Story: Ngārara – reptiles

Page 2. From sea to land

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Reptiles and fish

Punga, son of Tangaroa (god of the sea), had two offspring: Ikatere (fast fish) and Tū-te-wehiwehi, also called Tū-te-wanawana (reptiles). After the separation of Ranginui (sky) and Papatūānuku (earth), Tangaroa was forced to flee into the sea. His offspring argued over staying in the sea or going onto the land.

Ikatere and his descendants, some species of fish, decided to stay in the sea. Tū-te-wehiwehi chose the land. The saying ‘tāua ki uta, tāua ki te wai’ (we of the land, we of the sea) refers to the choices they made for their descendants.

Ikatere told Tū-te-wehiwehi, ‘Fly inland, the fate of your race will be a frightful one. You will be caught by men. When you are cooked they will burn your scales over a wisp of lightened fern.’

Tū-te-wehiwehi shouted back, ‘Go to the sea. Do you know what will happen to you? When they put the baskets of cooked vegetables in front of the people, you will be placed on top as a relish.’

Beasts on board

An ancestral canoe of the Ngāti Porou tribe, the Māngārara, was said to have brought a cargo of reptiles, insects and a bird to New Zealand. The chief Wheketoro set them free on Whangaokeno Island (East Island) by East Cape. Wheketoro made the island sacred, and made a home for the tuatara in the fern. He took the other creatures to the mainland, but his canoe was wrecked at Pariwhero, and turned to stone. The reptiles ran and hid under overhanging banks, where they are still said to live today.

Tuatara versus shark

In another tradition, a tuatara called Ngārara argued with his younger brother Mangō (shark) over whether to live in the sea or on land. Ngārara chose the land, while Mangō remained in the sea. Just as Ngārara moved onto the shore, Mangō swam up and asked him to return to the sea.

Ngārara cursed his brother: ‘Stay in the sea to be served on a dish of cooked food for man to eat.’ Mangō replied, ‘Go ashore and be smoked out of your hole with burning fern leaves.’

Ngārara replied, ‘Indeed, I will go on ashore, away unto the dry land, where I shall be looked upon as the personification of Tū [the war god], with my spines and ridgy crest, causing fear and affright, so that all will get out of my way, hurrah!’

The brothers’ curses came to pass. Māori often ate dried shark as a relish with kūmara (sweet potato) or potato, and caught reptiles by lighting a fire at the entrance of their hole.

How to cite this page:

Bradford Haami, 'Ngārara – reptiles - From sea to land', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 March 2024)

Story by Bradford Haami, published 24 Sep 2007