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Whenua – how the land was shaped

by  Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal

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.

A dramatic landscape

Just as iwi (tribal) traditions contain stories and genealogies about the creation of the world, they also explain how the world, once created, was shaped.

New Zealand’s landscape is dramatic and varied, with mountain peaks and ranges, flatlands, winding rivers, hot springs, volcanoes, lakes and fiords. These stimulated the Māori imagination and inspired stories of how they came to be.

Origins of the land: Papatūānuku and Māui

Two traditions explain how the land emerged from the sea. One presents the land as the placenta, or whenua, from the womb of Papatūānuku, the earth mother. The bulk of her body is underwater but the whenua remains buoyant, and it is for this reason that islands are said to float (moutere). A second, well-known tradition says that the demigod Māui fished up the land from the depths of the ocean. Both traditions evoke a land that is undulating and dramatic.

Shaping forces

Other traditions speak of fantastic and powerful presences in the earth itself, and of characters who sculpted and arranged the world as we see it. They lived on mountain tops or in the depths of lakes, and scoured out rivers and gorges. Giant ancestors dug out the lakes, and the mountains moved. The stories about the forces that have shaped the land are a combination of explanation and metaphor.

Maps of the landscape

Stories about the land were part of an oral tradition, and could function like maps. By likening the North Island to a fish – usually a stingray – people could remember its shape and various important locations. Likening the South Island to a canoe served the same purpose.

Accounts of the formation of river beds mapped the paths taken by various rivers. Stories about the major mountains detailed the distinctive topographical features that had been observed by local tribes. The maps could also record the locations of geothermal areas.

The North and South islands

The North and South islands of New Zealand are known respectively as the fish and canoe of the legendary hero Māui.

Māui fishes up the North Island

One of the greatest stories of Māori literature recounts the fishing up of the North Island. It begins with Māui and his brothers setting off on a fishing expedition. The elder brothers did not want to take Māui, so he hid in the canoe and did not reveal himself until they were out at sea. When he emerged he managed to convince his brothers to row out to the deepest part of the ocean, where he cast a fish hook made from his grandmother’s jawbone. It sank below the waves and fastened to the underwater house of Tonganui, the grandson of Tangaroa, god of the sea. Māui hauled up his catch above the water. The land, the North Island, became known as Te Ika-a-Māui (the fish of Māui).

How the North Island got its shape

Te Rangihaeata of the Ngāti Toarangatira tribe dictated this version of how the North Island got its shape after it was pulled from the sea:

Māui left his brothers and returned home. He said to his older brothers, ‘After I leave, please do not partake of the fish ... Do not cut up our fish …’ However, [after he left] they did not do what he said. They began to cut it up and eat it … When he returned Māui became enraged … He was greatly distressed as they cut the head, the tail, the gills and the fins … This is why this land lies unevenly – there are mountains, plains, valleys and cliffs. If they had not fought over the fish, then the land would have retained its fish shape. 1

In some traditions the fish is said to be a pātiki (flounder); in others it is a whai (stingray). The head of the fish lies at the south of the North Island, at present-day Wellington, and its tail is the Northland region. The barb at the base of the tail is the Coromandel Peninsula. The pākau (fins) are Taranaki and the East Coast, and the backbone runs between Taupō and Rotorua. The heart is at Maungapōhatu, in the Urewera district.

Māui and Nukutaimemeha

It is often said that the North Island is Māui’s fish and the South Island his canoe, but the East Coast tribe, Ngāti Porou, believe the canoe ended up somewhere else. They say that the first part of the fish to emerge from the water was their sacred mountain, Hikurangi. Māui’s canoe, Nukutaimemeha, became stranded on it, and is still there in petrified form.

The South Island: Māui’s canoe

The stern of Māui’s canoe is the southern tip of the South Island, and the prow is the north. When Māui hauled up his great catch he stood on the Kaikōura Peninsula, which is called Te Taumanu-o-te-waka (the thwart or seat of the canoe). Stewart Island is believed to be the anchor.

  1. George Grey, Ngā mahi ā ngā tūpuna, 4th ed., edited by H. W. Williams. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1971. › Back


Kupe is one of the most important of the early Polynesian ancestors who journeyed from the ancestral homeland, Hawaiki. Although their traditions are very different, Kupe, like Māui, was also responsible for shaping New Zealand.

Kupe separates the islands

When Kupe arrived in New Zealand he found only one island. The Ngāti Kahungunu elder Īhāia Hūtana referred to Kupe separating the islands in a letter to the Māori-language newspaper, Te Toa Takitini:

E kīia ana he moutere kotahi ēnei e rua, nā Kupe i tapahi ka tere te moana i waenganui, ka kīia ko ‘te moana a Kupe’.
It is said that these two islands were at one time together as one. Kupe was responsible for cutting them so that the sea flowed between. This is why [Cook Strait] was called ‘the sea of Kupe’. 1

Celebrating Kupe’s achievement

The separation of the North and South islands and the formation of others are remembered in a peruperu (dance accompanied with song). The chief Te Rauparaha of Ngāti Toarangatira, who settled at Kāpiti in the 1820s, recited the story to prove his tribe’s links to the area.

This version was written down by Mohi Tūrei of Ngāti Porou, who attributes it to the Ngāti Kahungunu ancestor, Te Whatuiāpiti.

