Up to 1000 kaihoe (paddlers) are helping to mark the 80th birthday of the great wāka Ngātokimatawhaorua at Waitangi this week.

Kaihautu (captain) Joe Conrad, of Kaitaia, said at least 800 kaihoe, and possibly as many as 1000, were expected to take part in a five-day waka training camp at Haruru Falls that began on Saturday.

The paddlers were staying at "Tent City" on Bledisloe Domain, an annual tradition that dated back almost 50 years.

As well as Ngāpuhi, those taking part had come from Ngāti Awa (in the eastern Bay of Plenty), Tuwharetoa (central North Island) and Te Arawa (Rotorua).

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They had been joined by international manuhiri including 15 First Nations paddlers of the Suquamish people and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, both in the northwestern US, and 10 Dutch paddlers, from the Njord Royal Student Rowing Club's waka group in Leiden.

A group of six First Nations paddlers arrived in New Zealand on Tuesday last week, followed by the others over several days.

Mr Conrad expected 14 wāka would be on the water on Thursday (Waitangi Day), along with voyaging canoes from Tauranga Moana, and possibly Auckland and Ngati Kahungunu (Hawke's Bay).

A number of events were planned to mark the 80th anniversary of Ngātokimatawhaorua, some of which were highly significant and still under wraps.

From 2 to 4pm today a kawe mate (ceremony to remember the dead) will take place at Tent City for the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby, who is credited with reviving Māori ocean voyaging and celestial navigation traditions.

Kaihoe also took part in an event honouring Dame Whina Cooper at Panguru yesterday, and will be at tomorrow's opening of a new 28th Māori Battalion Museum at Waitangi.

On Thursday the wāka will be paddled down the Waitangi River and land on the beach in front of Te Tii Marae for karakia and a mass haka by several hundred paddlers. The timing will depend on the tide.

Mr Conrad said his involvement with Ngātokimatawhaorua had begun in 1974, when his father, Miki Conrad, was the kaihautu.

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He had now captained the wāka for more than 30 years, and it was time to start "handing over the reins" to a younger generation.

Over the years kaupapa wāka had gone global, with Māori canoes in Hawaii, Holland and the USA.

His aim now was to determine how Ngātokimatawhaorua could be harnessed to help youth and spread environmental messages.

Ngātokimatawhaorua was built to mark the 100th anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1940. The job of carving the wāka from three kauri trunks had begun in 1934, a team of 24 bullocks and many men taking three weeks to haul the hull's centre section out of the forest.

The wāka is 37.5 metres long, requires at least 76 paddlers, and can seat up to 120. It is lashed with more than 1km of rope, and weighs six tonnes when dry, 12 tonnes when saturated.

After Waitangi Day commemorations in 1940 it was laid up next to the Whare Rūnanga (carved meeting house) for more than 30 years.

Its restoration was completed in 1974, the same year a dedicated wāka shelter was built at Hobson's Bay.

It is named after Matawhaorua, the wāka on which Kupe sailed to Āotearoa. His grandson, Nukutawhiti, re-adzed the canoe before his own journey to New Zealand, hence the addition of "ngā toki" (the adzes) to its name.