It’s fairly well known that Wairarapa winters are on the chilly side – a time for several layers of woolen attire, hosing down frost-coated cars with Pump bottles, and hiding under a pile of duvets while the rain drums down outside.

Many of us warm weather types look to winter with some trepidation; what with all the coughs and colds, and occasional closures of the Rimutaka Hill Road.

But spare a thought for those living in Wairarapa a century ago – when the region was hit with a cold snap bringing up to a foot of snow, blanketing town and country.

In 1918, much of New Zealand was visited by a “spectacular snowstorm”, which, in Wairarapa, caused unpleasant mayhem for some – in the form of treacherous roads, downed power lines, and felled bridges – and hours of fun for others.

Inland snow in Wairarapa is a meteorological oddity. Thanks to the region’s Mediterranean climate and position above sea level, anything more than a smattering on the Rimutaka foothills is rare.

In the last 100 years, the region has seen only three other significant inland snowfalls – another major storm in 1939, a brief flurry in 1967, and the infamous “polar blast” of 2011.

“Snow over here is a once-in-a-lifetime event,” Gareth Winter, Masterton District Council archivist, says.

“Interestingly, the two big snowstorms we’ve had were during wartime – at the end and start of the world wars.

“In fact, the Featherston army camp was placed where it was because it was thought the cold air temperatures would harden the men up in preparation for war.

“Getting a dollop of snow would have done the trick.”

Back in 1918, New Zealand was hit by a cold front from the Tasman Sea – bringing the first snowfall to Wairarapa in the early morning of Friday, July 19, following a night of fierce westerly gales.

Masterton residents awoke to “a respectable amount of snow” in town – which, Gareth says, would have come as quite a surprise.

“Weather reporting was a lot less precise back then – they wouldn’t have had the Met Service issuing a severe weather warning like we’d have today.”

Most of the snow had melted by the next morning – but from the cold snap was short-lived, with Sunday morning bringing a strong south-westerly.

That afternoon, up to 30cm of snow had settled in Masterton, at least 15cm was reported in Carterton and Greytown, and “much more” had landed in outlying areas. Such a phenomenon was met with apprehension by seasoned Wairarapa dwellers. As the Evening Post reported: “The storm is unparalleled for severity and duration in the memory of the oldest settlers. In the back country, the roads are impassable. Telegraph and telephone communication is interrupted. Snow is still falling heavily, and it is feared there will be heavy loss of stock. Settlers are anxious concerning the aftermath of the storm, and floods of great magnitude are regarded as certain.”

Such a phenomenon was met with apprehension by seasoned Wairarapa dwellers. As the Evening Post reported: “The storm is unparalleled for severity and duration in the memory of the oldest settlers. In the back country, the roads are impassable. Telegraph and telephone communication is interrupted. Snow is still falling heavily, and it is feared there will be heavy loss of stock. Settlers are anxious concerning the aftermath of the storm, and floods of great magnitude are regarded as certain.”

The snowfall certainly caused some disruptions. Telephone lines were broken between Te Wharau and Gladstone, a fallen tree across the lines at Tauweru halted communication from Masterton to Castlepoint, and four telephone poles were broken on the Featherston-Martinborough road. The Mount Bruce mailman was unable to make his deliveries, reporting up to 122cm of snow on parts of the road. Most dramatically, a suspension bridge crossing the Waipoua River buckled under the weight of the snow, and crashed into the waters beneath. Luckily, an approaching horseman, at first wondering if he should cross the bridge, decided against it – avoiding an icy plunge.

Despite the frustrations, many locals revelled in the wild weather. According to the Wairarapa Daily Times, “all Masterton and his children were out snowballing” on the Sunday – with armies of young and old taking to the town centre to pelt unwitting passersby. Similarly, the soldiers at Featherston Military Training Camp took a break from their strict schedule, and engaged in snowy warfare.

“All the snowball fighting was in good spirits, of course,” Gareth says.

“Everyone got amongst it – the snow really was such a big deal”. By Monday, much of the snow had disappeared. Though the earlier fears of floods had proved unfounded, the icy weather continued to be a headache for farmers – with up to 6,070 hectares of hill-country farmland still under snow in the backblocks behind Martinborough several days later.

“You can’t do too much when that happens – just hunker down and try to keep your stock safe.”

An impactful weather event for all involved – but will Wairarapa have to wait another generation for the next whiteout?

“With climate change, anything is possible,” Gareth says.

“We could get another decent dusting of snow earlier than we think.”

Story by Erin Kavanagh-Hall.
Photo courtesy of Wairarapa Archive.