The Great inland sea

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Ngati Tumatakokiri warriors drawn by Isaac Gilsemans from the deck of the Zeehaen

The history of Ngati Tumatakokiri is not well known.

Their ultimate fate was to be conquered and dispersed as a tribe around 1830. None of their senior members married into other nobility, and with their stories no longer forming part of a tribe’s history, their oral tradition was lost. Fortunately, some stories were recorded by early Europeans, and it is on these accounts, and those of the conquering tribes, that this account is based.

Diary. Moving again.

Tara went South with a lot of people. They have gone to find the great Harbor that Whatonga discovered.

We have left too; Tautoki and his people remain in Heretaunga.

We took boats as far as we could, with all our goods, but it wasn’t very far. We said our goodbye’s again, and the boats went back to Heretaunga. After that we picked up what we were tasking, and walked. It was hard work and very slow getting up the valley. The path was not clear and there were very many streams to cross.

The wind was strong in our faces as we went through the last saddle and started down. Soon we saw the great inland sea, and the plains before it.

When we got to the lake we found there were already some people there, the Ngati Hotu, we saw their fires before we met them. We moved away from their villages, following the shore around to the South and towards the great white mountain.

This was the same mountain we could see from Heretaunga.

At the south end of the lake, under the white mountains we found another lake. Here there are plenty of fish, eels and birds. We have built our huts, but it is cold here. I miss the warmth of our Island home.

To Taupo

Tumatakokiri’s journey to Lake Taupo

Tumatakokiri took a party of followers from Heretaunga to the Taupo. But we don’t know precisely the route they took.

In the Taupo district there’s a Maori saying ‘Heretaunga ara rau’… ‘Heretaunga of a hundred tracks’. There were very many ways to cross the Tarawera range to Taupo, but to go from the Heretaunga plains to Lake Taupo, and none was better than another. It was only possible to paddle a few kilometres inland before the rivers became too rapid and broken to continue. After that you journeyed in foot, following the watercourses upstream until you finally crested the range.

Once on the descent to Taupo the lake quickly comes into view, and the plains before it.

There was already a small population in the area. The Ngati Hotu occupied the land to the northern end of the lake. They were described as ‘fairy people’ because of their reddish hair and fair skin.

It was also at the north end of the lake that in 1869 the British built their redoubt. They built it where the Waikato River exits the Lake, close to a natural hot spring.

At about the same time as the Ngati Tumatakokiri arrived, so did another two groups, both original occupants from the Te Arawa canoe. One party was led by Tia, and the other, by the Te Arawa Tohunga, Ngātoroirangi. These two formed the basis of the Tūwharetoa people who would come to dominate the area. They settled on the eastern and southern shores of the lake.

Lake Rotoaire

Lake Rotoaire

It is most likely that the Ngati Tumatakokiri also settled to the south of the lake. It was an area that was essentially vacant, but with a bountiful food supply.

Lake Rotoaira, just to the South of Taupo is a natural ‘food basket’. It is an ancient settlement area, known as ‘Opotaka’, meaning either a place to camp, or a food store. The lake is teeming with fish and eels, there are water fowl in huge numbers, and the surrounding forests were rich with foods; berries, roots, and birds.


George Angas. Motu Puhi Pa and Rotoaire Lake, Tongariro in the Distance. c 1847. Auckland Art Gallery

Lake Rotoaira is particularly well known for another reason. On the lake is an Island, Motu Puhi, which used to be a Major Pa. In 1810, the chief Te Rauparaha hid there from his enemies (Te Rauparaha had a lot of enemies). On emerging from his hiding place he performed an animated Haka. This was the first place that these famous words were spoken; ‘Kama te, Kama te Ka ora, Ka ora…’, now known the world over as .

The Ngati Tumatakokiri may well have stayed at Lake Rotoaire, or they may not… we can’t be certain. We also don’t know exactly how long they stayed, or why they left, but we do know the route they took on their departure.

There is an ancient Maori walkway that leads from the South end of Lake Taupo. It passes Opotaka, and Lake Rotoaira, and then, just a few kilometres beyond, it picks up the head of the Whanganui River… ‘The River Road’ that leads to the West Coast.

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