If you see a trail of waka in the streets of South Auckland this weekend, it'll be paddlers retracing an 800-year-old route established by Tainui warriors.

The Portage Crossing takes competitors along the ancient Tainui waka route into Tāmaki Makaurau, forged after their long journey from Tahiti.

The race starts tomorrow morning at Ōkahu Bay in the Waitematā Harbour, and ends 18km away at Māngere Bridge Reserve, in the Manukau Harbour.

The unique part of the race is the 5km section in the middle, where competitors walk their waka through the streets of Ōtāhuhu and along Portage Rd to the Māngere inlet - just like those first Tainui warriors.

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Māngere's James Papali'i revived the ancient route with the race 27 years ago, working with Tainui kaumatua to ensure it followed correct tikanga.

At the time waka ama as a sport in New Zealand was in its infancy.

Papali'i was a co-founder of Manukau Outrigger Club in 1988, Auckland's second club and the fifth in the country, and has seen the sport grow to some 70 clubs nationwide, with dozens in Auckland alone.

The middle of the Portage Crossing takes competitors five kilometres overland through Otāhuhu, just as Tainui warriors did 800 years ago. Photo / Doug Sherring
The middle of the Portage Crossing takes competitors five kilometres overland through Otāhuhu, just as Tainui warriors did 800 years ago. Photo / Doug Sherring

He even thinks one day it could become an Olympic sport.

"I can definitely see it evolve to that point, it would be a great pathway for our youth."

Papali'i grew up in Māngere to an Irish mother and Samoan father, and saw waka ama as a way to connect the community - especially in urban environments - with their own heritage.

"Rugby, soccer, they are European sports. Waka ama is something we can give to the community from our own Māori and Pacific heritage.

"It reconnects us with our indigenous stories. It links the community, especially in urban environments, with their Māori heritage and with the Pacific Islands."

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The Portage Crossing told the specific story of the Tainui warriors who first arrived in the area.

"After arriving in the Waitemāta they travelled up the Tāmaki River, arriving at Ōtāhuhu, which means turning of the waka, and so there they turned the waka over and carried it across the isthmus," Papali'i said.

"When they came into what they called Manurewa, they were startled by the deafening manu (birds)."

The Portage Crossing has been a 27-year journey for Māngere's James Papali'i to share the 800-year-old story of the waka Tainui in Tāmaki Makaurau. Photo / Doug Sherring
The Portage Crossing has been a 27-year journey for Māngere's James Papali'i to share the 800-year-old story of the waka Tainui in Tāmaki Makaurau. Photo / Doug Sherring

The route was believed to have been used over generations as Māori travelled between the two bodies of water.

Papali'i, who wrote a masters thesis on waka ama with a focus on the Portage Crossing, saw the sport as not only a physical challenge, but with huge social benefits, especially in urban environments.

"The elements that attracted youths to the gangs, are inherent in waka ama. The brotherhood, whānau, challenges are all there, but without all of the negativity, and with smoke- and alcohol-free messages."

Hundreds of competitors were expected to take part in Saturday's race, which was scheduled to finish about 2pm at the Māngere Bridge Reserve.

There was a pōwhiri planned for the arrival, where an all-day community festival full of food and entertainment would be taking place.

Manukau Urban Māori Authority was hosting the event.

CEO Wyn Osborne said the Portage Crossing was a significant historical reference point for Auckland.

"The whole event has all the elements, a whānau day of celebration with a contemporary flavour and with a strong cultural tradition."