Great Lake Taupo Cultural Heritage

A unique history, interwoven with legends and stories from a time past, have combined to form the identity of this remarkable part of New Zealand.

The Naming of Lake Taupo

The original Maori of the Lake Taupo area, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa of the Rotorua area, came to the region after New Zealand landfall as an initial exploration group. These iwi respectively claim descent from Tia, a chief and brother of one of the Arawa canoe captains. Another Arawa descendant, Ngatoro-i-rangi, was a navigator and high priest (tohunga) who also came to the area of Lake Taupo at this time. 

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

Ngatoro-i-rangi arrived at the same site and also set up an altar, claiming it was older than Tia’s and therefore challenging him on the ownership of these lands.  Tia eventually conceded to him and advanced to an area at the foot of Mount Titiraupenga, where it is said he settled. The 14-metre high Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay were carved in 1978 in recognition of Ngatoro-i-rangi, who was considered a visionary Maori navigator.  

The Legend of the Creation of Lake Taupo

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

Wharewaka Point


Ngatoro-i-rangi, 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, the tree 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 still be 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, Ngatoro-i-rangi 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 an eel but after wriggling away a short distance it died. There are still no eels in the lake to the present day.

The Battle of the Mountains

Mt Tongariro Summit in Summer


A unique history, interwoven with legends and stories from a time past, have combined to form the identity of the remarkable Great Lake Taupo region.
The Battle of the Mountains is a famous local Maori legend about four warrior mountains called Taranaki, Putauaki, Tongariro and Tauhara who stood in the heart of Te Ika-a-Maui – the North Island. All four were deeply in love with the beautiful maiden mountain Pihanga that stands above Turangi at the southern end of Lake Taupo.
Each declared their love for her, however Pihanga could not choose who she would marry so decided whoever was the mightiest of mountains would win her heart. A battle erupted between the four warrior mountains that went on for days. In the end, Tongariro prevailed.

Defeated, the other mountains decided to leave Tongariro’s domain and called to the patupaiarehe (fairy people) to help the mountains on their magical journey. This journey could only be done in the hours of darkness and before sunrise. Taranaki fled west towards the setting sun and established himself there, his tears of grief forming the Whanganui
River.
Putauaki moved fast in the night, and decided to head for the sea. As the morning sun started to rise he was caught in his tracks and is now left standing at the northern end of the Kaingaroa Forest.
Tauhara, sad and heavy hearted, traveled slowly, often glancing back towards the fair maiden he lost in the battle. Tauhara had not traveled far when daylight came. He had only reached the place he stands now, at the north-eastern shore of Lake Taupo, and looks broodingly across the lake at Pihanga and her proud husband Tongariro.

The Legend  

Following the discovery of the mountains and the creation of Lake Taupo, the navigator and priest Ngatoro-i-rangi decided to climb Mount Tongariro and claim the surrounding land for his tribe, Ngati Tuwharetoa.

Ngatoro-i-rangi struggled through a snow storm to reach the summit of Mount Tongariro. By the time he reached the top he was almost frozen. With his strength failing, he prayed to his sisters back in his homeland of Hawaiki to send him fire. “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 to him through an underground passage. The fire demons travelled through White Island, Rotorua, Tarawera, Taupo and Horomatangi and, finally, to the Mount Tongariro where he stood. Fire burst forth and Ngatoro-i-rangi was saved.

The areas through which the fire demons travelled are all now areas of volcanic activity.

Great Lake Taupo Historical & Cultural Experiences

There are many things to do in the Great Lake Taupo region that give you an insight into this unique area and the history and customs of the Tuwharetoa people. Local operators offer escorted walks, treks and eco-cultural experiences. Contact one of the i-Sites to learn more about these activities.

Maori Warrior at Wairakei Terraces


Wairakei Terraces – home to the silica terraces, hot pools, a replica Maori village, treasured Maori carvings, Maori cultural performances and a traditional hangi feast.

Whirinaki Rainforest Experiences – guided nature and culture tours

Taupo Museum – learn about the history of the Great Lake Taupo district

Opotaka (Home of the Haka), situated on the shores of Lake Rotoaira, in between the town of Turangi and the Tongariro National Park, is where Ka Mate, New Zealand’s most famous haka, was composed.

Matariki - Maori New Year

What is Matariki?

Matariki is the Maori name for the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades. It rises in mid-winter – late May or early June. For many Maori, it heralds the start of a new year.

Matariki literally means the ‘eyes of god’ (mata ariki) or ‘little eyes’ (mata riki). According to myth, when Ranginui, the sky father, and Papatuanuku, the earth mother, were separated by their children, the god of the winds, Tawhirimatea, became so angry that he tore out his eyes and threw them into the heavens.

Cycles of life and death

Traditionally, Matariki was a time to remember those who had died in the last year. But it was also a happy event – crops had been harvested and seafood and birds had been collected. With plenty of food in the storehouses, Matariki was a time for singing, dancing and feasting.

Modern Matariki

Matariki, or Maori New Year celebrations, were once popular but stopped in the 1940s. In 2000, they were revived. A special feature of Matariki celebrations is the flying of kites – according to ancient custom they flutter close to the stars.

Various Maori tribes celebrated Matariki at different times. Some held festivities when Matariki was first seen in the dawn sky; others celebrated after the full moon rose or at the beginning of the next new moon. 

For more information please see the Maori Language Commission Matariki booklet. 

Visitor Guide 2017

Everything you need to know about activities, accommodation, shopping and dining in Great Lake Taupo.

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