Where Did It All Start?
Captain Cook sailed along the coast in November 1769, naming Cape Runaway, White Island (Whakaari) and Mt Edgecumbe. Although missionaries from Tauranga tried to reach Opotiki in 1828, it was not until 1839 that the first white settlers arrived.
But life in the region goes back centuries before that voyage by Captain Cook. Stories still told today by the tangata whenua (people of the land) tell of first inhabitants more than 1000 years ago.
This was Tiwakawaka, an explorer like his grandfather Maui. He and his family lived in Whakatāne (then named Kakahoroa) before the arrival of the founder of many local tribes, Toi.
It was 200 years later that the historical waka Mataatua arrived through the Whakatane Heads.
The Wairaka Statue on the Rock in the Harbour Entrance
The Matatua Canoe, one of the main canoes comprising the Great Fleet made landfall at Whakatāne, then known as Kakahoroa, six centuries ago, circa A.D.1350. The commander of the vessel was Toroa and also on board were certain members of his family, namely his brother ‘Taneatua’, priest or Tohunga, another brother, Puhi, a sister Muriwai, and the commander's daughter Wairaka. Before setting out on their long voyage to Aotearoa they were given the "landmarks" for Kakahoroa by their father Irakewa, who is presumed to have visited the place at some earlier date. These landmarks were; a prominent rock in the river estuary which he called Irakewa after himself, a cave nearby and a waterfall located a short distance away.
Before entering the river mouth, the ocean swell made Toroa's daughter, Wairaka, seasick (Kohi in Maori) and hence the point on the east side of the river was named Kohi. The canoe paddled into the river and was beached. The crew scattered to view the land while Wairaka and the other women remained near the canoe. As the tide came in, the canoe began to float, where-upon Wairaka began to haul the canoe higher up on the beach, saying, "Kia Whakatāne au i ahau"; (I must acquit myself like a man) and hence the river and settlement was so aptly named "Whakatāne".
The early white settlers were whalers and farmers, with the ports of Whakatāne and Opotiki becoming major shipping centres and therefore the region was important to the overall economy of the country.
White Island - A Maori Legend
There are several legends about White Island. The most relevant is perhaps the one about Ngatoro who, after arriving in New Zealand, decided to go exploring and in due course found himself on Mount Tongariro where he suffered terribly with the cold. He solved this problem by asking his ancestors in far away, Hawaiiki, to send him fire. Ngatoro could do this as he was not an ordinary man, but a descendant of Ra, the sun.
The fire was duly sent and first arrived at Whakaari (White Island) from where it travelled underground, on the way creating all the hot springs and volcanoes on the mainland, including Tongariro where our hero was feeling the cold. A peak on White Island is named Mount Ngatoro after him.
Half a world away the Roman God Vulcan, from whom we get the word volcano, was credited with creating volcanoes. He was also the patron of blacksmiths, who, with the aid of fire, mysteriously fashioned iron for the use of man.
Here we have two people on opposite ends of the world trying to understand and explain nature. In view of their lack of scientific knowledge these legends seem as good an explanation as any.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to Steve Haddock for supply material for this page