Story: Whenua – how the land was shaped

Page 6. Lakes, rivers and harbours

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The lakes of the Southern Alps

The Southern Alps are the backbone of Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island). Majestic and formidable, they have inspired many tribal stories.

One of the most important narratives of the South Island tribes concerns Rākaihautū, who carved out the mountain lakes with his kō (digging stick). He arrived in the South Island aboard his canoe, Uruao, which came ashore near Nelson. After travelling inland to Motueka, he began a long journey south, traversing the entire mountain chain. Along the way he dug out numerous lakes, including:

  • Rotoiti
  • Rotoroa
  • Takapō (Tekapo)
  • Pūkaki
  • Ōhau
  • Wānaka
  • Wakatipu
  • Manawapōuri (Manapōuri).

Rākaihautū made his way westwards and fashioned these lakes and lagoons:

  • Waihora (Waihola)
  • Muriwai (Coopers Lagoon)
  • Waihora (Lake Ellesmere)
  • Wairewa (Lake Forsyth).

Lake Ellesmere is particularly bountiful, and is known as Te Keteika-a-Rākaihautū (Rākaihautū’s fish basket).

Taniwha tales

In many stories taniwha create lakes and harbours. According to the Ngāi Tuhoe tribe, Lake Waikaremoana, in the south-east of their territory, was formed by the thrashing of Haumapuhia, who was turned into a taniwha by her father Māhū. As she struggled to make her way to the sea, Haumapuhia formed the various branches of the lake.

Wellington Harbour

Like most inland and coastal waters, Wellington Harbour or Te Whanganui-a-Tara (the great harbour of Tara) was inhabited by taniwha (sea spirits or monsters), who fashioned some of its features. This harbour had two such creatures: Whātaitai (from which the suburb Hātaitai gets its name), and Ngake. One day when they were swimming close to the harbour mouth, a great earthquake shook the area. Land that had been underwater rose to the surface, stranding Whātaitai on dry ground. The taniwha became the stretch of land that now connects Miramar Peninsula (Motukairangi) to the mainland. Distressed, Ngake headed to the north-east of the harbour (near Seaview), where with one almighty thrust of its tail, it rushed out to sea. It was transformed into a keo bird and flew to mourn on the peak of present-day Mt Victoria. Māori call the mount Tangi-te-keo – the weeping of the keo.

Te Āpiti

Te Āpiti (the Manawatū Gorge) provides a means of crossing the Tararua and Ruahine ranges. The river that runs along it is known as Te Aurere-a-te-tonga (flowing current of the south), and its waterfall is Te Aunui-a-tonga (great south current). A sacred rock called Te Ahu-o-Tūranga stands in the middle of the gorge.

This account of how the gorge and the Manawatū River bed were formed comes from the Rangitāne tribe:

Away in the dim past a huge totara tree growing on the slopes of the Puketoi Range in Hawke’s Bay became possessed of a supernatural being called Okatia. Under the influence of the spirit the tree began to move, gouging out a deep channel towards the north-west. In time the moving tree encountered the mountain barrier of Tararua and Ruahine, but this obstacle counted for nothing as the totara turned to the west and simply forced its way right through the mountains, thus creating the gorge. The tree then meandered across the plains until it entered the sea. This provided a convenient bed for the Manawatu River. 1
  1. J. M. McEwan, Rangitane: a tribal history. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 1. › Back
How to cite this page:

Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Whenua – how the land was shaped - Lakes, rivers and harbours', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 Jun 2006