Wai Ariki: A Cultural Narrative


Every school child of New Zealand learns at some point the story of how our country straddles the ‘Ring of Fire’, a complex web of tectonic plate movements which account for volcanic activity, and major earthquakes and thermal activity around the edges of the Pacific Ocean.

They are told that 30 km downward the Earth’s mantle of superhot rock sometimes squeezes out giant bubbles, forming magma chambers. As the rising magma moves closer to the surface, it searches for cracks in the Earth’s crust through which to escape or erupt.

Lake Rotorua, they are told, is said to have formed some 240,000 years ago following a major volcanic eruption. After the eruption the magma chamber underneath the Volcano collapsed, leaving a tear drop shaped caldera, similar to a crater, into which water soon poured and pooled.

But this is not that story.

Orokohanga: Creation

Our elders tell us that from the many layers of darkness and light emerged two primal beings, Papatūānuku (the Earth Mother) and Ranginui (the Sky father). From their union emerged a pantheon of Gods.

In time these deity explored the world created out of the very fabric of their parents. From their liaisons with various female elements, these Gods imparted mauri (life force) into the resulting children, not just the animate but also the inanimate, not just the divine, but also the mortal.

In this way the liaison of Tāne-Mahuta (God of Forests) with Apunga produced birds, while his liaison with Mumuhanga produced the totara tree. One of his other liaisons, with Hineahuone, produced humanity.

As descendants of primal parents of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, we enjoy an intimate whakapapa (kinship) with the natural environment in its diverse forms and features, from the heavens through to the earth. This relationship extends from us, to our hapu (sub tribe), our iwi (tribe), to the animals, insects, mountains, rivers and elements. This relationship is an integral part of who we are and influences how Māori view the world.

It is this relationship which shows why Māori place such importance upon the natural environment, and why its protection is paramount; the natural environment is infused with mauri and is connected to us by whakapapa.

We express this everyday by our identification with, and personification of, particular maunga (Mountains), awa (Rivers) or moana (Lakes or Oceans).

Figure 1 Te Heketanga-ā-rangi Gateway at the entrance of Te Puia

Figure 1 Te Heketanga-ā-rangi Gateway at the entrance of Te Puia

Te Heketanga-ā-rangi: Heavenly Origins

Te Arawa, our confederation of iwi, traces our common origin to Kuraimonoa, a Chiefly-born woman of beauty who lived with her husband, Toi, and their children in the distant ancestral homeland of Hawaiki.

It is said that Puhaorangi, a celestial being who lived in the heavens, looked earthward and became enamoured by the beauty of Kuraimonoa. While her husband was away, Puhaorangi descended from the heavens and drew Kuraimonoa to him.

This liaison bore a unique child, Ohomairangi (Awaken from the heavens).

The descendants of Ohomairangi took the tribal name Ngā Oho in remembrance of this important ancestor. Because of Ohomairangi’s mortal and celestial heritage, his descendants described their whakapapa (genealogy) as ‘Te Heketanga-a-rangi’, the descent from the heavens.

Atuamatua was an important descendant of Ohomairangi. He had a number of children, including Rakauri, the eldest, and Houmaitawhiti. Rakauri had a son called Ngatoroirangi, who would become one of the greatest and most powerful tohunga (Priests) to ever walk the Earth. Rakauri also had two daughters, Kuiwai and Haungaroa, and another younger son named Tanewhakaraka. Rakauri’s brother Houmaitawhiti had a son called Tamatekapua, who would become a well renowned Chief.

When events forced a branch of Ngā Oho to migrate from Hawaiki to distant Aotearoa (New Zealand), Tamatekapua was appointed Captain and Ngatoroirangi became the navigator. Under their leadership and guidance, this branch of Nga Oho set out for Aotearoa aboard the canoe that would eventually become known as Te Arawa.

In time they arrived to Aotearoa making landfall at Maketu. Here we built our first settlement.

Te Ahi: The Flame

Ngatoroirangi, the great Priest, and his followers left their other Te Arawa relatives at Maketu wanting to explore the new land.

