Karori Before the Fence

Mutu kākā (bird snare), Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (ME00482)

Māori food source

The takiwā (region) of Kaiwharawhara, in which ZEALANDIA is located, has always been a special taonga for Taranaki Whānui. The source of the Kaiwharawhara stream which flows out to Te Whanganui-ā-Tara (Wellington) can be found inside the sanctuary.

In earlier times the stream was a significant source of fish and crustacean (i.e. kōura) for the nearby kāinga. Ngakinga (cleared cultivated areas) were abundant in the district providing such crops as aruhe (fern-root) and kūmara (sweet potato). The ngahere (forest), with its abundant bird life and plant material served as mahinga kai (food gathering areas) and rongoā tapu (areas for collecting traditional medicine).

Kaharore, the original Māori name for Karori, literally means ‘the ridge for snaring birds’. Traditionally, Māori used a rore (snare) to catch kākā, kererū and other forest birds. There is no history of the valley being permanently occupied, but the area was well known as a hunting ground. 

" ...the solitude of the bush was enlivened by the call and movement of numerous birds such as the tui, tomtit, fantail and little green parrot; the last, with touching confidence, would come so near when we were sitting down that we could almost seize them with our hands." - Early settler James Taine describes Karori birdlife in 1840.


The arrival of Europeans saw the burning of the original forest and the valley turned into farmland. After major forest fires in the 1850s and 1860s, the valley was farmed on the eastern side by George Baker and William Mitchell, and the western side by Joseph Campbell. As part of the western slopes were too steep to farm, the forest was allowed to regenerate. It is now the best area of bush in the sanctuary valley.

Farming continued in other sections of the valley until 1906, when all stock were removed because they were thought to be polluting the water supply. The valley was then zoned as a water supply catchment and closed to the public.

Gold and quartz mining

Alluvial gold was discovered in the Kaiwharawhara stream near the Karori tunnel in June 1869. Because of the proximity to the city, residents quickly flocked to the area. By the end of July, however, claims in the upper stream were abandoned and new claims were opened downstream where the Old Karori Road crossed the Kaiwarra (Kaiwharawhara) stream.

Within two years alluvial mining had disappeared and was replaced by quartz mining. Water wheels and crushing machinery were installed by the Baker’s Hill Mining Company and at the Morning Star lease, but many people believed that some neighbouring claims were formed not for prospecting purposes but for speculative reasons.

Poor returns from all leases soon spelled the end of gold mining at Karori. Completion of the waterworks dam in 1873 resulted in the close of the Baker’s Hill and Morning Star mines as their land and ground works were submerged when the Reservoir was filled.

Two claims in the upper valley, Union and Try Again, although not directly affected by the water level, could not operate within the restricted access area of the reservoir catchment. When the Golden Crown mine also faded shortly after, quartz mining in Karori came to an end. Some small-scale alluvial mining, intermittent prospecting, and working of quartz reefs persisted to 1897.

Water reservoir and two dams

The Wellington Waterworks Act of 1871 provided for 228 acres of farmland to be taken over for the purposes of building a reservoir for the city. Construction began in 1872 on an earth dam, the first of its kind in Wellington, and possibly in New Zealand.

Works were completed the following year with the building of the Gothic style water outlet control tower. This has an ‘A’ classification with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust. The other historic building by the lower dam is the boat shed used by the then governor-general who had fishing rights on the lower dam.

By the late 1870s Wellington’s population was increasing rapidly and the existing dam was proving insufficient to meet the city’s water needs.

Construction on a second dam began in 1906. Completed in 1908, it is one of only two or three gravity arch dams in the country, and an early example of the use of concrete in New Zealand.

In 1978 an engineer’s report found the dam to be an earthquake risk, positioned precariously over the Wellington Fault. The lake behind the dam was lowered and in 1991 the upper dam was decommissioned.

With the completion of a new enclosed water supply reservoir at Johnsonville the lower dam was withdrawn from the city’s water supply system in 1998. It is still retained as an emergency water supply.


Dam under construction in the Karori Reservoir valley, Wellington. Ref: 1/1-019829-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Date 1907