Maori Culture

Culture, History and Tradition

Offering genuine warmth of welcome and manaakitanga (hospitality) is something that the Te Arawa Maori have been providing to visitors to the Rotorua region for well over 150 years.

Local Maori share their culture, history, music, art, language, and even their homes.

Whether it's an encounter with a Maori guide, a hongi greeting, talking to a carver or weaver, eating indigenous food, experiencing traditional massage and spa treatments, hearing age-old stories, or attempting a few words in Te Reo; visitors will be enriched by their Maori culture experience.

A hangi (food cooked in an earth oven) and cultural performance is one of the most popular ways to experience traditional Maori culture. There are also ways to explore contemporary Maori culture too, such as art, fashion and ta moko.

Maori Culture Te Puia


geothermal activity rotorua

There are few places in the world where geothermal phenomena of such intensity, is as extensive and easily seen as here in Rotorua. To those in the past who had none of the science or technology that we have today, this bounty of nature must indeed have been regarded as a gift from the gods.

The earliest legends speak of a man named Ngatoroirangi, a tohunga (priest) who guided the Te Arawa canoe to this country. Anxious to explore he travelled east from Maketu, down the coast until he reached what is now known as the Tarawera River. Naming it Te Awa-o-te-atua he turned inland and followed it upstream until he reached Ruawahia, the central peak of what we call Mount Tarawera. Here he had a remarkable experience.

He met a spirit in the form of a person named Tama-o-Hoi, who objected to Ngatoroirangi trespassing over what he claimed as his country. He tried with his sorcery to destroy Ngatoroirangi but his power was no match for the tohunga from Hawaiki.

With a much superior spell Ngatoroirangi caused Tama-o-Hoi to sink into the ground.

The great eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886 was blamed by some on Tama-o-Hoi who, it was claimed, was so enraged at having been so long confined in the ground gave vent to his feelings by causing the disaster.

Ngatoroirangi finally reached the magnificent mountains that now form our Tongariro National Park. In order to view the extent of this new country he climbed towards the summit of Tongariro, the highest of the three mountains there.

As he neared the top he was affected by the intense cold which was so severe he feared he would die. In desperation he prayed to his sisters in Hawaiki (said to be the ancestral home of all Maori before they came to New Zealand) to send fire to warm him. “Oh Kuiwai, Oh Haungaroa came quickly. Ka riro au I te tonga?” (I am carried away by the cold south wind). Do not delay or I will surely perish,” he cried.

His sisters in far off in Hawaiki heard Ngatoroirangi's prayer and called upon the fire demons to go to their brother’s aid. So Te Pupu and Te Hoata plunged into the sea and swam quickly across the Pacific Ocean until they came to Whakaari (New Zealand’s only active marine volcano now known as White Island off the Eastern Bay of Plenty coastline).

As they lifted their heads into the air, the surrounding earth became a fiery pit where the heat remains until this day. As the fire demons rose they saw they still had many miles to go to reach Ngatoroirangi. Down they went once more into the seas and under the earth’s crust. Each time the fire demons surfaced – at Moutohora (Whale Island), Awakeri, Rotoehu, Rotoiti, Rotorua, Tarawera, Orakei Korako, Taupo, Whakarewarewa and Turangi – they left a steaming, bubbling trail of thermal activity in their wake.

The ‘tunnel’ they made is said to have connected White Island to Mt Ngaruahoe forever more.
Like a flash of lightening the demons burst through the enormous cone of Tongariro arriving as Ngatoroirangi lay near death.

Although he had already succumbed to death, the volcanic heat brought by the fire demons slowly revived Ngatoroirangi spreading warmth through his veins and sending life to his muscle and bone. He named the mountain Tongariro to commemorate the cold south wind that almost killed him.

And so it is that volcanic and thermal activity came to the region and Rotorua’s Te Arawa tribe became its guardian.

Source: The book Te Whakarewarewa by Don Stafford

To experience this Rotorua story 'first-hand', go see the Rotorua stories audio visual at the Rotorua Museum.


Tarawera eruption

Without warning on June 10, 1886 Mt Tarawera woke and rumbled into life. At 12:30am the first earthquakes were felt. People throughout the area were jolted awake as earthquakes became increasingly powerful.

A rumbling noise began and by 2:30am Mt Tarawera had ripped open across the summit domes. This fissure or hole began to erupt scoria and ash and an eruption cloud reached 9.5 km into the night sky.

