Since the weather is nice and sunny, quite unusually for the season, I took a walk to explore the center of this small town of only 20,000 people. Whakatane is situated right where the river with the same name flows into the Pacific Ocean. Its main shopping mile, called The Strand, lies right on its edge by the river, instead of the middle of the town. From here it’s only a short walk to the mouth of the river, called The Heads.
A Bit of Local History
Out on one of the prominent rocks jutting out of the river, just before it flows into the sea, is a spindly statue of a female figure. A nearby sign informs the visitor that this is to commemorate a lady by the name of Wairaka, one of the first settlers of this region. She was the daughter of a man named Toroa, who was the captain of the Mataatua, the canoe or waka that brought the people who became the ancestors of the Ngati Awa, the Maori tribe that still inhabit this part of the North Island.
A Woman Taking Charge
According to the local lore, the Mataatua came from Hawaiki (Hawaii), bringing entire families to settle the land that had been discovered by earlier explorers. They were looking for a place where the waka could navigate from the ocean into the river, and make landfall in a safe place. However, navigating through the fierce ocean surf beating against the strong current of the river proved to be a formidable challenge, and for a while it seemed like the waka was going to be thrown violently against the rocks. After sailing here all the way from Hawaiki, and almost making it to the shores of Aotearoa, the experienced sailors of the Mataatua weren’t going to surrender to the forces of the waters. Yet, for a moment it seemed like everything was going to be lost. The currents were just too strong.
That’s when the captain’s daughter Wairaka did something unheard of: She grabbed a paddle herself, something considered tapu (sacred and forbidden) for women, and yelled “Kia Whakatane au i ahau!” meaning “I will act like a man!” encouraging all the other women on board to follow her example. This brave exclamation is where the present name of the town goes back to. Of course the men were outraged, but they had to admit, this was a battle not just for all their livelihood they were transporting, but for their very lives. So they did not object when every capable hand, male and female, did whatever was necessary to bring the waka safely past the breakers. Once on the river, it could be landed safely on the shore.
A Landing Site by the Waterfalls
Captain Toroa had been instructed by his father Irakewa, a member of the previous expedition exploring the Southern Pacific for suitable places to settle, to look for three landmarks: Irakewa Rock, on the remainder of which Wairaka's statue is on, Muriwai Cave, and most importantly Wairere Falls. The Mataatua made landfall right in front of the waterfalls, where the Wairere Stream flows into the Whakatane River. The Wairere is not a big stream, but it was an important fresh water source for the people, and its impressive head makes any fans of micro-hydro electric generators drool with delight.
Today, the Wairere Falls are still a spectacular sight of the town. Just in front of it stands a marae, or traditional meeting house of the Ngati Awa. This is where the town, and with it the entire local nation, had its origins. Most Maori keep the history of their ancestors alive, by reciting their whakapapa when meeting each other, listing their genealogy all the way to one of the seven wakas that brought settlers across the waters of Polynesia seven centuries ago.
But preserving the culture of Maori people goes far beyond reciting ancient family history. Their traditional sailing techniques are also maintained, as it can be seen in the reconstructed Mataatua waka, parked in a shed right between The Heads and Wairere Falls. This waka is far from being a museum piece. It is parked on a movable trailer, and is used regularly by contemporary Maori to sail the seas as part of cultural and educational events.
Take a Look at the Rest of my Series Wonders of Whakatane:
- An Excursion to the Origins
- On the Footsteps of Toi
- The Ohope Scenic Reserve
- White Island, Where the Devil Goes on Vacation
- Birds in my Mom’s Garden
- Nativism, a Destructive Form of Environmentalism
- The World's First Vertigraph
- Local Murals of Whakatane
- The Deeds of Legendary Maui
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