About Nga Waka o Kupe





Nga Waka o Kupe : Canoes on the skyline near Martinborough1

The great Maori explorer known as Kupe is an important figure in many Māori tribes, and many places are named after him in numerous parts of New Zealand. South Wairarapa and Palliser Bay have their share of features on the landscape which bear his name.

For example, there is a block of land called Nga Waka a Kupe which is marked on various Government maps of the Wairarapa dating from at least as early as 1893. This block is east of the Oyster Shell and north of Hikawera and cannot be seen from Martinborough. The feature on the skyline that we all know as Nga Waka o Kupe south-east of Martinborough is not part of this block of land. The canoes on the skyline is a bold landscape feature and can be seen from many locations in the south Wairarapa area. It is notable that in 1907 Percy Smith refered to Nga Waka o Kupe as being "a range of hills east of Greytown"" (Smith 1907: 156), and this might arguably relate to the land block described on 19th century maps. Moreover, as one drives along the ‘scenic Ponatahi route’ from Martinborough to Masterton one is struck by the fact that there are quite a few features along the eastern skyline that are strikingly similar to the better known canoes of Kupe south-east of Martinborough.

It is interesting to speculate just what Nga Waka o Kupe may have looked like before Europeans deforested the Wairarapa area. Much of the Wairarapa in pre-European times was covered in dense forest, and was famous for being all but impenetrable in places by early European explorers such as Henry Kemp. The rich alluvial lowland areas were dominated by stands of podocarps, such a totora, rimu, matai, miro, and above all by kahikatea swamp forest, small relics of which can still be seen today. The poorer high country was covered in forests ranging from mixed broadleaf species to stands of beech. Areas unsuitable for forest were covered with flax, rushes, native grass species and low scrub. There is a common misconception that large areas of the alluvial valley were grasslands before Europeans, but this could not have been so. On all fertile alluvial valleys grass and scrublands are part of a succession of seral stages leading to a climax stage consisting of forest. Any areas in the Wairarapa alluvial valley which remained unforested in the climax stage would have remained this way because of a high water table and would have been swampland covered in flax and rushes, not grass. Whatever grasslands were observed by Europeans in the Wairarapa valley could only have been formed from forest fires, and would quickly turn into scrubland and, if left alone, would begin the succession back to podocarp forest.

What did Nga Waka o Kupe look like from the valley during pre-European times? At the very least it must have been muted in appearance, and it seems plausible that it gained in identity and dominance as a feature after the land was cleared and kept as pasture by farm grazing.

The following item is arguably the first published description which alludes to Kupe place-names in the Waiararapa. It was written by Tunuiarangi, an important Maori figure in the late 19th century Wairarapa affairs. Tunuiarangi was born in the Whakatomotomo valley near Pirinoa. He was part of the group that accompanied Dick Seddon to England to take part in Queen Victoria's diamond jubilee celebrations in 1897. He was attached to the Heretaunga Mounted Rifle Volunteers and came to be referred to as Major Brown, and sometimes Captain Brown. Tunuiarangi was presented to te Queen and was given a jubilee medal and a ceremonial sword inscribed for the occasion. On his return to New Zealand he renamed his Pirinoa property in the Whakatomotomo valley Ranana II (London II). His published comments do not specifically refer to the landscape feature which today we know as Nga Waka o Kupe, but is a story of the competition between Kupe and his brother Ngake in making two canoes. Tunuiarangi’s account of the story is, like other renditions throughout New Zealand, focused on the sails rather than the hull. The most cited published description is by Percy Smith:

