Taupo – The Real Middle Earth: A Tribute to the Wizard King.

I have always had affinity with Lake Taupo and seen it as a mystical place, being my own birthplace where on January first, the Taupo Tiger as I was summarily named by local newspapers (who dubbed me after fly used for catching trout), was born at local hospital. I would be delivered by my own father as the doctor as cliché as it sounds was off playing golf. The more I have learned of this mighty lake the more my love of it as place full of magic fitting any modern fantasy has grown. More recently my perception of this increased when I heard the story of Taupo Rock Art which somehow alluded me until recently.  The rock carvings are located at Mine Bay on Lake Taupō are over 10 metres high and accessible only by boat or kayak. They were created in the late 1970s on the cliffs of Mine Bay by Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell and John Randall.

Carved in likeness of Ngatoroirangi, a navigator who guided the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes to the Taupo area over a thousand years ago according to Māori legend. The 10-metre-high carving is intended as a symbolic protector of Lake Taupo from volcanic activities underneath. The cliff has become a popular tourist destination with hundreds of boats and yachts visiting the spot yearly. The tourist operators do very well out of this but if you like to give credit respect and karma to the local iwi Ngati Tuwharetoa I am sure a donation at the local museum would not go amiss in addition to the fact that other Taonga (treasures) from the local iwi, Ngati Tuwharetoa, are displayed in the Tuwharetoa Gallery together historical paintings of the lake and mountains and it well be worth the visit.

As mention the best way to  see the rock art is via tourist operator such as the Ernest Kemp a replicate of an old fashion steam. This sounds ideal to me so one fine crisp late winter’s Sunday morning as snow is still upon the Mountains The Taupo Tiger set off to experience my own Indiana Jones adventure on the lake of fire (cue sound track). Along the way, I wander through the riverside markets which take place each weekend and, even in winter, are highly picturesque, with their early blossoms and colourful tents, selling such wares as honey, coffee and remedial ointments. It takes about twenty minutes to explore the market and that leaves me with plenty of time to find and book in for my ride aboard the Kemp, a steamer converted so it can take tourists out on the lake. 

The trip on the Kemp is a contrast to the river rafting, and quite laid back and very cruisey. Most of the tourists are elderly and seem keen to keep to themselves but I strike up a conversation with a young Indian doctor, who turns out to be from London and we spend the trip acting as each other’s photographers. Along the way as we chug along, we pass gin palaces and small boats out for a spot of fishing or just cruising, as our captain points out various features and local legends, mostly to do with volcanoes and the naming of the Lake. These our legends every bit full of drama and action as any Sir Peter Jackson epic. Welcome to the Real Middle Earth complete with wizards demons and battling gods.

The original Maori of the Lake Taupo area, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa of the Rotorua area, came to the region after New Zealand landfall as an initial exploration group. These iwi respectively claim descent from Tia, a chief and brother of one of the Arawa canoe captains. Another Arawa descendant, Ngatoro-i-rangi, was a navigator and high priest (tohunga) who also came to the area of Lake Taupo at this time. Tia arrived on the eastern side of the lake at Halletts Bay and noted a cliff formation resembling his heavy rain cloak (Taupo).  Tia then set up an altar and claimed the place as Taupo-nui-a-tia – ‘the great cloak or shoulder mat of Tia’. This was eventually abbreviated to Taupo.

Ngatoro-i-rangi a rival wizard or Tahonga arrived at the same site and also set up an altar, claiming it was older than Tia’s and therefore challenging him on the ownership of these lands.  Tia eventually conceded to him and advanced to an area at the foot of Mount Titiraupenga, where it is said he settled. The 14-metre high Maori rock carvings at Mine Bay were carved in 1978 in recognition of Ngatoro-i-rangi, who was considered a visionary Maori navigator.  Many variation of this myth exist.

But the common theme is that following the discovery of the mountains and the creation of Lake Taupo, the navigator and priest Ngatoro-i-rangi decided to climb Mount Tongariro and claim the surrounding land for his tribe, Ngati Tuwharetoa. Ngatoro-i-rangi struggled through a snow storm to reach the summit of Mount Tongariro one of the locations used in the Lord of the Rings films.

By the time the Maori version of Gandalf reached the top he was almost frozen. With his strength failing, he prayed (wove a spell) to his sisters back in his homeland of Hawaiki to send him fire. “Kai riro au I te tonga!  Haria mai he ahi moku!” – “I am borne away by the cold south wind! Send fire to warm me!” His words were carried by the south wind to Hawaiki and his priestess sisters heard his prayer.  They sent fire demons or Taniwha (spirite guardian) to him through an underground passage. The fire demons travelled through White Island, Rotorua, Tarawera, Taupo and Horomatangi and, finally, to the Mount Tongariro where he stood. Fire burst forth and Ngatoro-i-rangi was saved.

The real magic hidden in these fairy stories is that the myth are based on complex geological knowledge as the areas through which the fire demons are described travelling are all now areas of volcanic activity. Its simply incredible and humbling when researching these myths to realise how advanced our early ancestors navigational and geological knowledge was even if camouflaged in colourful stories of magic battles and wizard kings. Never the less I take in the myths and enjoy them for what they are as I  fully relaxing and enjoy my cruise until I come to the end of my quest the Rock carvings. The carving may be contemporary but their size and detail is striking and they are full of symbolism which the tourist photos don’t do justice.  I could happily have spent some time checking these out but another tourist operator lines up to get his punters a view and we glide on our way, taking the long, slow boat ride back to port with much to think about as I decipher  (with the help of Saraha Turner Digital representation of Ngatoroirangi www.greatlaketaupo.com) the carving meaning including;

  • 1.The TikiTiki or top knot sits at the top of Ngatoroirangi’s head reprsenting Ngatoroirangi’s ability to communicate to the highest god in Maori culture – lo Matua Kore. 
  • 2.Aho/Mauri begins at the tip of the nose and runs up the centre of the nose, through the forehead, to the bottom of the TikiTiki, representing the connection to the spiritual world.
  • 3.The Matakite spiritual eye representing the sixth sense the Aho/Mauri which starts at the tip of the nose and runs up the centre of the nose, through the forehead to the bottom of the TikiTiki. This represents the connection to the spiritual realm. 
  • 4.The Te Haa the spirit wind depicted on the bridge of Ngatoroirangi’s nose a symbol of discernment and intuition. 
  • 5.The Whatukura the upper lip of Ngatoroirangi’s face which depicts the angel that represents the White Kotuku, the most sacred bird in Maori culture. The White Kotuku carried the three baskets of knowledge from the spiritual realm to earth. 
  • 6.The Matakokiri that runs over Ngatoroirangi’s top and bottom lip. It is symbolic of the waka (canoe) belonging to Puhaorangi, a powerful god from the celestial realm, and ancestor of Ngatoroirangi’s. 
  • 7And finally the Mareikura on Ngatoroirangi’s chin a symbol of the Hokioi (Haast Eagle) The real Middle earth’s own giant eagle who are the messenger between creation and man. In addition to the two angel symbols (including Whatakura) on Ngatoroirangi’s face which designate him as the highest rank of a Tohunga Ahurei – high priest. The accompanying carvings are equally significant and I promise my self to Return to the King another day to learn more about New Zealand own myth’s and the hidden truth they tell of our past.


The entire crusie takes about two hours (10.30am, 12:30pm, 2.00pm, 5:00pm)

Adults $44 pp Seniors $40 Children $15 (5-16y) Family Pass 2 Adults & up to 2 children $99. Children under five free.

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