The short story

Whai (to follow) tara (the dart) – Whaitara

The name of Whaitara (commonly spelled as Waitara) is said to come from the story of Whare-matangi, the estranged son of local ariki (chief) Ngārue, and his quest to be reunited with his father. Whare-matangi was given a dart (tara) imbued with magic that his mother foretold would lead him to his father. His first four throws landed elsewhere but on the fifth throw, the tara struck Ngārue’s house at the mouth of a river, thereafter known as Te Whai-tara-nui-a-Ngārue (follow the dart of Ngārue).

The longer story

The present township of Whaitara was founded in the late 1860s. But for hundreds of years before the river mouth and surrounding fertile flats were one of the most populated areas in northern Taranaki. The whole area was overlooked by the ramparts of the ancient cliff-top pā , Manukōrihi, where local Māori lived. Here they fished and gathered kaimoana (seafood) from the sea, fished in the rivers and swamps, grew crops and hunted the abundant birds in the surrounding forests.

Within the pā were whare (houses), pātaka (storehouses) and wharepuni (meeting houses). Many were decorated with the magnificent woodcarvings of Taranaki. These carvings were created to illustrate the histories and whakapapa of the local people and their tūpuna (ancestors).

Carved kōrero

Following this visual storytelling tradition, the origins of the name Whaitara, are now depicted on the carved entrance gates of Ōwae Whai Tara marae – part of the larger Manukōrihi pā.

Around 1970 John Bevan Ford (Ngāti Raukawa ki Kāpiti, Ngāti Wehiwehi) was tasked with creating carvings for the entrance gateway of the marae. This entranceway was designed by the accomplished local artist Darcy Nicholas. A well-respected artist and tohunga whakairo (master carver) John (1930-2005) spent a number of years in the 1960s as an arts adviser for the Taranaki Education Board before moving to Hamilton in 1966.

The gateway carvings were crafted of tōtara and took two years to complete. They were unveiled by Stratford Member of Parliament David Thomson on 16 December 1972 after karakia by Mohi Wharepouri.

Long voyages

The story begins with the daring oceanic voyages of peoples from their Pacific homeland and their arrival in Aotearoa. These voyages are represented by the horizontal panels of figures holding paddles.

Many years after their arrival the ariki, Ngārue, who lived near the mouth of the river, journeyed north to Kāwhia – the home of the Tainui people. There he married a woman, Uru te Kakara and settled down to domestic life. The carving on the extreme left depicts that marriage. Ngārue is the upper figure; Uru te Kakara the lower.

Some of the local people began a smear campaign against Ngārue saying that as he had no land in Kāwhia he was reduced to working his wife’s land and was therefore a “nobody.” Ngārue was hurt deeply by these insults, he left Kāwhia and returned to Taranaki where he had been living previously.

Several months later Uru te Kakara had a son who she named Whare-matangi. He grew up in Kāwhia where, as a young boy, he excelled in games such as toetoe (dart-throwing). Taunted by the other boys because he had no father, Whare-matangi questioned his mother and was told that Ngārue lived under the shadow of the distant Mounga Taranaki.

Several years later Whare-matangi was given a tara or feathery toetoe dart imbued with magical powers by his mother. She told him that five casts of the dart would lead him to his father.

The panel on the left shows Uru te Kakara handing the enchanted dart to Whare-matangi. The first four casts are represented by darts in the maihi carvings across the entrance and the patterns between them are the lands over which the dart travelled. The central figure at the apex is Whare-matangi himself.

Always a dutiful son, Whare Matangi threw the dart as he was told and he followed it five times. The first throw landed at Tirua Point, the second at Mōkau, then Parininihi (White Cliffs) and the fourth at Te Taniwha (Motunui). On the fifth cast the enchanted dart struck the bargeboard of a house on the riverbank at Whaitara under which an old man was seated. Whare-matangi had found his father, Ngārue.

The carving on the right of the gate depicts Whare-matangi approaching Ngārue as the dart falls alongside him. This is the fifth cast.

In later years Whare Matangi married Awe Pohewa and many people in the area claim descent from these tūpuna. The far right panel represents the union of Whare-matangi and Awe Pohewa.

Thus it is that the long-ago journey of Whare Matangi to find his father that lives on in the name of the town: whai (to follow) tara (the dart) - Whaitara.

Related Information


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: John Bevan Ford


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