Heritage, Culture & Arts

Marlborough’s rich history runs wide and deep, from the earliest Polynesian settlers of the Wairau Bar to the first European pioneers who built our towns and planted our first grapevines.

These people, the way they lived their lives and how they dealt with history’s major events has shaped Marlborough into what it is today. Those stories are all here, waiting to be discovered all over again.

Marlborough has a wealth of arts and culture, from art galleries to museums through to concerts and theatre productions.

Follow the Marlborough Arts and Crafts Trail, enjoy a glass of wine while listening to live music at a vineyard or on stage at Marlborough's new ASB Theatre.

Opaoa River Heritage

The Opaoa River in Blenheim has always been an important food source for both Māori and Pakeha.

For Ngati Rarua, the river was an integral part of day-to-day life. It was called the ‘Opaoa’, which for both Ngati Rarua and Rangitane translated to smoking, or smokey river, describing the mist that rose from its waters.

The Opaoa was originally a branch of the Wairau River, but in 1880 it was cut off near Renwick. For the Wairau’s early European settlers, the river was a vital transport link that brought food and supplies to the new settlement of Blenheim.

Marlborough’s port and some residents were initially based at the Wairau Bar, as ships were unable to cross the Bar and enter the river. Goods that did travel to Blenheim, at the confluence of the Opaoa and Omaka (now Taylor) Rivers, were taken on whaleboats towed by horses walking along the riverbank.

In 1855, everything changed. A major earthquake in the North Island’s Wairarapa region caused the Wairau Lagoons to subside, allowing larger vessels to cross the bar and travel the entire 20km inland journey to Blenheim.

From 1860, it was realised even larger vessels could travel the Opaoa, and trading vessels sailed between cities. This inevitably resulted in problems for some of them; the ship Echo grounded on the mud bank briefly in 1965.

Cook Strait transport today has moved away from the Opaoa River to the Cook Strait ferry companies based in Picton, and airlines providing daily flights to Marlborough Airport and Picton Aerodrome.

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