Our Favourite Māori Legends From The Forest

by Helen Cordery

Once upon a time, Aotearoa New Zealand was a wild, magical place. Trees like the kauri soared high to touch wisps of cloud, while birds, such as the adzebill, Haast’s eagle and moa, grew gigantic. The tangata whenua of the land had many tales of how these creatures and plants came to be. Some dismiss these stories as myth or Māori legend, but what if … ?

The Story of Kiwi


Once upon a time, the leaves of the great tree atua, Tāne Mahuta, were creating a big mess upon the ground. So he went to the tui to ask for its help, but the tui did not like the dark and besides, she was nesting. Tāne Mahuta became angry and threw two white pebbles at the tui, leaving white marks upon its neck.

So Tāne Mahuta went to the beautiful tieke (saddleback). “Will you help me?” he asked, but the tieke didn’t like that the ground was cold. Again Tāne Mahuta became annoyed so he burnt the tieke’s back, leaving behind two fiery red patches.

This left the kiwi. It was no secret really that Tāne Mahuta had a soft spot for kiwi and he was sure the bird would help. “Will you help me, kiwi?” he asked and the bird replied, “of course”.  Tāne Mahuta was so touched by kiwi’s generosity that he offered to give it anything.

“I’d dearly love to have a longer beak,” said kiwi, “that way I’d be able to hunt bugs – my favourite food – more easily”.

So Tāne Mahuta granted this wish, making his beak long and pointy, perfect for sniffing out insects in the damp, dark ground, and from then on kiwi became well-known as Tāne Mahuta’s favourite bird.

The Story of Tuatara

Deep in what is now known as the Wairarapa, there was a peaceful community known as the village of Kōurarau. One day a woman arrived and sought an audience with the chief.

“My chief, a great taniwha – a beast with scaly skin and evil yellow eyes – awoke from its slumber in the cave. He grew monstrous in size and broke free of the walls of its den, causing a great explosion we felt all the way in my village. As he made his way to my home, his great footsteps caused trees and the walls of ngā whare to fall”.

“When he arrived, he ate everything he could, growing larger and larger as he did so. And then he left and I fear he may be heading this way”.

The chief thought for a moment then promised to send his greatest warriors after the taniwha they called ngānara huarau.

As they searched, they came across a colossal footprint in the ground which was so large that it dwarfed even the largest warrior.

They then came across the taniwha’s new lair in the Kōurarau Valley and from there hatched a plan. They used a kurī, their bravest dog, to stand near the entrance of the cave to lure out the taniwha. As soon as the beast smelt the dog, he lunged out but the dog was too fast, running for all its worth towards the carefully hidden warriors.

The taniwha falls into the warriors’ trap and, without a moment to spare, they were upon him, piercing his hide with their spears. The fiercest warrior, Tūpurupuru, then rushed forwards and struck it with a fatal blow.

The taniwha was defeated.

Meanwhile, back in the cave, the tiny scales that had fallen as the taniwha had broken free of its tiny former home, flickered to life and the first tuatara were born.

The Kiwi & Tuatara Today

The tuatara, although once a foe of Tāne  (for more read this), is now one of the forest’s beloved creatures, while the kiwi continues to captivate all who meet it.

Despite their magical beginnings, these creatures are today in need of our protection. The kiwi wavers between recovering and nationally critical, a frequent victim of introduced predators like the dog, cat, and stoat (and other mustelids). 

The tuatara, on the other hand, is frequently preyed upon by introduced rats, while it competes with mice for food.

A lot of the work we do at Pūkaha, besides breeding birds for release across Aotearoa, is keeping our 942-hectare forest a safe, secure place for all of our wild residents. We have a couple of options for you to get involved with the work we do, such as making a donation (through Give A Little here) or becoming a member. Questions? Give us a call or email [email protected] for more information!