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The legend of "The Brothers", Sea of Raukawa

Canoeing in Cook Strait

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Spirit of the Rocks | Taniwha to the rescue | Pao, by Tuhupu (of Ngati-Awa)

Many Maori stories and songs are associated with the Sea of Raukawa (Cook Strait). In olden days Maori canoes very frequently passed to and fro across this oftimes stormy strait; flotillas of large war canoes, particularly those under the command of the famous cannibal conqueror Te Rauparaha, many times made their way southwards from Otaki or Kapiti Island or Porirua Harbour, bound on expeditions of blood against Ngaitahu of the Greenstone-land. Sometimes the canoes met with sudden gales in the strait, that placed them in real peril, and not infrequently these long narrow craft were capsized and lost with all hands. Sometimes for safety two canoes would be fastened together and strengthened with a deck or platform across midships, so as to form a double canoe, such as those in which the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori navigated across the Pacific Ocean. The Maori canoe-men of those days were weatherwise sailors, and would wait for days in some cove or bay across the coasts until a favourable slant of wind and a smooth sea offered for sailing or paddling across the strait. The Maoris of Wairau, Cloudy Bay, Marlborough, say that the canoe sailors of former days would carefully watch the weather conditions at the time of the rising of Kopu, the morning star (Venus), and if the sea were smooth then and the wind fair, it would be a favourable day for putting to sea over Wairau Bar and laying a course for Kapiti Island, or Mana, or the Whanganui-a-Tara, now known as Wellington Harbour.

Crossing Cook Strait at night from Wellington to Picton or Nelson, the ten-second flashlight of The Brothers will be seen as the steamer approaches the coast to Arapawa Island. This lighthouse is situated on one of the high rocky islands known to the Maoris as Nga-whatu ("The Rocks") and christened by the early white navigators "The Brothers". Captain Cook's ship the "Endeavour" was in considerable danger where when working out from Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770, and was very nearly carried on to the rocks through being becalmed in a strong tide-rip. These islets of danger lie off Cape Koamaru, Arapawa Island, and were in the direct course of the Maori canoes in the olden time making from Kapiti Island or Mana to Arapawa or Kura-te-au (Tory Channel) or Cloudy Bay, and from Wellington Harbour to the northern parts of Queen Charlotte Sound, or Pelorus Sound, or Nelson. They were dreaded because of their rocky dangers and the high and broken seas which frequently arose as they were neared.

Nga-whatu was regarded as a tapu place, and was invested by the superstitious Maori with a supernatirual mana or influence of dread. An atua, a deity, who had dominion over winds and seas, abode in those surf-beaten fog-wreathed sliffs, and it were well to appease him with appropriate karakias or charms, and with other ceremonious observances, so that canoes could pass his sacred crags in safety.

It was a custom in former days, when strangers to the Sea of Raukawa were crossing the strait for the first time, to veil their eyes when the islets of Nga-whatu were neared. It would be a breach of the tapu for these tauhou or new-comers to look upon the isles of omen on their first voyage. So if any tauhou happened to be in a canoe, while yet some distance from "The Brothers" their eyes were blind-folded (kopareitia) with a covering usually consisting of several large leaves strung together, and it was not removed until these rocks were well astern. If strangers looked upon these sacred cliffs on their first crossing of Raukawa the atua of the isles would be affronted and would by his enchantments stop the canoe and fix it there, so that, paddle the canoemen never so strongly, they would never get past Nga-whatu : a belief that has in it something of the elements of the legend of Vanderdecken and the story of Jonah. A stranger who refused to veil his eyes when nearing Nga-whatu would probably be dumped overboard as Jonah was, and he would be lucky if a friendly taniwha were at hand to rescue him.

There was, fortunately, a beneficient atua who could be summoned from the blue deeps of rolling Raukawa if a canoe were in danger of being lost. This sea-god was Pane-iraira ("Speckled Head"), from very ancient times a traditional taniwha or marine deity of the descendents of the Polynesian adventurers who came to New Zealand from the South Seas Islands in the "Tainui" canoe. Pane-iraira is descrbed as a great whale-like fish with a hollow on his back. He is the guardian of the high chiefs of Tainui stock when they travel by sea. Says Hare Rore, an old whaleboat sailor, chief of the Ngati-Rarua Tribe, Wairau: -
"If our canoes were in danger when crossing the Sea of Raukawa in former times,
particularly when nearing the coast of Arapawa or passing Nga-whatu, through a gale of wind coming on suddenly, or a high sea rising, those on board her would repeat invocations to Pane-iraira, the taniwha, to come to their aid. If there were a tohunga or priest on board he would recite a karakia to Pane-iraira, who lived in these waters. And if the tohunga were a man of mana, and he recited the charm correctly, then the sea-god would appear and save the canoe. He would swim along by the side of the waka, and his sacred mana would smooth the seas and make safe the ocean of the crew who trusted in their ancestral taniwha.

