They appeared on the horizon just after dawn, at first as a row of bristling masts and billowing sails.

Next, darting ahead of the wind, came three pairs of triangular sails, the unmistakable signature of Polynesian sailing craft.

It was the sign more than 100 paddlers, some clad in capes of flax and feathers, had been waiting for.

The Tuia 250 flotilla - including, from left, the Endeavour, R Tucker Thompson and Fa'afaite from Tahiti - appears on the horizon just after dawn. Photo / Peter de Graaf
The Tuia 250 flotilla - including, from left, the Endeavour, R Tucker Thompson and Fa'afaite from Tahiti - appears on the horizon just after dawn. Photo / Peter de Graaf

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They boarded a line of waka moored in the shallows and bowed their heads as one of their number recited a prayer.

Then, as a conch shell sounded and a haunting karanga rang out from the women on the beach, they dug their paddles into the morning tide and set off to greet their strange visitors.

If you could block out the signs of modernity from nearby Paihia you could almost convince yourself it was a scene from the year 1769.

Temanava Macquarie from Rarotonga and her son watch as the Tahitian waka hourua Fa'afaite lands at Waitangi. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Temanava Macquarie from Rarotonga and her son watch as the Tahitian waka hourua Fa'afaite lands at Waitangi. Photo / Peter de Graaf

It was in fact part of the Tuia 250 commemorations as a flotilla of tall ships and waka hourua (double-hulled ocean-going canoes) arrived at Waitangi early yesterday, marking 250 years — for better or worse — of the first significant contact between Māori and Europeans.

The voyage started at the East Cape in September and reached the Bay of Islands on Thursday via Coromandel, Auckland and Whangārei. Next they head for Picton and Wellington.

The tall ships in the fleet are a replica of Captain Cook's Endeavour, The Spirit of New Zealand, and Northland's own R Tucker Thompson.

Sailors from Tahiti (left, carrying a mauri stone from the island of Raiatea) and Hawaii are welcomed to Te Tii Marae alongside master navigator Jack Thatcher of Tauranga (holding a photo of Sir Hekenukumai and Hilda Busby) and Tuia 250 co-chair Jenny Shipley of Russell. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Sailors from Tahiti (left, carrying a mauri stone from the island of Raiatea) and Hawaii are welcomed to Te Tii Marae alongside master navigator Jack Thatcher of Tauranga (holding a photo of Sir Hekenukumai and Hilda Busby) and Tuia 250 co-chair Jenny Shipley of Russell. Photo / Peter de Graaf

One of the waka hourua, the Tahitian vessel Fa'afaite, started its journey months earlier by retracing the route taken by the ancestors of Māori when they left eastern Polynesia.

The other waka hourua are Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, built by the late Sir Hekenukumai Busby, and Haunui. Sir Hek is credited with reviving Māori ocean voyaging traditions.

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Yesterday's on-water welcome for the flotilla was all the more poignant because it was the first time since Waitangi Day 2018 — and the first time since Sir Hek's death — that the great waka Ngātokimatawhaorua had been in the water.

Warriors issue a challenge at Te Tii Marae to more than 300 manuhiri (guests) from the Tuia 250 flotilla. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Warriors issue a challenge at Te Tii Marae to more than 300 manuhiri (guests) from the Tuia 250 flotilla. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Once the visitors were ashore they were welcomed to Te Tii Marae with a series of powerful challenges.

They were led by master navigator Jack Thatcher of Tauranga, carrying a photo of Sir Hek and his wife Hilda, and sailors from Hawaii and Tahiti. The Tahitians carried a mauri stone from the island of Raiatea, regarded by many as the ancestral home of Māori.

Some of the most significant interactions between Captain Cook, his Tahitian interpreter Tupaia and Māori took place on Moturarohia Island near Russell, hence the Bay of Islands focus of the current leg of the Tuia 250 voyage.

The tall ships will be open to the public at Opua wharf from 10am-3pm today and tomorrow.


Tuia a 'rebalancing' of history, ex-PM says

Among those watching the flotilla's arrival at Waitangi was Tuia 250 co-chairwoman Jenny Shipley, a former prime minister now based in Russell.

One of the aims of Tuia 250 was to rebalance history by making sure New Zealanders' dual heritage was ''evened up and properly represented'', she said.

''Wherever we've been we've tried to ensure the encounters [between Captain Cook and Māori] are honestly explained, good and bad ... That hasn't always been the case.''

While Tuia 250 had attracted controversy Shipley said the commemorations had always allowed room for different opinions.

''A small but important group still feels very keenly that Cook's arrival changed everything. This [Tuia] is who we are 250 years on. Some feel a lot has yet to be done, others that progress is being made. Both are right in their own way.''

Shipley said a highlight for her so far had been seeing the launch at Russell of a waka started by Sir Hekenukumai Busby and Tahitian carver Puaniho Tauotaha, then completed by Tauotaha's son Freddie 27 years later.

She hoped Tuia 250 would prompt New Zealanders to think where they wanted to country to be in 20 years' time when the Treaty of Waitangi was 200 years old.

A bigger than usual police presence was visible around Waitangi yesterday but there was no trouble or sign of protest.

Instead, the event felt like a joint celebration of two ocean voyaging traditions — one by sailing ship, the other starting centuries earlier by waka hourua.