There are a number of such names, but nearly all on the West Coast of the North Island. The following for instance: 1. Matakitaki, a large flat-rock on the east side of Palliser Bay, so called because it was here that Kupe first saw Tapuae-uenuku mountain, inland of Kaikoura, standing out snow-covered, apparently in the sea. He stated there some time looking at it (matakitaki) hence the name of the place. His daughters remained at that place. Near the rock is a pool of water which is red in colour with streaks of the same tint running down to it from the rock. These are supposed to be the blood from the girls, which flowed down there when they cut themselves in mourning for Kupe when he left. 2. Nga-ra-o-Kupe (the sails of Kupe). The name of two triangular patches of light-coloured cliff showing against the green vegetation a few miles to the west of Cape Palliser. The story connected with this is, that Kupe and his companion Ngake were camped here on one occasion, when a contention arose as to who could succeed in first completing a canoe sail (ra). So each started to work in the evening to make a sail; Kupe had finished his a little after midnight, whilst Ngake did not complete his until dawn. Thus Kupe won. The sails were then hung up against the cliffs, 'and may be seen there to this day' says my informant2. 3. Nga-waka-o-Kupe (the canoes of Kupe) a range of hills east of Greytown, Wai-rarapa, where the rocks are said to be shaped like a canoe. (Smith 1907: 155-156, see also Bagnell, 1976: 3-4).

Returning to Tunuiarangi’s account, it appears that the Kupe place names were mentioned to the Reverand Hone Teri Paerata by some unnamed Pākehā, and when he visited his flock in the Whakatomotomo valley he was keen to learn more about them, Tunuiarangi obliged. The comments were published in the Māori newspaper known as Te Puke Ki Hikurangi, which was based in Greytown, on Friday 15 January 1904. The letter is very interesting for the details it provides about the school and general living conditions in 1903. It was translated from the original by Professor Ray Harlow, Waikato University [square brackets his].

Te Puke Kihikurangi, Friday 15 January 1904

RANANA (II) December 20th, 1903

Dear 'Puke Ki Hikurangi', This is a short message to all your readers to reveal that we are suffering from the quality of the drinking water from rivers and other sources. Our water comes from springs, te Kohunui and Ranana II, they have been analysed by the Health Dept and found to be full of bugs, and are not good for drinking, the water must be boiled first. So we are worried about what to do, with everything involved in the drinking, the water, the licking of the lips after drinking, the sound of the pump, the pleasure felt after drinking, the sensation of cold in the stomach. Now though we know that bugs are also being ‘enjoyed’, so, everyone, sadness and lassitude descend on one’s thoughts. This is the first such great sickness [problem] seen in New Zealand; to my way of thinking, alcohol abuse is a small error, stealing, adultery, backbiting and the other errors, since these affect one person, and one person suffers for them. However, the penalty for [bad] water supplies affects up to thousands. Let me explain, in one spring, there may be 2, 3 even 6 thousand bugs, 60 in one pannikin. This is drunk by one person, so many pannikins are drunk in a day, so many more in a week or month or year. Sir, consider how great this error is, it has been seen by experts, by Pākehā doctors. What is the problem with having these sorts of people look at our food, our marae, our bodies, for they have the remedies for the sicknesses of these times and of the generations to come. Let me make clear the commitment of the Pākehā to pursuing bodily health for themselves and for the immigrants who are coming to their marae, that is, to the towns. The water for Poneke [Wellington] comes from Wainuiomata, 32 miles, at a cost of forty thousand; Mahitaone [Masterton] 13 miles or more, cost 30 thousand. In some other distant country, drinking water is fetched 300 miles, climbing hills, crossing rivers, cost 3 million pounds. There is a lot of water nearer these towns, but not good for drinking because of the number of bugs in it. That’s why they go such distances to find water which is good for drinking. We should all look at this in the light of the sickness in the water. It was possible for the Pākehā, it was possible for a people thinking together to gather the necessary money. If the Māori mind could be united in this way, then this disease could be warded off. One way to do this would be to live in Māori towns, with many people, pooling their strengths and money. Thus the sickness could be cured to the benefit of the present people, of visitors and of the generations to come. Once this problem was discovered we exerted ourselves to find good drinking water for ourselves, and we found water for our marae, for Te Kohunui, ground water on some Pākehā land, about 40 chains from the village, cost will be 150 pounds or more. This water has been passed by the Welfare Office. At the beginning of November, I asked Doctor Maui Pomare to come and see. He was amazed when he drank it. He took the water of Ranana II to be tested by the Health Department. He said he would send 2 tanks for the water for the children of the school II, and returned to Poneke [Wellington], thence to Akarana [Auckland].

