Story: Canoe traditions

Page 6. Canoes of the East Coast

All images & media in this story

Nuku-tai-memeha, Nukutere and Paikea

For Ngāti Porou, the Nuku-tai-memeha of Māui is the foundation canoe. According to tradition, it lies upturned in stone on Hikurangi mountain.

Of the major East Coast ancestors, Whironui (Whiro) and the Nukutere canoe were the first to arrive. Whiro (known as Hilo in Hawaii, Hiro in Tahiti and ‘Iro in Rarotonga), is the most widely known navigating figure in East Polynesian oral tradition. His wife was Araiara. Their daughter, Huturangi, married the ancestor Paikea, who is said to have arrived from Hawaiki on the back of a whale. The Paikea traditions say that when the Hawaiki chief Uenuku was dressing his sons’ hair in preparation for the launching of a new canoe, he used a special comb for Kahutiaterangi (Paikea), but he asked Ruatapu to provide his own comb because he was from an inferior marriage. An infuriated Ruatapu decided to get even with his half-brothers and bored a hole in their canoe, which he covered with a small plug. When he and his brothers had paddled the canoe out to sea beyond sight of land, Ruatapu pulled the plug from the hole and sank the canoe. All the brothers were drowned except Paikea (Kahutiaterangi).

Paikea chanted prayers, calling upon the guardians of the sea to assist him. A taniwha (sea god) in the form of a whale was sent to his aid and carried him to land at Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island). From here he went on to Whakatāne, and eventually to Whāngārā on the East Coast. Paikea married Huturangi, the daughter of Whironui, and their descendants became the founders of Ngāti Porou. A petrified rock that stands off the beach at Whāngārā is said to be Paikea’s whale.


The Horouta canoe belonged to Toi, the great Polynesian explorer. One day Kahukura, a visitor from Hawaiki, arrived with some dried kūmara (sweet potato), which the locals had never eaten before. Toi gave the canoe to Kahukura to go and obtain more kūmara in Hawaiki. After retrieving the vegetables, Kahukura sent them back on Horouta, which was commanded by Pāoa (or Pāwa).

The canoe made landfall at Ahuahu (Great Mercury Island), where a woman named Kanawa went ashore and brought some aruhe (fern root) aboard. Mixing the kūmara with the aruhe, a common food, was considered an offence and Kanawa was thrown overboard off the coast from Whakatāne or Ōhiwa Harbour, but not before the bow (haumi) of Horouta was damaged when the canoe struck a reef. The crew hauled it onto the shore, and Pāoa and a party went in search of suitable timber for a repair. Awapaka and another party set out to catch birds as food for the workmen repairing the vessel. Rangitūroua, the priest, and others remained with Horouta.

Pāoa found a suitable tree on a mountain that was given the name Maunga Haumi. Traditions say that because the streams were too small to float his timber to the sea, Pāoa increased their volume by urinating into them, thus forming the Waiōeka, Waikohu, Waipāoa and Mōtū rivers. The canoe was repaired and sailed around East Cape to Tūranganui (Gisborne), while Awapaka and Pāoa walked there. Another crew member, a woman named Hinekauirangi, made an even longer overland journey from Ōhiwa to the Tapuwaeroa Stream and then south to Tūranganui. The descendants from Horouta became Ngāti Ruapani, Rongowhakaata, Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki and Te Aitanga a Hauiti.


The Tākitimu canoe is known in several regions. Northern East Coast accounts say that Tākitimu left Hawaiki after a dispute between the people of the chief Uenuku and those of Ruawharo and Tūpai. It is said that Ruawharo and his younger brother Tūpai then took Tākitimu from their rivals and came to New Zealand with Ruawharo as both commander and tohunga. The canoe landed at Whanga-o-Kena, a small islet off East Cape, before going on to Nukutaurua on Māhia Peninsula, where the crew dispersed. Ruawharo stayed at Māhia, Puhiariki went to Muriwhenua, and others went to Tauranga.

Southern East Coast traditions say that Tākitimu left Hawaiki because of a quarrel over gardens named Tawarunga and Tawararo, and that the canoe was built at a place named Whāngārā. The commander was Tamatea-arikinui and the canoe landed at Tauranga, where Tamatea disembarked. Others then took it to the East Coast and left settlers at several places, including the Waiapu River, Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), Tūranganui (Gisborne), Nukutaurua (Māhia), Te Wairoa, the Mōhaka River and Pōrangahau. Tamatea later travelled overland to Māhia and Tūranganui, naming places as he went.

Whereas Northland and Tauranga traditions hold that there was one Tamatea, traditions from Ngāti Kahungunu and the lower East Coast today say that Tamatea-arikinui had a grandson who became a famous explorer and was known by the names Tamatea-pōkai-whenua and Tamatea-pōkai-moana (Tamatea who explored the land, and Tamatea who explored the ocean). While living at Kaitāia, Tamatea-pōkai-moana had a son, Kahungunu, who became the founder of Ngāti Kahungunu.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Canoe traditions - Canoes of the East Coast', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 8 Feb 2005