The first known inhabitants of the area were the Ngāti Rangi (Sky People) tribe, descendants of Moururu. Ngāti Rangi is an ancient pre-migration iwi (tribe) and was the first to populate the central plateau. Evidence of settlement in this area dates back to the 1600s. Several other hapu (sub tribes) also migrated to the Ruapehu region around this time and many pā (fortified villages) existed throughout the region. They lived in harmony with land and several tapu (sacred sites) can be found in the area. These include Ruapehu Crater Lake and the three summits of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.
In 1887 the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe gifted the three sacred peaks to the people of New Zealand as a National Park to be protected for all time. In doing so the Tongariro National Park was born, only the fourth in the world and the first to be gifted by the people of a land.
The Iron Road
The arrival of the European settlers brought a new age of industry to the region. In 1883 John Rochfort, Chief Government Surveyor, arrived with his team to identify a route for the joining of the northern and southern sections of the North Island main trunk line. They set up camp in the bush clearing that was to become Ohakune.
The landscape was favourable and the route was approved. In 1892 the settlers began to move into the area with the promise of fertile land and the impending railway connection, however the reality was very different. The isolated community relied upon a single muddy and often impassable track to connect them with the supply town of Pipiriki on the Whanganui River.
The first census of the town was taken in 1896 and noted 20 adults living in the settlement. Over the next 12 years the township grew with the arrival of engineers, construction workers and supply businesses for the railway. Ohakune was transformed from a sleepy backwater into the bustling heart of the construction operation. Over 1500 men laboured on the tracks and the massive engineering project that was Hapuawhenua Viaduct . By the time the last spike was driven in in 1908 the town had 600 adult residents.
The completion of this line linked the township with the major cities of the North Island and, seeing an opportunity in the abundant forest that surrounded the settlement, it was not long before the timber merchants arrived in the town.
In 1909, sawmills began to appear in the district, the first of which was situated in Rochfort Park, close to the present day site of the Carrot. The mills worked around the clock, with some of the larger mills cutting up to 9000m of timber a day. At the height of the boom there were 17 mills within 3km of Ohakune main street.
However, they were victims of their own success and in just 20 years the landscape had been almost stripped of its resources and, with the onset of depression of the 1920s, the mills were mainly abandoned.
A new opportunity then presented itself to the town. Chinese immigrants arrived with an offer for the farmers whose land was littered with the stumps of trees. In exchange for clearing the land, back breaking work that few were keen to attempt, they would be permitted to farm it for 4 years after which it would be returned to the farmers and the Chinese would move on to another area. This agreement formed the beginnings of the region’s market garden industry. Sheep and cattle were brought into the area and fields of root vegetables became a feature of the landscape. Even today this industry is still the largest employer in the region.
A new direction
Unfortunately, the land itself was not enough and, with the mill industry in severe decline, thoughts turned to alternative income for the township. As early as 1913 the Ruapehu Ski Club began to request accommodation on the mountain and the first hut was constructed in 1922, however it was not until 1934 that the community began to seriously consider the possibility of a commercial ski field on Ruapehu. This would of course require better access than the existing horse trail.
After several failed petitions to the Government the residents took matters into their own hands and in 1952 the Mountain Road Association was formed. Initial work began immediately but with limited resources and funds and the majority of the work being undertaken by local volunteers it was extremely slow going. After almost 10 years of construction work additional funding was finally secured from the Government but it still took a further 5 years to complete.
Eventually, in 1976, the road was declared legal and in 1978 Turoa Skifields Ltd began its commercial operations on the mountain
Today the slopes of the Turoa ski field have a reputation as some of the best skiing in the country but this would not have been possible without the community’s determination and vision plus the thousands of hours of voluntary work that went into creating it.
It is with this vision and determination that the residents of Ohakune are able to see the bright future that awaits the township. Throughout its history the people have lived off the land, however it is only in recent years that it has become clear that the value of the region lies in the environment itself. The stunning scenery, the thousands of acres of pristine native woodland, the miles of crystal clear waterways and the mighty mountain itself are Ohakune’s gold and today the community has embraced all of this and strives to preserve it for future generations.
Sources: Ohakune: Opening to a New World – Merrilyn George, 1990; Ohakune 75th Jubilee 1911-1986 – ed. Mary Ann Gill, 1986.