By: Christopher Cookson
The Awatere is one of Marlborough's four largest rivers flowing over 110km northeast from its source in the Inland Kaikōura Range near Molesworth to the sea northeast of Seddon. Like the Wairau it flows down a filled fault line, a splinter of the alpine fault. To the south is the Inland Kaikoura Range and Mt. Tapuae-O-Uenuku and to the north is the Black Birch Range. Awatere means 'fast flowing stream' in te reo Māori. An unsuccessful attempt was made by The New Zealand Company to rename it to the Wakefield River.
Most of the rocks in the lower Awatere Valley are soft mudstones and conglomerates from the late Miocene and Pliocene epochs, some of which contain marine fossils. Further up the valley the higher peaks are mostly greywacke with a number of volcanic extrusions. The soft mudstones are easily eroded resulting in the river typically having a silty appearance. The first gelogical survey of the valley was carried out by Christian Gottlieb Ferdinand von Hochstetter in 1864, an Austrian geologist who made significant contributions to NZ geology during an Austrian scientific expedition. The major geological feature responsible for the Awatere Valley is the Awatere Fault, a branch of the Alpine Fault that runs for over 200km . The eastern section of the Awatere Fault ruptured during the magnitude 7.5 earthquake of 1848. From November 1888 to February 1889, Scottish geologist and photographer Alexander McKay, credited as New Zealand's first scientific photographer, carried out an extensive photographic survey of the Awatere Fault and other geological features in order to produce a geological map of the Awatere.
At the time Europeans began exploring the valley was mainly tussock but many of the side valleys and hills contained beach forest. Much of this was burnt and converted to pasture but in some more inaccessible places there are sizeable remnants of native forest. Black Birch Stream is a publicly accessible area of conservation land with a significant area of kānuka forest. A number of unique alpine plants and animals can be found on the ranges that surround the valley, for example, black mountain ringlet butterfly, mountain violet. Marlborough rock daisies are found in the valley. Trout have been introduced to the river, however since it tends to be quite silty, it does not provide an ideal habitat, and numbers tend to be low.
Tributaries of the Awatere Rover
The Awatere drains an extensive area, with a number of tributaries.
- Dane River
- Kennet River
- Tone River
- George River
- Castle River
- Winterton River
- Grey River
- Hodder River
- Shim River
- Cam River
- McRae River
- Jordan River
- Penk River
- Medway River
Exploration and settlement
After the arrival of European settlers, much of the Awatere was explored and had features named by Sir Frederick Weld, in 1850 as he passed through the valley using it as an overland route from Canterbury to Blenheim. William McCrae, a Scotsman also extensively explored the Awatere and named some features including Blairich and Altimarloch. The first runs were established in the late 1840s, although the Awatere remained very sparsely populated.
Until the late 20th Century, most of the economic use of the Awatere Valley was for pastoral farming with large sheep runs established from the 1840s, but since then much of the lower valley has been planted in vineyards, with the Awatere becoming Marlborough's second most important wine producing region after the Wairau Plain. Several wineries are located in the valley, including Yealands, one of Marlborough's largest. Further inland, where frosts make vineyards inviable, pastoral farming continues on a number of high country stations. Some farms have also developed tourism ventures including homestays and private walking tracks. Some areas of plantation forestry are present in parts of the valley, particularly on the lower slopes of the Black Birch Range. Due to the relatively arid climate and mountainous terrain, much of the Awatere is unsuitable for any economic activities.
Until late 2007 the only bridge crossing the lower Awatere was a unique road/rail bridge with the railway crossing on an upper deck, and State Highway One crossing on a wooden lower deck. The bridge was the cause of much lobbying central government as it was only a single lane, and caused delays for traffic travelling north and south. A temporary solution involved installing traffic lights at each end of the bridge to help improve traffic flow, and finally in late 2007 a new two lane concrete bridge was completed along side. After the new bridge was completed, there was initially strong interest in keeping the old bridge open to foot and cycle traffic, however claims that the cost of annual inspections would amount to tens of thousands of dollars resulted in the wooden decking being pulled up, bringing to a close nearly a century of service, although the upper deck continues to be used by the railway.
From State Highway One, a bit over a kilometre north of the Awatere bridge, the Awatere Valley Road runs south-wast past numerous vineyards, until it eventually arrives at Molesworth Station, New Zealand's largest farm. The road crosses several bridges including the Hodder Suspension Bridge, a starting point for climbers intending to climb Tapuae-O-Uenuku. To the east of State Highway One, the Awatere Valley Road continues west until eventually it meets the Redwood Pass Road, an unsealed road that can be used as an alternative to State Highway One that connects Blenheim with the Awatere Valley.