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Taupo, Turangi & Tongariro - History and Culture

Within the Lake Taupo region you will find some of New Zealand’s purest, untouched, unspoilt and uncrowded country. 

A few minutes south of the Lake is Tongariro National Park, New Zealand’s first National Park and a World Heritage Area.  It was created in 1887 when its three big volcanoes – Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe – were gifted to New Zealand by Ngati Tuwharetoa. 

On the western side of the Lake is the Pureora Forest Park – a place where you can walk through ancient rainforest so untouched, some of New Zealand’s rarest flora and fauna still thrive there today.  To the east of the Lake, the Kaimanawa Forest Park contains vast ancient beech forest.  The Whirinaki rainforest is another stunning local environment that has many stories to tell.

Local groups offer escorted walks, treks and eco-cultural experiences to provide visitors insights into this unique region and the customs and history of the Tuwharetoa people.  Visit Wairakei Terraces where you can see a replica Maori Village, treasured Maori carvings, indigenous cultural performances and enjoy a traditional Hangi feast. 

Did you know?

  • The Tongariro National Park is a dual World Heritage Site, being NZ’s first National Park and an area of great cultural significance!
  • Great Lake Taupo is the largest freshwater lake in the southern hemisphere.  It is roughly the size of Singapore and is in fact the crater of one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the last 5,ooo years.
  • You cannot purchase trout from Lake Taupo!  This region is a true wild fishery and trout is not farmed or harvested.  Trout cannot be found on any restaurant menu, however you can purchase a fishing licence from the Taupo or Turangi iSite or a local dairy if you would like to catch one. 

Habitation of Great Lake Taupo

Pre European habitation of the Lake Taupo area involved some of the earliest Maori’s to New Zealand, thought to have arrived in the 14th century by canoe in the Great Migration.  They sailed from their legendary home of Hawakiki in the Polynesian Islands of the Pacific Ocean, north of New Zealand.

Naming of Lake Taupo

Original Maori of the area, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Arawa of the Rotorua area, respectively claim descent from “Tia”, a chief and brother of one of the Arawa canoe captains.  Similarly for “Ngatoroirangi”, navigator and high priest (tohunga).  Both of them came to the Taupo area with their followers after New Zealand landfall, as an initial exploration group. 

Tia arrived on the eastern side of the lake at Hallet’s Bay and noted a cliff formation resembling his heavy rain cloak (Taupo).  He then set up an alter and claimed the place as Taupo-nui-a-tia “the great cloak or shoulder mat of Tia”. This was eventually abbreviated to Taupo. 

Ngatoroirangi also arrived at the same site and also set up an alter claiming it was older than Tia’s and therefore challenged him as to the ownership of these lands.  Tia eventually conceded to him and proceeded to an area at the foot of Mount Titiraupenga, where it is said, he settled. The 10 metre high Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay were carved in recognition of Ngatoroirangi, who was considered a visionary Maori navigator.  

Legend behind the creation of Lake Taupo

Whilst the Lake was named by Tia, legend has it that Ngatoroirangi was responsible for its creation.  While searching for a suitable place to settle his followers, he climbed to the summit of Mt Tauhara, now backdrop to Taupo township, where before him lay a great dust bowl. 

Ngatoroirangi, wanting to promote growth in this barren area, uprooted a totara tree from the mountainside and hurled it into the dust bowl.  The west wind caused him to miss his mark and striking a hard bank; it bounced off and landed upside down.  Its branches pierced the earth and fresh water welled up to form Taupo moana – “The sea of Taupo”. 

This tree is said to be still visible under the water about 70 metres off the shore at Wharewaka Point.  After a thanksgiving service at the shores of the newly created lake, he then plucked strands from his cloak and threw them into the water where they became the native fish of the lake.  One of these turned into eel but after wriggling away a short distance it died.  There are still no eels in the lake to the present day.

