Once long ago, before the time of Kupe, when Te Ika-a-Māui was just fished from the depths of the ocean, there lived two taniwha, Ngake and Whātaitai.
In those times, Wellington Harbour, Te Whanganui-a-Tara, was a lake cut off from the sea, and abundant in fresh water fish and native bird life. Ngake and Whātaitai lived here in the lake at the head of the fish of Māui (Te Ika-a-Māui).
Ngake and Whātaitai had a great life in their special lake, with all the time in the world to do as they pleased. Ngake was a taniwha with lots of energy. He liked to race around the shores, chasing fish and eels and leaping after birds that came too close. Whātaitai was the opposite, he preferred to laze on the lake’s shores, sunbathing and dreaming taniwha dreams.
When Ngake and Whātaitai were close to the south side of the lake, where the cliffs came down to the waters edge, they could hear the crashing waves of the ocean falling on the shores nearby so when sea birds flew overhead, Ngake and Whātaitai often yelled to them, “Tell us, sea birds, what is so special about the sea?”
And the birds would always reply, “The sea is deep, it’s vast, it’s wide, it’s where many different fishes hide. The sea is the home of Tangaroa, of Hinemoana and many others.”
Whātaitai and Ngake could only imagine what secrets the sea held. Whātaitai would loll on his back in the middle of the lake dreaming, imitating the sea noises in his throat. Ngake would swish his tail furiously, making huge waves that crashed against the lake’s shore.
As the years went by the two taniwha grew bigger, and the boundaries of their lake seemed to grow smaller.
Ngake was adamant he had outgrown his home and soon convinced Whātaitai that they both needed to break free from the lake that imprisoned them.
One summer morning when Whātaitai was enjoying the morning sunshine at the north end of the lake, Ngake began circling around at high speeds yelling, “Today is the day that I will break free of this lake and swim in the endless sea!”
Whātaitai began to be excited at Ngake’s suggestion.
Ngake crossed to the north side of the lake and coiled his tail into a huge spring shape. He focused his sights on the cliffs to the south and suddenly let his tail go. With a mighty roar Ngake was thrust across the lake up over the shore and smashed into the cliff face.
Ngake hit the cliffs with such force that he shattered them into huge hunks of rock and earth, effectively creating a pathway through to Te Moana o Raukawa (Cook Strait). Ngake, cut and bruised, slipped into the sea, finally free to explore as he had dreamed.
Whātaitai was shocked at the devastation that Ngake had caused, but also glad that his brother had safely made it to the other side. Whātaitai knew he would have to follow.
Whātaitai retreated from the north side of the lake to wind his tail into a spring as he had seen his brother do. He said a prayer to the taniwha gods, then let his tail go. But Whātaitai hadn’t been very active in the past, and he wasn’t as strong or as fit as Ngake, so his take-off was much slower than his brother’s.
As Whātaitai entered the gap forged by Ngake he didn’t realise the tide was out. His stomach dragged on the ground, eventually slowing him to a stop. Whātaitai was stranded, stuck between the sea and the lake, desperately lashing his tail and trying to move, but to no avail.
Whātaitai could do nothing but lie there hoping that the incoming tide would lift him high enough to carry him across to the other side. But when the tide finally came in, it only helped to dampen his scaly skin and provide fish to sustain his hunger. Whātaitai was stuck without a hope of ever moving.
As the years passed Whātaitai became accustomed to his life stranded between the lake and the open sea. The tides would come and go providing him with food and keeping his skin healthy and moist. Whātaitai made many friends with birds and sea creatures, and these companions helped him deal with his fate.
One morning there was a dreadful shudder beneath the ocean floor. A huge earthquake erupted. Whātaitai was lifted out of the shallow water and high above sea level. Whātaitai could do nothing, he was stranded high above the water and he knew his life would end. Whātaitai bade farewell to his many bird friends and animals and soon after gasped his final breath.
As he died, Whātaitai’s spirit transformed into a bird, Te Keo, and flew to the closest mountain, Matairangi (Mount Victoria). Te Keo looked down on the huge taniwha body that stretched across the raised sea bed and cried. She cried for the great friendships Whātaitai had made, shown by the huge numbers of birds and sea life that had gathered around, and for the freedom of the sea which Whātaitai would never experience. When Te Keo had completed her lament, she bade farewell to Whātaitai, then set off to the taniwha spirit world.
Over the years Whātaitai’s body turned to stone, earth and rock and is known to this day as Haitaitai. Matairangi still looks down on the body of Whātaitai and the very top of Matairangi is still known as Tangi te Keo.
When Ngake let the spring in his tail loose he used so much force that he created a great gash in the earth and a river was formed. This river is now called Teawakairangi or the Hutt River.
The remnants of rock smashed aside when Ngake exited into the sea are visible today and Te Aroaro o Kupe (Steeple Rock) and Te Tangihanga o Kupe (Barrett’s Reef) have long been known as dangerous rock formations to mariners entering the Wellington harbour.
Although Ngake was never seen again it is still believed that he resides in the turbulent waters of the Te Moana o Raukawa (Cook Strait). When the sea is calm Ngake is off exploring Te Moana Nui a Kiwa (the Pacific Ocean). When the sea is turbulent and rough, Ngake is at home chasing sea life to satisfy his taniwha appetite.
And this is the story of Ngake and Whātaitai, the taniwha of the Wellington harbour.