Following the Tarawera River Ngatoroirangi came to Mount Tarawera where he found Tama-o-hoi dwelling, a spirit in the form of a man. Tama-o-hoi was unhappy with Ngatoroirangi’s appearance and used sorcery to attack him, however being a Priest Ngatoroirangi defeated Tama-o-hoi with his superior knowledge and power and Tama-o-hoi fled into the ground. When Tarawera fatally erupted in 1886, it was said by some to have been the work of Tama-o-hoi.

At one point Ngatoroirangi and his followers headed to Taupō, where they found a number of snow caped mountains. Ngatoroirangi thought to challenge himself and climb the great Mountain Tongariro. As he ascended the mountain, he was assaulted by a blizzard. Fearing he would perish, Ngatoroirangi called out to his sisters in Hawaiki for assistance.

Thus Kuiwai and Haungaroa, with their younger brother Tanewhakaraka in tow, raced from Hawaiki to Aotearoa, armed with precious ahi (fire) in the form of two spirits, Te Pupu and Te Hoata, for their brother, pausing to rest at Whakaari (White Island) and other places.
While resting near Lake Rotorua, the sisters ascended a hill and looked down at the Lake. One of the sisters, Kuiwai, slipped and so they named this place Te Hemo a Kuiwai, today known as the Hemo Gorge.

They stopped again in the area now known as Tikitere and their younger brother, Tanewhakaraka, being a great hunter, was attracted by the many birds throughout the forests and in the surrounding hills. He said to his sisters:

I am going up yonder. I may be a long time away. I have fixed my heart upon those hills. Remain you here and I will bring you the spoils of the forest.
Figure 2 Proposed Iconic sculpture at Hemo Gorge which will celebrate the story of Ngatoroirangi and the arrival of the geothermal fires

Figure 2 Proposed Iconic sculpture at Hemo Gorge which will celebrate the story of Ngatoroirangi and the arrival of the geothermal fires

Tanewhakaraka was gone a long time and eventually the sisters gave up and sadly left. They named the Whakapoungakau rangers in remembrance of their brother.

Finally the sisters made their way to Ngatoroirangi where they warmed him with the ahi they had brought from Hawaiki, thus saving him from perishing. Ngatoroirangi explored widely and had a number of further adventures, before settling down to live out his final days at Motiti Island.

It is said that the places where his sisters stopped in their journey, or where they dropped embers, are where hot pools and other volcanic or geothermal phenomena can be seen today. It is because of this origin that hot pools are today called Waiariki (or Wai Ariki) or “chiefly water”, rather than wai wera (hot water) as a reminder of the origin of the thermal water was called to Aotearoa by Ngatoroirangi.

Hatupatu and Kurungaituku

Hatupatu was the youngest son of Tamateahirau and Okarikiroa, and along with them and his older siblings Hanui, Haroa and Karika, he had arrived from Hawaiki aboard the Te Arawa. They lived as a family on Mokoia Island.

Being the youngest, Hatupatu was often ill-treated by his older siblings. At one point in time Hatupatu was taken prisoner by Kurungaituku, a fearsome winged-woman. Through cunning and guile Hatupatu eventually escaped, but Kurungaituku took chase. They reached the area now called Whakarewarewa. Hatupatu carefully navigated the geothermal field, jumping over the hot springs. Kurungaituku was unaware and thought the pools to be cold. She waded in and was burnt to death.

Hatupatu’s defeat of Kurungaituku, and various other deeds, would see his fame spread far and wide and live on long after his death.

Ngāti Whakaue

Tamatekapua lived for a time at Maketu, and moved to Moehau where he died. Tuhoromatakaka was his eldest son, and he had a son named Ihenga. Ihenga was responsible the discovering and naming of many sites in and around Lakes Rotoiti and Rotorua. Tuhoromatakaka’s younger brother was Kahumatamomoe. Kahumatamomoe lived and died in Maketu, as did his son Tawakemoetahanga and grandson Uenukumairarotonga. Uenukumairarotonga’s son was Rangitihi, and it was Rangitihi who moved from Maketu inland along the Kaituna River where he raised his eight children.

It is from these eight children that all the tribes known today as Te Arawa descend, and from them comes the adage ‘Ngā Pūmanawa e waru o Te Arawa’, or the 8 Beating Hearts of Te Arawa, which is usually used in reference to the eight children.

