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Ngāti Apa trace their earliest connection to Lake Rotoiti (small waters) from their ancestor Kupe. According to Ngāti Apa tradition, Rotoiti and Rotoroa are the eye-sockets of Te Wheke-a-Muturangi, which Kupe chased across the Pacific, eventually slaying it at the entrance to Kura Te Au (Tory Channel) and plucking out its eyes.

Together, Rotoiti and Rotoroa are the source of five important waterways — the Kawatiri, Motueka, Motupiko, Waiau-toa and Awatere rivers — and served as the central terminus of a series of well-known and well-used tracks (“the footprints of the tīpuna”) linking Kurahaupō communities in the Wairau, Waiau-toa (Clarence River), Kaituna, Whakatū, Te Tai o Aorere (Tasman Bay), Mohua (Golden Bay) and the Kawatiri district.


A Ngāti Apa pepeha relating to the lakes illustrates the iwi’s connection with the area and Kehu:

Ko Kehu te maunga

Ko Kawatiri te awa

Ko Rotoroa me Rotoiti ngā roto

Ko Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō te iwi

Ko Kehu te tangata


The lakes area was a rich mahinga kai, including birds (kiwi, South Island kōkako, piopio, pīwauwau (bush wren) and whio (blue duck), kiore, tuna (eels), inanga, fern root and the root of the tī kōuka (cabbage tree), and berries of the miro, tawa, kahikatea and tōtara.

But it is the shrub neinei that is of particular significance. Only found in the lakes area, neinei was — and still is — highly valued by Ngāti Apa as a material to make korowai.

Pahi found in this area are another reflection of the unique identity of Ngāti Apa ki te Rā Tō. Pahi, or huts, constructed by Ngāti Apa were of a distinctive design, and served as both seasonal and more permanent shelter.