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The Central Plateau region and Lake Taupo, tribal lands of Ngati Tuwharetoa for hundreds of years, are steeped in history. Visitors to the region are drawn to explore not only the land, but the rich cultural history of the area.
The tribal homelands of Ngati Tuwharetoa are full of historical landmarks – the legendary mountains of Tongariro National Park and Mt Tauhara, and the soul-stirring home of the Ka Mate haka on the shores of Lake Rotoaira. It’s impossible not to have a sense of the powerful history and the cultural importance of these places when walking on the same lands that the high priest Ngātoroirangi would have walked on hundreds of years ago.
The earliest Tuwharetoa settlers in the Central North Island are said to be descended from Ngātoroirangi who arrived in New Zealand on the Te Arawa canoe from Hawaiki. He journeyed down through the North Island to claim the lands of the Central Plateau for his people. Another figure central to Ngati Tuwharetoa’s history is ‘Tia’, an explorer who also arrived in New Zealand on the Te Arawa canoe, and later became chief of Tuwharetoa. Many of the region’s significant geographical features were named after the chief Tia, including Atiamuri, Aratiatia Rapids and the great cliffs around Lake Taupō-nui-a-Tia (the great cloak of Tia).
Tongariro National Park – World Heritage Area
To get a true insight into the Taupo region’s history, a good place to start is with a visit to Tongariro National Park. Here lie the maunga (mountains) Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu. Together with the mountains further to the north of Pihanga, Tauhara and Putauaki (Edgecumbe), and Mt Taranaki to the east, they are the centre of the story of the battle of the mountains to win over the beautiful Pihanga. Legend has it that the courageous and strong Mt Tongariro won the battle. It is therefore somewhat fitting that the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, New Zealand’s greatest one day walk, traverses the mighty Mt Tongariro.
Tongariro National Park was formed after an insightful move by the paramount chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, Horonuku (Te Heuheu Tukino IV), to gift the peaks of the mountains to the people of New Zealand. Horonuku saw that the mountains could end up under private ownership if he did not do something, and so Tongariro National Park was born. The cultural importance of these mountains to the Tuwharetoa people and their unique volcanic landscape formed the basis for Tongariro National Park’s recognition as a World Heritage Area in 1993.
The Treaty of Waitangi
The gifting of the mountains to the people of New Zealand came not long after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, New Zealand’s founding document, in 1840. This document was an exchange of promises between the British Crown and Maori, and essentially laid out the rules by which the British Crown would acquire New Zealand as a colony.
Whakapapa Visitor Centre
The Whakapapa Visitor Centre, located in Whakapapa Village at the foot of Mt Ruapehu, has information, displays and audiovisual shows relating to the park, the volcanoes and local history. It also has all the information you will need to undertake the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, as well as details of other walks in the area. The Whakapapa Visitor Centre is open from 8am every day except Christmas Day.
Opotaka - The Home of the Haka
Most people have heard of Ka Mate, New Zealand’s most famous haka, particularly those who follow rugby. What most people don’t know though, is how and where the Ka Mate haka transpired. The Taupo region is home of the Ka Mate, with its origins at Opotaka on the shores of Lake Rotoaira, amongst stunning scenery. 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 food storage pit by the local chief Te Whareangi to conceal him from his enemies who were in hot pursuit. In celebration of escaping his enemies after they passed by without detecting him, Te Rauparaha leapt from the pit and performed his ‘Ka Mate’ haka. 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 to be called ‘the home of the haka’. 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.
Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Health Spa
Walking into Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Health Spa is like stepping back in time. Maori have used the clays and silica waters of Wairakei for healing and general wellness for hundreds of years. It’s easy to see why Wairakei was world-renowned, even over a hundred years ago. The spectacular terraces with cascading silica waters were surrounded by lush ferns, trees and rare native plants, and this natural phenomenon was likened to the pink and white terraces of Tarawera that were once considered the eigth wonder of the world.
The beautiful setting for the thermal pools, silica terraces and magnificent (man-made) geyser provide the perfect backdrop for relaxation, and people with arthritis and other rheumatic complaints have reported great relief from spending time in the waters. Massage, hot stone therapy, reflexology and reiki are wonderful additions to a soak in the thermal pools, and a stroll through the Wairakei Terraces Walkway will provide an insight into the unique thermal world that once existed here.
Central to the Wairakei Terraces encounter is a Maori Cultural Experience Tour. This three hour tour includes an official welcome by the local Maori hosts onto their marae (meeting house), the telling of stories and the history of New Zealand and Ngati Tuwharetoa, a guided walk through the geothermal walkway, a traditional meal cooked in a hangi (ground oven) and a concert of song, dance and haka. The experience is said to be powerful, emotional at times and unforgettable, and it reinforces the Maori culture as truly alive and growing.
Wairakei Terraces and Thermal Health Spa is located at Wairakei, on the Thermal Explorer Highway, 5 minutes north of Taupo. It is open from 8.30am to 5.00pm seven days a week, and Maori Cultural Tours operate on specific evenings from 6.00pm to 9.00pm. Enquiries and bookings can be made by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 07 378 0913.
The Taupo district is full of opportunities to learn about New Zealand’s Maori culture and history. Perhaps the icing on the cake for any visitor is that these culturally significant places lie within stunning landscapes and scenery as diverse as you’ll find anywhere in the world. From the beautiful Lake Taupo to the native forests of Mt Pihanga and the volcanoes of Tongariro National Park, the region is well worthy of exploration and discovery of its rich history.
Ko Tongariro te maunga Tongariro is the mountain
Ko Taupō te moana Taupō is the sea
Ko Ngati Tuwharetoa te iwi Ngati Tuwharetoa are the people
Ko Te Heuheu te tangata Te Heuheu is the man
This pepeha (proverb) defines the local Ngati Tuwharetoa people, their mountains, their waters and their people.
For more information on the Great Lake Taupo region visit GreatLakeTaupo.com