Eighty years ago, on February 6, 1940, Eru Patuone Heperi was the youngest crew member when the great wāka Ngātokimatawhaorua made its maiden journey across the Bay of Islands.

On February 6, 2020, he was back on the wāka for the first time since that day, and this time the 92-year-old was by far the oldest.

Mr Heperi, who now lives on Australia's Gold Coast, returned to the Bay of Islands last week to fulfil a dream of one last trip on Ngātokimatawhaorua.

His father, Pita Te Hoe Heperi, felled the kauri in Puketi Forest, organised the bullock teams to drag the logs out of the bush, and was one of two master carvers who spent two years creating the 37.5-metre canoe at Kerikeri. The completed wāka was launched at Waipapa Landing, just in time for the Treaty's centennial commemorations in 1940.

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The crew needed a bailer for the maiden voyage to Waitangi, and 12-year-old Eru was given the job.

"But my bucket never got wet. It was a brand new wāka on its maiden journey and there was no need to bail," he said.

"I remember the day well. It was a beautiful day. Lots of boats followed us. I just admired the views and enjoyed the trip."

Despite having a father and grandfather who were deeply involved in kaupapa wāka, life took Mr Heperi on a different course, but the approach of Ngātokimatawhaorua's 80th birthday awakened a desire to climb aboard once again.

The family booked flights and a motel a year ago, and his wife and one of his sisters took special care of him to ensure he would be there. And early on Thursday morning a pair of burly kaihoe carried him out to Ngātokimatawhaorua as it was blessed below Haruru Falls, along with the rest of the fleet.

The wāka were then paddled down Waitangi River, under the bridge and around the bay before landing at Tii Beach, where a crowd of almost 2000 had gathered to witness one of Waitangi Day's great spectacles.

Mr Heperi was then escorted ashore with great ceremony, and a haka was performed in his honour.

"It was absolutely what I dreamed of," an emotional Mr Heperi said.

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"My father and my grandfather were both kaihautu [captains]. I was the youngest and now I was the oldest, and I'm the only one who was on the waka in 1940 who's still alive.

"I was blessed beyond reason. It couldn't have been better."

Mr Heperi was accompanied on his bucket-list trip back to the Bay of Islands by whānau from around New Zealand and Australia, including his two remaining siblings of 13 who grew up at Waihou Valley, near Ōkaihau.

He also paid a visit to the wāka camp at Haruru Falls, where about 500 paddlers spent five days preparing for Waitangi Day. There, while he was talking to some of the kaihoe, his younger relatives heard him speak fluent Māori for the first time.