Tongariro History & Culture

Early Maori & European

In terms of NZ’s young history the Tongariro Region is a comparatively long settled area, and Tongariro history is rich in both Maori and European past which centers around the villages of Waihi and Tokaanu (10min drive). Later European settlement occurred in Turangi during the 1920’s as the region gained a reputation for its world class trout fishery and was further developed during the 1960’s for the Tongariro Power Development (TPD). Whakapapa Village was established during the 1920’s for Skiing.

UNESCO World Heritage

Tongariro National Park

The Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s oldest National Park, the forth oldest in the world and was given UNESCO World Heritage Site dual status in 1993. This is in recognition of the National Park’s unique Maori cultural and spiritual associations, as well as its outstanding volcanic features – including the Mt Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe volcanoes. World heritage status has also been granted in NZ to the national parks of Fiordland, Westland, Mt Cook and Mt Aspiring which together form the South West New Zealand World Heritage Site.

Geology, Geography & Nature

In 186 AD a series of nine volcanic eruptions culminated in the most violent eruption in recorded history. Poisonous ash, rocks, lava and pumice were emitted at speed of up to 900 km/hr, to a height of 50 km. Romans and Chinese history, makes note of the unusual skies seen at this time. Lake Taupo was formed in the crater left by the eruption and remains volcanically active. The debris was deposited 30,000 square km wide to a depth of tens of metres thick in some places – the North Island was coated in a thick, toxic ash, which destroyed entire forests.

The National Park is a land of strong natural contrasts where barren lava flows, winter snowfields, hot springs and active craters can be seen in a day, walks including the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, the Tongariro Northern Circuit or other walking and trekking opportunities in the region. The fauna varies considerably, from alpine herbs to thick swathes of tussocks and flax, the hardy, low-growing shrubs of the Rangipo Desert and the dense beech and giant podocarp forests of the western side of the National Park.

The three volcanoes at the heart of the park – the mountains Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu form the southern limits of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Volcanic activity in the zone started about 2 million years ago – making them relatively young volcanoes – and is on-going today.

Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe are two of the most active composite volcanoes in the world. In 1995 and again in 1996 Ruapehu has erupted in spectacular fashion sending clouds of ash and steam skyward and covering the surrounding Mt Ruapehu snowfields and forest with a thick film of ash. Mt Ngaruruhoe is the most active vent of Mt Tongariro, having erupted more than 70 times since 1839, the last episode in 1973 to 1975. Te Māri Craters on Mt Tongariro erupted in 2012, for the first time since 1897.

Tongariro is home to many remarkable native creatures including New Zealand’s only native mammals, the short and long tailed bats. Birds you might see during daylight include North Island robins, fantails, tomtits, kereru (native pigeon) and tui; maybe even the rarer kakariki (parakeet), kaka or karearea (falcon).

Early Maori Settlement & Land Wars Riverstone Recommendation

The Maori of the Lake Taupo region are descendants of those who came to New Zealand on the Te Arawa canoe. They originally lived in the Bay of Plenty on the East Coast then 700 years ago, led by the legendary Ngatoroirangi (a great Tohunga or high priest) they slowly migrated inland to the forests of the central North Island. These people and their descendants became known as the Ngati Tuwharetoa tribe and settled around Taupo Moana – ‘the inland sea’ – from the 16th century onwards.

Ngati Tuwharetoa’s remained unconquered throughout a prolonged and violent history of intertribal warfare. The Ngati Tuwharetoa survived the battles with the northern invaders led by the great leader, strategist and first paramount chief – Te Heuheu Tukino 1st (Herea). The name Te Heuheu refers to a line of paramount Ngati Tuwharetoa chiefs descended directly from Ngatoroirangi.

The second paramount chief – Te Heuheu Tukino 2nd (Mananui) refused to sign the Treaty of Waitangi or sell land to the New Zealand Company for European settlers. After his death in a landslide at Waihi Village in 1846 he was succeeded by his brother Te Heuheu Tukino 3rd. (Iwikau), Iwikau a early Maori follower of Christianity had his Pa at Pukawa Village and led the Ngati Tuwharetoa until his death in 1862.

Iwikau was succeeded by Mananui’s son and his nephew Te Heuheu, who became Te Heuheu Tukino 4th. (Horonoko). Threats of Government confiscation of the tribe’s lands, led to 6 years of war with the colonial forces. Despite strong opposition from Tuwharetoa chiefs who were related to the Wanganui tribes, Horonuku was influenced by his family ties with the Waikato and Ngati Maniapoto and became embroiled in Te Kooti’s uprising against the crown and their eventual defeat at Te Porere Redoubt.

When the wars ended in 1870 vast areas of land were confiscated but those considered less suitable for farming – such as what is now the Tongariro National Park – initially remained in the ownership of the Ngati Tuwharetoa. This land was later gifted to the people of New Zealand by Te Heuheu Tukino V (Tureiti) as a means of preventing the land being taken by the crown and with it the Mana (pride) of his people.

