Story: Traditional Māori games – ngā tākaro

Page 3. Water sports

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Kauhoe – swimming

Māori were strong swimmers. A number of different strokes were practised, including kautāhoe (sidestroke), kau āpuru (breaststroke), kau kiore (backstroke) and kau tāwhai (crawl). Kautāhoe was favoured, especially for long distances.


According to tradition the Rangitāne ancestor Hinepoupou (or Hinepopo) was the first to swim the treacherous waters of Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait). She was driven by a desire to take revenge on her cowardly husband, Maninipounamu. He had abandoned her on Kāpiti Island, near Wellington, during an expedition, and paddled back to their kāinga on Rangitoto ki te Tonga (D’Urville Island in the Marlborough Sounds). Hinepoupou used a flotation device made from bound flax stalks. She was helped by the children of Tangaroa, including a taniwha. Hinepoupou went on to wreak vengeance on her husband and his people.

Swimming races were known as kau whakataetae. Whakakau was a karakia to help with swimming.

Competitions were held to see who could hold their breath the longest underwater. The game taurumarumaki (also known as puharu or rumaki) involved ducking someone underwater and trying to keep their head under as long as possible.

Children were introduced to the water as babies. Floats called pōito hue, made from dried gourds, were sometimes attached to children when teaching them to swim. The famous ancestor Hinemoa used pōito hue in her swim from Ōwhata on the shore of Lake Rotorua to Mokoia Island.

Kōkiri – diving

Kōkiri (or ruku) was extremely popular in the warmer months. It involved jumping, feet first, from a rock or a wooden diving platform. Sometimes this would be at a great height. Divers would recite a short karakia before leaping:

Puhipuhi rawa ki te kererū

Mehemea e kato ana


Whakaheke ngaru – surfing

Whakaheke ngaru, which included boardriding, bodysurfing and surfriding in waka (canoes), was a popular summer pastime. Kōpapa (boards) were about 90 centimetres long and were used much like boogie boards today. Waka typically held two to three people, who paddled to catch waves. Another technique was to use pōhā (kelp bags filled with air) in a form of body surfing.

Surfriding at Mōkau

W. H. Skinner described the people of Te Kauri, a Ngāti Maniapoto kāinga, surfriding at the mouth of the Mōkau River, in January 1884. The 60-year-old rangatira Te Rangituataka was in the stern of a two-man waka. He always perfectly timed the catching of the waves and the turn at the end of the run. Others, however, ‘were driven prow under and swamped, or caught on the turn by the breaking wave and capsized, in either case the occupants of canoe receiving a thorough ducking, to the great amusement of the crowd of onlookers.’ 2

Whakatere waka – canoe racing

Whakatere waka (also known as kaipara waka hoehoe) was another popular sport and a feature of inter-village competitions. Canoe races continued to be a common feature of sports meetings well into the 20th century. Children also raced toy canoes made from the leaves of harakeke (flax) and raupō (bulrush).

  1. Quoted in Elsdon Best, Games and pastimes of the Maori. Wellington: Government Printer, 1925, p. 45. Back
  2. W. H. Skinner, ‘Surf-riding by canoe’. Journal of the Polynesian Society, vol. 32, 1923, pp. 35–37. Back
How to cite this page:

Ross Calman, 'Traditional Māori games – ngā tākaro - Water sports', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Ross Calman, published 5 Sep 2013