Ka tito au, ka tito au.
Ka tito ki a Kupe!
Te tangata nana i hoehoe te moana.
Tu ke a Kapiti!
Tu ke Mana!
Tau ke Arapawa!
Ko nga tohu tenei a taku tipuna a Kupe
I whakatoreke tii-ka-puaha.
Ka toreke i au te whenua e!
I compose, I compose.
I compose for Kupe!
The man who traversed the oceans.
Kapiti stands apart!
Mana stands apart!
As does Arapawa!
These are symbols of my ancestor, of Kupe.
He traversed the land,
and so do I! 2
    • Te Toa Takitini 90 (1 February 1929). › Back
    • Te Pipiwharauroa 149 (September/Mahuru 1910): 11. › Back

Battle of the mountains

How the mountains were placed

The mountains in the central North Island once fought a great battle for the hand of Pīhanga, a mountain to the south of Tūrangi. Tribes have different versions of the story; the following is drawn from Ngāti Tūwharetoa tradition.

The story goes that in the days when the earth was young there were four mountain warriors: Tongariro, Taranaki (Mt Egmont), Tauhara and Pūtauaki (Mt Edgecumbe). There was also the beautiful maiden mountain, Pīhanga. The warrior mountains fought for her affections, and after a long battle Tongariro emerged the winner.

The defeated mountains decided that they should leave Tongariro’s domain. They were to travel as far as they could before dawn, when the rising sun would fix them to the spot. Pūtauaki headed east and by daybreak reached his present position at Kawerau. Tauhara travelled slowly, all the time looking back longingly at Pīhanga; he only reached the other end of the lake. Taranaki went west and still looks back, hoping for the day when he might return to avenge his defeat. Meanwhile, Pīhanga became the wife of Tongariro, and they had a child named Pukeronaki.

The following account, given by Pei Te Hurinui Jones of the Ngāti Maniapoto tribe, illustrates how the same story can vary between tribal traditions:

Tongariro was betrothed by Rangi-e-tū iho nei (Rangi who stands above, the sky) to his own wife, Pīhanga, a mountain near Taupō. Their descendants are the snow, the winds and the rain. According to Ngāti Awa, Tongariro had two wives, Pīhanga and Ngāuruhoe. Both are mountains. Taranaki wanted these women for himself and others too pursued the women as well. And so a battle took place which resulted in the mountains being separated out. Taranaki went out to the west where it now stands. Whakaari (White Island), Paepae-o-aotea and Moutohorā went northwards off Whakatāne. Pūtauaki went northwards too and now stands south of Whakatāne. 1
  1. New Zealand Ministry of Education, Te Wharekura 58 (1999), (last accessed 27 July 2005). › Back

The thermal wonders

The volcanic plateau in the central North Island is full of mystery: mud pools, hot pools, geysers and volcanoes give vent to unfathomable powers lying deep in the earth. It did not escape Māori that there seemed to be a pattern or design in the way that ‘fire’ from underground could be seen at Whakaari (White Island) in the Bay of Plenty all the way to Tongariro, just south of Tūrangi township.

Ngātoroirangi and his sisters

In particular, the people of Ngāti Tūwharetoa, whose tribal lands are in the central North Island, have long maintained stories about this phenomenon. They say that the high priest Ngātoroirangi and his sisters Te Hoata and Te Pupu were responsible for bringing fire to New Zealand from the ancestral homeland, Hawaiki. Having arrived in New Zealand on the Te Arawa canoe, Ngātoroirangi travelled inland and discovered the lake that became known as Taupōnui-a-Tia (Taupō). He continued to Onetapu, south of present-day Tūrangi, where he encountered extremely cold weather. He called out to his sisters, who came to him from Hawaiki in the form of fire under the earth, appearing above the ground at intervals and creating the geysers, hot pools and volcanoes.

The arrival of fire from Hawaiki is commemorated in this song by the renowned composer Rihi Puhiwahine of Ngāti Tūwharetoa for her lover Mahutu Te Toko, of Ngāti Maniapoto:

Kāti au ka hoki ki taku whenua tupu
Ki te wai koropupū i heri mai nei
I Hawaiki rā anō e Ngātoro-i-rangi
E ōna tuāhine, Te Hoata, Te Pupu
E hū rā Tongariro, ka mahana i taku kiri.
I return to my homeland
To the bubbling waters that were brought
From Hawaiki by Ngātoro-i-rangi
And his sisters, Te Hoata and Te Pupu
Tongariro erupts and my body is warmed. 1

The fiery regions

Te Hoata and Te Pupu first came to Whakaari, then made their way inland. When they arrived at Taupō, they travelled southwards along the western edge of the lake before meeting their brother on Mt Tongariro. They returned northwards via the eastern side of Lake Taupō. These are some of the places the sisters left their fire:

  • Whakaari (White Island)
  • Tarawera
  • Whakarewarewa
  • Tikitere
  • Waimangu
  • Ōrākei Kōrako
  • Tokaanu
  • Tongariro
  1. From Rihi Puhiwahine, ‘Ka eke ki Wairaka’, In Ngā mōteatea, vol. 1, edited by Āpirana T. Ngata. Auckland: Polynesian Society, 1928, pp. 150–151. › Back

Lakes, rivers and harbours

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

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, 'Whenua – how the land was shaped', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2021)

Story by Te Ahukaramū Charles Royal, published 12 Jun 2006