When Te HeuHeu Tukino V died in 1921 he was succeeded by his son, Te Heuheu Tukino VI (Hoani), the Hoani by his son Te Heuheu Tukino [Hepi], and then by Tumu Te Heuheu the current Paramount Chief who is also a past Chairman of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

Maori Mythology Riverstone Recommendation

To the Tangata Whenua (people of the land) the mountains are a vital part of their history and whakapapa (genealogy). The Tangata Whenua of the Tongariro Region are the Ngati Tuwharetoa Iwi (tribe) and their local Tongariro Hapu (sub-tribes) – Ngati Turumakina of Waihi Village, Ngati Kurauia of Tokaanu, Ngati Turangitukua of Turangi, Ngati Rongomai at Hautu and Ngati Hine at Korohe.

The mythology says that Ngatoroirangi (the navigator and Tohunga or sacred preist of the Waka Arawa) was close to death after exploring this mountainous region. He called out to his sisters from his pacific homeland, Hawaiiki, to send him fire. The fire came but its passage left a trail of volcanic vents, from Tongatapu, through Whakaari (White Island), Rotorua and Tokaanu, before reaching Ngatoroirangi on the slopes of Tongariro.

The Legend of Tongariro National Park

Ruapehu the beautiful maid was married to Taranaki. One day, while her husband was away hunting, she was wooed and won by Tongariro. When Taranaki returned at the end of the day he surprised the guilty pair. A titanic battle ensued in which Taranaki was defeated. He retreated towards the west coast, carving out the Wanganui River as he went. When Taranaki reached the coast he moved northwards to the western extremity of the North Island, where he rested. There his great weight made the shallow depression which afterwards filled with water and became Te Ngaere swamp.

Mt Taranaki now sits in silence looking towards his wife and his rival. In spite of her infidelity, Ruapehu still loves her husband and sighs occasionally as she remembers him, while the mist which drifts eastward from his head, is the visible sign of Taranaki’s love for her. Mt Tongariro who despairs of ever possessing her again, smokes and smoulder’s with anger. To this day travelers in the Tongariro National Park see the basin called Rua Taranaki (the pit of Taranaki), which lies to the east of the Tama Saddle.

Lake Rotoira & the Legend of the Ka Mate Haka

Ngati Toa warrior chief Te Rauparaha invented his Ka Mate haka 200 years ago to elude capture, and most likely being eaten. The haka he did – with those impassioned words, Ka mate, ka mate, ka ora, ka ora, which translated mean I die, I die, I live, I live – was about survival.

Te Rauparaha was being chased from Kawhia by members of Ngati Maniapoto and Waikato tribes and he sought refuge at the pa of Te Wharerangi on the island in the middle of Lake Rotoaira – which sits below Mt Tongariro. Although reluctant to shelter Te Rauparaha, the Ngati Hikairo hapu hid him in a kumara pit, throwing his pursuers off the scent – and when he emerged he performed Ka Mate.

Following Te Rauparaha’s death in 1849 it was his legendary status as a leader, warrior, and survivor that kept the haka alive for 50 years until it was picked up again – and mainstreamed – following a performance by politician Sir James Carroll in 1901 during a Royal Tour by the Duke of York. It was then adopted by the 1905 ‘Originals’ All Blacks team.

Gifting of the Tongariro National Park

The sense of mana (pride) so central to Maori values is embodied in the mountains, which is why in 1887 Te Heuheu Tukino IV (Horonuku) – then the paramount chief of the Ngati Tuwharetoa – gifted the sacred peaks to the nation. In doing so Horonoko created the first National Park for the people of New Zealand (Aotearoa) and also in his mind – avoided having the land taken by the Crown and through his actions, preserved the mana of his people.

The original deed of gift was for an area of 2640 ha consisting of three small circles around the main peaks. In later years, large-scale purchases of land were made by the Crown, so that when the Tongariro National Park Act was passed in 1894 its area had increased to some 25,000 ha and today the Park’s boundaries enclose an area of 80,000 ha. Negotiations are ongoing for the return or co-management of these lands under Treaty of Waitangi legislation.

Tokaanu Village & European Settlement 1840-1940’s

Early missionaries had been coming to the region since the 1840’s. Of particular note was the missionary, botanist and explorer William Colenso who passed through the Rangipo Desert in 1847, then to the to the east over the Ruahine Ranges and the Hawkes Bay. In 1850 a Catholic Church was established in Waihi and later the present churches at Waihi and Tokaanu Village were built.

Te Herekiekie was the chief at Tokaanu when the influential Christian missionary Thomas Samuel Grace arrived in 1855, and established his Mission at neighboring Pukawa. There was considerable antagonism between Te Herekiekie and Iwikau but the missioner succeeded in bringing about reconciliation between them as well as leading many social initiatives for the local people.

