More than 1000 Easter Islanders have given the crews of two Far North-built waka a rapturous welcome after an epic three-month journey from New Zealand.
The 20 sailors on board the waka hourua Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti first set eyes on Rapanui (Easter Island) late last week, but anchored offshore while 80-year-old master waka builder Hekenukumai (Hec) Busby flew to the island from his home at Doubtless Bay.
It had long been Mr Busby's dream to "close the Polynesian triangle" by sailing from Aotearoa to Rapanui using only traditional navigation techniques. The other sides of the triangle, from New Zealand to Hawaii and Hawaii to Easter Island, have already been sailed.
Once Mr Busby arrived the two waka completed their journey, chief navigator Jack Thatcher saying they were greeted by a rapturous welcoming party of more than 1000 people. They arrived at Anakena, on the northern side of Rapanui, at 9am on Thursday local time.
Mr Thatcher said the arrival was highly emotional because many sailors' family members had travelled from New Zealand to see them for the first time since they left Auckland in August.
The welcoming ceremony involved the exchange of gifts and the placing of 'eyes' in the moai, the giant stone heads Easter Island is famous for, which Mr Thatcher said had not been done for 100 years. It also included a ceremony to lift the tapu placed on Te Aurere when it left New Zealand, and the placing of three Mauri stones carried on board Te Aurere on an altar to symbolise the three corners of the Polynesian triangle.
The ceremony also paid special tribute to Mr Busby.
"The people of Rapanui have huge admiration for Hector. He has contributed to waka culture across the Pacific, including building many waka, and has generously passed on his navigational knowledge to others. The fact that he was here to see his dream of closing the Polynesian Triangle come true was a special moment for all of us," Mr Thatcher said.
All the sailors were honoured and grateful for the huge welcome they had received, he added.
The crew was to rest for a week before sailing for Tahiti, where the waka will lay over for the cyclone season. Most will fly home from there, returning in April to sail back to Auckland.
Meanwhile, associate Minister of Tourism Chris Tremain hailed the voyage as a fantastic accomplishment.
"Not only has this historic voyage allowed the crews to retrace the steps of their ancestors back to Eastern Polynesia, it helps retain and document indigenous navigational and environmental knowledge for future generations," he said.
The expedition, which used only the sun, stars, moon, currents and marine life to navigate 5000 nautical miles of open ocean, was organised by the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute and Northland's Te Taitokerau Tarai Waka.
Te Aurere was captained by Stanley Conrad, from Te Kao.