Destructive, hurricane force winds developed as the eruption columns sucked in air from the surrounding countryside. Violent electrical storms above the eruption columns blasted into the night sky, with water vapours poured out by the eruption causing torrential rains. The final length of the craters was a massive 16-km long.

Worse was to come. Basalt magma mixed with the hydro-thermal system under Lake Rotomahana and, at 3.20am, the bed of Lake Rotomahana blew out, taking with it the famed Pink and White Terraces. Nearby villages of Te Ariki and Moura were buried under a scalding pyroclastic flow.

The settlement of Te Wairoa was almost completely destroyed by falling rocks and mud. At the schoolhouse Charles Haszard, his family and guests were awoken around 1am. They gazed in awe across the lake at a crimson glow above Tarawera.

As they watched, a dense black cloud rose above the glow, lit by a tremendous display of lightning.

A guest, William Bird, recalled the scene vividly: “Lake Tarawera was a copper mirror, reflecting the mountain from base to summit in a lurid glare. Dominating all, hung the great cloud-curtain, gloomy and dark above, saffron and orange on its under-surface. From the cloud, great balls of flaming rock dropped from time to time, descending with a splash into the waters of the lake.”

The awe of those watching quickly turned to fear. A hail of stones began to rain down, and a strong wind accompanied by the deafening roar of smashing windows.

The death toll will never be known exactly but some 150 people are believed to have died that night. Maori guide Sophia later estimated that 62 people had survived the night with her in her whare. Five members of schoolmaster Charles Haszard's family perished and a young English guest named Edwin Bainbridge died under the falling verandah of the Rotomahana Hotel.

The grief was terrible for the Tuhourangi and Ngati Rangitihi people who lost family members, their livelihood and the bones of their ancestors in one terrible night.

Many of the survivors were offered land at Whakarewarewa and Ngapuna – and the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley became the new home for many and the tradition of guiding continues in the thermal area today.

*This information has been shared and sourced from the people of Te Arawa and should be respected as their cultural and intellectual property. Not for commercial reproduction without express permission.



At one time there lived a beautiful and high ranking young maiden by the name of Hinemoa, the daughter of a very influential chief at the time.

They lived at Owhata on the eastern shores of Lake Rotorua. Because of her rank, Hinemoa was declared puhi (tapu or sacred). A husband would be chosen for her when she reached maturity by the elders in her hapu (subtribe) and her family. Many people came from far and wide to seek the hand of Hinemoa whose beauty and grace were well known. However none of the suitors gained the approval of the tribe.

On Mokoia Island in the centre of Lake Rotorua lived a family of several brothers. Tutanekai was the youngest of them. Their mother had had an illicit affair with Tuwharetoa who hailed from another tribe and of their union had Tutanekai been born. Her husband, however agreed to take her back and to raise Tutanekai as his own son.
Each of the elder brothers had declared their love for Hinemoa and set out to win her hand. None of them won approval from Hinemoa's people.

There were in those times many meetings to discuss matters of state regarding the tribe, and at these meetings many young chiefs saw Hinemoa and fell in love with her. Such was the fate of Tutanekai who knew because of his lowly birth would never win approval from Hinemoa's people.

Tutanekai was extremely handsome and excelled at the games of the time which Maori used to develop co-ordination and skills for battle. They were played at gatherings such as this. It was Tutanekai's prowess at these games and his good looks which caught Hinemoa's eye. She fell in love with Tutanekai also and at each subsequent tribal meeting they would fall more deeply for one another. They were able only to convey their feelings through furtive glances of longing and never once had the opportunity to speak with one another.

It was such a sad state of affairs, as neither could see any way their love would ever be requited. Tutanekai would sit on the shores of Mokoia Island with his friend Tiki and play sad music on his flute. The music would waft, on still evenings, across the lake to where Hinemoa sat aching also with passion. She was filled with sadness and knew she could never marry anyone but Tutanekai. Her people began to suspect this was the case, and in order to prevent her sneaking away to her secret love, they pulled all the canoes up on to the shore, so they were too heavy for her to move alone.

