Image credit Dmitri Kotelevski
RICH PŪRANGI HISTORY
The Pūrangi area of Cook’s Beach – specifically the sheltered lower slopes on the eastern side of the river - is among the very earliest places of Māori occupation in New Zealand, believed to extend as far back as the 14th or 15th centuries.
There is great historical significance in this place - particularly for Ngāti Hei, Ngāti Rākawera and Ngāti Manukarere - but also for Europeans who enjoyed a ground-breaking and friendly encounter with the indigenous people around Pūrangi hundreds of years later.
Descendants of the famous Te Arawa canoe first occupied the Pūrangi area, not so much in permanent settlements, but rather for short seasonal terms revolving around the spring and summer crop rotations and the fishing harvests in the greater Te Whanganui o Hei – Mercury Bay and its islands. In wet winter months, the evidence is that early Māori would move further inland to more sheltered and better protected sites.
In addition to the well-known pā at Whitianga Rock, Wharekaho, Hahei, Opito Bay and others, remains of a very early palisaded Māori settlement have also been found around the upper reaches of the tidal Pūrangi River, where there was such prolific bird and fish life.
Other evidence points to huge forests having covered the area even before the first Polynesian arrivals, although these were partially or totally destroyed around the time of the last great Lake Taupo or “Hatepe’ eruption of around 120AD. Kauri logs, recovered from swamps near the Pūrangi and showing signs of burning, were radiocarbon dated some years ago by Waikato University, as being about 1800 years old.
The Pūrangi area is also dotted by rich midden sites revealing vast quantities of shells and other small skeletal items. Sharp obsidian flakes – used by Maori for cutting and cleaning and brought or traded from other iwi living closer to the volcanic islands to the south - can still be found around the mouth of the Pūrangi River.
When Cook and the Endeavour arrived in Te Whanganui o Hei in that early summer of 1769, Ngāti Hei and members of other allied Maori tribes were busy in these customary gardens around Pūrangi. After the first hesitant contacts, trade began immediately, with dried and fresh fish, oysters and small Māori objects bartered in return for cloth, items of clothing and metal.
The area provided Cook and his weary crew, including the botanists on board, with everything they needed after long weeks at sea, including an ideal spot from which he and his astronomer, Charles Green, could observe the Transit of Mercury. Here and on surrounding shores , Banks observed and noted for the first time, iconic plants such as the silver fern and the pohutukawa flower while recording also for the very first time, words of the Māori language.
Such were the Pūrangi attractions - highlighted by the welcome received from Ngāti Hei’s great chief Toawaka a few days after arrival - that Cook stayed here at the Pūrangi Estuary for 12 full days in November , 1769, the second-longest stay of his entire first circumnavigation of Aotearoa New Zealand.
Refs: Dallimore, J,’ Short History of the Pūrangi; Begg AC & NC ‘James Cook and NZ’; Riddle J ‘Saltspray and Sawdust’.