OF TANIWHA, NGARARA AND HOW PAEROA GOT ITS NAME
I had always thought that the town of Paeroa got its name from the long ridge of hills behind it pae-roa. But I was wrong. I found that there was another and older meaning to the name. There is a very old, old story about the naming of Paeroa. I learned the story first, many years ago, from Hoane Te Huia of Paeroa, and later heard other versions from other old Maoris of my acquaintance.
I don't know what the name of the place was before it was called Paeroa. Some have told me it was Ruawea, some Ohinemuri, but these are district names, as far as I know. Anyway, in a cave near the hill now known as Turner's Hill, near the present town of Paeroa there lived a taniwha, or ngarara, named “Urea.”
I have no certain knowledge as to what was the form in which this taniwha liked best to manifest himself. Most accounts agree that it was in the form of a gigantic lizard. Ngarara, or taniwha, are queer creatures and are apt to change their form in a most haphazard and perplexing manner. The Ngati Tamatera had another taniwha named “Tupe to Tauhai” which, when it wished to warn the tribe of impending invasion, would take the form of a dolphin and gambol in the river until its movements had been reported to all the chiefs. But when the Ngati Tamatera went forth to war, this same taniwha appeared as a blue cloud, and, in that form, led them to battle, and invariably (they claim) to victory. There was yet another taniwha in the Ohinemutu district called “Pukeko” which always took the form of that bird and gave mournful cries throughout the night when the death of a chief was imminent.
Personally, I have never seen a taniwha, nor I expect have readers. I have met some who told me they had seen one, and they were people I had every reason to respect and to believe. My old friend Nepia Pomare, (a Ngapuhi and my Maori godfather) once told me that the taniwha on our gold sovereigns was not unlike a taniwha he had once seen.
This taniwha, whose name he could not utter, (so tapu was it) had a body very like that of the taniwha on the sovereign, but the wings were only partly formed and the head was the head of a manaia. Some of my older Maori friends have told me that the manaia itself was, originally, a taniwha. Others will say that manaia is simply a carved representation of a human head seen sideways, such as a “koruru” or “ruru.”
Colonel Jim Ferris once told me that, during World War I he and his platoon were led out of danger, on one occasion, by a taniwha which appeared as a small cloud of smoke. He was a very practical and hard headed man, and a great friend of mine and I believe him. Princess Te Puea told me that, as a girl, she had seen taniwha in the Waikato and had also seen fairies. Riki Kereopa, of Cape Colville; Kapa Potae of Kennedy Bay,
Coromandel; Te Kanawa of Kawhia, and an old tohunga friend of mine in Otakau (who asked me never to write his name, though I might speak it freely) all these have told me of ngarara or taniwha, which they themselves have seen, in various shapes. They were all my friends and they were all truthful men. Some taniwha, they said, were good, others were bad. “Urea” the taniwha of our story, was not only bad, but, like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, he was horrid. Not only was he horrid but he was very, very cunning. He had several smaller taniwha around the district who acted as sentinels and kept him well informed of what was going on. One of them, named Hotaiki, lived in a pool which is to be seen to this day, close to the bridge just outside present day Paeroa. Another of Urea's many sentinels was named Waikino, and gave his name to that village half-way between Paeroa and Waihi. These sentinels kept a very good lookout indeed, and warned Urea whenever any Maori of that district set out to travel to the East Coast. Whatever the purpose of their journey, Urea would go after them, swift and terrible as fire, and gobble them up. Urea, the taniwha of Ruawea, was especially fond of pretty young maidens—as an article of diet.
It was this very weakness for gobbling up young maidens which led to Urea's downfall. There was a young tohunga named Hamea who decided that Urea's taste for tasty young ladies was becoming a serious embarrassment to the tribes around that district and it was time he did something about it. It not only made wives scarce for their young men, but that very scarcity made such competition among the remaining maidens as to give them ideas, far above their station. Hamea was a young and ambitious tohunga, with many weighty matters to occupy him. Instead of devoting his time to those matters he was continually being bothered to waste his time in the recital of “atahu” or love charms, a form of karakia or incantation, very much sought after by young men in love when their fancied maiden was playing “hard to get.’ I never found out, to my complete satisfaction just what kind of tohunga Hamea was. Hoane Te Huia says he was a ‘tohunga tatai aorangi’ whose duty it was to read and interpret the stars and their omens, and to guide their navigation when they went to sea. Others said he was a ‘tohunga makite’ or a seer into the future. One chief claimed that Hamea was a ‘tohunga makutu’ who dealt with black magic, and who would, for a consideration, put a fatal spell on anyone who happened to incur your displeasure. As Hamea is held in some veneration by the tribes which knew him best, we could charitably class him as a tohunga of the higher class who dabbled in makutu, if at all, merely as a sideline and to increase his knowledge and his mana.
