New Zealand is still strongly influenced by its rich Māori culture and heritage, which you can see in historical sites, performing art, and the original place names in te reo, many of which escaped being renamed by European settlers – particularly on the North Island.
As in many languages, te reo place names are often descriptive, as evidenced by the Māori name for the country itself – Aotearoa, or the land of the long white cloud. Many places are named after early Māori explorers, historical events, characters from Polynesian mythology, and more literal names such as “wide river mouth” or “many lakes”.
If you’re interested in the history of New Zealand, Māori culture, or you just want to impress your friends and family back home with all the wacky-sounding places you’ve been visiting, you’ll want to put a few of these towns on your itinerary for your New Zealand road trip.
From Akitio to Ohangai, Takaka to Tangowahine, Ohura to Kawakawa, Matakana to Raglan, we’ve got a list of the top craziest sounding towns that you need to explore for your next campervan hire in New Zealand.
Akitio is a beautiful coastal district located in Tararua, on the east coast of the North Island. It’s a popular spot for water sports including surfing and river rafting, or you can just camp on the beach and enjoy the local nature walks. According to Google Translate, “akitio” means “literacy” in English, so you might want to take a book or two to enjoy while you take in the scenery.
Ohangai translates to “opposite place” – opposite of what, we’re not sure. The town itself doesn’t have much in the way of tourist attractions, but there are plenty of cosy B&Bs and it makes a great base for exploring the rest of South Taranaki.
The small town of Takaka is located on the South Island’s Golden Bay and is a delightful place to hang out for a few days as it has a distinct hippie vibe. Takaka literally means “bracken” and is thought to be named after the legend of Tākaka – a slave on the Kurahaupō canoe who turned to stone.
Tangowahine – it’s fun to say – just try it! According to Google translate, the literal translation of this town is to “take a wife” so if you’re looking for love it might be worth a visit.
Wai means water and tapu means path or sacred, so Wai-O-Tapu translates as “sacred waters”. The name may be interesting but the place itself is even more so and definitely, a “must visit”. This colourful geothermal attraction in Rotorua includes an impressive geyser, mud pools, and a geothermal park.
This spectacular former National Park on the North Island has a rather unfortunate name that means “the burnt penis”. As the story goes, it’s named after a Māori chief who rolled onto a fire while he was sleeping. Name aside, the Jurassic Park-like jungle and amazing views are sure to make an impression.
Ohura meaning “uncovered place” is a small town to the west of Taumarunui. This place is definitely off the beaten track – in fact, it’s something of a ghost town with fewer than 150 inhabitants and an access road that’s no more than a dirt path. There’s not much here for tourists but you’re sure to meet a few colourful characters if you take the time to chat with the locals.
Kawakawa is a charming small town with an interesting claim to fame. The town’s public toilets were designed by Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It’s probably safe to say that they’re not like any toilet you’ve ever seen before. Kawakawa is the name of a native shrub with aromatic leaves.
The Matakana region is known for its vineyards and it’s a popular spot for travelling foodies due to its abundance of farmers’ markets. Matakana means “watchful” and it’s certainly a good place to watch the world go by.
“Dog shit” river doesn’t sound quite so appealing in English, does it? This river that flows through Hawke’s Bay is actually fairly stunning in places, but it gets its name from the colour of the water after it rains – you might want to choose another swimming spot just to be on the safe side.
Raglan isn’t a Māori word – this fun New Zealand road trip destination is named after a British commander and was originally known as Whāingaroa meaning “long pursuit”. The town itself offers great café culture and plenty of waves for surfing.
The name is funny enough as it is, but when you consider that “wh” is pronounced “f” in Māori language, it gives it a whole new meaning. Fear not – the actual translation of this Mt Ruapehu ski field and village is “genealogy”.
Why poo? Why not? The inhabitants of this North Island town are surely sick of this joke but the town sign is a popular photo stop for road trippers passing through. The name means “reddish water” and there’s plenty to see in this friendly town. You’ll find Scottish heritage, a surf beach, caves, and plenty of accommodation and cafes.
Wait a mo’! Don’t forget to visit the Waitomo Caves, which are home to millions of glowworms that radiate with a natural luminescence. The glowworms light up the limestone formations inside in spectacular fashion. Definitely worth the trip for your Instagram feed if nothing else!
We saved the best for last! At 85 letters long, this hill in Hawke’s Bay earns the title of the longest place name in the world. The full translation is “the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as land-eater, played his flute to his loved one.”
These are just a sample of some of the uniquely named towns that you’re sure to come across while you’re on your New Zealand road trip. If you’re looking for campervan hire in New Zealand give the team at Travellers Autobarn a call for a wide selection of vans for hire at competitive prices.
After more? Check out other Other Road Trips itinerary options!