The mana of a Maori taniwha was evidently as potent as oil upon troubled waters.
(Hemi Matenga's account of whale rescue in 1834).
The following song, well known to the old Maoris on both sides of Cook Strait,
contains an allusion to the custom of blindfolding strangers on their first canoe passage of Raukawa, past The Brothers. It is a pao, or love-song somposed about 60 years ago by a young woman named Tuhupu, of the Ngati-Awa Tribe, who lived on the coast of the North island, not far from Wellingon Harbour, for her lover who sailed away across the strait in the war-canoe of the chief Heteraka Putatahi (uncle of Hare Rore): -

Pao, by Tuhupu, in te reo Maori

O gentle western breezes,
So softly blowing over the sea
Across Tawake's distant peak.
Ye bring to me fond thoughts of love
For one who's far away.
For him to whom I was betrothed
While yet but a little one.
Oh, would that I could go to him
Across the swelling sea
To seek some island of our own!
I'd seat me in the bows
Of "Te Rewarewa", the canoe of Patutahi,
And sail so far away;
I'd bind mine eyes so carefully
The while we crossed Raukawa's sea,
Lest I should see Nga-whatu's crags;
And when we'd passed the isles of dread
And freely gazed around again
We’d see the shores of Cloudy Bay,
The wondrous works of Kupe,
Our ancestor who sailed these seas
And severed islands from the main.
But where is now my loved one,
My love from childhood's days?
I'm left behind to mourn alone,
My heart swells high with sorrow!

The Maori singer often addressed his poem to the winds; a very frequent opening to a love-song or a lament is a reference to the idea that the breezes and the scudding clouds are messengers from those who are far away. The girl who composed this waiata had evidently ascended a hill where she could see the mountains of Arapawa loming blue in the west across the strait, in the direction in which her lover's canoe had gone; Te Tawake, mentioned in the song, is a prominent peak on Arapawa. The sentiment with which the chant begins reminds one of Robert Burns’ old love-song -

Of a' the airts the wind can blaw,
I dearly like the west.
Cloudy Bay, the name which Captain Cook gave in 1770 to the wide indent into which the Wairau River flows, is here pidgin-Maorified into "Karaurupe"; the proper Maori name is Te Whanga-nui ("The Big Bay"). The allusion to the "works of Kupe", refers to the Maori tradition of the canoe explorations of Kupe, the early Maori navigator who sailed to these Islands of New Zealand from his far-off home in Hawaiiki, in the Eastern Pacific in the canoe "Matahourua"; he came down the west coast, naming many places on the shores as he came, and explored the islands and sounds of Cook Strait and the northern shores of the South Island. In the poetic symbolism of the Maori, Kupe's discovery and circumnavigation of the various islands hereabouts is spoken of as his god-like severing of them from the mainland. The row of jagged rocks on Barrett's Reef at the entrance to Wellington Harbour was named "Te Tangihanga-a-Kupe" (Kupe’s Weeping-Party), because of the fancied resemblance of the rocks to a row of mourners at a Maori tangi. There are many other coastal place-names memorising the great canoe-sailor.

Kupe, in the "Matahourua", entered Porirua Harbour and remained there some time. A celebrated and venerated relic of his stay there is the great stone called "Te Punga-o-Matahourua" (anchor of "Matahourua"). This is a very large block of sandstone, with a hole in it, said to have been used as the mooring stone of the canoe; it lay on the sandy shore near Paremata Railway-station until recently, when it was handed over to the Government for safe-keeping, and was placed in the Maori room of the Wellington Museum.

The rocky point on which the lighthouse stands in French Pass (Te Au-miti) is said by the Maoris to be one of the parirau or wings of a fabulous bird, the Kawau-a-Toru ("Toru's Cormorant" or shag) which came from the Hawaiiki fatherland, the South Sea Islands, and which in endeavouring to breast the strong current that sweeps through the Pass was killed and its wings broken and case ashore, where they were transformed to stone.

Reprinted from -

Korero o te Wa I Raraunga I Rauemi I Te Whanganui a Tara I Whakapapa