History of Lake Taupo's volcanic eruption by The Ministry for Culture & Heritage

Legend of the mountains

The mountains that embrace the Lake Taupo region, especially active volcanoes to the south, were long regarded with superstition and fear by Maori.  They used myth and legend surrounding gods and demons, to explain why the land of the area periodically erupts in fire and molten rock.

Following the discovery of the mountains and creation of the lake, navigator and priest Ngatoroirangi then decided to climb one of the peaks to the south and claim the surrounding land for his tribe – Ngati Tuwharetoa.  

On reaching the summit of the Tongariro mountain group in a snowstorm, he became almost frozen and with his strength failing, in a act of desperation, he prayed to his sisters back in his homeland Hawaiki, to send him fire.  To give even greater power or mana to his prayers, Ngatoroirangi killed his slave girl Auruhoe, “Kai riro au I te tonga!  Haria mai he ahi moku!”  “I am borne away by the cold south wind!  Send fire to warm me!”

His words were carried by the south wind to Hawaiki and his priestess sisters heard his prayer.  They sent fire demons by way of an underground passage to the White Island, Rotorua, Tarawera, Taupo, Horomatangi areas and finally to the mountain top where he stood.  Fire burst forth and Ngatoroirangi was saved.  Then the body of the unfortunate slave girl Auruhoe was cast into the blazing crater by the grateful Ngatoroirangi to appease Ruaimoko, the volcanic God.

Thereafter, the volcano was called Auruhoe but more recently became known by its present name of Ngauruhoe.  The naming of Mount Tongariro is also contained in Ngatoroirangi prayer for fire, where “tonga” refers to the south wind and “riro” to being carried or borne away.

The Legend of Tongariro and Pihanga

In the days when the world was young, when mountains walked and talked there were four warrior mountains that stood in the heart of Te-Ika-a-Maui.

Putauaki, Tauhara, Taranaki and Tongariro were always fighting but they had one thing in common – they all loved the gentle maiden mountain Pihanga.  She was so beautiful all the warrior mountains declared their love for her, but she couldn’t choose between them so decided she would marry whoever was the mightiest of the mountains.  The mountains decided they would fight to the last man.

The mountains locked in battle.  The battle raged for many days and nights.  Putauaki was the first to give up.  The others battled on until Tauhara declared he was withdrawing.  Taranaki and Tongariro fought on.  The battle went on until summoning up his failing strength Tongariro was victorious.

The defeated mountains departed.  Taranaki said that he would follow the path of the setting sun, and Tauhara and Putauaki decided that they would travel to the sea where they could look towards the dawn.  So they departed.  In those days mountains were required to complete their full journey in one night.

Taranaki travelled westward and in the morning found himself where the mountain now stands.  Taranaki’s great weight carved a deep channel in the earth and he filled the channel with his tears.  That river is now called the Whanganui River.

Tauhara and Putauaki journeyed eastward.  Tauhara moved very slowly as he was sad and sore of heart.  As morning was close at hand Putauaki could not wait and decided to go to the sea as quickly as possible.  Putauaki went north and found himself at the northern end of the Kaingaroa Plains.  Tauhara paused many times to look back at Pihanga.  When morning came he was not far from where he started.  He now stands at the north eastern shore of Great Lake Taupo and looks broodingly across at Pihanga and her proud husband.

Pihanga became the wife of Tongariro and to this day they are together in the land of Ngati Tuwharetoa.

History and cultural experiences in the Great Lake Taupo region:

Trout and fishing at Great Lake Taupo

Over 100 years ago the first trout fry were released into the Lake Taupo region.  Today, it is one of the last true wild trout fisheries in the world.  In a country renowned for its trout fishing, the Lake Taupo region is the best of the best.  The Rainbow and Brown trout here are legendary for their condition and size.  The Tongariro River, a great spot for fly-fishing, has an estimated 750,000 trout swim up it every winter to spawn.  Click here to read more about Trout fishing at Great Lake Taupo.



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