The waka seen skimming along the Wairua River were not ghostly vessels but they certainly carried the spirit of the old people with them.

The 80-km Wairua River was once a major food source for local Maori and a busy highway for their canoes.

As part of the mahi of bringing health back to a river whose very name means spirituality, Whatitiri hapu Te Uriroroi and Te Puu Ao Waka Ama Club recently marked Wairua's significance by staging a modern canoe voyage.

On Saturday, October 19, three waka each with six paddlers, were launched at Malone Road bridge, Kokopu.


Led by Ralph Ruka, a well-respected waka ama coach whose whakapapa is to the river just below the launch area, the crews paddled 4km up the Wairua to the Purua Falls before returning.

Environment River Patrol (ERP) clean water campaigner Millan Ruka said the training and orientation day might set the kaupapa for bigger events.

But just as meaningful as acknowledging the river's future was the waka ama's homage to the past.

"This may well be the first time in nearly 80 years that Maori have had a presence in an event such as this, on the this part of the Wairua awa," Mr Ruka said.

"This is just a small but significant event that we hope will grow to be bigger to get our tamariki, Maori and Pakeha, back on the awa. Our hapu, Te Uriroroi of Whatitiri, want people to use our rivers and enjoy them for all.

"This way, we can all get a sense of shared ownership and this will bloom kaitiakitanga from us all to care for our awa."

Everyone taking part had a high awareness of the need to clean up and protect the Wairua and other rivers in the area from environmental damage. They were impressed to see the health of the riparian stretch on one bank where stock had been fenced out.

"In contrast, the beef farms on the opposite banks are yet to be fenced and they need to complement the good work done by others for river restoration and water quality to be effective," Mr Ruka said.

Helping on the day was Whangarei District councillor, now deputy mayor, Sharon Morgan. More than 70 years ago, 85-year-old kaumatua Henry Ruka, who was also there on the day, paddled an old waka at this same location.

In the 1950s and 60s, the old waka was in the keeping of Ms Morgan's relative, Thelma Buiseman, who donated it to Whangarei Museum in 1964. Local history has it that this waka was captured by Poroti hapu from a raiding party from Puhipuhi some time before 1860.

A film crew from Maori Television accompanied the waka ama.