Numerous tales of monsters, ogres, goblins and fairies, and weird “hairy men” who devoured unwary travellers and waylaid hunting parties have long been a part of Maori lore. Sometimes these stories were associated with certain localities of ill-repute which had to be avoided at all costs. Many caves, river bends, and pools, and places along the sea shore were feared because they were the haunts of the taniwha, awesome water monsters with man-killing tendencies. A host of legends told of the slaying of these reptilian monsters but, as no skeletal remains have ever been found, there is no support for the belief that the taniwha ever existed in New Zealand. In all probability such tales of water-dwelling monsters and other huge reptiles known as kumi were nothing more than distorted folk memories of the crocodile of the western Pacific or Asia. Of less frequent appearance in Maori lore were stories of legendary birds–tipua, omens of death such as Hine-Ruarangi which haunted the Whirinaki Gorge and was seen by the discerning before the death of a chief, and the hokioi, said to abide in the heavens. It was never seen by man and approached the earth only at night when the sound of its flight could sometimes be heard. Then there was the pouakai, featured in South Island legend, a huge bird of prey which carried off its human victims with ease.
Less improbable were Maori tales of the ngarara, lizards which were larger than the tuatara. In 1874 J. W. Stack recorded the testimony of certain prominent Maoris who claimed not only to have seen but also to have handled and eaten them. It seems that the ngarara, which frequented manuka scrub, varied in size from 2 to 3 ft in length and from 10 to 20 in. in girth. There was also a smaller ngarara, about 18 in. long, found in streams. The Maoris attributed the disappearance of the large ngarara to scrubfires and the attacks of cats and, added Stack, perhaps the Norwegian rat.
Meanwhile, stories of kumi sightings kept cropping up. As evidence of an early popular interest in the question, there is the story of Hugh Carleton one day in 1875, rushing excitedly into the office of James Hector with the remark, “At last we have really got it”. He was referring to the reported capture near Hokianga of a strange animal with six legs. To the satisfaction of sceptics a subsequent report claimed that it had been hacked to pieces beyond reclamation by its horrified Maori captors. A more precise sighting of a kumi was allegedly made in September 1898 on W. D. Lysnar's East Coast station, Arowhana. A Maori bushman was startled by the sight of a huge lizard some 5 ft long advancing towards him. The animal disappeared into a rata tree but the subsequent description matched that of the traditional kumi which, although ones well known in the area, had not been seen for at least three generations. Lysnar and party went into the bush and photographed the footprints but failed to disturb the animal, and the absence of any more certain repor lends weight to the scepticism freely voiced in the Gisborne press at the time. The Maori may have caught a hasty glimpse of an opossum, the first liberations on the East Coast having ante-dated the sighting. This renewal of interest in the existence of the kumi led J. W. Hutton to report briefly on two bones, one in the Otago Museum, the other in the Canterbury Museum, which had been found in 1874 in the Earnscleugh Cave, Central Otago. The former was the ramus of a lower jaw of a pleurodont lizard which might have been the extinct ngarara. The other was possibly the last cervical of a reptile, although it seemed to be too robust and too flattened for the rib of a lizard. It more nearly resembled the first thoracic rib of a mammal but, added Hutton “It is, indeed, unlike anything known to me”, and this is still the opinion of present day authorities.
Of a slightly higher degree of probability were stories told to the early explorers of the South Island of an aquatic, otter or beaver-like animal, the kaurehe or waitoreke, supposedly a denizen of Fiordland and the Southern Lakes. In Dusky Sound in May 1773 some members of the Resolution's crew saw a greyish, cat-like quadruped with a bushy tail. The two naturalists on the Resolution, J. R. and G. Forster, were decidedly sceptical as to its existence. Later, in 1844, some Maoris at the mouth of the Clutha River described to J. W. Barnicoat and D. Monro a beaver-like animal which inhabited the lake at the river's source. These stories were also heard by W. B. D. Mantell four years later. In 1861 Julius Haast, anticipating tales of the Himalayan yeti, saw tracks in the snow at the head of the Ashburton resembling those of the otter. That the “tracks” were a hoax is a possibility; they might also have been made by the Maori dog, kuri. Seven years later, from the Selwyn, a portion of the skin of the supposed kaurehe came into Haast's hands. The description and the locality make it appear probable that the skin came from one of the marsupial cats released by the Canterbury Acclimatisation Society in the same year. All the evidence today available concerning the existence of the “otter” has been carefully examined by J. S. Watson who has reached the conclusion that “… there is very little ground for any belief in the animal's existence; nevertheless a shadow of doubt remains and it would be unwise altogether to ignore the possibility however remote it may be”. And with that judgment one may safely leave all such stories of taniwha and kumi and those other strange creatures of Maori legend and lore.
by Austin Graham Bagnall, M.A., A.L.A., Librarian, National Library Centre, Wellington and Alexander Hare McLintock, C.B.E., M.A., DIP.ED. (N.Z.), PH.D.(LOND.), Parliamentary Historian, Wellington.
- Transactions of the New Zealand Institute, Vol. 7, pp. 295–7, Stack, J. W. (1874), and Vol. 31, p. 485, Hutton, F. W. (1898)
- New Zealand Herald, 19 and 29 Sep 1898
- andRecords of the Canterbury Museum, Vol. 7, “The New Zealand ‘Otter’”, pp. 175–183, Watson, J. S. (1960).