The formation of the coastline of Te Wai Pounamu is referred to a more obscure tradition of Te Waka o Aoraki, which foundered on a submerged reef, leaving its occupants, Aoraki and his brothers, to turn to stone.


They are manifested now in the highest peaks in the Ka Tiritiri o Te Moana (the Southern Alps). However it has been well recorded that the bays, inlets, estuaries and fiords which stud the coast are all the creations of Tu Te Rakiwhanoa, who took on the job of making the island suitable for human habitation.

The naming of various features along the coastline reflects the succession of explorers and iwi (tribes) who travelled around the coastline at various times. The first of these was Maui, who fished up the North Island, and is said to have circumnavigated Te Wai Pounamu. In some accounts the island is called Te Waka a Maui in recognition of his discovery of the new lands, with Rakiura (Stewart Island) being Te Puka a Maui (Maui's anchor stone). A number of coastal place names are attributed to Maui, particularly on the southern coast

The great explorer Rakaihautu travelled overland along the coast, identifying the key places and resources. He also left many place names on prominent coastal features. Another explorer, Tamatea, sailed along the Otago coast in the waka Takitimu. After the waka eventually broke its back off the coast of Murihiku, Tamatea and the survivors made their way overland back to the North Island, arriving at the coast by the place Tamatea named O-amaru (Oamaru).

Place names along the coast record Kai Tahu history and point to the landscape features which were significant to people for a range of reasons. For example, some of the most significant mahika kai rivers which enter the coastal waters of Otago include: Waitaki, Kakaunui, Waihemo (Shag), Waikouaiti, Kaikarae (Kaikorai), Tokomairiro, Mata-au (Clutha), Pounawea (Catlins). Mahika kai estuaries include: Waitete (Waitati), Otakou (Otago), Makahoe (Papanui Inlet), Murikauhaka (Mate-au and Koau estuaries), Tahaukupu (Tahakopa estuary), Waipatiki (Wapati Estuary). Islands where mahinga kai was gathered from in the coastal area include Okaihe (St Michaels Island), Moturata (Taieri Island), Paparoa, Matoketoke, Hakinikini, and Aonui (Cooks Head).

Particular stretches of the coastline also have their own traditions. The tradition of the waka (canoe) Arai Te Uru and its sinking at the mouth of the Waihemo (Shag River) has led to the coastal area of Otago being known as Te Tai o Araiteuru (the coast of Arai Te Uru). Accounts of the foundering, the wreckage, and the survivors of this waka are marked by numerous landmarks almost for the length of the Otago coast. The boulders on Moeraki coast (Kai Hinaki) and the Moeraki pebbles are all associated with the cargo of gourds, kumara and taro seed which were spilled when the Arai Te Uru foundered.


For Kai Tahu, traditions such as these represent the links between the cosmological world of the gods and present generations. These histories reinforce tribal identity and solidarity, and continuity between generations, and document the events which shaped the environment of Te Wai Pounamu and Kai Tahu as an iwi.

Because of its attractiveness as a place to establish permanent settlements, including pä (fortified settlements), this coastal area was visited and occupied by Waitaha, Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu in succession, who, through conflict and alliance, have merged in the whakapapa (genealogy) of Kai Tahu Whanui. Battle sites, urupa and landscape features bearing the names of tüpuna (ancestors) record this history. Prominent headlands, in particular, were favoured for their defensive qualities and became the headquarters for a succession of rangatira and their followers. Notable pā on the Otago coast include: Makotukutuku (Oamaru), Te Raka-a-hineatea (Moeraki), Te Pā Katata, Pā a Te Wera, (Huriawa Peninsula), Mapoutahi (Purakaunui), Pukekura (Taiaroa Head), Moturata (Taieri Island). The estuaries from the Waitaki River to the Chaslands also supported various hapü.

Tüpuna such as Waitai, Tukiauau, Whaka-taka-newha, Rakiiamoa, Tarewai, Maru, Te Aparaki, Taoka, Moki II, Kapo, Te Wera, Tu Wiri Roa, Taikawa, Te Hautapanuiotu are among the many illustrious ancestors of Kati Mamoe and Kai Tahu lineage whose feats and memories are enshrined in the landscape, bays, tides and whakapapa of Otago.

One of the tupuna stories about Te Wera from Huriawa near Karitane recounts the abundant supply of kai available from the Otakou area. Whilst Te Wera was under attack from his uncle Taoka in the 1700’s Taoka’s men stated “Me whakatiki koutou ki te kai.” The reply from Te Wera’s men was they would not die of a lack of food and would only die from a lack of water. This was because previous to the siege on Te Pa o Te Wera those inside managed to gather large amounts of moki, hapuka, kutai (mussels), pipi, seaweed, tuaki (cockles), paua, and makaa to last them throughout this time and eventually win against Taoka’s men. (Hocken MS440/25)

The results of the struggles, alliances and marriages arising out of these migrations were the eventual emergence of a stable, organised and united series of hapü located at permanent or semi-permanent settlements along the coast, with an intricate network of mahika kai (food gathering) rights and networks that relied to a large extent on coastal resources. Chiefs such as Korako (several), Tahatu, Honekai, Ihutakuru, Karetai, Taiaroa, Potiki, Tuhawaiki, and Pokene being some among a number who had their own villages and fishing grounds. Otago Peninsula (Muaupoko) had many kainga nohoanga with a multitude of hapū occupying them. Otago Harbour provided such a plentiful supply of mahinga kai that at one time up to 12 kaika existed along the harbour edge, some larger and more important than others.

The whole of the Otago coastal area offered a bounty of mahika kai, including a range of kaimoana (sea food); sea fishing; eeling and harvest of other freshwater fish in lagoons and rivers; whale meat and seal pups; waterfowl, sea bird egg gathering and forest birds; and a variety of plant resources including harakeke (flax), fern and ti root. The Kai Tahu reliance on these coastal resources increased even further after the land sales of the 1840s and 1850s, and the associated loss of access to much traditional land-based mahika kai.

Many reefs along the coast are known by name and are customary fishing grounds, many sand banks, channels, currents and depths are also known for their kaimoana. One example is Poatiri (Mt Charles — Cape Saunders) the name of which refers to a fish hook. Poatiri juts out into the Pacific, close to the continental shelf, and is a very rich fishing ground. Another example is Blueskin Bay which was once a kohaka (breeding ground) for the right whale, although it is well over 150 years since it has seen this activity.

Other resources were also important in the coastal area. Paru (black mud used for dying) was obtained from some areas. Some of the permanent coastal settlements, such as those at the mouth of the Mata-au (Clutha River), and at Otakou and Purakaunui, were important pounamu manufacturing sites. Trading between these villages to the south and north via sea routes was an important part of the economy.

The Otago coast was also a major highway and trade route, particularly in areas where travel by land was difficult. Pounamu and tït were traded north with kumara, taro, waka, stone resources and carvings coming south. Travel by sea between settlements and hapu was common, with a variety of different forms of waka, including the southern waka unua (double-hulled canoe) and, post-contact, whale boats plying the waters continuously. Hence tauraka waka (landing places) occur up and down the coast in their hundreds and wherever a tauraka waka is located there is also likely to be a nohoaka (settlement), fishing ground, kaimoana resource, rimurapa (bull kelp — used to make the poha, in which tïtï were and still are preserved) with the sea trail linked to a land trail or mahika kai resource.