The Waitakeres - Early History

From the perspective of our warm and comfortable lives today it is difficult to imagine how it was for those early inhabitants of New Zealand. Arriving from the warmth of Hawaiiki they faced the challenge of a cooler climate where, apart from the dogs they had brought with them, there were no animals to provide food or skins for clothing and where warm shelter was essential to survive the cold and wet winters.

There are many stories relating to early settlement of the Waitakeres. Over a period of around a thousand years successive groups have inhabited the area, which includes all of the ranges from Muriwai south to Manukau Harbour. Originally it was known as ‘The Great Forest of Tiriwa’ after a famous chieftain of the first mythical inhabitants, the Turehu (‘the people who grew from the earth’) who were fair skinned and possessed super-human qualities. Legend ascribes Tiriwa’s powers to the formation of the spectacular land forms evident in the Waitakeres today.
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A Maori carving


By the thirteenth century groups from other tribes and from the Pacific had migrated to the the area, the earlier groups being the Ngaoho from the North who took control in the fourteenth century, and the Ngariki from the South.

In the mid fourteenth century the famed ancestral canoe Tainui was carried from the Waitemata to the Manukau Harbour where some of its crew settled while others moved further south. By the 1600’s they had been conquered by a tribe from Taranaki in the south and genealogical ties were established through intermarriage and ancestral links. Now known as the Kawerau, this tribe by 1650 held all the land from south Kaipara to Manakau Heads, including the Waitakere Ranges.

Food, shelter and practical survival

The greatest food basket was the sea and coastline for shellfish and fish, especially shark which could be dried in the sun for consumption during the winter when food was in short supply, but also seaweed and the occasional whale or seal washed up on the beaches. From the streams came fresh water eels, mullet and little crayfish, and on the coastline seabirds such as gulls and their eggs, gannets and mutton birds, while from the forest came the fat wood pigeon, the tui whose song delights, and the kiwi prized for its large egg as well as its flesh. Kumara and gourds flourished in the warm sandy soils in the coastal valleys, while a coastal strip, kept clear by burning to keep an unimpeded view along the coast for security reasons, was also useful for growing bracken fern of which the pounded root was an important carbohydrate source. Pollen from the bull rushes that grew in swamps was used to make a kind of bread, while the heart of the swamp-loving cabbage tree was sweet and nutritious. Insects such as the huhu bug, honey from wild bees and from the flowers of the flax plant, berries from the hinau tree and the karaka, these all added variety. Food was cooked in covered pits heated by stones, or in the open fire. Food was stored in either pits dug in the ground or elevated buildings. And of course there was also a fermented drink!
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Maori Statue at Cornwallis Beach

Their houses were low and made with dried reeds for the walls and roof, with a fireplace inside. At the end wall there was doorway and one window to let the smoke out. The doorway was so low that people had to crawl through it. Sometimes there was a carved board over the doorway and a porch in front of the house. Some were dug a little way into the ground as a form of insulation. Cooking was done outside in a shed or shelter. The Maori were ingenious in their use of whatever was to hand. They used wide bull kelp for carrying loads, while the gourds, dried and scraped out, were useful for holding liquids as there was no knowledge of pottery to make containers.

Leaves of the flax and nikau palm along with various grasses was used for weaving kits, mats, nets and crayfish pots, while the aerial roots of the pohutukawa tree provided bindings and lashings. The flax fibre, scrapped with shells then beaten and twisted into thread, could be dipped in whale oil for tapers, or woven into belts and capes laced with the feathers for warmth. Fish hooks, tools for carving, weapons, combs and physical adornments were fashioned from bone, shell, wood and stone, especially the prized greenstone brought from afar. The forest yielded totara trunks for the dugout canoes, while double rows of tree fern trunks, plugged with clay, made well insulated walls for the houses which were thatched with toitoi and nikau leaves. Kauri gum was useful for lighting fires- and as chewing gum.

Intertribal Conflict

As food was the main concern of pre-European Maori, protecting the areas rich in food was nearly always the cause of warfare. The Kawerau tribe were challenged by the Ngati Whatua from north Kaipara and for nearly a century violent warfare raged between the two tribes. The name we now know as Waitakere originates from a particularly bloody massacre when Takere Kawerau, a tribal leader was beheaded and his head displayed on a stake by the beach at the mouth of the Waitakere River. The bay where this took place became known as Wai (water) Takerai but later was applied to the wider area we now know as Waitakere.
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Whatipu Beach - gateway to the Manakau Harbour

In time these warring tribes intermingled, identified as Ngati Kawerau, and settled at Te Henga (Bethells Beach) and at Karekare where forest and sea food resources were plentiful and the warm sandy soil provided ideal growing conditions for gourds and kumara. Here they lived in peace for around two hundred years, gradually coming into first contact with European culture through whaling ships which introduced them to the pig and potato as new food sources.

In 1825 disaster struck in the form of an attack from the north by the Ngapuhi who, armed with muskets obtained from Hongi Hika, slaughtered most of the Kawerau, leaving several hundred dead scattered on the slopes at Karekare and taking the younger women and children captive. The few who escaped fled along the coast to hide in caves, quickly buried their dead where they lay and moved south where they lived in exile for ten years.

European settlement

Peace was made in 1835 and those who had survived returned to Te Henga, their numbers further reduced by small-pox and influenza, epidemics which had been brought by European settlers. The battle site at Karekare became tapu and was never occupied again.

In the 1840’s timber merchants began milling in the Waitakere Ranges and gradually the Crown, under pressure from the settlers for land, purchased most of the Waitakere Ranges. By 1854 the Kawerau numbered less than 100 and retained only about 3,000 acres at Te Henga, Piha and the coastal area towards Muriwai, where they remained in occupation of that land throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s, enjoying the material benefits brought by European settlement.

However, over the last twenty years of the century, following the arrival of the railway, more land was sold, increased milling led to the destruction of the Kauri forest and the Kawerau people suffered disillusionment, cultural isolation and a decline in population. Around fifty remained at Te Henga, maintaining their gardens and harvesting food from the sea.

Today Te Kawerau a Maki hold title to just four hectares of this vast area but their descendants are guardians of its spiritual essence. Karekare remains as one of their most sacred sites.

References and Acknowlegements:

Mary Woodward “The Bethells of Te Henga”
James Northcote Bade “West Auckland Remembers’ Vol 2
A special acknowledgement to Mary Woodward for her generosity with
information regarding the story of early settlement in the Waitakeres
and to Marlene Milverton for investigating and collating the content for this

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