When Te Heu Heu Tukino donated Tongariro’s central volcanoes to the Crown, he was motivated by a deep spiritual need for their protection. According to Maori, the mountains at the heart of the park have distinct personalities that symbolize the links between the community and its environment. This significance was recognized in 1991 when the park became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site included as a cultural landscape.
Legends tell of a number of smaller mountains clustered around the dominating Ruapehu, Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Taranaki. Among these was the beautiful Pihanga in the northern section of the park, whose favours were widely sought. Pihanga loved only Tongariro, the victor of numerous battles with her other suitors, including one that had brought him to his knees, striking off the top of his head, giving him his present shape. Taranaki, meantime, defeated Ngauruhoe, but when he came to face Ruapehu, he was exhausted and badly wounded. He fled, carving out the Whanganui River as he made for the west coast of the North Island. Meanwhile the smaller Putauaki got as far north as Kawerau; but Tauhara was reluctant to leave and continually glanced back, so that by dawn, when the mountains could no longer move, he had only reached the northern shores of Lake Taupo, where he remains to this day, “the lonely mountain”.
To the local Tuwharetoa people these mountains were so sacred that they averted their eyes while passing and wouldn’t eat or build fires in the vicinity. The tapu stretches back to legendary times when their ancestor Ngatoroirangi came to claim the centre of the island. After declaring Tongariro tapu, he set off up the mountain, but his followers broke their vow to fast while he was away and the angry gods sent a snowstorm in which Ngatoroirangi almost perished before more benevolent gods in Hawaiki saved him by sending fire to revive his frozen limbs.