Story: Ngā waewae tapu – Māori exploration

Page 2. Coastal explorers

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In tribal tradition, Kupe was an important early explorer.

The northern tribes have many stories about Kupe. Ngāti Kurī believe Kupe first saw New Zealand when he mistook Houhora mountain for a whale. Ngāti Kahu say that Te Aukānapanapa (the flashing current) guided Kupe to land below Whakarārā mountain in Matauri Bay. Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa hold that Kupe landed in the Hokianga Harbour.

The Ngāpuhi tribe say that light reflecting from Te Ramaroa mountain guided Kupe into the Hokianga Harbour, where his people settled at Kohukohu, Te Pouahi, Whānui, Koutu, Pākanae and Whirinaki. All the northern tribes say that Kupe returned to the Polynesian homeland of Hawaiki from the Hokianga – hence the name Te Hokianga-a-Kupe (the place of Kupe’s return).

Hauraki traditions say that Kupe visited the Coromandel Peninsula, and the place names Taputapu-ātea and Te Whitianganui-o-Kupe commemorate his time there. Ngāti Ruanui believe that Kupe arrived at the Pātea River mouth, while Te Āti Haunui-a-Pāpārangi say that he landed at the mouth of the Whanganui River, at a place called Te Kaihau-o-Kupe (where Kupe ate wind).

Canoe explorations

Several of the voyaging canoes from Polynesia extensively explored the New Zealand coastline.

Tainui and Te Arawa

The Tainui and Te Arawa travelled together from Whangaparāoa in the eastern Bay of Plenty to the Whangaparāoa Peninsula, just north of Auckland. The Tainui crossed the Tāmaki portage in Auckland and explored the west coast between Manukau and Mōkau harbours, while Te Arawa returned to the Bay of Plenty and landed at Maketū.

Horouta and Aotea

The Horouta canoe also travelled along the Bay of Plenty before rounding East Cape and sailing to Gisborne. The Aotea explored Kaipara Harbour and the Auckland isthmus before landing in Aotea Harbour. Her crew then walked southwards around the coast to the Pātea River.


The Mataatua explored between Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty and Tākou Bay in Northland. Northland tribes say that the captain was Puhi and the canoe landed in the north first. Whakatāne tribes believe that Toroa was the captain, and the boat made landfall in their region first. In a less well-known tradition, Mirupōkai was the captain and the Mataatua circumnavigated the North and South islands.


The Kurahaupō canoe is known in Northland, Taranaki, and the coasts of the lower North Island. Some have suggested that there were three different canoes with the same name. Others think that the same canoe visited all three areas. It may be that the Kurahaupō landed in one place, and its descendants took the story of its arrival to different regions.

How to cite this page:

Rāwiri Taonui, 'Ngā waewae tapu – Māori exploration - Coastal explorers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Rāwiri Taonui, published 24 Sep 2007