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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 10, Issue 2 (May 1, 1935)

The Origin of “Taupo.”

The Origin of “Taupo.”

In explaining the origin and meaning of sundry Maori place-names some time ago, I mentioned the name of Lake Taupo as a subject for a future discourse. I have heard the name translated off-hand as meaning the lake of “settled gloom” from the words “tau,” to settle or rest upon, and “po,” night or darkness. This was mere guesswork. In elucidating Maori-Polynesian place-names it it usually unsafe to jump at conclusions. It is advisable to consult the local Maoris if there be any, for origins before attempting to interpret the words. Very frequently, as in this case, a story of exploration, adventure, some incident of long ago, is bound up in the ancient name.

The circumstances of the place-naming are preserved in authentic tradition dating back six centuries. The full name of the Lake is Taupo-nui-a-Tia. The meaning is “The Great Garment of Tia.”

This Tia, as the late Te Heuheu Tukino and other elders of the Ngati-Tuwharetoa and Arawa tribes told me many years ago, was one of the Polynesian chiefs who came to our shores from Tahiti in the canoe Arawa. He, like the priest and high chief Ngatoroirangi, explored the interior of the North Island. As he travelled along the eastern coast of the great central lake, he saw above the pumice-strewn beach at one point a curiously-marked lava cliff. Its configuration and colouring seemed to him to resemble the shoulder garment he wore, a rough cape called a “taupo” (the word is now obsolete), consisting of leaves of flax, some yellow and some black, attached to an inner woven mat, making a rainshedding outer garment. Below the strangely-marked cliff he halted to make obeisance, like a pious Polynesian, to the spirit of the place, the soul of these vast impressive solitudes into which he was travelling. He recited the prayers considered needful to propitiate the local deities, and he set up a post as a place of sacrifice, and incantation. To this post he fastened his “taupo” mat and left it there, and having thus paid his respects to the soul of wild Nature, he trudged on southward with his party on their pioneering way.

From this incident came the name of the place, Taupo-nui-a-Tia, which in course of time acquired a wider significance and was applied to the whole lake. Those volcanic cliffs famed in old tradition are near the site of the village Hamaria (Samaria, a missionary-era name), nearly opposite Motu-taiko, the island off the eastern coast of the lake.

They are vertical bluffs of a very regular columnar lava rock, varicoloured. The Austrian geologist, Dr. Hochstetter, passed along the beach there on his exploring journey seventy-five years ago, and he observed the peculiar formation and colouring of the cliffs and described them in his book on New Zealand. The Maoris call the place the “tino” of Taupo, the exact spot from which the lake derives its name.