Whakatane is the kind of place where people out walking along the river greet you and when the fire siren sounds everyone stops, looks at each other and scans the skyline quizzically. It has only one ‘dollar’ shop (which is having a sale) but more coffee shops, hair and beauty salons and clothes shops on it’s high street than I have seen in a very long time.
According to Maori oral legend the area around Whakatane has been a fortified village since the first Polynesian settlers arrived around 1200. It was an incident which happened some 200 years after these first settlers arrived which gave the settlement it’s name. When the Mataatua waka (sea faring canoe) arrived bearing the first kumara the canoe was left on the shoreline but began to drift in the changing tide. One of the village woman had gone against tradition and lead the other woman folk in paddling the canoe to safety calling out ‘Kai whakatane au i ahua’ – I will act like a man.
After European settlers arrived Whakatane became an important centre for ship building and trade in the 1880’s. In the 1930’s a paper mill opened which along with beer production is still part of the local economy alongside agriculture, forestry and tourism.
In the 1990’s a few North Island brown kiwis were found in the scenic reserve on the hill. The Kiwi Project was set up to protect these endangered birds leading to Whakatane being more recently known as the Kiwi Capital of the World.