A portrait of James Cook, map of New Zealand, and Taranki maunga.
Māori named lots of places in Aoteraoa. James Cook renamed them. Now they’re changing back again. (Image: Tina Tiller)

ĀteaJune 11, 2024

From Aoraki to Whanganui: 25 of Aotearoa’s best new (old) placenames

A portrait of James Cook, map of New Zealand, and Taranki maunga.
Māori named lots of places in Aoteraoa. James Cook renamed them. Now they’re changing back again. (Image: Tina Tiller)

With Petone potentially set to become Pito One, here’s a whistle-stop tour of some of our country’s most notable placename changes.

Name changes are in the news: consultation has opened on the plan to change the name of seaside Lower Hutt suburb Petone to the correct spelling of Pito One; Russell could officially return to Kororāreka; and the debate over whether or not New Zealand should be called Aotearoa rages on. Since 2019 more than 2,000 Māori placenames have been made official or changed, largely due to ongoing Treaty settlements, while a number of others have come into common usage, even if the change hasn’t been official. Here are 25 of our favourites.

25. Whanganui (Wanganui)

Silent h? Glottal stop? In Taranaki and Whanganui the sound “wh” becomes a glottal stop with the “h” being dropped. Whakarongo, for example, is pronounced “w’a-ka-ro-ngo”. In 1990 the Whanganui River Māori Trust Board proposed to correct the spelling of the river’s name from Wanganui River to Whanganui River. In 2012 Wanganui and Whanganui were both made official as alternative names for the city near the mouth of Whanganui River. However, many Māori from the area still pronounce it without the “h”, as “W’anganui”.

24. Aoraki (Mount Cook)

Loosely translated to cloud piercer, the name of the mountain was officially changed from Mount Cook to Aoraki/Mount Cook to incorporate its Māori name following the settlement between Ngāi Tahu and the Crown in 1998.

23. Manawa Tāwhi (Three Kings Islands)

A group of 13 uninhabited islands about 55 kilometres northwest of Cape Reinga. In 1643 Dutch navigator Abel Tasman named the islands after the three kings who visited Christ in the manger. Also home to the kaikomako tree (Pennantia baylisiana), once in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s rarest tree.

22. Te Kamo (Kamo)

The proposal to add “Te” to the name of the Whangārei township was lodged by Ngāti Kahu-o-Torongare and several hapū to better honour the prominent rangatira in the area called Te Kamo. There’s also a darker story about the name origin, featuring a local chief who discovered his partner was being unfaithful.

21. Te Awa o Mokotūāraro (Clive River)

This Hawke’s Bay river was officially named after Clive of India in 1975. The restoration of the full original name Ngaruroro Moko-tū-ā-raro-ki-Rangatira, a name given by the tohunga of te waka Tākitimu, Ruawharo, was proposed in 2022. The river was officially renamed Te Awa o Mokotūāraro in June 2023.

20. Te Ika-a-Māui (North Island)

The fish of Māui is a far more catchy name than the uninspiring “North Island”. This name refers to the widely popular kōrero of Māui fishing up the North Island using his grandmother’s jawbone. In 2013, Maurice Williamson, then minister of land information, announced his decision that the unofficial English names, North Island and South Island, would be made official alternative names along with Te Ika-a-Māui and Te Waipounamu.

19. Te Wai Pounamu/Te Waipounamu (South Island)

Also commonly referred to as Te Waka a Māui (in relation to the above story). Te Wai Pounamu literally translates to the greenstone waters. Pretty self-explanatory, right?

18. Tūranganui-a-Kiwa (Poverty Bay/Gisborne)

Kiwa was an early ancestor who is said to have arrived on the Horouta waka and named the area Tūranganui-a-Kiwa – the great standing or waiting place of Kiwa. Some say he was waiting for the remaining people from the Horouta waka who were coming overland. Others say that he stood waiting for a long time for a son who was lost at sea. Unable to secure the supplies of freshwater and wood needed after the long sea voyage from Tahiti, Captain James Cook named the area Poverty Bay in 1769, as “it afforded us no one thing we wanted”.

17. Taranaki maunga/mounga (Mount Egmont)

Up until 1986, Mount Taranaki was officially recognised by the National Geographic Board as Mount Egmont. The name was another bestowed by James Cook – who sailed past the maunga, or mounga, in the Taranaki dialect, in 1770 and named it after a supporter, John Perceval the Earl of Egmont.

Taranaki maunga (Image design: Tina Tiller)

16. Aotea (Great Barrier Island)

Aptly called Great Barrier by – wait for it – James Cook for the shelter and protection it provides to the Hauraki Gulf. The name Aotea, meaning white cloud, was controversially made an official name in 2023. The name change further fuelled overlapping claims of mana whenua among iwi.

15. Maungawhau (Mount Eden)

At 196m tall, Maungawhau is the highest volcano in Tāmaki Makaurau. Maungawhau means “mountain of the whau tree”. The name Mount Eden was chosen by Governor William Hobson, to honour George Eden, first Earl of Auckland, who was his superior naval officer.

14. Puketāpapa/Pukewīwī (Mount Roskill)

Pukewīwī means “hill covered in rushes”, while Puketāpapa means “flat-topped hill”. The English name of Roskill is believed to have been given to this Auckland maunga by Alexander Kennedy who named it after the Isle of Skye’s Roskhill. Ownership of the maunga was returned to mana whenua as part of a 2014 Te Tiriti o Waitangi redress and is managed by the Tūpuna Maunga Authority.

