By Blair ‘Jah Lion’ Trotman and Louis Rāpihana (local hāpu representative)



The Motu River lies in the ancestral lands of the East Coast Ancestor, Apanui Ringamutu, who is the eponymous ancestor of Te Whānau a Apanui. Apanui Ringamutu utilised the river for the wellbeing of his people. It not only provided fresh drinking water and bathing, but it also guided him with the direction of his people – if there were three mouths it was a sign of trouble, if there were two mouths something was looming, if there was one mouth the people were at peace.

The kaitiaki (guardians) of the river in today’s world are the subtribe Hikarukutai and Tutawake. The people have practised Mana Māori Motuhake over the river for many generations. Drownings in the river have determined a lot of tikanga (protocol) to follow. One of the most tragic drownings took place on August 5, 1900 when 16 children and 2 adults drowned after their boat capsized into the Motu River, as they were crossing from the Maraenui side to the Whitianga side to travel to Ōmāiō for the schooling week.

After this drowning, a rāhui (restriction) was implemented for every Saturday and 12th of each month, these days being of high importance to the Ringatū faith of which the people are strong followers. They also closed the river to fishing at the mouth from the 1st of June to the 1st of November, this being the huamata and pure time of planting and harvesting. The Motu River is treated as a Pātaka Kai (Food Cupboard).

If Apanui was to return to today’s world, he probably would not recognise the Motu River. The waters would not have been tainted by sediment or nutrient run off as seen by present day users. As early as 1888, the Ngahere was being cut down around Motu Village in the headwaters, forever altering the river’s nature and the whenua’s ability to manage erosion.

The original name of the Motu River is Te Mōtuhia ā Te Mimi ā Pawa, this being shortened by the first pākeha to arrive to Motu. The original name comes from a Tairāwhiti Tipuna Pawa, who is said to have stopped for a mimi while he was racing Rongokako to Whakaari, thus creating the Mōtuhia ā Te Mimi ā Pawa. Pawa did not win the race, but we have benefited as we get to enjoy the river to this day.


The people of Hikarukutai have kept the river open to the wider region and nation for generations, as they believe it is for all to enjoy. However, they are to respect the tikanga that have been set for generations, thereby ensuring future generations get to enjoy the fishing and boating of the great river.


After driving to Motu Falls to begin the journey back to the SH35 road bridge, one can not help but be wary of drinking the water in what again soon becomes pristine wilderness downstream of the falls. Farmland gives way to steep bushclad hills and lush waterfalls. Small tributaries abound, sweeping you into the moment and the sense of calm that true wilderness brings to those who seek it. Gentle Class 2-3 whitewater makes for a gorgeous ride down to the first gorge where the terrain becomes significantly steeper and narrower, bringing a pure wilderness experience to a head.

Although the Motu does flow clear in the summer months and after periods of little rain, outside of these parameters the erosion caused from farming and forestry operations in the headwaters are hard to miss. The silty brown water heading towards the Moana are a gentle reminder of our impact on the whenua.

The whitewater and scenery once the first gorge is reached are truly spectacular in many ways and provide a truly special wilderness experience. The camping along the river is a real highlight with numerous options for beautiful campsites next to clear tributaries (limited in the summer months and within the length of each gorge). Driftwood is prolific in most areas and certainly in the winter months when high flows are abundant, a component that is well used and appreciated. Catching the right flow is the real challenge if you do not live close.



I can say with absolute confidence that this awa is truly magnificent in every way and is a world class river trip. High water above 25cms at the put in is a truly special experience; however, it should not be taken lightly and is a solid Class 4 wilderness trip.

It is hard to ignore the spiritual feeling one gets from the Mōtū and its surrounding wilderness. Acknowledging the river’s ancestry and accepting any rahui that may be present is critical in maintaining access to this magnificent awa.



Photo credits: Blair ‘Jah Lion’ Trotman and Sam Ricketts