Rangitihi had a son called Tuhourangi, who had a son named Uenukukopako. Uenukukopako migrated from Rotoiti to Lake Rotorua where he raised his family, including his son Whakaue- Kaipapa.

It is from this Whakaue-Kaipapa that Ngāti Whakaue gain our name. Whakaue-Kaipapa had a number of children, including a younger son named Tutanekai. Despite much adversity and disapproval, Tutanekai married the beautiful Hinemoa. Tutanekai inherited his father’s Mana (prestige or authority), and it is from both he and Hinemoa that all Ngāti Whakaue descend from today.

Ngāti Whakaue originally occupied at Waiteti, Parawai and othr places on the western shores of Lake Rotorua, but over time they came to live at Ōhinemutu and its surrounds.

Kuiarau and the Taniwha

A short distance from Ōhinemutu, within Kuirau Park there is a large hot lagoon once known as Taokahu. Once upon a time this was pool was much cooler than today and was used for bathing by various Chiefs. Tamahika was one such Chief, and his wife was Kuiarau or Kuirau, both being descendants of Whakaue-Kaipapa’s brothers.

Figure 3 the Kuirau Lagoon today, in Kuirau Park, Rotorua http://www.rotoruanz.com/visit/see-and- do/geotherm/kuirau-park-(1)

Figure 3 the Kuirau Lagoon today, in Kuirau Park, Rotorua http://www.rotoruanz.com/visit/see-and- do/geotherm/kuirau-park-(1)

As local historian Don Stafford wrote:

However, unknown to anyone at that time, a large and evil taniwha lurked deep in a cave at the bottom of Taokahu. He had been there for generations but emerged only during the darkest nights, when he would creep about the land snapping up unwary travellers, dogs, rats and birds, devouring them with relish.
Thought hidden deep within the lake, the taniwha was well aware of the beautiful young kuirau swimming regularly above him. His desire to possess her became an obsession and one evening while she was lazily floating above, he struck. Rising to the surface he seized Kuirau and dragged her down to his cave at the bottom of the lake. So terrified was Kuirau at this turn of events that just as she was being forced into the taniwha’s lair she died of fright. Legends concerning this event say that the whole episode had been witnessed by those gods that the old Māori people believed controlled much of their destiny. So angry were they at the treatment of Kuirau by the taniwha that they caused the lake to boil, destroying the taniwha for ever and ensuring that another could never inhabit the same place. As a tribute to poor Kuirau the lake was thereafter known by her name, the name now given to the whole park.

Together with Kuirau, Timaru lagoon a little to the north was also once a favourite bathing area for Ngāti Whakaue.


For generations Ōhinemutu has stood along the southern shores of Lake Rotorua, sitting watch over the Lake, a mighty sentinel, the much envied stronghold of the Ngāti Whakaue people.

Here long, relentless streams of steam curl ever upwards to the heavens, released not just from the multitude of boiling pools, but seemingly from every pore of Papatūānuku herself. Interspaced between boiling pools were numerous huts of various shapes and sizes, both
plain and carved, ringed by a high fence punctuated by intricately carved gateways. This was Ōhinemutu in the early 19th century; a large, wealthy community, with no shortage of people, of healthy plantations, and fleet of waka.

Figure 4 Ōhinemutu, looking back from Muruika

Figure 4 Ōhinemutu, looking back from Muruika

While Māori settlements around Tarawera, Rotomahana, Tikitere and Mokoia could boast their own geothermal presence, few places possessed the plentiful, diverse, sustained activity offered by Whakarewarewa and Ōhinemutu.

It was almost as if the sisters of Ngatoroirangi had paused here awhile longer in their journey, imbuing the area with a special potency. Indeed, one area of Ōhinemutu takes the name of Para-te- Hoata, after one of the spirits which brought the ahi from Hawaiki.

Of Whakarewarewa and Ōhinemutu, only the later had the benefit of the Lake, into which the hot pools emptied, and land close to hand which could be both easily farmed and easily defended. Various Ngāwhā (geothermal activity) can be found throughout Ōhinemutu. These include mud pools but in particular numerous waiariki (hot springs) and occasionally even temporary Puia (Geysers). Waipuna (cold springs) are also a well-known feature, though situated mostly outside of Ōhinemutu, they feed into nearby streams such as the Utuhina.

