Story: Ngā waewae tapu – Māori exploration

Page 10. The South Island

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Rākaihautū and Rokohouia

In traditions of the Waitaha tribe, their founding ancestor, Rākaihautū, landed the Uruao canoe at Whakatū (Nelson). He is credited with carving out the string of lakes in the centre of the South Island with a giant kō (digging stick). Rākaihautū eventually settled on Banks Peninsula, where his digging stick forms Tuhiraki, a prominent peak above Akaroa Harbour.

Several South Island names derive from the explorations of Rākaihautū and his son Rokohouia. Cliffs near Kaikōura, where Rokohouia gathered seagulls’ eggs, are named Kā Whatakai-a-Rokohouia (the food stores of Rokohouia). The two explorers took hao, a type of eel, from the river where they met up, which is still called Waihao. The southern lakes are known as Kā Puna-karikari-a-Rākaihautū (the springs of water dug by Rākaihautū).

Ngāhue and stone trading

Ngāhue is an important ancestor of the Te Arawa tribe. Te Arawa say he landed at Tūhua (Mayor Island in the Bay of Plenty). Ngāhue explored inland in the South Island, and found pounamu (greenstone) in the Arahura River. This was made into the adzes that fashioned the Te Arawa and Tainui canoes. Pounamu was sometimes called Te Ika-o-Ngāhue (Ngāhue’s fish) because of his exploits in retrieving it.

Tūhua was a major source of obsidian for tools, and Ngāhue may have been involved in networks trading South Island greenstone and North Island obsidian and basalt.

Poutini and Tamaāhua

The legend of Poutini and Tamaāhua is an oral map of the places where valuable stone resources could be found. Poutini was a taniwha and guardian for Ngāhue in the coastal seas. One day while sheltering at Tūhua (a source of obsidian) in the Bay of Plenty, he saw a beautiful woman, Waitaiki, bathing. Smitten, he grabbed her and headed for the mainland, pursued by her husband Tamaāhua.

Tamaāhua chased Poutini through a number of places in the North Island and on the West Coast of the South Island – each the site of an important stone resource. They include:

  • Tahanga in the Coromandel (basalt for adzes)
  • Whangamatā near Taupō (obsidian)
  • Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D'Urville Island) in the Marlborough Sounds (argillite for adzes)
  • Whangamoa, above Nelson, and Farewell Spit (argillite)
  • Pāhua, on the West Coast of the South Island (flint)
  • Takiwai at Milford Sound (bowenite)
  • the Arahura River (pounamu for adzes).

Finally, trapped in the Arahura River, Poutini cast Waitaiki into the river to form pounamu (greenstone). He fled to the coast, where he cruises back and forth as a guardian of the precious stone. Tamaāhua and Tūhua are the names of hills above the Arahura River.

The tradition matches archaeological evidence for stone trade networks centuries ago. Poutini and Tamaāhua represent two great centres of stone trade: North Island obsidian and basalt, and South Island pounamu. The struggle between the taniwha and the man may symbolise the tension between the two trading centres and those who used the stone.

Ara pounamu (greenstone trails)

Before Europeans arrived in New Zealand, Māori had extensively explored the South Island. They developed the ‘greenstone trails’ across the Southern Alps, tracks for moving raw materials from west to east for trade with North Island tribes. Routes included the present-day Heaphy and Wangapeka tracks, the Kawatiri (Buller) River, the Māwhera and Īnangahua rivers, the Maruia River (Lewis Pass), Noti Taramakau (Harper Pass), Ōtira–Waimakariri (Arthur’s Pass), and the Amuri, Hope, Harman, Whitcombe and Tiori-pātea (Haast) passes. They also include the many Whakatipu trails in and around Queenstown – among them the famous Milford and Routeburn tracks.

There are stories about the discovery of two of the more difficult passes. Noti Raureka (Browning Pass) was said to have been discovered by a woman named Raureka from the Ngāti Wairangi tribe. Tū-te-kawa, a notorious figure, discovered Ō-Tū-te-kawa (Mathias Pass).

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Ngā waewae tapu – Māori exploration - The South Island', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 1 March 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Sep 2007