13. Te Waonui a Tiriwa (Waitākere Ranges)

The name Waitākere originally came from a rock located in Waitākere Bay near Te Henga on Tāmaki Makaurau’s rugged west coast. The name Te Wao Nui/Waonui a Tiriwa translates to “The Great Forest of Tiriwa”. This refers to all of the forested areas south from Muriwai and the Kaipara Harbour portage to the Manukau Harbour, while the name Hikurangi refers to the central and western Waitākere Ranges, south of the Waitākere River. Tiriwa was the chief of the Tūrehu tribe, a race believed to have come from out of the earth, and who were there to meet the crew of the waka Tainui when it came to the beach now called Cornwallis.

12. Pūkio Stream (Ni***r Stream)

A river in North Canterbury. Anything would probably be better than the former name, which is rumoured to have been around since the late 1800s. The name was changed in 2016 to Pūkio Stream, which refers to a native grass (Carex secta) found in the area.

11. Tawhai Hill (Ni***rhead)

Changed at the same time as the above, for similar reasons. The hill is above Lake Sumner, and was renamed Tawhai Hill after a species of native beech tree found in Te Waka a Māui.

10. Kānuka Hills (Ni***r Hill)

As above. Hills that lie to the east of Arthur’s Pass. They were renamed Kānuka Hills after a species of native tea tree that grows in the area.

9. Te Rangi-i-Tongia-a-Tamatekapua (Rangitoto)

The full name of Rangitoto relates to a fight that took place on the island between Tama-te-kapua, captain of Te Arawa waka, and Hoturoa, captain of the Tainui waka. It refers to Tama-te-kapua’s nose bleeding but also a blood red sky from when the island volcano in the Hauraki Gulf last erupted, roughly 600-700 years ago.

8. Rarotonga (Mount Smart)

Rarotonga was once a pā site. A century of quarrying removed almost all the 87m scoria cone, along with extensive terracing excavated by the local iwi. The former quarry now houses Go Media Stadium, the home of the country’s beloved NRL team the Warriors.

Go Media Stadium.
Go Media stadium sits where Rarotonga maunga once was (Photo: Simeon Patience/ Vodafone NZ)

7. Te Pane-o-Mataoho (Māngere Mountain)

Standing tall in Māngere, Te Pane-o-Mataoho literally means “the face of Mataoho”. This refers to the maunga representing the face of Mataoho, an atua who is the guardian of secrets hidden in the earth.

6. Matiu-Somes Island (Somes Island)

The island was given its Māori name by Kupe 1,000 years ago, allegedly named for one of his daughters or a niece. After European settlement, the island’s name was changed in honour of the deputy governor of the New Zealand Company, Joseph Somes. In 1997, in recognition of its bicultural heritage, the Geographic Board gave the island its current name of Matiu-Somes Island.

5. Te Motu-tapu-a-Tinirau (Mokoia Island)

Located in the centre of Te Rotorua-nui-a Kahumatamomoe, otherwise known as Lake Rotorua, Mokoia Island’s original name was Te Motu-tapu-a-Tinirau, or “The sacred island of Tinirau”. This name was given by Ihenga, the famed tangata taunaha whenua, or discoverer and claimer of land. While most agree on the island’s original name, the origins of its more modern name, Mokoia Island, are widely debated.

4. Te Pātaka-o-Rākaihautū (Banks Peninsula)

Jutting out prominently just south of Christchurch, this definitive feature of the South Island map was named after Sir Joseph Banks, the British naturalist who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage of the Pacific in 1769-70. Cook first called it Banks Island as it wasn’t until 1780 that Captain Chase of the Pegasus proved it was a peninsula. Today, Banks Peninsula is more commonly known as Horomaka, referring to all of the peninsula area. Te Pātaka-o-Rākaihautū relates to the exploits of the legendary explorer Rākaihautū. This name means the storehouse of Rākaihautū.

3. Maungauika and Takarunga (North Head and Mount Victoria in Devonport)

The name Maungauika, meaning the “Mountain of Uika”, relates back to ancestors who occupied it about 800 years ago. The peninsula we now know as Devonport on the North Shore was one of the earliest parts of Tāmaki Makaurau to be settled by Māori.

2. Ōwairaka (Mount Albert)

When early Māori occupation occurred, the mountain was known as Te Puke o Ruarangi, referring to the occupation by Ruarangi. It has also been known as Te Ahi-kā-a-Rakataura, or “the long-burning fire of Rakataura”. Ōwairaka, meaning “place of Wairaka” was the name when European settlers arrived in the 1800s. European settlers later renamed Ōwairaka to Mount Albert, after Queen Victoria’s new husband/cousin Francis Albert Augustus Charles Emmanuel.

1. Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (Pacific Ocean)

For many Polynesians, the name used for the Pacific Ocean has always been Te Moana Nui a Kiwa, or “the great ocean of Kiwa”. Kiwa is said to be the divine kaitiaki of the ocean and its inhabitants, according to some Polynesian kōrero. Also the name for the pools in Māngere, which are not quite as vast.

Keep going!