A group of Dutch students who took part in Waitangi Day commemorations say they will return home more determined than ever to uphold the traditions around their own Maori waka.

A student rowing club in the Netherlands has had an exchange with New Zealand since 2011 when master waka builder Hekenukumai Busby, of Doubtless Bay, built a waka for the national ethnology museum in the Dutch city of Leiden.

Dutch paddlers (from left) Thomas Driessen, Diederik Thompson, Alex Miesen and Mirte Hazes send a message to friends in Holland from Tii Beach. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Dutch paddlers (from left) Thomas Driessen, Diederik Thompson, Alex Miesen and Mirte Hazes send a message to friends in Holland from Tii Beach. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The agreement stipulated that a crew from the Njord Royal Rowing Club in Leiden would be trained in paddling, haka and protocols, with a few travelling to Waitangi each year to refresh their knowledge.

The Dutch waka is called Te Hono ki Aotearoa, or The Link to New Zealand.

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This year four club members joined 400 other kaihoe (paddlers) at a week-long waka camp at Bledisloe Domain near Haruru Falls.

On Waitangi Day the three male students were given the honour of paddling the great waka Ngatokimatawhaorua.

After landing on Tii Beach the young Dutchmen performed a haka especially composed for Te Hono ki Aotearoa by Tamahou Temara of arts organisation Toi Maori.

Alex Miesen, a 24-year-old student of English literature, said performing in front of thousands of spectators was an "incredible" feeling - as was the chance to show Maori his club was upholding their culture and reputation in the Netherlands.

"You see all those people up there, and you get the feeling we're all one."

Dutch paddlers Alex Miesen, left, and Thomas Driessen perform their own haka on Tii Beach. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF
Dutch paddlers Alex Miesen, left, and Thomas Driessen perform their own haka on Tii Beach. PHOTO / PETER DE GRAAF

Mr Miesen said he felt as if he had stepped into another world for a week.

The experience had given him a greater understanding of the significance of the Dutch waka and what it meant to paddle it.

He had also also learnt about himself, he said.

"For a week there's no difference between people from the Netherlands and New Zealand. We're all one big whanau."

Medical student Thomas Driessen, 26, said he was grateful to Maori for sharing their tikanga (customs), "which is one of the greatest gifts one person can give another."

The beauty of paddling a big waka like Ngatokimatawhaorua was that everyone came from a different place but all were paddling together, he said.

The Dutch paddlers are accompanied by a student from the University of Amsterdam who is writing a thesis on the waka exchange.

Robert Gabel, chairman of Nga Waka Federation, said a dozen waka took part in this year's pageant including visitors Hinemoana from Whakatane, Haunui from Tainui, and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, a double-hulled voyaging waka built by Mr Busby but currently based in Tauranga.

Mr Gabel said the Dutch seemed to have an affinity with kaupapa waka, probably because of Te Hono ki Aotearoa.

Each year a few Dutch people turned up at the waka camp of their own accord to join in and learn. A large contingent of Native Americans also took part this year.

Mr Gabel, of Kawakawa, said waka were a central and highly symbolic - not to mention spectacular - part of Waitangi Day commemorations.

When the Treaty was signed in 1840 many of the chiefs arrived by waka, and long before that Maori had first arrived in Aotearoa by waka.