Our people have always looked upon our Ngāwhā, our waiariki with reverence. In part this stems from our shared whakapapa with them, but also from their origin through the tohunga Ngatoroirangi. For this reason they are seen as being tapu (sacred) and a taonga (a treasure).

Our old people knew the innate medicinal properties of certain Ngāwhā and, whenever they felt tired or sick, they knew to go down to the waiariki for therapy. Many of the larger or more voluminous Ngāwhā were named and even had their own known temperaments, their own personalities.

To this day, a few of the old people will still greet and talk to the various waiariki.

Our use of the Ngāwhā was guided by tikanga and kawa, our cultural protocols and norms that were handed down to us by our forefathers. These protected both the Ngāwhā and the physical and spiritual well-being of the users, as well as helped pass along knowledge of how particular Ngāwhā acted under certain conditions such as rain, flooding, or long dry periods. Other tikanga and kawa, such as respecting the nudity of bathers, developed in later years.

Our raupo huts were often built near or atop areas where above ground activity had not yet broken out, but which sat beneath the rocky surface providing natural warmth.

Only certain waiariki, usually the more temperate, deeper pools, were used for bathing, and certain others, usually the hotter, were used solely for washing of clothes or the cooking of food. This protected the human body, which was tapu, from being contamination by food, which was noa.

Food was cooked within weaved baskets which were used to lower and retrieve food. Bathing pools were often extended upon, or constructed, feed into by diverted springs. Certain waiariki might be paved over to dry inanga.

Besides washing and bathing, certain Ngāwhā could be used tactically to help re-inforce the Village defences, while others could be used to hide, and keep safe from enemies, the remains of deceased persons. In some cases Ngāwhā could even be used to punish.

Ōhinemutu was always a hive of activity, and bathing was and still is a much favoured activity. While some chiefs and their families would claim exclusive use of certain pools, there were also communal baths, a feature that has only recently disappeared from the landscape.

Figure 5 Ruapeka Bay, Ohinemutu 1905 (1/1-003726-G National Library)

Figure 5 Ruapeka Bay, Ohinemutu 1905 (1/1-003726-G National Library)

Besides the warmth provided in the winter months, the baths also provided a sheltered place to relieve ailments, gather and talk or debate about community politics within the tribe, gossip about people and events, and share stories and traditions from bygone days.

For the village children they provided a safe place to play, especially along Ruapeka Bay where they could bury themselves in the heated sand, and enjoy the feeling of the cool Lake water washing over them. Despite this there was also a healthy respect for the dangers that the various Ngāwhā posed, especially at night when one had to be very careful where you stepped.

Observations regarding the waiariki at Ōhinemutu were often noted in the diaries of early Colonial visitors. Reverend W.R. Wade visited in 1834 and wrote:

Some of the springs are of such a temperature as to form a perpetual warm bath. In these, men, women, and children crowd together, regardless of all decency, chatting as they sit almost up to their chins in warm water; smoking their pipes, and taking their food as if they were on dry land. Mr. Chapman had seen them, in bitter cold and rainy seasons, take off and roll up their garments, to go and sit in the bath till they acquired sufficient warmth; when they would come out, wrap their single garments (perhaps half wet) about them, and sit down, or pursue their journey, without using the slightest precautionary measures. Yet it is a rare occurrence for them to take cold; though the water is generally warmer than would be quite comfortable to a European warm-bather. The people will often sit in these warm baths three or four hours at a time; and occasionally, in cold days of idleness, they will remain the whole day in the water, having food brought to them, and fire to light their pipes.

Ernest Dieffenbach visited Ōhinemutu in 1840, observing:

The largest village is built close to the springs, and the natives have from time immemorial used them as a natural kitchen for boiling their food. The water of several of these springs is clear and nearly tasteless, and its temperature is above the boiling-point. The pa, which is the finest I have seen in New Zealand, occupies a large surface, which is actually intersected by crevices from which steam issues, by boiling springs, and by mud volcanoes. It requires great care even for the native to wind his way through this intricate and dangerous labyrinth. Accidents are very common, as the thickness and solidity of the insecure crust upon which the pa is built are continually changing, and the ground suddenly sometimes gives way at a place where shortly before it appeared to be perfectly firm. At one time a part of the village close to the edge of the lake subsided several feet, and the water took its place. The palisades are still visible, and standing upright under water.

