Rotorua is a place that captivates the imagination. A stronghold for Maori, it’s pretty lakes, mountains and geothermal wonders are steeped in myths and legends.
From dramatic love stories to tales of warriors, gods and Taniwha (sea monsters), the Rotorua region is home to fascinating legends about times long ago. Local tribes hand their stories down orally from generation to generation, creating a history that’s passed down through stories and speech. Many legends are connected to the region’s landscapes and natural features, giving them a meaning and a purpose and inspiring young generations to keep their tribal culture alive.
Rotorua is always a favourite spot for guests on our tours, and learning about Rotorua’s myths and legends before you visit is a great way to gain a deeper understanding of the local way of life. Here’s a few of our favourites.
The Legend of Hinemoa and Tutanekai
In the middle of Lake Rotorua lies tiny Mokoia Island, sacred to the Te Arawa Tribe and central to one of the most beautiful Maori love stories ever told – the legend of HInemoa and her warrior, Tutanekai.
Tutanekai lived on Mokoia Island, where every evening he would play pretty music with his friend, Tiki. The sound of this music could be heard across Lake Rotorua and it charmed beautiful, noble-born Hinemoa who lived there. When Tutanekai visited the mainland he met Hinemoa and they fell in love. The young warrior had to return to his village on the island, but the lovers agreed that every night, Tutanekai would play his music and Hinemoa would follow the sound and swim across the lake to join him.
That night, beautiful Hinemoa selected six large, dry gourds as floats, strung them together and used them to swim to the island, guided by the strains of her lover’s music. She safely reached the shore of the island and landed near a hot spring, Waikimihia, where she refreshed herself – this same hot spring can be found on the island to this day. At that moment, Tutanekai ordered his servant down to the pool for some water, who returned with the news that there was a young maiden waiting there. Tutanekai rushed down to the pool, and to his joy discovered Hinemoa.
Like all good love stories, this legend has the usual ending – they lived happily ever after.
The Legend of Kuirau Park and the Taniwha
Rotorua’s public park of Kuirau and its boiling lake is part of a fascinating Maori legend about a Taniwha, a mythological creature from Maori folklore that resembles a monster who dwells in water.
Legend has it that in the past, the park’s boiling lake used to be much cooler and had the name of ‘Taokahu’. Tamahika, the son of Tutea who was the first person to set up a home at the spot, had a beautiful wife called Kuirau. One day, when the beautiful maiden was bathing in the lake, a Taniwha grabbed her and dragged her down to his watery lair below the lake.
The gods saw the struggle between Kuirau and the Taniwha, and became angry at the audacity of the water monster. They used their powers to make the lake boil so that the Taniwha would be destroyed forever. Unfortunately, this also killed Tamahika’s wife, so from that time the lake and the park surrounding it has been known as Kuirau in her legacy.
The legend of the Discovery of Rotorua
Rotorua’s human history begins in the mid-1300’s, with the arrival of the Te Arawa canoe at Maketu on the nearby Bay of Plenty coastline.
Legend has it that Ihenga, a young Te Arawa warrior, accidentally discovered Rotorua. At the time, he was hunting for delicacies for his pregnant wife when one of his dogs ran off, said to be chasing a Kiwi bird in the forest. The dog returned a few hours’ later with a wet coat and regurgitated a meal of half-digested fish. Ihenga realised that he must be close to water, so he searched the forest till he came across Lake Rotoiti and Lake Rotorua.
A lot of visitors to New Zealand have heard all about Rotorua and Maori culture long before they arrive, and it's one of the big reasons for coming to visit. Which is why our tours always spend two nights in Rotorua, with plenty of time to discover the fascinating legends and culture and everything else Rotorua has to offer. Click here to find out more about our small group tours.