|Territorial authority||Rangitikei District|
|Named for||Shortened form of Ōtaihape.|
|• MP||Ian McKelvie (New Zealand National Party)|
|• Mayor||Chalky Leary|
Taihape is the Northern gateway town of the Rangitikei District, located near the middle of the North Island of New Zealand. It services a large rural community and lies on State Highway 1, which runs through the centre of the North Island.
Taihape is a rural supply town and was at its peak during the 1960s when it was a railway and transport hub for the surrounding farming community. Much of its economic activity revolved around the railway and rural communities. A major decline occurred in the 1980s due to a restructure and electrification of the railway system and a general downturn in the farming sector. In recent years with the advent of major tourist attractions Taihape is now experiencing an upturn in local commerce. Its location on the North Island Main Trunk Railway and on State Highway 1 has ensured its economic survival. Taihape's main claim to fame is as the "Gumboot Capital of the World", and it attracts large numbers of people to the annual gumboot-throwing contest.
Taihape is near the confluence of the Hautapu and Rangitikei rivers about 500 m (1500 ft) above sea level. It lies in a sheltered valley among the high country of the central North Island, close to the Rangitikei River and the Ruahine Ranges. Despite its transport links. Few towns in New Zealand have a steeper street profile, which provides spectacular views across to the Ruahine Ranges. It is surrounded by fertile high country utilised for sheep and deer farming. Its location close to the mountains, rivers and lakes has made it ideal as a service point for hunting and outdoor tourism. The town is at the southern edge of the volcanic plateau.
Transport routes in and out of Taihape have improved over the years. What were once twisting and treacherous roads through the high country, State Highway 1 is now an easy and fast set of deviations through the hills to Mangaweka in the south and Waiouru to the north. North of Taihape the road and railway first cross the wide volcanic plateau (with the volcanoes Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe, and Mount Tongariro) and the Rangipo Desert before the road reaches Lake Taupo and the more hospitable country beyond Taupo at the north end of the lake, while the railway turns briefly westward through Ohakune on its way to the Raurimu Spiral at the north-west edge of the plateau.
There are no transport links to the west, owing to rugged hill country, and only the Gentle Annie Road to the east over a mountain range to the port city of Napier. Before State Highway 1 and the railway were built the latter road was the main route in or out of what was then an extremely isolated community.
The Taihape region was originally inhabited by local Maori tribes who settled the area well before the arrival of Europeans; descendants of these tribes still live in the area. The first record of a European to the region is William Colenso's visit in 1845. In 1884, the surveyor's party for the Main Trunk railway line cut a rough track through the district.
The town was founded in 1894, when European settlers arrived from Canterbury in the South Island. The site of the town was a small natural clearing in dense native bush, which the first settlers set about clearing. Many of the original families have descendants still living in the area. The settlement was first called Hautapu after the local river, then Otaihape ("the place of Tai the Hunchback"), and finally Taihape.
Before the establishment of the railway, the bulk of farming produce (wool) had to be transported east by horse and bullock cart to Napier, from where it was exported. Until the establishment of roads and railways in the early 1900s, Taihape, like other rural towns, remained largely an isolated pioneer settlement. It developed as a key railway and transport town, reaching its peak of population and activity during the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s. The town declined during the downturn of the 1980s and today it is largely a refreshment stop for travellers and a service point for the local farming community.
Taihape has a population of about 2,000 people. Population peaked at around 3,500 in the late 1960s, but declined in parallel with many other rural towns after that time.
The town has five primary schools including St Joseph's Catholic School established in 1916, and the Taihape Area School. All the schools service a rural community scattered over a wide area. In April 2004 the education minister, Trevor Mallard, decided that the state secondary and primary schools were to recombine and pool their resources to become an Area School. This caused much angst in the town, especially regarding the choice of site.
The Taihape local government ward is part of the wider Rangitikei District Council, with the current Mayor Chalky Leary and is served by 3 ward councillors, Cr Ed Cherry, Cr Jan Byford, and Mangaweka based Cr Richard Aslett.
Taihape is home of the annual Gumboot Day, first celebrated on 9 April 1985. This festival was devised by local business people who decided to capitalise on its rural image.
Taihape was a major railway marshaling yard until the late 1970s.
There were many railway houses situated along the length of Mataroa Road; now only three remain. At one time Taihape had two lodges of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. One of the lodges was named Kaikoura Lodge No 226 (after the local Kaikoura River) this lodge survived until 2007. The lodge once had its own lodge rooms. The former railways house painted purple located on the highway traveling south into Taihape was once one of the two buffaloes halls. The lodge in Taihape once boasted a good strong membership due in part to the Railways and Post Office.
Trains would receive an additional engine to help in the long incline over the central plateau. A turntable was installed to turn around smaller, weaker engines. This turntable was dismantled and removed in the early 1980s. After a long period of fund-raising by the Rotary, the turntable was re-purchased and installed; now specials can be run to Taihape and turned around for the return run.
In 1999 Tranz Rail demolished the historic Taihape Railway Station. The station had existed before the North Island Main Trunk had been completed. The Refreshment Rooms still stand on the former station platform and also the old Goods shed and the locomotive depot compound at the south end of the Yard. The New Zealand Railways Road Services were a major presence in the town alongside the railway station.
A local engineering company has an old steam whistle attached to compressed air. It has become the town smoko signal sounding at 10am, noon, and 3pm. Tourists often mistake the sound for a steam engine being in the town.
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