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Nelson Historical Society Journal, Volume 2, Issue 4, May 1970



When Kupe came to New Zealand a thousand years ago, he came to this rugged promontory, and here the canoe, its warriors and women, rested in a little bay. Before resuming his eastward journey, Kupe named two of the jagged pinnacles after his daughters who travelled with him. These rocks are generally known today as "The Sisters", but the survey map gives them the old name—"Nga Tama-hine a Kupe".

Another traveller with Kupe was Kawau-a-Toru. He was either a man of exceptional swimming ability, or else a sea-bird about whom a legend has grown. In the Maori tale there is confusion between men and birds, but it seems possible that Kawau-a-Toru was one of the early fatalities in the French Pass. Here is the story.

At the southern end of D'Urville Island lies Te Aumiti, the narrow channel known today as French Pass. Ships can pass through at certain states of the tide, but the channel is narrowed considerably by the reef which lies across three quarters of the already confined waters. When Kupe was ready to sail northwards again, he sent Kawau to investigate the channels and waterways of Cook Strait, because he was clever in the ways of tides, and drifts, and the set of currents. He was told of a strange place which would tax even his knowledge and swimming ability, and when the creatures, either birds or men, we do not know which, who told Kawau this, offered to take him to the place, he accepted their offer gladly and went with them.

The author, a schoolteacher, lived for twelve years on D'Urville Island. There she married and participated in local affairs before leaving to reside in the Mainland.

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It was slack water when Kawau stood on the cliff and looked down on Te Aumiti. At that time the sea would flow gently, with only the smallest surge over the rocks at the foot of the cliff. But once the tide has turned, great whirlpools form and the sea swirls and twists into a crested wave that throws itself through the channel. At that time it is death to enter the water. Kawau was urged by the creatures who had led him there to try his strength against the current. Were they afraid of this stranger, and anxious to get rid of him?

Kawau went down to the sea, and even as he entered the water the tide changed. He breasted the water, and—now in the story he is definitely a bird—as one of his wings touched the water, it was dragged down by the power of the whirlpool, and he could not recover it. Strive as he would, with his wings extended across the pass, he could not escape. As the water rose about his breast, he was whirled round and round, one wing was broken, and Kawau-a-Toru was drowned. His body was turned to stone, and now is the reef that lies across Te Aumiti. Where the broken wing dropped into the sea, is the narrow channel of deep water where ships may pass. On the cliff perched the sea-birds, shrieking their triumphant cry at the defeat of the foreigner, the invader.