A promise made 30 years ago is taking shape on the banks of a Far North river.

By the 1980s the art of traditional non-instrument navigation, which carried the ancient Polynesians to every corner of the Pacific, was all but forgotten. The only person to still hold the knowledge, one Mau Piailug, from a tiny atoll in Micronesia, made his students, among them Northland's Hekenukumai (Hek) Busby, swear to keep passing on the knowledge and make sure it was never lost again.

Now 82, Mr Busby and Te Tai Tokerau Tarai Waka Committee are honouring that promise by building the Kupe Waka Centre, a school for traditional celestial navigation, on family land at Aurere, Doubtless Bay.

Mr Busby learnt his skills from the late Mr Piailug, and in 1992 the pair sailed to Rarotonga on Mr Busby's double-hulled waka Te Aurere.


"We made a promise to our teacher not to lose the knowledge again. And we promised to keep teaching it," he said.

The project's second source of inspiration came from the late Sir James Henare.

In 1985 another of Mr Piailug's students, the Hawaiian Nainoa Thompson, navigated the canoe Hokule'a from Hawaii to New Zealand on the Polynesian Voyaging Society's Voyage of Rediscovery. At the powhiri Sir James said he hoped one day soon a waka would be built in Te Tai Tokerau that would go back to where the Voyage of Rediscovery began.

"On the day he died I was at the marae waiting for his body," Mr Busby said.

"I mihied to him, and said 'I'll try to cover your wish.' When I left there I headed into the bush and knocked down the trees for Mataatua [Mr Busby's first waka]. I pulled out the last tree on the day of his funeral."

Since then waka built by Mr Busby have sailed every side of the Polynesian Triangle formed by Aotearoa, Hawaii and Rapanui (Easter Island). He said his sailing days were behind him - "I'm stuffed. My eyes have had it. Looking up at the stars is difficult" - but he was still determined to pass on his knowledge.

The Kupe Waka Centre had been designed as a whare hui where students could learn traditional navigation techniques based on the stars, sun, moon and swells. Among its first visitors will be another group of Hawaiians from the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Currently on a four-year, 87,000-kilometre round-the-world voyage, the Hawaiians are due to be welcomed at Waitangi on November 15.

Mr Busby wants the building to be ready by May, when the group is due to leave Aurere on the next leg of their journey to Australia. He also planned to invite students from Rapanui, where waka knowledge has been lost entirely.

Teaching would be shared among New Zealand's three qualified traditional navigators - Mr Busby, Jack Thatcher (Tauranga) and Piripi Evans (Kaitaia).

The $1 million building has been funded by the ASB Community Trust, the Lotteries Grants Board and Te Puni Kokiri.

Architect/project manager Rau Hoskins, of Design Tribe Architects, said the star-shaped building faced due north, aligned with Mr Busby's traditional star compass. It had a dining area to the south, an ablution block to the east and a kitchen to the west. It would be powered by wind and solar panels.

"The key thing is the Awapoko River. Crews can sail up the river, tie up, be welcomed into the complex and sleep there, like a marae," he added.

It is being built next to a New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute school for carving and waka-building opened in 2013.

On November 10, Maori TV will screening a documentary about master navigator Mau Piailug's role in reawakening Polynesian traditional voyaging. Papa Mau - The Wayfinder starts at 8.30pm.