Night after night she listened to the strains of her would be lover until her heart was overcome with sadness and she knew she could take no more. It was then she decided, if she could not use a canoe, she would have to swim. The next night, she told her people she was going to watch the evening entertainment, but in fact she headed for the lakefront, after collecting six calabashes from the cooking house. She rested at the rock Iri iri kapua (which can still be seen at Owhata) while she made the calabashes into primitive style waterwings.

She then slipped in to the water at a beach called Wairerewai and swam for Mokoia. It was of course very dark, so she was reliant upon the strains of the flute played by her sweetheart Tutanekai. She rested at a large stump in the lake briefly, and carried onward guided by the music. She finally made it to Mokoia Island, but she had become so cold during her swim, she headed straight for the hot pool Waikimihia, near Tutanekai's house.

Once she had warmed herself, Hinemoa became conscious she was naked and was too shy to approach Tutanekai's house without clothes. It so happened at this time Tutanekai became thirsty, so he sent his slave down to fetch a calabash of water. The slave had to pass quite close to where Hinemoa sat warming herself.

As he passed the pool, a gruff voice called out to him 'Mo wai te wai?' (For whom is the water?) The slave answered; Mo Tutanekai' (For Tutanekai) 'give it to me' demanded Hinemoa, and as soon as the slave did so she smashed the calabash on the side of the pool. When the slave returned to Tutanekai and told him what had happened, Tutanekai made him go again. Again Hinemoa challenged the slave and once again smashed the calabash.

This time Tutanekai became angry and decided to go down to the pool himself. He dressed himself, and took his mere (greenstone weapon) and headed for the pool. Once there, he challenged whoever was in the pool to show themselves. No one moved. Hinemoa had moved under a hanging rock which provided some protection for her naked body. She stayed as still as a mouse.

Then, Tutanekai felt around the edge of the rock and came to where Hinemoa hid. He grabbed her by her hair and pulled her clear. 'Who are you?' he cried. 'Who dares annoy me!. She answered, 'It is I, Hinemoa, who has come to you'. Tutanekai couldn't believe his ears. And when she stepped out of the water, he was sure he had never seen such a beautiful woman. Tutanekai took off his cloak and wrapped it about Hinemoa and they returned to his house to sleep.

The next morning the people of the village (pa) rose to prepare the morning meal and remarked that this day Tutanekai was sleeping late. He always rose first. After a while, his father began to think him ill so sent a slave to check on him. The slave went to Tutanekai's whare (house) and as he peeked in saw four feet instead of two poking out from beneath the covers. The slave ran back to report this to his master and was sent back to investigate further. It was then he recognised Hinemoa. Such was his surprise, he began to call out 'It is Hinemoa. It is Hinemoa who lies with Tutanekai'.

The brothers would not believe the slave, and nor did any other, but in the commotion, Tutanekai indeed stepped from his house with Hinemoa on his arm. It was then, the people noticed canoes heading toward the island, and knowing it would be Hinemoa's family, they feared war and anticipated Hinemoa would be taken from Tutanekai forever. However, upon arrival there was much rejoicing between the two tribes, and lasting peace was forged between the two tribes.


lakes in rotorua

Rotorua’s human history began in the 14th Century when Kahumatamomoe, the son of the captain of the Te Arawa waka (canoe), and his nephew Ihenga discovered Rotoiti then Rotorua.

Rotorua’s story begins in the mid-1300s, when the Arawa canoe arrived at Maketu on the Bay of Plenty coastline. A young Te Arawa man, Ihenga, is said to have discovered Rotorua. He was hunting for delicacies for his pregnant wife when one of his dogs disappeared chasing a kiwi. The dog returned some time later with his coat wet and regurgitated a meal of half digested fish. Ihenga realised he was near water, so he searched until he discovered Lake Rotoiti and later, Lake Rotorua.

Ihenga named the lakes Te Rotoiti-kite-a-Ihenga (the small lake seen by Ihenga), and Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe (the second great lake belonging to Kahumatamomoe).

Over time, the lakes were settled by the descendants of Kahumatamomoe, Ihenga and others from Te Arawa waka, said to have made landfall at Maketu in 1350AD. Drinking water, fertile soil, rich food and sources (koura and eels), as well as geothermal waters for bathing and cooking, attracted settlement principally at Ohinemutu and Whakarewarewa.


Kuirau Park

The now boiling lake of Kuirau Park was in the past much cooler and known as Taokahu. Tamahika, son of Tutea who was the first to set up permanent residence at the spot, had a beautiful young wife named Kuiarau. One day as Kuiarau was bathing in Taokahu, a taniwha (legendary water monster) seized her and dragged her down to his lair below the lake.

