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An Introduction to the Maori
Extracts fromour Touring Pages
This page contains extracts from our touring pages covering areas where we have found or experienced examples of Maori history, legends and culture.

Te Papa

The rest of the day was spent at the new National Museum Te Papa which translates as Our Place. Te Papa is in general much more dynamic and interactive than most museums - it certainly lives up to the promise of "fascinating exhibitions, interactive displays and high tech fun". Te Papa is certainly not the conventional collection of dry artefacts and stuffed animals - it is about, once more quoting "a celebration of our people, our land and rich stories of our nation". Most of our time was spent in the section covering the Maori culture and heritage - we had been very disappointed with our recent "Cultural Experience" at Rotorua and wanted to find out far more about the background.

The Maori sections are even better than on our first visit with a real Wharenui (meeting house) originating from 1842 and sited for a period in the parliament grounds. There is now much more explanation of the Marae, the Wharenui at the heart of it, the significance of the Marae in Maori life and what is expected of visitors to a real Marae, of which there are thousands in New Zealand.

In Te Papa they lead you into the Maori section through a route representing a visit to a Marae with plenty of explanatory material available if you want to find more about the significance. We also spoke to some of the staff in their background and research areas where we were given access to more original material, parts of which we copied, which give some fascinating insights into how the background of their own highly carved Whare (Meeting House) and how it had been obtained in 1862. It was the masterpiece of one of the finest Maori carvers and the first one carved using steel tools rather than the Greenstone tools in use pre Pakeha. We have bought a copy of one of the books which was in the Research Section we used called "Te Marae, A Guide to Customs & Protocols by Hiwi and Pat Tauroa and published by Reed ISBN 0-7900-0055-5" which gives an even more comprehensive coverage of the Marae and understanding of traditional and contemporary Maori life.

Almost everything in the Mana Whenua section is genuine and there were some illuminating displays and videos on Maori culture, history, spiritual roots and folklore. It is worthwhile for even short term visitors to gain some understanding of the Maori culture and the different interpretation that throws on many aspects of life.. There is also a good section on the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand's founding document, which brings out the analogy to the Magna Carta yet shows the tensions and grievances that still resulted. They now have side by side the original English, the original Maori and a recent translation of the Maori back into English which is most illuminating. The Maori text is considerably shorter as it seems to have lost some of the flowery and legalistic wording but there are also some more important differences relating to fundamental concepts such as Sovereignty for which there was no Maori equivalent in their culture. You should also visit the main museum in Auckland and the Treaty House at Waitangi to obtain a rounded picture of the Maori culture and the background and implications of the treaty.

The Whanganui River

The Whanganui river runs from the coast south-east of Taranaki (Egmont)and on past Lake Taupo to its source on Mount Tongariro. It has always been an important communication route to the interior, The river was one of the most challenging in the world for navigation with 239 rapids from Whanganui to Taumarunui. It was an important route for the Maori and it was first explored by Tamatea, the captain of the Takitumu canoe which was part of the great migration in 1350. He first sailed up the river to Putiki and the settlement name is the result of that visit. It was originally called Putiki-wharanui-a-Tamatea-pokai-whenua which translates as "the place where Tamatea tied his topnot with flax". Many other place names are associated with his voyage up the river and eventually on to Lake Taupo. Tangahoe is "the place where he cut paddles" Tamateas's cave in the middle of the beautiful gorge area is well know - by tradition Tamatea sheltered there in his voyage of exploration and it still provides welcome shelter for present river users, mainly canoeists. Following his explorations it became the main route from the sea to the central regions for Maori.

Maori legend explains the formation of the Wanganui. Their tradition is that there was that there were original four mountains in the central peaks, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu and Taranaki. The mountains were male and female and Tongariro had as his wife the enticing Pihanga. However Taranaki tried to seduce he beautiful Pihanga and a mighty battle of the mountains followed. When it cleared Tongariro had won and Taranaki fled in grief and anger to the sea and inland to stand forever in isolation as Mt Taranaki (Egmont). His track to the sea became a deep rift and the beautiful gorge was filled with gushing fresh water from Tongariro to heal the rift - the Whanganui river was born.

Why it is called the Whanganui is also explained by legend. Hau set off from Patea following an erring and absconding wife Wairaka along the coast. The first obstacle Hau met was a great river flowing westwards to the setting sun. He sat to consider the best way to cross the vast expanse of water and uttered these thoughts - "Too wide to swim, too deep to wade, I will wait for the tide to turn" from these thoughts he named the river Whanganui - literally the big wait.

The term King Country comes from the trouble in the 1860s when their was some dissent over the way the Treaty of Waitangi was working out and the Maoris elected their own King in the area which became virtually a no-go area for Pakeha until late in the century. By the time the river was opened up for navigation by Pakeha there were over 3000 Maori along the river banks - they were considered a great tourist attraction on "The Rhine of New Zealand".

