Conservation kōrero

Department of Conservation —  16/02/2022

This is a blog about how nature, heritage, and identity intersect; and how we share that knowledge between generations in Aotearoa.

Written by Maia Berryman-Kamp

Sunrise over Kā Tiritiri o Te Moana /The Southern Alps
📷: Crystal Brindle, DOC

Imagine a DOC employee.

You’re probably thinking about one of those wide brim hats with the toggle at the bottom, an encyclopedic knowledge of bird calls, and a love of long hikes.

Now, go to the complete opposite and you’ve got me.

Despite – or maybe because of – my complete lack of competency in the outdoors, I’ve always loved the idea of New Zealand’s natural world, and quickly made the connection between nature and heritage. It’s pretty cut and dry to me, without an environment nothing can happen, and without histories nothing has happened.

An easy way to see the links between the two is through kōrero, specifically the stories I was born and raised on. These narratives, often written off as mere ‘myth’, are rich pieces of heritage that really highlight the taonga aspect of taonga species and spaces. Plus, they’re brilliant ways of conveying some commonsense safety advice to people who can’t quite clock it.

I descend principally from various hapū of Te Arawa, or as we’re more frequently known: Te Māngai Nui/The Big Mouth. As such, I love to kōrero, and have been raised to know that the best way to connect to the world is to discuss it. It’s under these conditions that I feel it appropriate to share these stories to you, my avid listener… reader? Scroller?

So, gather around the proverbial fire as I tell the histories of things I don’t want to be near, but do want to be connected to.

The Kaikōmako Tree

Kaikōmako tree
📷: Donald Laing

Driven by insatiable curiosity, the demi-god Māui extinguished all the fires of the world to find their source.

When the people woke up, they were furious that their flames had vanished and called upon Māui to visit his ancestor Mahuika in the underworld. Mahuika was a formidable Goddess who lived in the heart of a volcano, and the mass of flames that enveloped her would scorch any human nearby.

After drawing her location out of the fantail (more on that later), Māui begged the Goddess to give him fire, assuring her that the people would love her eternally if she agreed.

Tearing a burning fingernail from her hand, she passed the flames to Māui. On his return however, that itch of curiosity rose in him again. For if Mahuika was the origin of fire, what would happen if her fire was stolen? Without considering the treason of his actions, he flung the precious flames into a nearby stream and returned to Mahuika. He threw her fingernails away nine times, inventing more and more elaborate reasons for why they had gone out. It was only when she gave Māui her last fingernail did Mahuika realise she had been tricked. In her rage, the flames on this nail intensified, and she flung it at Māui while cursing his name. The nail landed in the grasp of the kaikōmako tree and it caught fire, enveloping Māui in deadly flame.

The fire spread through the surrounding forest. It locked Māui in and condemned him to their heat. He transformed into a hawk in a desperate attempt to flee, but the flames rose so high his wings burned painfully and he fell to the ground.

He sought shelter in a lake, but the water boiled around him. Clawing his way onto the molten ground, Māui called upon the God Tāwhirimātea to send down a rainstorm and save him from the flames. Though the fire eventually subsided, the kaikōmako tree held tight to Mahuika’s fingernail. Māui returned to the people with the branches of the kaikōmako tree, terrified of facing Mahuika again. He taught them to use friction to spark a flame and the knowledge spread across Aotearoa’s villages.

So, if you get a bit chilly while in – and I cannot stress this enough – a fire safe zone, just look for the wide, jagged leaves of the kaikōmako tree and rub the fallen, dry sticks together. For those more interested in birds than bushes, the dark border on the feathers of the kāhu immortalise the burning of Māui as a hawk.

The Pīwakawaka/Fantail

Pīwakawaka perched on moss
📷: Shellie Evans

Along the way to Mahuika, Māui encountered the pīwakawaka/fantail.

Aware that it was a messenger of the underworld, Māui clutched the fantail in his hands and ordered it to reveal the location of Mahuika, but it merely laughed.

Furious, Māui squeezed the bird until its tail feathers spread and eyes popped, eventually telling him what he wanted to know. Feeling scorned, the fantail lay in wait for the opportune moment to take its revenge on Māui.

As the fantail plotted, the demi-god’s curiosity once more spurred him towards danger. This time, his mind wandered to a decidedly more philosophical pursuit – the defeat of death.

To answer the question, Māui once again ventured to the underworld in search of Hine-nui-te-pō, Goddess of the night and receiver of dead souls. He believed that if he travelled through her body in reverse of the birthing process, he would gain total immortality and eradicate death altogether.

During the brightest of daylight, when the Goddess would be in the deepest slumber, Māui transformed himself into a slithering worm. Inching towards Hine-nui-te-pō, he began to crawl along her jagged thighs. The image of the brute Māui, so tough and so cruel, reduced to a pale, limp worm set the fantail laughing. Hine-nui-te-pō had been roused by the birds’ cries, and Māui gestured frantically for it to stay silent. Sensing an opportunity, the fantail took its revenge on Māui and cried out.

