Walking through the great outdoors, in places that have changed little in the last thousand years the rich Māori history of the New Zealand outdoors is unmistakable. Many of the tracks we walk follow routes created by ancestors’ feet many hundreds of years ago.

Carried down through centuries of oral tradition, names like Mākāretu record events and the exploits of ancestors. The stream, or mā, where the scented holy grass kāretu grows, describes the environment. Or Manawatū – the place where Hau’s heart (manawa) stood still (tū).

In the waahi ingoa tino roa o te ao, the longest place name in the world, the story is retained in poetic detail –


– the hill where Tamatea, he of the big knees, land swallower, creator of landslides and climber of mountains (he was an acclaimed traveller), played the flute to his loved one. In most cases though, we are left to infer the meanings of names from much abbreviated forms.

The names of some of our indigenous species, such as whio and kiwi, are onomatopoeia for the sounds they make, others (such as the kākāpō, kākā of the night, pō) are literal descriptions of their appearance. All are characters in a rich tapestry of traditional Māori history and stories.

What better way to add to our understanding and appreciation of the indigenous species and places of this country, than to learn more of the indigenous culture and language that has evolved alongside them?

In all four issues of Backcountry during 2018, we will share some Māori vocabulary and phrases that you may find useful in your outdoor journeys, starting with ngāhere, the forest.

Ngāhere – forest

Forests are the domain of the atua Tane, who separated the sky father Rangi and the earth mother Papatuanuku in the Māori creation narrative.

For many centuries, Māori have used various forest species, with strict customs ensuring respect and sustainable use. Plants like kawakawa and houhere were used for their medicinal properties, while the mighty but soft-wooded tōtara supported the evolution of a culture rich in masterful carving and canoe building. Bird hunting was another activity they mastered. Māori used an ingenious array of traps, snares and tame birds as decoys. They named hunting grounds, and even individual trees, often returning to them year after year.

Here are some words, phrases and well-known forest names. Use the tips to have a go at saying them:


Te Urewera
Te Tapere Nui a Whatonga

And some phrases:

He rākau nui tērā:
that is a big tree over there
He ngāhere ataahua tēnei:
this is a beautiful forest
E kōrihi ana ngā manu:
the birds are singing
Titiro ki te rākau nui!:
look at the big tree!

Pronunciation tips:

  • Start with the basic vowel sounds (are, ear, ee, oar, ooh)
  • Join them together for blends (i.e. ao = areoar)
  • The ‘R’ is always rolled in te reo Māori. It shouldn’t be too difficult, especially for those of us with Scottish heritage. If you have trouble, try replacing the r with a soft d.
  • The ‘NG’ blend is pronounced like the ‘ng’ in ‘sing’
  • A macron indicates that the sound of the vowel is lengthened, and can completely change the meaning of a word. For example, keke is cake but kēkē is armpit.
  • Typing a Māori word into the search engine at will allow you to listen to a fluent speaker pronouncing it.

Ben Douglas is a keen hunter and conservationist with an interest in Māori language and culture, particularly in relation to the outdoors. This column was originally published in the March 2018 issue of Backcountry Magazine. In June 2018, Ben looked at maunga, or mountains. Check it out here on Wilderlife.