Maori names for the Sounds area

Marlborough’s rivers, mountains, bays change to Maori names


The pronunication of the Opawa River, in Blenheim, remains the same but its spelling has changed to Opaoa.

The way we say them might not change, but the way we spell them will.

The names of nearly 30 natural geographical features in Marlborough have been changed to their Maori name.

But do not expect the new spellings to appear on signs or maps any time soon.

As part of the Treaty of Waitangi Settlement, iwi in Marlborough sought cultural redress to areas of special significance.

Blenheim historian John Orchard said natural features including mountains, peaks, valleys, rivers and lakes had their names changed under the treaty settlement. Some would have dual names, using both European and Maori.

“Maori attitude is the last tribe to win a territory have the first right to name a place. The British, German and French behaved the same way when they won a battle.”

Name changes were requested in evidence to the Treaty of Waitangi claims settlements.

The pronunciation of the Opawa River, in Blenheim, remained the same but the spelling changed to Opaoa, Orchard said.

Ngati Rarua translated this as ‘smoking river’, which could be described as the mist or fog rising off the river giving the appearance of smoke hanging over the water, according to iwi evidence during the claims settlement.

The river, along with the Wairau River, was an important food resource and an integral part of day-to-day life for Ngati Rarua.

Rangitane translated ‘Paoa’ as smoke or ‘smoky river’.

The Opawa River had been misspelled since the name was put on maps, Orchard said.

“The Opawa was a branch of the Wairau River until 1880 when it was chopped off near the speedway in Renwick. It’s a much modified river.

“One of the oldest maps I used frequently was drawn prior to the massive November 1848 earthquake that lowered the mouth of the Wairau River back to where Blenheim is today and made it one metre deeper. It says Opawa River.”

Arapawa Island was a spelling error and would become known as Arapaoa, Orchard said.

In their submissions, Te Atiawa and Ngati Tama noted this island was  used by Kupe, a fisherman who dispatched the octopus whekenui with a massive Arapaoa [downwards blow] to its head.

Ngati Kuia tribunal evidence noted that Ara meant ‘to rise’ and ‘paoa’ was to strike with a weapon.

Gibsons Creek was now Ruakanakana Creek. It was the place where weirs were dug to trap lamprey eels [kanakana] on their annual migration – hence Rua Kanakana or pit of the lampreys, according to treaty evidence.

Some geographic features received a dual name.

Mount Robertson between Blenheim and Picton would also be known as Tokomaru.

In Ngati Toa history, Tokomaru was a site of cultural significance. Among Ngati Rarua it was a sacred mountain.

Tokomaru had already been reflected in the name of a Picton netball team.

Orchard had taught the stories behind the Maori names of bays, rivers, lakes and mountains to school children for the past three years.

Changing the names to their Maori origins was an excellent idea, he said.

“It is nothing different to what we have had in the last 25 years with Mount Cook/Aoraki and Mount Egmont/Mount Taranaki.

“Maori never had a written language until Europeans came along. The spelling of a particular word would have been first spelled by a missionary who was teaching Maori English, who tried to put their specific language into words. Obviously there were variations in spellings. Now we are seeing more standardised spellings.”

The biggest debate in New Zealand was “Wanganui” versus Whanganui, Orchard said.

Some of the spellings of Maori words dated back to Captain Cook’s time, he said.

“Cook and [Joseph] Banks were busily writing down Maori names as best they could using the English language. Some of the spelling corrections have been quite interesting.”

Orchard would like the new spellings referred to when signs were replaced and put on new tourist maps at the i-Site

He would like the Taylor River through Blenheim to have the dual name the Omaka River.

“The Taylor River was named after Joseph Taylor, Blenheim’s first blacksmith. Taylor’s Maori name was Omaka and the river flowed across the doorstep of the Omaka airfield.”

Name changes

Marlborough Sounds

  • Te Aumiti/French Pass
  • Tory Channel/Kura Te Au
  • Meretor/Ship Cove
  • Arapaoa Island/Arapawa Island
  • Greville Harbour/Wharariki
  • Matapara/Pickersgill Island
  • Te Hoiere/Pelorus Sound
  • Totaranui/Queen Charlotte Sound


  • Waikarapi Lagoon/Vernon Lagoon
  • Hikurangi/ Goulter Hill
  • Te Pokohiwi/Boulder Bank
  • Ohinemahuta River/Onamalutu River
  • Opaoa River/Opawa River
  • Oraumoa/Fighting Bay
  • Pukatea/Whites Bay
  • Ruakanakana Creek/Gibsons Creek
  • Takapotaka/Attempt Hill
  • Te Anamahanga/Port Gore
  • Te Hoiere/Pelorus River 
  • Te Koko-o-Kupe/Cloudy Bay
  • Te Tara-o-Te-Marama/Mount Freeth
  • Te Whanganui/Port Underwood
  • Tokomaru/Mount Robertson
  • Waikutakuta/Robin Hood Bay

 – The Marlborough Express 27 December 2015