Toward the end of the 1870’s Lawrence and John Grace, the sons of the Reverend Grace returned to Tokaanu and began to pioneer farming and flax milling in the region. Both Grace brothers married well-born members of the Tuwharetoa tribe, Lawrence’s wife being the daughter of Horonoku. The Tokaanu Village was also the base for an Armed Constabulary from 1870 – 1886.

The Tokaanu Hotel was built soon after, and the village became known for its thermal attractions, particularly its warm bathing pools and what is now the Tokaanu Thermal Pools. In 1874 the SS Victoria steam ship began regular sailings from Taupo to Tokaanu and a succession of other ships sailed this route until the 1920’s.

By 1894 the road down the eastern shores of Lake Taupo extended to Waiouru but the journey from Tokaanu to Waiouru took 11 hours! During the 1890s, travelers could take the route south by horse drawn coach from Tokaanu via the Waihohonu Hut on the eastern side of Tama saddle, Raetihi to Pipiriki and then by steam boat down the Whanganui River. The Waihohonu Hut is still standing and is one of the best preserved of the early tramping huts in the country which can be seen while walking the Tongariro Traverse.

Tokaanu was on the tourist route until the early twentieth century but was bypassed when all-weather roads were completed around the eastern shores of Lake Taupo. In the 1920’s the road from Taupo to Tokaanu was upgraded and the rivers on the eastern side of the lake were bridged. There were about 30 timber mills in the forests between Tokaanu and Taumarunui and Tokaanu was the principle service centre for forestry, farming and tourism.

Tokaanu’s development was further curtailed by flooding in the 1940s following the construction of the Taupo control gates for hydroelectric power on the Waikato River. The rise in the level of Lake Taupo and the subsequent flooding of the low lying and most fertile lands around Tokaanu created what is now NZ’s largest freshwater wetland – the Tongariro River Delta.

Whakapapa Village & Ski Field 1920’s

In 1919 the Department of Tourist and Health resorts was persuaded by the pioneering Whakapapa Skiers to fund an access road to what became the Ruapehu Ski Club and then later Whakapapa Village (Iwikau). Access though was still difficult so day trips were out of the question and skiing included quite a lot of tramping and scrambling through bush and over piles of rocks!

As the popularity of the sport grew during the 1920’s other club huts were built and in 1929 the iconic Georgian style mansion, the Chateau Tongariro. Within 10 years the area had developed from wilderness to a burgeoning tourist resort. After WW2 Whakapapa developed rapidly with more skiers, ski tows, club huts and new facilities. In 1953 Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) was established by the Tongariro National Park Board to operate the ski fields and install Ruapehu’s first chairlift. The Whakapapa Ski Field now services thousands of skiers and snowboarders every weekend between June – October and in summer can be accessed by a scenic chairlift ride.

Turangitikua & The Taylors Camp Fishing Village 1920’s

Local Kaumatua (Maori elders) named the settlement Turangi from the name of the Maori leader, Turangitukua. After many battles, Turangitukua and his followers occupied land near the Tongariro River and he, along with several other Chiefs, enabled the Ngati Tuwharetoa people to become established in the Taupo region. For some time, Turangitukua was the keeper and guardian of the tribal God Rongomai. His name was adopted as the name of the local hapu (sub-tribe), in the delta region of the Tongariro River – the Ngati Turangitukua of the Hirangi Marae in Turangi.

A bridge had been constructed over the Tongariro River in 1891 but it wasn’t until several crown sections were auctioned in the 1920’s and 30’s and Hatchets Camp, later known as Taylor’s Lodge became the nucleus of a small fishing village and later the first post office. Brown and Rainbow trout were introduced to the lake and rivers of the area in the 1880s and 1890s. By the 1920’s the Tongariro Region and the Tongariro River in particular, had become world famous for the quality of its trout fishery. The growth rate of Taupo trout in these early years was prolific as they gorged themselves on the abundance of protein rich native fish.

Tongariro Power Development During 1960’s

The Turangi Township was built in 1964 on what was until then the paddocks behind the fishing village, to provide accommodation and services for the development of the Tongariro Power Development (TPD) Scheme – itself, an engineering feat of world renown at its time. The workers of the TPD Scheme and their descendants – in particular the Italian tunnelers – are a primary source of the diverse ethnicity of Turangi today.

Tongariro History Italian Tunnelers
This massive scheme involved collecting water from a number of catchments, and diverting the water into Lake Taupo. In this way, maximum storage could be maintained as well as increasing the outflow from the Lake Taupo for greater generating capacity for the eight hydroelectric power stations on the Waikato River, which flows out of the north of Lake Taupo to the west coast of the North Island.

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