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Te Whanganui a Tara is the Māori name for Wellington Harbour. The term is also sometimes used to refer to the city of Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, which lies on the shores of the harbour. Te Whanganui a Tara translates as the great harbour of Tara, which refers to chief Tara who Māori tradition says visited the area in the 12th century and decided to stay.
Although people are said to have lived there since Kupe visited in the 10th century, it is Tara who is remembered, both in the name of the city and the name of the first iwi (tribe) to settle there permanently, Ngai Tara.
Another name for the region is Te Upoko o te Ika a Maui which means The head of Maui’s fish. According to Māori legend, a giant fish was hooked and pulled to the surface by Polynesian navigator Maui and the fish turned into land which became the North Island. The older name is still used in some circumstances for the city or the region, such as in the official Māori name of Victoria University of Wellington.
Another Māori name for Wellington is Pōneke, possibly a phonetic Māori transliteration of "Port Nicholson". This has been used by the City Council which claims the name is much older, coming from pō + neke meaning night movement.
Legend of Whanganui-a-Tara
According to legend, the harbour of Te Whanganui-a-Tara was created by two taniwha (sea monsters), Whataitai (or Hataitai) and Ngake. Whataitai lived in the north of the lake where the harbour now is, and was gentle. Ngake, who lived further south, was more violent.
Ngake could hear the waters of Raukawa Moana (Cook Strait) pounding to the south, and decided to escape the lake to get to it. He went to the north of the lake to build up his speed for the attempt, then headed off rapidly towards the south.
Ngake crashed into and through the rocks at Seatoun and headed out into the Strait. This was seen by Whataitai, who tried to follow Ngake out of the new entrance. The water was now running out of the lake, however, and Whataitai became stranded in the shallows. He stayed there for many generations before being lifted high onto the land by a great earthquake.
The soul of Whataitai left him in the form of a bird, Te Keo. It flew high above the harbour and wept for the taniwha, whose body was lifted high the hills close to the harbour entrance.
- "The Streets of my city, Wellington New Zealand" by F. L. Irvine-Smith (1948); digital copy on Wellington City Libraries website. Retrieved 2 January 2013.