Two ocean-going waka have returned to Northland after a 10-month, 10,000 nautical mile journey to Rapanui (Easter Island) and back.<inline type="photogallery" id="20953" align="outside" embed="no" />
The epic journey was a long-held dream of Doubtless Bay master waka-builder Hekenukumai Busby, whose vessels have now sailed all three sides of the Polynesian Triangle linking Aotearoa, Hawaii and Rapanui. The sailors used only the sun, stars, moon, currents and marine life to guide their way.
The waka hourua and their 20 storm-battered sailors arrived at Whatuwhiwhi on Friday night, the first, Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, at 11.40pm, followed by Te Aurere three hours later. They anchored a few hundred metres offshore, clearing Customs at Mangonui's Mill Bay around 9am on Saturday before continuing the last few kilometres under motor to Mr Busby's property at Aurere. The return journey had taken them via Tahiti and Rarotonga, with a break in between at Moorea to avoid the cyclone season.
Just a few hundred metres from their goal, however, the two waka stuck fast in the Awapoko River after the sailors missed the 2pm high tide. With the water still dropping the crew eventually gave up their attempts to pull the vessels free, making their entrance instead on a ceremonial waka sent out to escort them up the river.
They were greeted by a cacophony of haka, putatara (conch shells) and pukaea (wooden trumpets) from hundreds of people on the riverbank, including almost the entire roll of Bay of Plenty school Te Wharekura o Tauranga Moana. Many sailors on the Waka Tapu (sacred canoe) expedition, including chief navigator Jack Thatcher, hail from Tauranga.
Their welcome doubled as the opening ceremony for a new campus of the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute teaching the ancient arts of waka building and navigation.
Institute director and Waka Tapu organiser Karl Johnstone said it was ''a pretty epic voyage deep into the heart of the Pacific'' and a catalyst for reviving connections to the rest of Polynesia. Most New Zealand cultures had arrived by sea, yet Kiwis had become a land-locked people.
''When we look at the ocean we see it as a barrier, instead of seeing it as a continent in itself, a pathway.''
Mr Johnstone said challenges on the journey included a storm on the last leg from Rarotonga which sent the waka into an eight-day circle and left a few sailors with broken ribs. One crew member was treated on arrival at Mill Bay by St John medics for dehydration.
Each waka had 10-12 sailors on board at any one time. In total 60 people took part, aged 18-67 and from many different iwi.
Te Runanga o Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi said the journey was a powerful re-expression of Maori identity, and fulfilled Mr Busby's dream of following in the footsteps of his ancestor, Tumoana, who returned to Hawaiki.
''But it's become much more than that. It's a renaissance of a whole genre of skills, knowledge and culture relating to the sea.''
It had also rekindled relationships with Maoridom's Pacific cousins, he said.
An emotional Mr Busby said he was proud of the sailors who had fulfilled his dream of more than 25 years. The 81-year-old flew to Rapanui to be on board Te Aurere when the waka arrived at their destination.
Chief navigator Jack Thatcher, of Tauranga, said he was looking forward to seeing his wife and daughter again, as well as the everyday Kiwi things he had done without for 10 months. The final leg to Rapanui was like a fairytale, he said.
''We had contrary winds all the way, but coming in to Rapanui this corridor opened up and we just speared through the winds ... If that wasn't our tupuna (ancestors) guiding the way for us, I don't know what it was.''
His daughter, Tarere Thatcher, 24, suspected even the sailors had yet to realise the scale of their achievement.
She had seen her father only fleetingly since the waka left Auckland in August and was looking forward to catching up. Sailing traditional waka was his passion and the voyage had meant a lot to him.
Her first words to her father were: ''Hello old man, you need a shave''.
Waka school opens
A new campus in Doubtless Bay aims is to ensure traditional waka building and navigation skills are passed on to future generations.
Called Te Wananga-a-Kupe Mai Tawhiti, the fourth campus of the Rotorua-based New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute was formally opened at waka-building expert Hekenukumai Busby's Aurere property on Saturday. The opening was timed to coincide with the return of two waka hourua (double-hulled canoes) from a 10-month, 10,000 nautical mile voyage to Rapanui (Easter Island).
First to walk through the new waka workshop as it was blessed were Mr Busby, Arts and Crafts Institute director Karl Johnstone and Te Runanga o Te Rarawa chairman Haami Piripi.
With the journey to Rapanui complete, Mr Johnstone said the institute's priority now would be the transmission of knowledge relating to waka building and navigation. At first the new campus would have just three full-time students on a three-year programme. However, iwi would also be invited to use the wananga's facilities and expertise to build at least four waka a year.
One of the first projects would be building an ocean-going waka, under Mr Busby's guidance, for the people of Rapanui. They had lost the art of waka building and had no large trees.
''As our close relatives, now that we've re-established those connections with Rapanui our responsibility is to offer support to them and vice versa,'' Mr Johnstone said.
The central North Island iwi Tuwharetoa had already gifted a fallen totara to be harvested next summer.
Mr Busby said a navigation school would be built opposite the waka workshop.