who ventured upriver to fell trees found silt high up in their branches, a sign that when in flood, the river would extend well beyond (and above) the bounds of its banks. Within a month of the first clearing being cut in the river bank forest, the temporary settlement on the foreshore was completely inundated by flood waters and the settlers were forced to move to higher ground. Before long, the New Zealand Company decided to move the site for the town to the less flood-prone Lambton Harbour on the other side of the bay.

The valley was not one of disappointment for everyone, however. Some, like 19 year old artist and surveyor Charles Heaphy, who was sent in advance of the planned settlement by the New Zealand Company, was deeply impressed by what he saw. He was particularly captivated by the estuary, which he thought was “most interesting and picturesque”, and he recalled “the enormous number of waterfowl frequenting the mouth of the Hutt River. Cormorants [shags], ducks, teal, oyster catchers, plovers, sand-pipers, curlew, and red-legged waders…”

From the pa [at the mouth of the river] we pulled up the Waiwhetu River, which there had lofty pine trees [kahikatea] on its banks. The various bends were very beautiful and secluded, and seemed to be the home of grey duck and teal, and numerous other wild fowl … As seen from the ship, or the hills, a lofty pine wood appeared to occupy the whole breadth and length of the Hutt Valley, broken only by the stream and its stony margin. This wood commences about a mile from the sea, the intervening space being a sandy flat and a flax marsh. Of the larger birds, the kokako, the rail, pukeko, pigeon, kaka and huia were numerous…

This estuary landscape that Heaphy so admired is today an industrial area that offers  no hint of its rich ecological past, and which, unlike it natural form, is unable to cope with the not-infrequent flooding of the Hutt River [see photo left]. The severely polluted Waiwhetu Stream [see photo below right] struggles to support any form of life, even of the smallest invertebrate, let alone fish or birds. Other streams, such as Te Mome, have been relegated to an underground drain, its very existence forgotten by those who live or work above it. However, even today, an occasional white-faced heron fossicking in the mud by the river reminds us of the complexly interconnected floodplain and estuary ecosystems which once sustained so many species – including people – for many hundreds of years. Perhaps one day, it will – at least in part – be rediscovered fro m under the asphalt.

This post inspired by Geoff Park’s “The Perfect Vale”, Chapter 2 of Nga Uruora – The Groves of Life. Note that Waiwhetu Stream is currently undergoing a clean-up operation with the object of restoring its water quality and creating habitat for fish and other species in its lower reaches; click here to read more.

Picture top: “Port Nicholson from the hills above Pitone in 1840”, drawn by Charles Heaphy (1845). Lithograph. Identifies Hutt River, Somes Island, Evans Bay and Wellington. Shows the huts of the first settlers at Petone. View from the western hills looking out towards the harbour entrance.  Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library must be obtained before any re-use of this image, PUBL-0009. Next down, left: the ship Aurora, 1880s, location and photographer unidentified. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library must be obtained before any re-use of this image, ID 1/2-025379-F. Next right: Satellite image of the Hutt Valley (Google Images). Above left: Seaview, Lower Hutt in flood (Civil Defence NZ). Above right: Waiwhetu stream in Lower Hutt, polluted by industrial waste. Photograph taken circa 11 October June 1975 by an unidentified photographer for the Evening Post. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library must be obtained before any re-use of this image, EP/1975/4298/22a-F


Sources/further reading: The Penguin History of New Zealand (2003), by Michael King. Nga Uruora – Ecology and History in a New Zealand Landscape (1995), by Geoff Park. See Resources page for more details: Britannia – a false start, in Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand; History of Hutt Valley.

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