As a teenager at South Auckland's Hillary College, Boaz Raela never imagined that his idea for a Maori and Pacific Islands cultural festival would become the largest of its kind in the world - the ASB Polyfest.

In 1976, the sixth-form student and two friends from Mangere and Seddon College - now Western Springs College - formed a cultural competition between four local schools.

Thirty-four years on, the competition has grown to a four-day festival with 59 schools participating, six performance stages, up to 10,000 students performing and more than 85,000 spectators expected.

Mr Raela - now the head of the Maori department at Takapuna Grammar School - tutored the school's Maori group, which performed yesterday.

He says the dream of three schoolboys is helping "break down walls" among those taking part in the festival.

"The whole idea is students coming together, enjoying one's culture and appreciating other cultures.

"Students from other ethnic groups are performing in other cultural groups - these [festivals] are the sorts of things that unite us."

Yesterday was the official opening of this year's festival; it kicked off with the first run of performances on the Maori stage and the junior Samoan speech competition.

The Diversity Stage - which will feature Indian, Fijian, Sri Lankan, Philippine and Korean cultural groups - is sure to be today's highlight and performances on the Maori stage will continue.

Groups on the Tongan, Niuean, Cook Island and Samoan stages will start performing tomorrow and end on Saturday.

"When we thought of [the festival] back then, we never thought about it [happening] the next year - but look at it now," Mr Raela said.

The Polyfest runs until Saturday at the Manukau Sports Bowl in Te Irirangi Drive, South Auckland.

* A mix of traditional Pacific and Maori food on offer.
* Free water at every performance stage - don't forget your water bottle.

* Queues outside toilets.
* For those looking for hot chips, hotdogs and sweets - these will be limited to only a few food stalls this year.