Story: Ngā waewae tapu – Māori exploration

Māori traditions tell of many great journeys of exploration around New Zealand. The earliest arrivals from Polynesia sailed around the coast by canoe. Later, people headed inland on foot, discovering and naming rivers, mountains and other features.

Story by Rāwiri Taonui
Main image: Rākaihautū holding his kō (digging stick)

Story summary

All images & media in this story

When Māori first arrived in New Zealand, they sailed along the coastline in canoes. Later they explored coastal and inland areas, mainly on foot.

Stories about exploration

There are many traditions about early Māori explorers. Tribes often used these to establish their rights over areas of land.

Creating natural features

Some stories explain how natural features were made. In one, the volcanoes and hot pools of the North Island were created when the priest Ngātoroirangi climbed Mt Tongariro. He was freezing and called for help from his sisters in the Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki. They sent fire to warm him.


Kupe explored much of the coast, and many places are named after him.

Early canoes

Some of the first canoes to come from Polynesia explored the coastline. They included:

  • Tainui – Bay of Plenty, Auckland and west coast of the North Island
  • Horouta – Bay of Plenty and Gisborne
  • Mataatua – from Whakatāne to Northland.


Rakataura was the priest of the Tainui canoe. In Auckland he argued with the canoe’s captain, Hoturoa, and went travelling south down the west coast. Later he married Hoturoa’s daughter.

Kahupekapeka (Kahu)

After Kahupekapeka’s husband died, she explored much of the Waikato with her son. They climbed and named many mountains – for instance Te Aroha-o-Kahu (the yearning of Kahu).


Haunui travelled down the lower west coast of the North Island, chasing his wife, Wairaka, and the man she had run away with. Haunui named the Rangitīkei, Manawatū and Waikanae rivers. At Pukerua Bay he turned Wairaka and her lover into rocks.


Tamatea was one of New Zealand’s greatest explorers. He travelled around much of the North and South islands, and was called Tamatea-pōkaiwhenua (land explorer) and Tamatea-pōkaimoana (sea explorer).

Greenstone trails

South Island tribes made ‘greenstone trails’ for moving pounamu (greenstone) from west to east across the island, to trade with tribes from the North Island.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Ngā waewae tapu – Māori exploration', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 September 2007