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How Kupe discovered Aotearoa - and his legacy that lives on today

Imogen Rider

September 27, 2022

Kupe’s epic voyage

As the legend goes, the intrepid explorer Kupe was the first Polynesian to set sail and journey to New Zealand, almost a thousand years ago. Living in his homeland of Hawaiki, Kupe and his fellow fishermen were experiencing a string of bad luck when they went out fishing – their bait kept disappearing from their hooks, and they were unable to catch any kai (food). As it turned out, it was the great octopus of his rival, Muturangi, to blame – so Kupe hatched a plan to kill the creature once and for all, and to return prosperity to his people.

One day, Kupe set sail in his waka hourua (voyaging canoe) on a quest, joined by his family and crew, and accompanied by another great warrior, Ngake. Together, they taunted and teased the octopus with their bait, chasing it through the water on a great journey. Using the stars and ocean currents as navigational guides, they ventured across the Pacific in pursuit of the creature. What eventuated was no ordinary fishing trip – in fact, the mission was so great that Kupe followed the octopus until it brought him all the way to New Zealand.

Kupe in pursuit of conquering the great octopus of Muturangi. Credit: Te Papa

Landing in the North Cape

During the voyage, Kupe began to approach the North Island. Nearing land for the first time, Kupe’s wife Kuramārōtini (known to some as Hine te-apārangi),saw something on the horizon – and cried out in excitement: “He ao! He ao! Heao tea roa!” meaning, ‘A cloud! A cloud! A long white cloud!’. Knowing that a cloud of this magnitude likely meant land lay underneath, Kupe continued to paddle his waka towards the cloud. It’s this moment of discovery that led to the name Aotearoa, the most widely-known translation for New Zealand in Te reo Māori.

Reaching the shores of Northland, Kupe made his first landing at the Hokianga Harbour. Amazed by the beauty of the light that reflected off the nearby mountains, he named the area Te Puna o-te-ao-marama (the spring of the world of light). Exploring the area on foot, his footprints are said to still be seen today in the clay in the whenua (land).

From here, Kupe continued his quest around the country, eventually destroying the evil wheke (octopus) with a blow to its head, after a fierce battle. Journeying south, Kupe encountered an isolated, rugged land with no civilisation to be found – but plenty of plants, fish, birds and natural wonders.

A statue of Kupe standing tall on the waterfront of Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington).   Credit: Wellington NZ

Kupe’s farewell

When it became time for Kupe to depart New Zealand, back to his homeland of Hawaiki, he performed a ceremonial ritual in the Hokianga Harbour, where he vowed never to return, declaring:

“Hei konei ra e Te Puna o te Ao Marama, ka hokinei ahau, e kore ano ahau e hokianga nui mai.” Farewell, the Spring of the World of Light. For I now return home and will never return.

Before setting sail in his waka Matawhaorua, he threw his son Tuputupu-whenua into the spring, thus leaving behind two taniwha (water spirits) to guide the safe landing of future arrivals. It’s from here that the name Te Hokianga-a-Kupe was born (the returning place of Kupe), today shortened to simply Hokianga.

Once he arrived back home, Kupe eagerly shared stories of the cloud-capped land, bountiful in forests, rivers, lakes, and seas. He explained to his people how to navigate to Aotearoa, and which winds to follow, thereby enabling future generations to retrace his legendary voyage across the ocean to settle in New Zealand.

Hokianga Harbour at sunset. Credit: NorthlandNZ

Discovering Kupe’s legacy, today

To learn more about Kupe’s impact and traditions that live on to this day, visit Manea, an immersive and multisensory storytelling experience that uses large-scale artworks, vivid performances and unique taonga (treasures) to show the rituals and legends still practiced by his descendants.

The performers of Manea, Footprints of Kupe. Credit: Northland NZ

Kupe’s waka is another important symbol of his epic voyage, and the ceremonial canoe housed at Waitangi Treaty Grounds and that launches into the harbour each year on Waitangi Day honours Kupe’s lasting legacy. Known as Ngātokimatawhaorua, the 37.5-metre-long waka was built in 1940 from the trunks of three mighty kauri trees – the largest of its kind anywhere in the world, thus holding great mana (prestige).

Ngātokimatawhaorua sheltered in Te Korowai ō Maikuku at Waitangi Treaty Grounds. Credit: @justinejehanno

Kupe is an important ancestor to Māori, but many tales of his voyages are told across the motu (country), and details vary by by iwi and hapu (tribes). Whilst many articles we tell have a Ngāpuhi perspective (the tribe of the Far North), we invite and encourage you to learn more and discover the legacy of Kupe from a variety of lenses.

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