Opotaka - Home of the Haka

Most people have heard of Ka Mate, New Zealand’s most famous haka, a traditional Maori war dance that is performed on an international stage by the All Blacks before every rugby game. What most people don’t know though, is how and where the Ka Mate haka transpired.

An illustration of warrior Te Rauparaha

The origins of this haka date back some 200 years at a site called Opotaka on the shores of Lake Rotoaira, in between the town of Turangi and the Tongariro National Park.

The original haka was composed by the great warrior Te Rauparaha, a chief of Ngati Toa Rangatira, who lived in the 1820’s.

Te Rauparaha had many enemies and found himself fleeing his homeland of Kawhia to find a new place to live. It was on the shores of Lake Rotoaira that Te Rauparaha was given refuge in a kumara (sweet potato) pit by the local chief Te Whareangi to conceal him from his enemies who were in hot pursuit. Te Whareangi asked his wife, Te Rangikoaea, to seat herself over the entrance to the pit.

When the pursuers arrived, Te Rauparaha is said to have muttered “Ka Mate! ka mate!” under his breath (Will I die!) and “Ka Ora! ka ora!” (or will I live!). These lines were repeated many times until eventually the pursuers were convinced by Te Wharerangi that Te Rauparaha had escaped towards Taranaki.

It was then that he finally exclaimed “Ka ora, ka ora! Tenei te tangata puhuruhuru nana nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te ra!” (I live! I live! For it was indeed the wondrous power of a woman that fetched the sun and caused it to shine again!). “Upane, ka upane”, means “to line up in abreast or in rows”, as one does to perform haka. One could imagine his joy at not only eluding certain death by a mere whisker, but also coming out of the dark kumara pit into the light of day – “Whiti te ra! Hi!”

So in fact, contrary to popular belief, Te Rauparaha’s haka is actually a celebration of life over death and faith over despair, rather than a war dance.

These days, the site of Te Rauparaha’s first haka is marked by the original food storage pit in which he hid, fenced off and protected by a small shelter erected above it. The local hapu of Ngati Hikairo are working towards developing the site into a cultural tourist attraction.

This site of the old Maori settlement is well worth a visit to soak up the history and imagine Te Rauparaha performing the spine-tingling ‘Ka Mate’ haka for the first time. The scenery around the area is stunning, the trees are full of birdlife, particularly kereru (wood pigeons), and the views across Lake Rotoaira to Mt Tongariro and beyond are incredible. Incidentally, Opotaka now affords a rather spectacular view of the active Te Maari crater, the site of the most recent eruption on Mt Tongariro.


Ka Mate

The All Blacks performing the famous Ka Mate haka

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora! 
Will I die, Will I die

Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora! 
Will I live, Will I live

Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru 
For this is the hairy man

Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā! 
Who has fetched the sun and caused it to shine again!

Ā, upane! ka upane!
Upward I step! Again I step!

Ā, upane, ka upane, whiti te ra 
A step upward, another... the Sun shines!

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