The high-pitched shrieks woke the Goddess, who was horrified to discover Māui crawling over her. She crushed the demigod between her jagged obsidian thighs, quickly bursting the life of the famed figure. This was to be the death of the trickster Māui, and the first true death of man.

The pīwakawaka, considered from that moment on to be an ally of Hine-nui-te-pō, is an omen of death and change for modern Māori.

It’s not exactly cheery storytelling, but this fascinating story can tell eager listeners a lot. The pīwakawaka remains distinguishable by its high-pitched call, bulging eyes and fanned tail. The distinct bright red of Hine-nui-te-pō’s many sunsets are her warnings to humanity that nighttime, the dangerous time she waits for dead souls, is approaching.

As for Māui?

The man who conquered the sun and seas fell victim to his own arrogance and carelessness.

Kā Tiritiri o Te Moana /The Southern Alps

Snow covered peak peak of Aoraki/Mount Cook viewed from the village
📷: Eiji Kitai, DOC

The Sky Father Rakinui, born of mist and cloud, created many children with many wives. The exploits of these children are scattered among Māori tribal narrative, but for this story we will focus on four: the brothers Aoraki, Rakiroa, Rakirua, and Rarakiroa.

The brothers descended from the heavens in order to visit their stepmother Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother. Though they sailed endlessly over the rolling oceans, such trivial things as islands had not yet risen from the ocean.

Tired of the sea’s dark emptiness, Aoraki began a karakia to Rakinui to return home. During the karakia however, his brothers grew hungry and began to fight. One of them accidently brushed past Aoraki, breaking his concentration, and sending their waka hurtling to the depths below. Upon impact, the waka shattered and flipped. The brothers scrambled out of the water onto the upturned hull, forcing the western side of the boat higher than the east. Over time, though the brothers called to their father, the waka hardened below them, forming the South Island with its distinct western elevation.

Over the centuries the brothers too solidified, hair turning white with grief. Rarakiroa never bowed to his fate, and today stands as Horo-kōau, Mount Tasman, the second tallest peak in Kā Tiritiri o Te Moana/The Southern Alps.

The empathetic brother Rakirua transformed into the connecting Mount Teichelmann, while Rakiroa stayed with his eldest brother, clinging to him as Mount Dampier. The final brother to turn to stone was the eldest Aoraki, who reached up to his father in one final, desperate call. He hardened into Aoraki Mount Cook, the tallest peak of the four. To Kāi Tahu, Aoraki represents the most sacred of ancestors, overseeing their lands from his mountain home.

Aoraki’s descendants would return to Te Waipounamu/The South Island on the Āraiteuru waka centuries later but fall victim to the same fate. On their sail around the coast, the waka was struck by fierce storms, and the crew threw their kūmara gourds and eel pots overboard. The survivors, led by Kirkirikatata, made it to shore, but would be turned to stone if they did not return to the waka in time for sunrise. Though they tried to find the wreck of the waka, it was to no avail and one by one they succumbed to the sunlight. Only Kirikirikatata and his grandson, the second Aoraki, continued inland. Kirikirikatata ran to the foot of the Southern Alps and looked up at the body of his ancestor. He allowed the sunlight to turn them both, forming the Mount Cook Ranges as an offshoot of the Southern Alps. The forgotten gourds also hardened in the sun, forming Te Kai Hīnaki, better known as the Moeraki Boulders.

The relationships of the brothers to one another are an easy way to navigate the hazardous slopes. Aoraki stands tall, with his brother Rakiroa near him for protection. Rarakiroa stands alone, only connected to Aoraki through Rakirua. The Mount Cook Ranges are in the shadow of the Alps, pointing towards the Moeraki Boulders and wreck of the Āraiteuru waka at Shag Point. Near to the waka are the peaks Aonui and Puketapu, two more doomed sailors. This part of the story, while helping travellers figure out where they actually are, serves as a warning for the churning waters of the South Island’s East Coast. For anyone keen to take up agriculture, kūmara hasn’t grown this far south since the deadly waka voyage.

Now, when I’m walking in the bush:

Light in the forest of the Clinton Valley, Milford Track Fiordland
📷: Crystal Brindle, DOC

I consider the trees and the fire that may be struck from their hearts.

I gaze at pictures – because I live in the North Island – o fKā Tiritiri o Te Moana/The Southern Alps and feel the awe of an ancestor laying below. Many Māori still fear the flight of a pīwakawaka/fantail into their homes, an omen of death.

And with that, I’ll extinguish the proverbial story-telling fire, plunging everybody into darkness (giving you an unnecessarily short amount of time to find your sleeping bag before it gets claimed by some random who swears that’s “their name on the label, honest”).

I hope you took meaning from this kōrero.

3 responses to Conservation kōrero

    Anne Coplestone 13/03/2022 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you for sharing these amazing LEGENDS., AWESOME. 💜


    Many have their stories & its hard to believe its true! up against the backdrop of the true adonai Elohim Yahveh whom i have experienced foer last 23 years and come from a long line of Tohunga’s backdating to Tohunga .Raka & Hiaroa with Hoturoa on Tainui Waka. heoi ano, kia ora to korero.


    Fascinating wondered how it all came about. Thank you.