Those forlorn palisades spotted by Dieffenbach refer to a settlement which once existed along the Muruika promontory at Ōhinemutu. The inhabitants had been unkind to a visiting sickly woman called Te Aratukutuku. She called upon her Gods in revenge, and they engulfed Muruika with boiling water, destroying the settlement and those that lived there, leaving only remnants behind.

As civilisation encroached more and more into the interior of the north island, Ōhinemutu changed. With the Government keeping the peace, traditional fortifications were left to collapse and rot. Raupo Huts gave way to the more permanent weatherboard homes, and the growing tourist trade saw the need for more and more shops and hotels.

One story from this time concerns Christopher Maling who, late one evening, accidently stepped into one of the Ngāwhā at Ōhinemutu.

Local Māori wished to treat the resulting burns in a traditional manner, while the local Doctor, Hope Lewis, objected. A compromise was struck with one leg being treated by the Doctor and the other by Māori.

Using Māori traditional knowledge, a particular mud was used to cover one of Maling’s injured legs. Once the mud had hardened and started to crack, the leg was bathed in a waiariki at Ōhinemutu called Kahukura where the leg was cleaned, and encased again in mud. This was repeated over five weeks at which point the leg had healed perfectly and was in much better condition than the leg treated by the Doctor.

Like people, Ngāwhā were not unchanging. Waiariki would sometimes breakout from nowhere; established waiariki could grow, shrink or become extinct all together. The eruption of Tarawera in 1886 saw a dramatic change in the level of the Lake, and Ngāwhā playing wildly at Ōhinemutu with various new outbreaks.

Some of the more-well known waiariki at Ōhinemutu which were used for bathing, washing or cooking included Waikite, Rangihaupapa, Kahukura, Waihunuhunukuri, Okomutu and Te Heke. Some bathing areas were used exclusively as a play area for the Village Children, such as Wairerere. Immediately west of Ōhinemutu was Kuirau and Timaru and, at Te Koutu, was Te Tapui. In the east where the Lake Front is today was an ancient bath known as Te Wai o Tunohopu, Tunohopu’s bath, named after its owner, a famous fighting chief of Ngāti Whakaue.

From the 1870’s the Hotels at Ōhinemutu, which sat on land leased from the Ngāti Whakaue owners, also organised exclusive use of nearby baths for their patrons. Thus Waikite spring feed into a bath known as the Morrison’s Hotel Bath while Waihunuhunukuri feed into the Lake House Bath. For visitors not staying at the Ōhinemutu Hotels, a shilling could be paid to make use of Scott’s bath, built by F B Scott on the Putoetoe block. For the modesty of the European visitors this bath was surrounded by a raupo whare, with half a roof to allow steam to escape.

Over time, as more and more tourists flooded the area and accidents involving either visitors or locals became more common, the Ngāwhā at Ōhinemutu become fenced off for safety. With the hotels relocating closer to town and the Government operating public baths in the Sanatorium Reserve (Government Gardens), the public paying bathing experience at Ōhinemutu ceased.

Figure 6 Ōhinemutu Village 2016 (Photograph by Ben Manley)

Figure 6 Ōhinemutu Village 2016 (Photograph by Ben Manley)

Subsequently, constructed enclosed whanau (family) Baths, mostly feed by either springs or thermal bores, became more and more common. Some of these carried old names adapted across from the water source, such as Rangihaupapa, whereas others took whanau names, such as Edith Timihou. Initially there also remained a number of communal baths at Ōhinemutu, the Lime Bath was one of these, as was the Kopatapata Bath, fondly remembered as the Bamboo Bath. Despite the many generations that have passed since Kuiwai and Haungaroa first crossed from Hawaiki to Aotearoa, the activities, tikanga and kawa for these baths has remained almost unchanged. The waiariki, our waiariki, are still seen as a sacred treasure, they still provide us a sheltered place to not only wash, but also to relieve our ailments, and to gossip and share stories.


Author credit: B T Manley