If you go upstream you first pass through a series of Kainga, the unfortified settlements along the coast that replaced the original series of fighting Pa on the hilltops known as the necklace of fire. The Kainga settlements at the riverside were the results of the missionaries influence and in many cases the Maori asked the Rev Taylor for suggests for their names and what remains is the Maori pronunciations of his suggestions. You pass through Atene (Athens at 35.5km), Koriniti (Corinth at 47 km), Ranana (London at 60km) and Hiruharama (Jerusalem at 66km).

The Inland Patea Trail from Napier to Taihapi

The day was glorious and we were in no hurry so we thought we would take the slow road out of Napier to Taihapi a 140 km Heritage Trail partially gravel going over Gentle Annie. We first heard about it several years ago from some other campers at Tutira who sent us some information sheets to England.

It is now one of a network of Heritage Trails which are sponsored by the New Zealand Visitor Network and the local District Councils. They all have information sheets and the main features are numbered and often have display boards on the ground giving something of the history etc. Their markers use cream/pale yellow letters on a, usually very faded, teal green background so are easy to recognise as are their information sheets which have a similar colour scheme.

The route is officially known as the Inland Patea Heritage Trail and crosses the Dividing Range through an area of great natural beauty and historic interest where earth movements have created unusual mountains with limestone scarps with natural forest. It started as the route of an old Maori Trail from the East coast to the centre of North Island. In the 15th century one of the most famous Maori leaders Tamatea Pokai Whenui (Tamatea means he who explored the land) arrived in NZ on the Takitumu canoe and travelled the trail with his son Kanungunu. Many of the place names near the trail are called after the animals he carried in his basket.

Latter Patea, a Maori living at Manawarakau travelled the trail. Legend says he went on a hunting expedition for a long time and returned with a poor bag to find his woman had filled his storehouse. Her incessant nagging on how poor a hunter he was led him to take her for a walk off a cliff. Rather than face her relatives he fled into the wild country west of the ranges where he remained in what came to be called Patea's Country, a huge tract bounded by the dividing Ranges, Mount Ruapehu and Taihape.

Whilst exploring the area stopped in one of the unpublished free DOC camp sites close to Kuripapango on the banks of the Ngaruroro River. Kuripanapango is named after a Wanganui Maori warrior who was killed ad eaten whilst trying to invade Hawke's Bay in the 17th century.

We complete the Patea trail in a leisurely manner stopping to look at the views and points of interest such as Taruarau hill where Tuwhakaperei, grandson of Tamatea made prodigious leap to escape the Ngati Hotu tribe after being caught ceremonially roasting the hearts of his slain foes, which was frowned upon at that time - such activities endowed the warriors with the strength of their fallen rivals.


Rotorua is the place in New Zealand where the visitor is most likely to have the chance to experience Maori culture as there are many opportunities for an evenings entertainment with a Hangi with a show of Maori song and dance. There are also chances to visit a Marae where "Cultural Experiences" are offered. We went to one in 2001- this is the excerpt from our log:-

In the evening we went to a Hangi and Cultural introduction to the Maori at Maori Arts and Crafts centre at, another major thermal area on the edge of Rotorua. A Hangi is a Maori way of cooking which in most places involves cooking in a deep pit into which stones heated in a fire are dropped the food is wrapped and put on top and the whole covered with soil for a few hours to "steam" the mixture of meat and vegetables and blend all the flavours. In Rotorua and other thermal areas the hot stones are not needed as the pits are made over natural steam vents which cook the food.

The cultural experience was extremely disappointing and they missed many opportunities and even the food was mostly European with no explanation of what was typical. If it had been billed as entertainment it would have been acceptable but that was not the case. We have had much better experiences in a hotel in the past which made it even more disappointing. We walked out before the end and had a lengthy, and hopefully positive, discussion with some of the hosts/organisers.

This was the experience which led to our adding the Maori pages to our site. With the background we have here the experience would have been so much more meaningful. They were 95% of the way there and only needed some explanation and to bring out the differences from the past to the present. Other Marae also offer similar cultural evening which may be much better - we saw a sheet from one which provided a briefing to read before the visit with a brief explanation of the protocols and way to behave on the Marae.


It is worth making the point that it is difficult to do justice to Maori Culture without being fluent in the language and having been immersed in the culture. There are words and concepts which have no direct translation and are difficult or, arguably, impossible to grasp. For example, in the early days, sovereignty was a concept without any counterpart in the Maori language or culture and the Maori concepts of Tapu and Noa are difficult for many Pakeha to understand even today. If I have inadvertently, or through ignorance, made errors or omissions in any of my sections covering Maori culture, legends and protocol please let me know - any corrections, comments and input will be very welcome.

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