Anyway, I have no doubt that when Hamea set out to put an end to Urea the taniwha, he was glad to have every trick of every grade of tohunga at his command. Urea, as we have already said, was a taniwha of fearsome reputation, and considerably cunning. His motto was, if we may put it in the terms of a famous pakeha proverb, “He who fights not, but runs away, lives to eat maidens another day.” So he withdrew to his cave and sat patiently upon his magic perch to wait until Hamea's other pressing duties drew him away from this particular hunting trip. This is not to say that Urea was a coward, but merely that he realised that what was good clean fun for the tohunga, was not always fun for a taniwha.
Hamea the tohunga, in the course of his search, came to that part of the Waihou river where Hotaiki, the sentinel, lurked in his pool. Hotaiki being a minor taniwha, was no more anxious to meet a hostile tohunga than was Urea, but, unable to resist the power of Hamea's magic, he came reluctantly to the surface. “Where is Urea, the greatest of all Taniwha?” asked Hamea. Hotaiki, the sentinel, made the historic reply, “Urea ke nga rua i tana paeroa.” ‘Urea’ is on his long perch’—the long perch of Urea, or in its shortened form, the pae-roa or Paeroa of today.
In the course of becoming a tohunga, Hamea had learned many proverbs. One was the “He who eats the kumukumu, (or gournet) in too much of a hurry, is liable to get bones in his throat.” So instead of dashing in to beard the ngarara in its den, he set about thinking up a stratagem by which to lure Urea from his magic cave into surroundings where he would be more vulnerable. By reading the stars, and (some say) by dealing in blacker magic, Hamea conceived a great idea. Knowing Urea's appetite for toothsome young maidens and knowing too that the local supply was becoming daily scarcer, he thought to draw the taniwha away by offering a particularly luscious bait. He caused word to be spread freely around the district that there was a growing superfluity of young and tender maidens among the Tainui people of the Waikato.
So, one by one, Urea's sentinels reported to him that everyone was going around saying, “Ka nui te pai te waihine to Waikato” (how fair are the women of Waikato). Urea swallowed the bait hook line and sinker. He decided he would slip across to Waikato, escape this busybody of a tohunga, and try out these reputedly luscious morsels of feminity in the kainga of the Waikato.
Now, for some reason or other which was never explained, Urea the taniwha started his journey by following the course of the Waihou river to its mouth, which discharges into the Hauraki gulf at what is now Thames. I have no doubt that he had his own reasons for doing so. Perhaps he thought his departure in an almost opposite direction would conceal his true destination. Or it may have been that he intended to invite some of his fellow taniwha down river to accompany him. Whatever the reason, it died with him. Hamea the tohunga, either by black magic, or white magic, or just everyday observation and common sense, had learned of his route and lay in wait for him
downstream. Hamea, of course, slew the taniwha, ngarara or dragon, after a fearful struggle. Details of this battle, of the weapons of offence and defence, of the tactics employed and other data which would be extremely valuable to an historian, are sadly missing from all accounts I have heard. It has been recorded, however, that the death struggles of the taniwha were terrific and protracted. As, at last, his corpse stiffened in rigor mortis, his tail stood stiffly upright like a “taia” or the post of a palisade, and is to be seen there, to this day, in petrified form. Hence the name of that place “Hiku Taia” from Hiku (tail) and Taia (the post of a palisade.)
There are some folk, of course, (there always are) who offer a more mundane explanation. These folk say that “Hiku-taia” means simply the tail of the t [ unclear: ] de” and refers to that part of the river where the actual flow of the tide ceases.
Anyway, that is the story, as well as I understand it, of how Paeroa got its name, and how Hiku Taia and Waikino got theirs. Moreover, I have been to Paeroa and have been shown the cave of Urea and the pool of Hotaiki; and also to Hikutaia where I have been shown the rock which they claim is the stiffened tail of Urea the taniwha.
I have mentioned the other meanings which some folk attach to the names, and you can take your choice. All I can say is that I would take an exceedingly poor view of anyone who would prefer a ‘long ridge’ to a ‘taniwha's perch’ or the mere ‘turning of the tide’ to the ‘death throes of a ngarara.’