Waitangi / Tangiwai

The stream is called Waitangi, my friend said. Later I asked him what the difference is between Waitangi and Tangiwai? He replied obliquely, writing in the subject line of the email: waitangitangiwai.

Waitangi and Tangiwai are both words with a certain resonance for Aotearoans; the first because that is the name of the place where the Treaty between Maori and the British Crown was signed in 1840, the second because of the railway crash at the place of that name on Christmas Eve, 1953.

The Treaty of Waitangi was honoured more in the breach than the observance until, in the late 1980s, as the government attempted to alter the legal status of various crown assets (privatisation), a court challenge established that the Treaty does in fact have force in law. The ramifications of this are still unfolding.

Tangiwai was one of Aotearoa’s biggest civil disasters. The water in the crater lake on Ruapehu heated up, melting ice caves on the south eastern rim, which collapsed, discharging tonnes of ice, boulders, silt and mud into the Whangaehu river.

The lahar carried away a pylon on the rail bridge at Tangiwai just as the northbound limited express was approaching. The rest of the bridge disintegrated as the train moved onto it. 151 people died that night. Some twenty bodies were never found; it was presumed they were carried out to sea, many miles south.

Wai = water; tangi = weeping; hence, water weeping / weeping water; though it may be the association here is less with grief than with the sound water makes as it runs over a stream or river bed. Or is the sound of water running over stones always the sound of people crying?

To tangi is to cry out, to mourn; a tangi is a funeral; whether it is Waitangi or Tangiwai, the mourning in the words, in the water, will not go away. Yet Tangiwai always seems to have the sadder sound.

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