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Wairarapa’s Māori place names

The start of the Cross Creek-Rimutaka incline walk which goes through to Kaitoke, PHOTO/FILE

During Te Wiki o te Reo Māori, the Wairarapa Times-Age is publishing a story a day highlighting the language’s rich history.

There are many places in Wairarapa that retain their Māori names.

In the mid-14th Century many Wairarapa places and rivers were named by Haunuiananaia the ancestor of the Te Ati Hau a Paparangi.

Haunui pursued his wife Wairaka who had run off with a slave.

He set out from his home at Te Matau a Maui following the path of Wairaka and her lover across the island and down the west coast.

After exacting his revenge, he came back via the east coast. Haunui named many of the landmark features that he came across during his mission.

He climbed a high mountain and on reaching the top he sat down to rest. There he thought about what he had done. He named the mountain Remutaka – ‘to sit down’.

As Haunui sat there he saw a lake before him. When he looked towards the lake the reflection of the sun caught his eyes and made them water. It was this incident that led to the name – Wairarapa [glistening waters].

The full saying is found in many old waiata that have been left behind, ‘ka rarapa nga kanohi ko Wairarapa’ – his eyes sparkled, hence Wairarapa.

Haunui stood up and saw in the distance, at the northern end of the valley, a high mountain standing alone.

He concentrated on this mountain as a navigational landmark and named it Rangitumau – meaning ‘standing up to the sky’ or alternatively ‘holding up the sky’.

At the first river he came to he discovered a whare [house] thatched with Nikau palm leaves. He named this river Tauwharenikau – ‘the house made of nikau’ [now spelt Tauherenikau].

At the next river crossing he sat down and as he looked into the river he thought he saw Wairaka’s face, which made him sad. This river he named Wai o Hine Wairaka – ‘water for his woman’ referring to his tears.

Today it is known as ‘Waiohine’.

The final river that Haunui named was Ruamahanga meaning ‘twin forks’ which can refer to the many tributaries that join the river or also to a waka-inuwai [bird snare trough] that he found placed in a fork in a tree by the river.

Other Māori place names of interest:

  • EKETAHUNA – ‘To run aground on a sandbank’
  • MANGATAINOKA – ‘The stream of the native broom’ – tainoka means native broom; manga means stream.
  • PUKAHA [Mt Bruce] – ‘The place of strong winds’ – pu means wind and kaha means strong.
  • KURIPUNI – Two possible meanings, one is ‘greedy dog’ and the other is ‘staid dog’ – meaning the chief missed his dog that died in a stream.
  • NGAUMUTAWA – ‘Ovens made of tawa wood’.
  • KAHUTARA – Kahutara was the name of a waka [canoe] – ahu means garment and tara means rough.
  • ONOKE MOANA [Lake Ferry] – ‘The place of the earthworm’.

Information sourced from Rangitane o Wairarapa Trust.


  1. Just so interesting. I was thinking the other day ‘Wouldn’t it be great if councillors had a policy to name more streets after Maori in the district’.

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