Sailing out onto the Waitematā, Huirama Matatahi's mind is on his Tainui ancestors making the mighty journey across Te Moananui-a-Kiwa (Pacific Ocean), before first setting foot on what would become Tāmaki Makaurau.

It is before dawn and the wintry breeze is making life for the 20 or so on board the motorised waka hourua Aotearoa One a little uncomfortable. But it is nothing compared to what the experience must have been for those sailing thousands of kilometres nearly a thousand years before.

It's the chance to share such stories that's important, says Matatahi, and is the focus of this year's Matariki Festival front and centre in a spectacular Harbour Bridge light display designed in collaboration with Waikato-Tainui.

The seven symbolic stars of Matariki, red sails, a white bird (korotangi), woven mythology and the Tainui portage crossing are all lit up in a seven-minute display telling over a thousand years of history across the bridge.

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"It is unbelievable thinking of te journey those ancestors made," Matatahi said.

"Now we can pull out a phone with GPS on it, but they were literally using the stars."

The star cluster Matariki appears each year mid-winter, and this year will be most visible in the dawn sky from June 25 to 28.

Waikato-Tainui is the iwi manaaki, host iwi, of this year's Matariki Festival in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig
Waikato-Tainui is the iwi manaaki, host iwi, of this year's Matariki Festival in Auckland. Photo / Michael Craig

Its appearance symbolises the start of a new year, change of season, a time to look back and remember those who have passed, while also celebrating new life and planning for the future.

"These stories are very important, for who we are, where we are from and where we are going," Matatahi said.

"They inform the decisions we make and give us grounding."

Waikato-Tainui waka departed Hawaiki about 1300AD and landed at Cape Runaway, before sailing north to Tāmaki (Auckland).

Some settled in Tāmaki but many continued, some crossing to Manukau Harbour before heading south and coming ashore at Kāwhia.

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The festival, in its 19th year, is co-hosted by Auckland Council and one of the 19 mana whenua, with Waikato-Tainui taking over from previous manaaki iwi Te Kawerau a Maki.

"We need to remember where we are, what happened before us, the work our ancestors did to make this the place we have chosen to be our home," festival director Ataahua Papa said.

"More than a million people are not from here, not connected to mana whenua, so it is a good way to pay tribute, learn stories and understand connections to where we are in the world."

Papa said across the country awareness and popularity of Matariki, the Māori New Year, was growing.

"It is a very uniquely Māori experience. Having New Year in January is transplanted from the Northern Hemisphere, which there is in winter and is also a time to reflect, and to plan on the year ahead."

The Harbour Bridge Vector Lights display would be on display over a number of evenings from June 26 between 6pm and 12am every half hour.

The festival would officially begin this Saturday, June 22, with a dawn ceremony and karakia at Pukekawa, Auckland Domain, at 6am.

More than 100 events and programmes would be taking place across Tāmaki Makaurau for the festival, running until July 14.

Matariki Festival highlights

• Festival dawn ceremony and karakia at Pukekawa, Auckland Domain, on June 22 at 6am, to acknowledge the history of Waikato-Tainui in Tāmaki Makaurau.

• Taamaki ki raro, an art exhibition at Fresh Gallery Ōtara that explores whakapapa (genealogy), heritage and land, running until August 3 and featuring works by Fred and Brett Graham as well as King Tuheitia's second son, Korotangi Paki.

• Matariki on the Move series. The Waiata events will feature female musicians Kaaterama Pou and Whirimako Black, and the Kōrero series will have a "one night only" seminar with Māori knowledge holders Rangi Matamua, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr and Rereata Makiha.

• Tirotiro Whetū night programme giving the public an opportunity to stargaze from the traditional waka hourua (double canoe), Aotearoa One, out on the water and away from the city's light pollution. Free, but bookings essential.

• Vector Lights for Matariki Festival, June 27 to 30, and July 5 to 7 and 12 to 14 from 6pm to midnight (the show plays every half hour).