In the heart of Auckland is a geographical reminder of a powerful ancestral guardian. It’s also the only Heritage New Zealand site that bears a taniwha’s name. In a story that first appeared in Heritage New Zealand’s quarterly magazine, Kennedy Warne meets the man who nominated the site and asks if taniwha should be recognised as a force for environmental awakening.
In my teens, I used to trundle a small yacht along the footpath from my grandparents’ house in St Marys Bay, down past Pt Erin Park, around the geometric curve of Curran Street, under the Auckland Harbour Bridge and on to the launching ramp at Westhaven Marina.
I had no idea I was passing a sacred site. No doubt the 150,000 drivers who cross the harbour bridge each day have no idea either. But there it is, next to a sliver of green space called Harbour Bridge Park: an oyster-fringed reef jutting like a thumb into Waitematā Harbour. This rocky nubbin, visible only at low tide, is all that is left of a much larger feature that has been progressively obliterated in the past 75 years — first by the creation of a boat harbour in the 1940s, then by the southern approach to the harbour bridge in the 1950s.
The feature has a name: Te Routu o Ureia, The Backscratcher of Ureia, and to hear its story I met Dave Robson, Heritage New Zealand’s recently retired Māori heritage manager for the north, at the site. It was Robson who had proposed its heritage listing, and the feature was officially added to the New Zealand Heritage List/Rārangi Kōrero in 2008.
Dave said a karakia, as befits a visit to a wāhi tapu, then we sat in the sun on one of the benches that have been placed along the Curran Street esplanade. I noticed that wooden bait-boards had been wired to each bench for the use of recreational fishers — and, indeed, two anglers had their rods propped against the sea wall, lines slanting out into the harbour.
To the west of us lay minuscule Watchman Island; across the water the suburbs of Birkenhead, Chelsea and Northcote. Below us, on the reef, a pair of oystercatchers were holding their own shrill kōrero as they probed among the shellfish and seaweed.
Dave has known the stories of Ureia from childhood. He knows the location of one of Ureia’s lairs, not far from his papakāinga near the mouth of the Waihou River, where it enters the Firth of Thames. Dave’s iwi, Ngāti Maru, is part of the confederation of Hauraki tribes known as Marutūāhu (named after their ancestor), for whom Ureia is a guardian. Their rohe stretches from Matakana (Island) in the south to Matakana in the north.
Ureia is Hauraki’s taniwha. He first appears in their traditions as the escort to the Tainui waka on its arrival from Hawaiki. Ureia led the waka into the calm waters of Tīkapa Moana (Hauraki Gulf), coming to landfall at Te Anaputa, a promontory at Tararu, a few kilometres north of Thames. There the exhausted crew rested in one of Ureia’s caves, mooring their waka to a rock arch, safe from a rising easterly storm.
Over subsequent centuries, Ureia ranged widely up the Waihou River, where he was kidnapped for a time by Raukawa, and up the Karangahake Gorge, where he resided in the whirlpools of Kahakaha and Waikino.
Later, he made his way back downstream and lived in a den at Ōruarangi Pā, Kirikiri, just south of today’s Kōpū Bridge (which has a depiction of Ureia on one of its piers). In 1769, when Captain Cook and his crew rowed their longboat up the Waihou River and around Ōruarangi Pā, they would have passed tantalisingly close to Ureia’s lair.
“We understood him to take the form of a sea mammal,” Dave said. If splashing was seen on a sandbar offshore from the papakāinga at Maramarahi, it was assumed to be Ureia thrashing the water with his tail, and was taken as a warning and portent of misfortune.
But Ureia was essentially a benign guardian, not one of the terrifying monsters that most taniwha are considered to be. He is referred to in some stories as a mōkai, a pet, for he was held in affectionate regard by Marutūāhu people — an upholder and protector of their mana, but also a beloved and pampered mascot.
As such, he ranged widely across his watery domain, which included Tīkapa Moana and Waitematā. Te Routu would have been an ideal spot for Ureia to rest, scrape barnacles from his skin and enjoy a therapeutic back rub on the reef.
It was Ureia’s good nature that ultimately led to his demise. Haumia, a taniwha of the Waiōhua people of Auckland’s Manukau Harbour, was sent by a tohunga to pay Ureia a visit. Generous host that he was, Ureia conducted Haumia on a guided tour, plying him along the way with every delicacy the sea produced.
The visiting taniwha’s envy of Hauraki’s bounty soon turned to hatred. He feigned displeasure at the foods he was being offered, dismissing them as inferior to those of the Manukau and challenging Ureia to accompany him to see for himself. The trusting Ureia agreed. He followed Haumia to the Manukau via the Whau portage that runs between today’s suburbs of New Lynn and Green Bay, stopping en route for a comforting scratch at Te Routu.
