The Highlanders wing spearheaded a three-try, seven-minute burst, that threw the Chiefs off a game that in the first half looked to be carrying them out of their losing streak blues, a record subsequently extended to 10 losses.
To rub salt into the wound, in the 77th minute, replacement halfback Aaron Smith, pulled off the first captain's challenge, denying the Chiefs a consolation try after foul play was ruled when replacement forward Mitchell Brown led with an elbow into the chest of Highlanders first five-eighths Josh Ioane.
But it was Nareki's night. Down 6-20, and with the second of two players in the sin-bin, Nareki pulled off a 90m runaway try to get the Highlanders back in the game and to show his speed. They were still 11-20 down at halftime, but their third-quarter burst flummoxed the Chiefs and it was Nareki who proved the catalyst.
Ironically, it was after their much-vaunted lineout maul twice failed to produce tries, that the Highlanders benefited from individual brilliance to take control of the game.
Capitalising on a string of penalties conceded by the Chiefs, the Highlanders finally had some reward when at a ruck in front of the posts, halfback Folau Fakatava found a way to the goal line for the try.
After the restart, wing Conor Garden-Bachop streaked onto some loose ball, which set in train a game of forcing back before a Gatland kick was taken by Nareki. He set off at speed, beating the tackle attempts of Cane and Va'ai, and showed his power when bumping off centre Sean Wainui before passing to flanker Shannon Frizell who scored.
Then in the 56th minute, passing between McKenzie and Gatland resulted in the ball being dropped. A powerful Highlanders scrum saw the ball moved left before it came right where, across field from his wing, Nareki showed his appetite for work as he shrugged off Lienert-Brown's tackle attempt and then sped through to head the defence for his second try.
Earlier, two penalty goals to Chiefs fullback Damian McKenzie settled the home team down in their first game of the season.
They scored their first try in the 20th minute when Highlanders second five-eighths Sio Tomkinson got himself offside at a ruck just out from his goal-line after a probing run by Weber. He was sin-binned for his pains.
From the scrum, the Chiefs moved the ball for second five-eighths Anton Lienert-Brown to charge into the goalmouth and with quick rucked ball, it was moved to No8 Luke Jacobson, standing off, to drive over for the opening try.
Jacobson featured again when fed into space when standing wide in the backline. He raced ahead, deep into Highlanders territory. Slipping a short pass to Weber, the play went close to the line and a scrum was ruled. Jacobson took the ball left off the back of the scrum and when the ball was moved back McKenzie reeled in a high pass and stepped into a huge gap to score with Tomkinson still off the field.
More quick passing opened the chance for McKenzie to race into open space. However, when he passed to Weber, he was tackled, Highlanders hooker Ash Dixon offended at the breakdown and was sent to the sin-bin.
The Chiefs opted to chase a try rather than penalty points. But as first five-eighths Bryn Gatland looked to lob a chip kick to the in-goal, Tomkinson, back on the field, charged the ball down. It rebounded to wing Jonah Nareki and he ran 90m for the try to set in train a dynamic Highlanders recovery.
Scorers: Chiefs 23 (Luke Jacobson, Damian McKenzie tries; Damian McKenzie 2 con, 3 pen) Highlanders 39 (Jonah Nareki 3, Folau Fakatava, Shannon Frizell tries; Josh Ioane 4 con 2 pen). HT: 20-11