The naming process is very important to us – it is a way we claim ownership and recognise the specialness of places and things we hold dear. When we name an object we claim proprietorial rights over it. As social animals, we often celebrate our naming rituals. We dedicate ships, parks and buildings in special ceremonies. We christen our children in conjunction with our community.
All names have lasting meaning and place names often celebrate people and places from long ago that link us to a past often beyond accurate remembering. When European settlers came to Wairarapa they found a land that was both peopled and named. Throughout the area, events of long ago and people of importance were recalled in place names.
One of the greatest of all New Zealand adventurers, Kupe, is said to have named a number of places in Wairarapa, possibly including Wairarapa itself. Some sources say that Kupe was sailing through Palliser Bay when, glancing over his shoulder, he saw Lake Wairarapa. The Maori word “rarapa” has a number of meanings, one of which is ‘sideways’. Kupe was said to have told his daughter that the lake should be called “Wai-rarapa” The more usual explanation of the origin of the name Wairarapa is linked to a later explorer, Haunui-a nanaia.
There are a number of versions of this story from different sources. In one version this legendary explorer was pursuing his wife, Hine-i-Rakahanga, who had run away down the West Coast of the North Island with two men. He chased after them, naming many rivers and localities as he went. The Rimutaka Range is said to have been named Remutaka when Haunui rested near the summit, remutaka meaning to sit down. From his vantage point he looked out over Wairarapa, and his eyes glistened when he saw the fertile lands – hence Wairarapa, glistening waters. Haunui came down from the hills and continued his journey up the main valley, naming the rivers as he went: – Tauwharenikau after a house covered with nikau leaves; Waiohine as he cried for his wife whom he had turned to stone; and Wai-a-wanga, waters of hesitation, now called Waingawa. Part of the area that eventually became Masterton also had a name – Whakaoriori. This euphonious name was given as the bird song in the area was said to be so melodious and calming, that mothers did not need to sing any lullabies (oriori) to their children.