Story: Whenua – how the land was shaped

New Zealand’s dramatic and varied landscape sparked the Māori imagination. Their stories tell of giants digging out the South Island lakes, water creatures rising up to form tracts of land, and rival mountains moving in a battle for the affections of the beautiful Mt Pīhanga.

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal
Main image: ‘Battle of the mountains’, by Angus McDonald

Story summary

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Māori tribes all have stories about how New Zealand was created, and how its mountains, rivers, lakes and hot springs were shaped.

How the land was created

In one legend the demigod Māui pulled up a huge fish from the sea, which became the North Island. His canoe became the South Island, and its anchor Stewart Island.

In another well-known story, the land is from the womb of Papatūānuku, the earth mother, whose body lies under the water.

Kupe forms the islands

Kupe is an important ancestor from the Polynesian homeland, Hawaiki. According to tradition, when he arrived in New Zealand there was only one island. He is said to have split the land, forming the North and South islands. One of the Māori names for Cook Strait, which flows between the islands, is 'te moana a Kupe’ (the sea of Kupe).

How the mountains were placed

It is said that the mountains of the central North Island – Tongariro, Taranaki (Mt Egmont), Tauhara and Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe) – once lived together. But, according to a version told by the Ngāti Tūwharetoa tribe, they fought a battle for the affections of Pīhanga, the maiden mountain. Tongariro won, and the other mountains were obliged to leave. They walked as far as they could before the rising sun fixed them to the spot, where they stand to this day.

The thermal wonders

According to tradition, when the explorer Ngātoroirangi was travelling in the North Island, he became cold and called to his sisters, Te Hoata and Te Pupu. They came underground from Hawaiki in the form of fire. When they appeared above the ground, they formed the boiling mud pools, volcanoes and geysers that are famous in this region.

Making the lakes and rivers

The lakes of the South Island were carved out by the ancestor Rākaihautū as he travelled across the Southern Alps.

In tradition, taniwha (water spirits or monsters) shaped many of New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and harbours. At Wellington Harbour an earthquake stranded a taniwha above ground, so that he formed a stretch of land.

How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Whenua – how the land was shaped', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 April 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 June 2006