The gods, observing the struggle between Kuiarau and the taniwha, became angry and caused the lake to begin to boil so that the Taniwha would be destroyed forever. From that time the lake and the land surrounding it has been known by the name of Tamahika's lost wife, Kuiarau or Kuirau as it is now known.



Hatupatu was a boy who lived on Mokoia Island with his family. One day he went inland hunting birds with his brothers. In the depths of the woods near the Waikato River he was captured by a terrifying female creature, Kurangaituku —“Kura-of-the-Claws”— who was feathered like a bird, and armed with very long sharp talons.

Hatupatu was taken to a cave near the top of a rocky mountain above the Waikato River, where Kurangaituku lived with her pet lizards and birds. One day when Kurangaituku was out in search of food he killed her lizards, freed the birds and fled from the cave. One of her birds, however, flew off in search of its mistress, crying, “O Kura’, O Kura’, Hatupatu has gone!” The witch heard the bird and quickly raced back to her cave. Seeing what Hatupatu had done, she set out in a fury to get her revenge. It wasn’t long before the birdwoman caught up to the fleeing Hatupatu but before she could sink her claws into him he repeated a chant, taught to him by his elders and the great Arawa chief Ngatoroirangi, “Matiti, Matata!” and a great boulder in front of him split open.

Hatupatu leaped in and the rock closed behind him. Kurangaituku was just a split second too late and left tearing at the boulder with her claws. He was safe…for now. When Hatupatu finally emerged from his rock shelter, Kurangaituku was keeping a watchful eye. He fled northward over the plains and hills toward Lake Rotorua.

Just at the foot of Pohaturoa hill, which makes a green background for the steam clouds from the geysers and hot springs of Whakarewarewa, Hatupatu came to a great boiling pool of white churning mud, called Whangapipiro.

He leapt across it safely and went racing on. But Kurangaituku, not realising the hot pools were there until it was too late, tried to wade through the mud and down she sank – the boiling, heaving mud closing over her fierce feathered head.

The gleeful Hatupatu went on to Sulphur Point on the southern shores of Lake Rotorua. He rested and decorated his head with a wreath of leaves, before plunging into the lake and swimming toward his home on Mokoia Island. As he landed he threw down his wreath, which took root and became pohutukawa trees on the shore of the island.



Rotorua is home to many interesting personalities and one of the most renowned of these is former Maori tour guide Maggie Papakura.

Born Margaret Pattison Thom in 1873, Maggie was the daughter of an English storekeeper and a high-born Ngati Wahiao woman. Her family taught her the genealogies, history and customs of her tribe, and her schooling, including tuition from an English governess, gave her the language skills and confidence to move easily between the Pakeha and Maori worlds.

On leaving school, Maggie moved to Whakarewarewa, the ancestral home of her people. She became an accomplished hostess, entertainer and storyteller, and her services as a guide were sought after. When asked by a visitor if she had a Maori surname, Maggie looked at a nearby geyser called Papakura and responded “My name is Papakura.”

From then on she was known as guide Maggie Papakura.

Maggie married Francis Joseph Dennan in 1891 and went to live in the Wairarapa. Her only child, William, was born later that year, and she returned to Whakarewarewa with him after her husband left to work in the Taupo district. They never reunited and she continued her guiding career.

In 1910 Maggie led a cultural group to London, where she met Richard Staples-Browne. They married in 1912 and she moved to Oxford. She remained there after they divorced in 1924, and was buried there following her death in April 1930 from a ruptured artery. A year later a memorial was erected to her at Whakarewarewa, and this remains in the village today.

Today, Maggie’s descendants still live at Whakarewarewa, continuing the guiding tradition and keeping their Maori culture alive. The thermal village is one of Rotorua’s best-known attractions.


Maori Culture Experiences

BK Tours and Transfers Rotorua / Coromandel /Napier / Taupo / National park / Hobbiton / Waitomo

Orakei Korako Cave & Thermal Park - The Hidden Valley

Waitomo Caves & Rotorua Attractions Tours

Rotorua Museum Outside the Walls Guided Tours

Rotorua Museum Outside the Walls Historical Government Gardens Tours

Pohutu Cultural Theatre - Maori Cultural Show