Road name a sign of change

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At a glance, a small road in Kakanui being given its first name might not appear to be very newsworthy.

But local iwi hope the spelling of “Kakaunui Bay Road” could signal a change towards places being called by their tuturu (true/original) names.

The extra “u” in Kakaunui brings the pronunciation closer to what Kakanui was called by Maori when it existed as part of a seasonal trail.

The new road name – Kakaunui Bay Rd – was approved at a Waitaki District Council meeting on July 30.

Before then, the section of the road between the intersection of Kakanui Rd and Clayton St and the beach just short of the Kakanui Fishing Club boat ramp was part of Kakanui Rd, but that had caused some confusion with emergency services because of the way the houses on the road were numbered.

As part of the name change process, a meeting was organised with Te Runanga o Moeraki upoko (appointed traditional leader) David Higgins, who said the name “Kakaunui” had local and historic significance for Ngai Tahu. At the meeting, he said the origin of the name Kakaunui had been lost, but was likely to refer to swimming in the river.

The area had been a prominent part of coastal trails used by Maori, and the river and river mouth was an important source of food.

Mr Higgins said naming the road was a chance to recognise the original title.

“The people at the original meeting were very supportive of the idea that we should go back to the original name,” he said.

Now the road name was set, Mr Higgins hoped to canvas support from the rest of the community for other spellings to be changed.

“The [Kakanui] township was named after the river, so it is the river that is the problem and I have not thought too much about the next steps.

“If the people of the community want to change the name back to Kakaunui, then they have to change the name of the river – the river was there before the town.”

Kakanui is not the only placename that has been anglicised. Tekapo was originally Takapo, and Kurow is an anglicised form of the Maori name Te Kohurau, which refers to a great rangatira (chief) who turned into a mountain in the Waitaki Valley.

“Kurow is the only one I know of that is purported to be a Maori word, but does not end with a vowel.”

The Mackenzie District’s Dark Sky Project, launched by Ngai Tahu in partnership with Earth and Sky last month, is using both Takapo and Tekapo in its literature and signage.

“When we did that, locals were very interested in changing the name of the town,” Mr Higgins said.

Ngai Tahu can make a case to change a placename and present it to the New Zealand Geographic Board, but was not looking at widespread change in Waitaki in the short term, Mr Higgins said.

“We will do in time, but we don’t want to rush everybody with half a-dozen name changes.

“It is not necessary when we can change it step by step with public support.”

Oamaru Language School te reo Maori teacher Sophia Leon de la Barra said people were starting to realise they had been mispronouncing a lot of placenames for more than 100 years – and there was a will to correct that.

“I have just noticed in the last couple of years people pronouncing Oamaru correctly,” Miss Leon de la Barra said.

“As people’s knowledge of the language grows, also that desire to learn about what placenames have been does.”

One of the original surveyors of Otago, John Turnbull Thompson, had taken care to retain many original Maori names, so there was an existing precedent, Miss Leon de la Barra said.

Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher said naming Kakaunui Bay Rd was “a small gesture of making sure we get it right”.

Changing an existing name was a bigger step, Mr Kircher said.

“We certainly have not had any request to look at changing spelling of any names – if those things happen they need to get discussed and talked about then.

“It is not something the council takes lightly, and, given that we haven’t been asked, it is all hypothetical at this stage.”