Mangarakau Swamp

Mangarakau History

Pre Human History

 It is not difficult to imagine Mangarakau as a swamp forest habitat dominated by towering kahikatea trees. Imagine too some representatives of the now extinct giant moa browsing ostrich-like in a swamp forest ringing with native bird calls. Although huge in size, even the biggest of the moas had to be alert for raids from the hilltop caves by the equally imposing Haast's eagle.


The area surrounding the swamp was populated by a succession of Maori peoples. It was home to the Ngai Tara people, and then to Ngai Tumatakokiri. Around 400 years ago it was raided by Ngai Tahu from the south, and we know that the population fluctuated thereafter.

Golden Bay was then settled by Ngati Awa and Ngati Tama from the north. A battle was fought on the coast at nearby Paturau, and the Ngatirarua people were in residence when, in 1840, a ship called the Jewess dropped anchor offshore. The ship's captain, Frederick Moore, recorded that Riwai Turangapeke, chief of the Ngatirarua, 'Did all he could to induce me to settle (in west Whanganui) and bring as many white friends as I could on a return voyage'.

Moore did return, despite his little ship experiencing some difficulties and loss of life in the unpredictable weather and currents offshore. 'This snug inlet will one day be deemed one of the best ports on the west coast', he confidently predicted.  Moore was called E Moa by his Ngatirarua hosts. He became romantically involved with the sister of chief Riwai Turangapeke, and she left the area to sail with him to Wellington.


The Collingwood gold rush began in 1854.  Maori discovered gold at Slaty Creek in 1862, prompting an influx of eager prospectors to the Anatori River catchment. Each miner paid a fee to the Maori landowners for the right to pan or dig for gold. Prospectors came from as far away as China, and lived in and around a place called Muttontown that quickly developed, and was so-named because of the sheep that were brought in to provide food.

Maori landowners began trading in the coal that had been found in the area. In 1866 the West Whanganui Coal Company began mining, and coal was shipped out from the inlet.

 From 1900 onwards the goldminers were being joined by an influx of people who came to work in the timber industry, farming, flax milling, road making and associated services.

In 1909 Prouse and Saunders started a sawmill at Mangarakau. This continued till WW1 took men away to war and it was closed down by 1920.  The Benara Timber Co. re-opened the mill in 1932 and leased logging rights over 16,000 acres of Taitapu land. The timber was cut and milled into planks at the mill near the site of the Nugget café then taken to the wharf and transported by sailing ship to build houses for the growing town of Nelson.  Coal was also transported this way.  Timber mills fell foul to fire and there were 4 timber mills altogether. Sure enough, the potential of the inlet to become a busy port was duly realised, as Captain Moore had predicted, and the boats there were loaded high with the products of the local landscape.

 The last of the goldmines was closed in 1915, ending an era of frenetic activity and back-breaking endeavor that had seen men battle against hazardous conditions and untamed terrain to take the supplies and machinery they needed into the hills, and build the 'batteries' required for crushing the mined quartzite rock that might contain gold. It's fair to say the rewards did not always match the effort.


The first farmers cleared small areas of bush and lived in tents and developed their land slowly with little or no returns for many years.  They did their own bush felling, logging, burning and grassing down.  Sowing seed on new burns each year was long and hard work, but cattle that fed on these clearings were fit and healthy.  Throughout this period it was a very isolated life for people living at West Haven, Mangarakau, Patarau and Kahurangi.

A newspaper advertisement of 1900 offered pieces of coastal land - 'magnificent sheep country' - for sale from the Taitapu Gold Estates Company. 'The country takes English grasses well, and carries a heavy flock of sheep and cattle.' The Paturau River was described as a 'model trouting stream'. The trout in question were brought in from overseas.

 Entrepreneurs called Prouse and Saunders were attracted by the opportunity presented. They sailed into the inlet in 1903, bringing saw milling equipment and tram rails, three prefabricated houses and enough manpower to set up a flax mill at Paturau and a sawmill at Maungamangarakau (as it was then called) River.

 A public road to Paturau was complete by 1905, although the boggy terrain of Mangarakau made the going pretty arduous. Collingwood County Council was the first to attempt drainage operations on the road in 1907.

 By 1918  Prouse and Saunders had laid a staggering 25 miles of wooden tramline, held together by 16 tons of large nails, as well as a wharf at Pah Point. They even built over the steep hill at Puni Paua, putting the rails on three levels. As trees were felled and land cleared, men began to bring families in, as the work seemed steady and plentiful. The community was flourishing, and a school had been set up. Although the way of life was tough, the local people still found time for socialising


In 1905 a flax mill was established at Mangarakau.  The site of the mill is identified on Bobby’s Walk. Flax was cut from the shores of Lake Otuhie and the workers used punts to carry it down the Sandhill Creek to the tramlines. The flax was scrubbed under running water to separate out the plant fibres from which rope and cloth could be made. Bales of this dressed flax were then taken to the wharf. The flax mill at Paturau was moved to Mangarakau in 1911. The mill and the houses associated with it were clustered around the regenerating bush - paddock area at the entrance to what is now the  Mangarakau Swamp Visitor Centre. The mill was open until World War I (1914-1918) took away many of the men who had worked there.

Some Historical References:

1865  First coal prospecting licenses were issued and the West Whanganui Coal Company commenced mining.

1895  The first flax mill was  down the road at Karaka Point, Patarau and was powered by local coal.

Amongst all the excitement of gold and coal mining, land disputes with Maoris erupted at every new settlement.  It appears that several tracts of land between Kahurangi light house and Farewell Spit were “sold” several times over and without any payment to the residing Maoris and it is for this reason West Haven, Te Tai Tapu and associated land were not included in the Kahurangi National Park.

By 1900 flaxmills, sawmills, farms, roads and bridges were being developed and at Pah Point a wharf was being built on West Haven (now Te Tai Tapu marine reserve).

1907  Work starts on developing the Mangarakau Drain.

1916  Road built along the east side of Mangarakau Swamp.

1925  Road to Patarau commenced. 

1932  Vehicle bridge over the Patarau river opened.  

1939  Road completed with Depression Labour.  By 1960 the all-weather vehicle link between Collingwood and the Anatori river was complete, known as Dry Road to this day.

1940s & 50s Mangarakau was a lively settlement with rugby and cricket teams, store and post office, library service, swimming pool,  community hall (the Visitor Centre and museum).  Men were kept busy milling, coal mining and working on the road, and families supplemented their income by growing vegetables, hunting deer and pigs, fishing for crayfish, paua, eels, whitebaiting, and gathering wild blackberry and even banana passionfruit in the hills.

1952  New sawmill built at Patarau;

1958 It burnt down and was replaced. 

1968  second mill burns down.

1984  Baigents cease logging and the land is bought by the Crown in 1985.

Click here for historic article:  swamp.pdf

Mangarakau Post Office circa 1905
Mangarakau Post Office circa 1905
Workers at Prouse and Saunders Sawmill
Workers at Prouse and Saunders Sawmill
Flax Mill
Flax Mill
Flax Mill workers
Flax Mill workers
Horse railway carting flax fibre
Horse railway carting flax fibre
Flax Mill interior
Flax Mill interior
Stansell's Flaxmill
Stansell's Flaxmill

Above photos from Nelson Provincial Museum Tyree Studio Collection.


Aerial view of Mangarakau about 1950.
Aerial view of Mangarakau about 1950.