Rakaiwhakairi has started collecting for water. That’s the end of my words about water.

In November 1903, Poopi [Pope], the Inspector of the school Ranana II arrived. He was full of praise for the speed at which the children’s work is progressing. These are the children who passed: Meri Reita Enoka, Mihipa Tunuiarangi, passed from level I to level II; Hineki Ta Whaiti, Timikaraaroa passed from II to III; Paraikete Heemi, Maira Hoera Hoani, Huru Te Whaiti, from III to IV. Presented 8, Passed 7. Gross Percentage = 90.2. Poopi [Pope] said a school house should be built for these children, one quarter acre should be allotted for its construction. Ama-o-te-Rangi and I agreed. Poopi [Pope] wrote in his report that the head survey should instruct Meihana [Mason] the surveyor to come to survey this quarter acre. Poopi [Pope] returned to Wellington early the next day.

Dear Puke, Teri Paerata arrived during November to see his flock, and brought with him Peehi Heemi and his wife and his [or her] mother, Taukuta, Wiki and Eruha te Maari. This was a journey of mourning for Peehi for his children who died at the same time.

One reason for their journey was to bring the twins of Karaitiana Kaimokopuna to the seaside for their health. The doctor in Katataone [Carterton] had told them to. Enough on that. Teri Paerata had heard the Pākehā talk about the signs of the ancestor, the stone of Haere which fell from the sky and is lying at Makotukutuku, a red stone, about the red of ngangara [perhaps referring to ngangarangi, a yam or potato, possibly with a red skin], preserving the red glow of the sky.

Secondly, so that he could see the Kaiwaka mentioned in the song: kai te whakahotu noa te puhaki Kaiwaka, takiri atu ana te tai o te akau, whakangaro atu ana te rae ki te Humenga. Anyway, you know the song [RH not in Nga Moteatea. Probably a waiata tangi: the overflow at Kaiwaka sobs, the tide of the reef rushes, the headland at Te Humenga is lost to view. Or something like that!].

Thirdly, he wanted to see the signs of Kupe and Ngake. They competed concerning their canoes. Ngake said his would be completed before Kupe’s. They would work at night. Kupe agreed. Night fell, they began to work. Before long Kupe’s was finished, it was hollowed out in the night. Dawn came, Ngake stopped work on his, it was not complete. In the formation of the ship, the sails are complete [RH not altogether sure about this bit] the sails are contained inside with [or ‘like’] the sails of the ship.

The second reason Teri came was to see the blood of Kupe with his tears and his pets, fish which live in the spring [pond] of Kupe, from the time of his being settled here to the present. That’s why Amoterangi, Eruha Te Maari, Hoone Kereama, Peehi Hemi and I went. Let me explain the significance of these signs of Kupe. According to what I heard from my older brothers/cousins, Kupe wept and lacerated/scarified himself over the departure of his daughter to another island, so his blood and tears fell, and stayed on the earth. After weeping, he climbed the ridge so that he could get a good view of Paenuku, out of love for his daughter. That’s the origin of the name of this ridge, the viewing place of your ancestor Kupe. His blood, tears and mucus turned to stone. As for his pets, I’ve said they were fish, but there is no fish in the New Zealand sea like them. They are as big as granite trout [marble fish, Aplodactylus arctidens] and butterfish [Odax pullus], when people fish for them, they don’t take the bait. If anyone mishandles these fish, the sea churns up. If anyone is scornful of these words about the fish, they should come and see. If anyone can catch any of these fish, I’ll give him £1. That’s enough on these signs of your ancestor.

(Captain Tunuiarangi’s text stops here, so that we can add material about the death of Hamuera Tamahau Mahupuku, as this is the page that was set at the time he died)


Footnote 1: Almost all modern publications and map references to this place are written as Nga Waka a Kupe. However, according to Professor Ray Harlow, this should be rendered as Nga Waka o Kupe. Percy Smith wrote it in the correct manner.(Return to text)

Footnote 2: Unfortunately Smith does not record who his informant was for this observation about Nga Waka o Kupe.(Return to text)

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