On arrival in the Manukau, he was led to a site near Puketutu Island, where a smorgasbord of deliciousness had been prepared for him. But it was a trap. Ureia was ensnared, slain, dismembered and distributed among the Waiōhua chiefs. It is said his flesh provided food for 1,000 people.
That treachery was not forgotten. Nor was it readily forgiven. It led to multigenerational enmity and bloodshed between Waikato and Marutūāhu tribes. But, remarkably, vengeance was not taken on the Māngere Waiōhua who were directly responsible for slaying Ureia. In later years, they alone, of all of Waiōhua’s people, sought to atone for their wrongdoing. So they alone were spared when Hauraki’s utu burned across the land between the Waikato and as far north as Mangawhai.
“So was that the end of Ureia?” I asked Dave. “He is no more?”
“We don’t like to think so,” he replied. “Ureia may have left some offspring.” He cited an incident during the 2004 Foreshore and Seabed hīkoi. As the walkers crossed the harbour bridge, some of them felt the bridge sway as they reached its southern end. They attributed the shaking to Ureia’s support for their kaupapa.
Te Routu o Ureia is not the only site in Heritage New Zealand’s official list that has a taniwha connection. There is a famous rock art shelter at Ōpihi, in South Canterbury, which features a representation of a taniwha, and a lair called Te Roto Horua on the banks of the Wairoa River near Bethlehem. But it is the only site that carries a taniwha’s name.
In a way, this is surprising, because taniwha stories abound. Many taniwha have fearsome reputations — and this was partly the point, Dave said. They served to warn people of danger, whether in the form of treacherous tidal rips and harbour entrances, river whirlpools, caves, sinkholes or other natural hazards. The greater the danger, the stronger the taniwha. The cave of the Kaiwhare, near the Manukau bar, became a byword for death, encapsulated in the proverb: Ka tuwhera kau mai te rua o Kaiwhare. The cavern of Kaiwhare opens wide.
A whakataukī associated with Waikato’s tūpuna awa is well known: Waikato taniwha rau; he piko, he taniwha, he piko, he taniwha. Waikato of a hundred taniwha; at every river bend a taniwha. The same is said of Ngāpuhi: Ngāpuhi taniwha rau.
In these instances, the word “taniwha” refers to powerful chiefs as well as to non-human entities. Transformation from one to the other was considered possible. People could turn into taniwha, either at death or beforehand.
For instance, when Kupe left his son Tuputupuwhenua to be a guardian for Hokianga at Te Puna o te Ao Mārama, the spring of the world of light, he became a taniwha who could swim along underground channels between Hokianga and the Bay of Islands.
Often reptilian in form, taniwha could also take the shape of sharks, stingrays, octopuses, giant eels, birds, dogs, or combinations of humans and animals. Dave shared the tantalising thought that the prototype for man-eating reptilian taniwha could have been an Australian saltwater crocodile.
“Such an animal could probably survive for months without eating,” he said.
“Suppose one made it across the Tasman and ended up in the Hokianga. It would only have taken one case of a creature like that eating a human being and you’d have a story for all time, and the ideal model for a taniwhā.”
Viewed another way, the paucity of taniwha heritage sites is not surprising. Taniwha generally get short shrift in contemporary New Zealand society. On occasions when they have been invoked by opponents of a development proposal, media coverage has typically ranged from mirth to mockery (as it did with the taniwha Karutahi during the building of the Waikato Expressway in the early 2000s).
Why would New Zealanders want to acknowledge and actually celebrate the existence of a category of being viewed by the majority culture as a relic of native superstition? Perhaps because taniwha traditionally performed the role of kaitiaki — an indigenous concept that is approximated by ideas of guardianship and stewardship of the natural world. A growing number of New Zealanders understand the urgent need for kaitiakitanga, to reverse continuing degradation of land, freshwater and the marine environment.
Today we tend to think of kaitiaki as people, but there is no reason to restrict nature’s voice to human advocates. We now have a river (Whanganui) and a former national park (Te Urewera) that are recognised as legal persons with a legal voice, and soon there will be a mountain (Taranaki) with that same recognition.
If natural features with ancient and intimate connection to tangata whenua are persons, then why would it be impossible to regard entities within those environments, such as taniwha, as having legitimacy, identity and agency?
Taniwha possess a mind-focusing potency that conventional resource management lacks. Ureia’s powerful presence could spur Aucklanders to restore Hauraki’s greatly diminished environmental condition: its polluted inshore waters, depleted fisheries, harried seabirds and scarce marine mammals.
And since Ureia’s hospitality is legendary, I cannot think of a better representative for a city: a magnanimous host, proud of his domain and eager to share it with others. A city that embraced the ethos of Ureia would welcome all-comers to its warm breezes, capacious sea and beckoning islands.
I can imagine some of those 150,000 bridge-crossing commuters feeling moved to lift a hand in greeting and murmur a word of acknowledgement to the harbour’s guardian and mentor, still perhaps scratching his back on the reef below.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.