“People don’t always want to travel the main roads – they’d rather drive through and see all the little places.”

At first glance, Pongaroa is similar to most small rural settlements, with limited cellphone coverage and tractors parked outside the local watering hole. But, to its devotees the tiny town packs a punch – from its history as “the birthplace of DNA”, to its famous horse sports, to its plucky, hard-working locals.

The township of Pongaroa sits in the central Tararua district (historically part of the Northern Wairarapa region, and today within the Wairarapa Electorate), an hour and a half from Masterton.

The village area straddles Route 52 and Pahiatua Road, and is flanked by the Mangatiti Falls to the south, the Pahiatua township to the west, and the expansive Akitio Beach to the east. Just 100 people make their home in the village, with about 200 living in the surrounding farming community.

But despite its small stature, Pongaroa enjoys an engaged social calendar – between community meetings over a cold brew at the Pongaroa Hotel; a day out at a rugby game, dog trial, or equestrian event; or a trek through the remnants of native bush, locals reckon there’s rarely a dull moment.

And for the tight-knit village community, these pleasures are hard won – with residents coming together to ensure their home is properly nurtured.

“Every community is what you make of it,” Gowan Greene, owner of the Pongaroa Hotel, says. “We aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty and get down to the nitty-gritty if we want things to happen. “And the people here are lovely.”

Pongaroa (meaning “tall tree fern”) was settled in the 1890s, and much of the native bush was cleared to make way for farmland.

The town is known worldwide as the birthplace of molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins, who received the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the DNA structure, via X-ray imaging, in 1962. Wilkins, who would have turned 100 last year, is memorialised with a double helix-shaped statue in Pongaroa’s main street.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pongaroa was the seat of the Akitio County Council. But, following changes to council governance during the 70s and 80s, Pongaroa’s village and surrounding landmarks were left untended, according to ambulance driver Heather Monk “We were left a bit high and dry [by the council] after that,” Heather says.

In response, a determined group of “village-ites”, formed community development group Pongaroa: The Way To Go, dedicated to “promoting, protecting, and preserving” the area.

The group has built new playgrounds, upgraded the public toilets, installed new facilities at the campsite, spruced up the town centre, and are managing the growth of Old Man’s Beard in Four Mile Bush.

Recently, a group of locals ran a successful campaign to bring a fuel stop back to Pongaroa, which it has been without since the garage closed in 2010. “We’re a fiercely independent lot out here,” Heather says. “If something needs doing, we see that it gets done.”

When not serving their hometown, village dwellers enjoy a lively social gathering, with the Pongaroa Hotel the centre of activity. The hotel, housed in the century-old former Bank of New Zealand building, is also a welcome pit-stop for cross-country travellers. “We get all sorts coming through,” owner Gowan says.

“People don’t always want to travel the main roads – they’d rather drive through and see all the little places.

“We served five groups of French tourists last month – and one of our farmers invited some of them to park their caravan up at the farm, and spend the night. That’s rural New Zealand for you.”

Pongaroa has active golf, squash and sheep dog trial clubs, holds a hunting competition every Easter, and has revived its rugby club and annual speed shearing contest, with support from the enthusiastic Puketoi Young Farmers Club.

Also well attended is the Pongaroa Horse Sports spectacle, now in its 115th year, featuring a range of horse and pony shows and held at the Pongaroa Domain – along with many other events.

“Visitors are quite impressed by the domain – one of the French ladies said to me, ‘wow, it’s got rugby posts, horse jumps, and sheep!’’’ Gowan says. “After the horse sports, the village is like the Old West, with horses hitched up everywhere.”

On a regular day, the townsfolk love basking in the tranquillity of country life. “I can never wait to come home to my little village,” Heather says.

“It’s so quiet and safe. You can stand in the road and talk to a friend, and no-one honks their horn – they’ll just drive around you!”
Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall