Kupe - The Discoverer

A tale from He Korero Pūrākau Mo Ngā Taunahanahatanga a Ngā Tūpuna (Place Names Of The Ancestors) - A Māori Oral History Atlas

On his voyage of discovery to Aotearoa, Kupe spent some time at different places around the coast of the new land. Several clusters of names in different parts of Te Ika a Māui (the North Island) and in the northern parts of Te Waipounamu (the South Island) were given by Kupe or commemorate events of his sojourn here.

Kupe fighting the giant octopus, illustrated by Cliff Whiting
Kupe fighting the giant octopus, illustrated by Cliff Whiting

There are many variations in the traditions of Kupe and many place names drawn from the stories of his explorations and his adventures. Pākeha scholars have written much about these traditions and have strongly divergent views about them. Māori tribal authorities also give regionally different accounts of Kupe. In general, these Māori authorities reject the idea that Kupe was a figure of myth and regard him as an historical, exploring ancestor. They leave the scholarship to the scholars and say:

  "Mōku te kupu, ko ahau e mōhio!"
  "If the word is about me, I know best!"

In all these traditions there are some common elements. Kupe was a very early exploring ancestor, most say the first of the Polynesian ancestors to arrive here in Aotearoa from Hawaiki. Most traditions name his canoe Matawhaorua or Matahorua although some say these were different canoes. In all of them he is credited with "dividing the land" or "cutting the land in half", a reference to his journeying through Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait) as he explored the coastline. Apart from the Raukawa Moana coast and Te Tai ō Aorere (Tasman Bay) there is almost no Te Waipounamu tradition of Kupe. This suggests that he is principally an ancestor of Te Ika a Māui (North Island) tribes. Certainly the place names associated with him occur from Raukawa Moana northwards to Te Tai Tokerau (Northland).

Some traditions say that Kupe was accompanied on his voyaging by Ngahue (or Ngake) who had his own canoe, Tawhirirangi, while others do not mention this. Some say there was more than one Kupe, the second one being a more recent ancestor. All the debate just makes Kupe a more interesting subject for discussion. What we do know is that he must have been very important to our old people for so many places to be named after him or associated with his adventures.

The three regions where the Kupe traditions are strongest are Heretaunga (Hawkes Bay), Raukawa Moana and Te Tai ō Aorere (Cook Strait and Tasman Bay) and Te Tai Tokerau (Northland).

The records of the Māori Land Court in Hawke's Bay contain a famous case about a block of land called the "Te Waka ō Kupe Block". These records contain many references to place names in that area associated with Kupe. These names stretch from Mahia Peninsula southwards. However, while we can recognise the names, the present writer is not sure about the particular stories surrounding them. Thus it is better to note that they exist and leave them aside for the present.

Here is an account of the story of Kupe made from the two traditions of Raukawa Moana and Te Tai Tokerau.

Kupe sailed from Hawaiki on a voyage of discovery taking with him his wife Kuramārotini. She had been the wife of his relative, Hoturapa, whom Kupe had tried to kill. He also had with him in his great canoe Matahorua other relatives many of whose names figure in Aotearoa place names. Many of the events leading to his departure occurred on the lagoon Pikopikotawhiti at Raiatea. After a long voyage across Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean) Kupe landed on Te Ika a Māui (the Great Fish of Maui). It is said that his wife, Kuramārotini, gave the name "Aotearoa" to Te Ika a Māui. Matahorua voyaged along the coast of the "the Great Fish" "killing it" as they travelled, that is to say naming the land and possessing it as they explored.

While they were at Rangiwhakaoma (Castle Point), Kupe had a fight with a giant octopus. Although the traditions speak of a wheke it may, in fact, have been a giant squid or wheketere. These fight with the whales off the southern coasts of Aotearoa. In any case the great creature escaped only to meet Kupe again later in our story. Kupe and his people stayed for a time living along the coast of Wairarapa and at Kawakawa (Cape Palliser), named from a mourning wreath fashioned by his daughter. Kupe was standing on rocks looking for signs of fish when he lifted his eyes and saw the mountain Tapuae ō Uenuku on the other side of Raukawa Moana. He named the rocks Mātakitaki from his gazing out. There are other rock formations in this area named after Kupe: Nga Waka ō Kupe, Te Taiari ō Kupe and Te Puna A Kupe are some of the names.

After a time Kupe settled just inside Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington Harbour) at Maraenui (Seatoun). The beach there is named Te Tūranganui ō Kupe from his stay at that place. The reef in the harbour entrance, Te Tangihanga ō Kupe (Barrett's Reef), is named from the mournful sound of the waters around it. Te Ure ō Kupe, also called Te Aroaro ō Kupe (Steeple Rock) was a fishing place Kupe reserved for himself. He named the rocks on the other side of the entrance Mātauranga after one of his crew and the islands in the harbour he named after his daughters, Mākaro (Ward Island) and Matiu (Somes Island).

After a time Kupe sailed away to explore the coast leaving his family and others to preserve food and repair equipment for further voyaging on his return. These people made a summer camp at Te Rimurapa (Sinclair Head) named after the giant kelp from which poha (kelp bags) were made for preserving food in. This is the first time that poha were made in Aotearoa. Kupe was away a long time and his daughters feared that he was dead and began to grieve for him. In their grief they ritually slashed themselves with shell and the blood ran onto the rocks and stained it. The name of those rocks near Te Rimurapa is Pari Whero (Red Rocks). These people also fished out in the sea near that place and they named a big submerged rock Toka Haere (Thoms Rock) because it always seemed to be moving. This was because the strong currents kept pushing their fishing canoes around making it hard to navigate to this famous taurangaika (fishing ground).

Kupe's journey took him to the coast of Te Waipounamu and he found the entrance to Totaranui (Queen Charlotte Sound) at Kura Te Au (Tory Channel). He named this place from the red colour in water made by the krill that the whales feed on. In the channel entrance he again met the great wheke (or wheketere) which he had injured in the battle at Rangiwhakaoma. It attacked Matahorua trying to wrap its tentacles around the canoe. Kupe and his crew chopped at the tentacles with their weapons terrified of being dragged down into those swirling and treacherous waters. Kupe chopped strenuously with his sacred toki (adze) named Te Raka Tu Whenua. Then he changed weapons to a great patu made of whalebone. It was with this that he crushed the head of the wheke and it died. The downward blow of the whalebone weapon is marked in the name of the land there, the island named Arapaoa. The bay in the channel entrance is named Te Whekenui after this battle. While they were relaxing in the calm waters further up the channel, Kupe dropped his famous toki, Te Raka Tu Whenua, over the side. He had to dive into the clear waters to a rock on which it had come to rest. That rock is a famous taurangaika named Te Kakau O Te Toki A Kupe.

On the other side of Arapaoa Island is a bay called Te Umu Wheke where Kupe cooked some of the great octopus he had killed in an umu (earth oven) and at Wedge Point in Tōtaranui there is a spring with the name Te Mimi ō Kupe. Out towards the open sea there are rock formations resembling nets hung out to dry. These are on the cliffs along the side of Cape Jackson. The net-like formations are called Te Kupenga A Kupe and Cape Jackson itself he named Te Taonui A Kupe from its long spear-like shape. Further round to the west in Port Gore there is another rock formation with footprint-like indentations in the stone. Kupe is said to have named this Te Ope A Kupe.

It is not clear that Kupe travelled further to the west but his pet birds are said to have explored the area for him. The most loyal of these was a giant shag, Te Kawau a Toru, which discovered Te Aumiti (French Pass) which runs with great violence between Rangitoto (D'Urville Island) and the mainland. Te Kawau A Toru was overcome by the currents when testing the pass for Kupe and perished there. The body of the great bird forms the reef which lies in the pass. His other bird, Rupe, is said to have found the food of Te Waipouriamu so good that he deserted Kupe and stayed there.

Setting out to recross Raukawa Moana and rejoin his family, Kupe was blown by the westerly wind down into Te Koko a Kupe (Cloudy Bay). A gorge in the great white cliffs there, called Te Parinui ō Whiti, he named Te Koko A Kupe and yet another rock formation, Ngā Tauari O Matahorua, after the thwarts of his canoe. The other great landmark in Raukawa Moana he named Nga Whatu Kaipono (The Brothers Islands), which likens the islands to the eyeballs of the great wheke he had killed. They stand witness to his great deed.

When Kupe rejoined his family at Te Whanganui a Tara, Matahorua was reprovisioned with the food they had prepared and the voyagers set off again up the west coast of Te Ika a Māui. They came to Mana Island, off Porirua, which was named to mark the great achievement of Kupe in crossing the oceans and discovering the new lands - Te Mana O Kupe Ki Te Moana Nui A Kiwa.

