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

The Wisdom of the Maori

page 60

The Wisdom of the Maori

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.

Tauke, Warrior and Mystic.

Very few of the wise old men are left. Here and there in a little kainga a venerable survivor of the wars and the vanished bush life remains to tell the story of his fighting youth and repeat the chants of war and peace with which his mind is stored. Just now I recall an admirable old type of the past; a man who was both warrior and sage—Tauke, of Taranaki, who died in 1916. I like to think of that “elder statesman,” as he was in his little world; his face and figure are before me now in memory's eye. It was in 1904 that I first met him; a relative of his took me to greet him in his village at Hokorima, on the famous Waimate Plains.

Tauke's home was in the most beautiful part of all Taranaki. Around were grassy fields and the sociably close-grouped dwellings of his clan. Above, on the north, framed like a picture between two soft green spires of foliage, rose noble Egmont, Tauke's sacred Taranaki, swelling up from the purple-hazed forests, up in glorious massive lines of rest into a silver spearhead eight thousand feet above the plains. On the green marae in front of Tauke's house we found the old man sitting, with a coloured blanket girt about his waist, his white head bare, white as Egmont's top. He was poring over the ecstatic visions of the Dreamer, in the “Whakakitenga,” or Revelations, in a fifty-year old copy of the Maori Bible. The old man laid his book aside and took off his glasses when we came up and greeted him.

He looked the mystic that he was, with his patriarchal beard, and his deep penetrating eyes peering out from under white-bushy buttresses of brows. One of his hands was scarred and mutilated; the thumb and part of a finger missing. “That happened at Te Morere,” said Tauke.

The ancient man was a type of the strongly patriotic Maoris, fervent to the point of fanaticism, who presented a stubborn front to the pakeha on the West Coast from 1860 onward. He was steeped in warrior ways from his earliest youth. He was born in captivity; his parents were taken away to Waikato in one of the cannibal raids of the period 1820–1830. When peace returned, he and many of his people were liberated, and they returned to Taranaki.

As a young man he was one of the Taranaki chiefs who went to Waikato to share in the uplifting of Te Whero-whero Potatau—his old hereditary enemy—as the first King of the Maoris, and he was at Ngaruawahia, the royal camp, when the Taranaki War began in 1860. Hurrying back to his tribe, he was in time to fight against the Imperial and Colonial Forces at the battle of Waireka, where the New Plymouth settlers for the first time met their Maori neighbours in combat.