Story: Tāwhirimātea – the weather

Page 3. Clouds

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The long white cloud

There are many words for clouds, but the most common is kapua. Another word, ao, is used in the Māori name for New Zealand: Aotearoa – long white cloud. In one tradition Kuramārōtini, the wife of the Polynesian explorer Kupe, named New Zealand after the cloud stretching over the land.

Cloud names and formations

While there are still many names relating to clouds and cloud formations, some have fallen out of use. These include:

  • pīpipi – cirrostratus clouds, which are sheets of ice crystals high in the atmosphere. They are relatively transparent, and the sun or moon can easily be seen through them. At times the only sign of their presence is a halo around the sun or moon. Māori knew the halo around the sun as ‘Kura hau awatea’ and the halo around the moon as ‘Kura hau pō’.
  • pūtahi – elongated stratus clouds, and pūrehurehu – cirrus clouds. The term taipua described the way cumulus clouds bunch together in rounded masses.
  • okewa – nimbus clouds (rain clouds).

Reading the clouds

An East Coast elder explained how to read a cloud that had sharply defined points, known as pīpipi o te rangi (‘pīpipi’ means ‘the wind will come’). The points indicated the direction from which the wind would arrive. If the cloud was red, rain would also arrive. If it was pale, only wind would come. If yellow, a gentle wind and fine weather would follow. If it projected upwards and was pale, there would be a long storm. If it was dark, the storm was near.


There are a number of metaphors for cloud formations. Clouds in layers are known as te kupenga a Tara-mainuku (the net of Taramainuku). ‘A mackerel sky’ is a European metaphor, likening the clouds to the markings on a fish. Māori saw in this pattern raised beds of kūmara (sweet potato), and named it te māra kūmara a Ngātoroirangi (the kūmara gardens of Ngātoroirangi). Mares’ tails (high, wispy clouds) were known as iorangi (strips in the sky).

Horizontal cloud bands were like a belt:

  • red clouds at sunset – te tātua o Te Kaha (the belt of Te Kaha)
  • a bank of clouds in the west, lit by the setting sun – te tātua o Te Kahu (the belt of Te Kahu)
  • a clear band near the horizon – te Tātua o Kahu (the belt of Kahu).

Predicting the weather

Certain types of clouds were used to predict the weather or other events:

  • Layers of cloud above the horizon, known as rangi mātāhauariki, were the forerunner of the cold south wind Tutakangahau.
  • Atiru clouds threatened rain and wind.
  • Titi taranaki (radiating streaks) were a sign of bad weather.
  • A bank of clouds, he whare hau (a house of wind), indicated coming wind.
  • Kaiwaka were threatening clouds on the horizon, and a sign of misfortune.
  • Cloud (or mist) uniformly covering the sky was papanui, and people would say, ‘He papanui tōna tohu he āio āpōpō’ (the clouds signal that it will be calm tomorrow).
How to cite this page:

Basil Keane, 'Tāwhirimātea – the weather - Clouds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 May 2024)

Story by Basil Keane, published 12 Jun 2006, updated 1 Mar 2022