After visiting Wanganui and Taranaki and leaving names there, some of which were later to guide Turi of the Aotea canoe, Kupe travelled northwards up the western coast. At the Mānuka (Manukau) Harbour he conducted rituals and named the rocks where that was done Te Toka Tapu A Kupe (Ninepins Rocks).

Eventually he arrived at Hoki Ānga, a place where his name is especially famous for this is where he was to make his departure for the return journey of Matahorua to Hawaiki. While based here he ordered his people to prepare a great feast. The food was prepared and put in the ovens, but when they were opened the food was found to be cold. Kupe was furious and sent those responsible away to various places in a famous curse. Kohukohu is named from that curse.

So as to protect his territory Kupe left many guardians in the Hoki Anga area. One was his pet taniwha, Ara I Te Uru, which is a name famous in the different traditions of the tribes as a protective deity. Some say it is a star path in the heavens, others a canoe, but here it is a reef and a maunga hirihiri. Thus the incantation:

  Kotahi ki rēira,
  Kotahi ki Arai Te Uru,
  Kotahi ki rēira,
  Kotahi ki Nuia.

Kupe threw his son, Tuputupuwhenua, into a spring of that name where he became a taniwha to guard the land. He then named many rocks and other places: Ngā Kuri A Kupe, Ākitia and Pori Here are some of those names. Kupe's last act before his departure was to order his mokai, Pōwhengu, to stay and care for the land. Pō was later to fail in an attempt to return to Hawaiki in a canoe built at Hoki Anga called Te Rewaatu when he was swept back to land by a great wave. Finally the great harbour was named Te Hoki Ānga A Kupe to mark the great return voyage and Kupe sailed from Aotearoa never to return.

Others were to come, however, following instructions given by Kupe. That leads us to the traditions of Nukutawhiti and Turi. The story of Turi is presented elsewhere in this volume. This account tells of only some of the names given by Kupe or which mark his time here in Aotearoa. There are many more in the traditions. They include the names of people and of events. Collected together they are probably the most numerous of all groups of names on the coastline of Te Ika a Māui.

Place names from Kupe's Voyage of Discovery

Shrub (the leaves of which are used for mourning)
To look at, inspect
Te Taiari ō Kupe
Kupe's act of crushing
Te Puna a Kupe
Kupe's spring
Ngā Rā ō Kupe 
The sails of Kupe
Nga Waka ō Kupe
Kupe's canoes
Te Tūranganui ō Kupe
Kupe's standing place
Te Tangihanga ō Kupe
The mourning of Kupe (of the sound of the sea)
Te Ure ō Kupe
Kupe's manhood
Te Aroaro ō Kupe
The presence of Kupe
Personal name (of a companion of Kupe)
Personal name (of one of Kupe's daughters)
Personal name (of one of Kupe's daughters)
Te Rimurapa
Bull kelp
Pari Whero
The red cliffs
Toka Haere
Rock of coming and going
Kura Te Au
The red current (coloured by krill)
The raising and striking; the crushing blow (with which Kupe killed the wheke)
Te Whekenui
The great octopus
Te Kakau o Te Toki a Kupe
Where Kupe's axe or adze was dropped in the sea
Te Umu Wheke
The oven in which the octopus was cooked
Te Mimi ō Kupe
Where Kupe urinated
Te Kupenga a Kupe
Kupe's net
Te Taonui a Kupe
Kupe's large spear
Te Ope a Kupe
Kupe's party
Te Kawau a Toru
Personal name (of Kupe's pet shag)
Te Koko a Kupe
The bay of Kupe
Ngā Tauari o Matahorua
The thwart of Matahorua (Kupe's canoe)
Ngā Whatu Kaipono
The guardian eyes
Te Mana ō Kupe Ki Te Moana Nui a Kiwa
The prestige of Kupe who crossed the great Ocean of Kiwa
Te Toka Tapu a Kupe
The sacred rock of Kupe
The curse
Arai Te Uru
Personal name (of Kupe's taniwha)
Personal name (of Kupe's son)
Ngā Kuri a Kupe
Kupe's dog
Pori Here
Genealogical ties
Te Hoki Ānga a Kupe
Kupe's returning
Please note that the place names in this story were correct at the time of publication but some may have been updated or changed in the time since. All of the current place names can be found in the New Zealand Gazetteer.

Reproduced courtesy of the New Zealand Geographic Board copyright.