May 23, 2018

Waka Odyssey – Voyaging the Pacific

A life on the ocean began when a nine-year-old saw an old waka taua on the Waitematā harbour

Vaka Moana on its voyage to Hawaii, Auckland and Tahiti in 2011. Photo: Okeanos Foundation / Rui Camilo

As part of its Waka Odyssey, the 2018 New Zealand Festival brought together a group of traditional ocean voyagers to consider their relationship with the sea, and the ancient traditions they are playing a part in bringing back to life.

How did their lifelong involvement with the building and sailing of ocean-going double-hulled canoes begin?

Hoturoa Barclay Kerr recalls that when he was about nine years old, the Māori Queen Te Arikinui Te Atairangikaahu agreed that an old waka taua from Turangawaewae called Te Winika (now in the Waikato Museum) should travel to Auckland and participate in the Auckland anniversary regatta.

Te Winika waka after launching at Ngaruawahia ca.1938 Photo: University of Waikato

“It was 1970 or something like that. We were living in a little place called Ruatoki at that time, and my father loaded us up in a car and drove us all the way to Auckland early, early in the morning, to see this canoe being paddled on the Waitematā harbour.”

The reason for travelling over 300km? His father wanted them to experience the sight, because he thought it could be the last time that something like this would ever happen in this country.

That journey had a big impact on Barclay Kerr. The sense of history coming to life and the drama of seeing the waka taua on the harbour connected deeply to the stories he knew of his ancestors coming to Aotearoa.

He was familiar with drawings of waka and their paddlers. But seeing the real thing ignited the desire to understand more about the waka kōrero, the waka stories, of his tupuna or ancestors.

The Māori renaissance which was gathering pace in the 1970s would ensure that Te Winika’s outing would not be remembered as a final flourish of a culture which could only be appreciated in museums.

This bronze statue on the Wellington waterfront depicts Kupe Raiatea, the great Maori explorer, his wife Te Aparangi and the tohunga Pekahourangi. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Heather Cuthill

Screenshot from a 1974 TV documentary about the making of Tāhere Tikitiki Photo: NZ On Screen

Barclay Kerr recalls a revival which took place on the Waikato River. There, all the old waka taua in the collection that Princess Te Puea had commissioned for the 1940 centenary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi were now being re-examined.

Could they no longer simply recall the past? Could they in fact be restored and used again?

“Suddenly there was this great interest in getting them in good seaworthy condition again and I was fortunate enough to be around at the time when that refurbishment took place.”

Te Atairangikaahu also commissioned the building of a new waka taua called Tāhere Tikitiki, which greatly impressed the teenaged Barclay Kerr.

Through the following years he spent a lot of time with the builders of the new canoe and some of the kaumatua who had paddled in the older canoes when they were young men in the 1930s and the 1940s.

He found their stories enthralling. And it was from this time that he started to really get carried away with the whole idea of how his tupuna came here.

Initially he fell into the trap of assuming they had come to Aotearoa in the war canoes he was used to seeing being paddled up and down the rivers, but his moment of revelation about the difference in the kind of waka which were used for ocean navigation would not be long in coming.

Aged about fifteen, he was with his parents attending a meeting in the Mahinarangi wharenui at Turangawaewae. While they were busy in a room next door, he came across a film projector and some reels of film that were sitting around. So, to pass the time he threaded the films up and watched them.

One of the reels was about the launching of the ocean-going canoe Hokule’a in Hawai’i.

Suddenly he realised what a real sailing canoe looked like. And that discovery was matched by an equally powerful desire to go to Hawai’i and touch this canoe which he believed to be a model of what his tupuna had travelled on all those centuries before.

However, parental opposition intervened.

His mother and father were not happy with a fifteen year-old wanting to do something as outrageous as abandoning school to go to Hawai’i and try to sail canoes. So he had to continue his education.

The double-hulled canoe Hokule’a arriving in Honolulu from Tahiti in 1976 Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Phil Uhl

Nonetheless, as soon as his university studies were completed, Barclay Kerr went to Hawai’i and set foot on Hokule’a. The experience was every bit as profound as he had anticipated. Being onboard the canoe transformed his life. He remarks “It opened the gateway to our ability to think beyond those initial images that I had when I was just a boy growing up.”

And it led to a career in oceanic navigation, involving the rediscovery of ancient traditions of using the stars to guide the voyage, and keeping safe in the immensity of the Pacific Ocean.

Four voyaging waka in Wellington’s Oriental Bay Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

It also meant sitting with and learning from great canoe builders like Heke Nuku Mai responsible for the building of the Te Aurere and Ngahiraka waka, the latter of which led the flotilla into the Wellington harbour at opening of the Waka Odyssey at the 2018 New Zealand Festival.

Considering the depth of knowledge among his fellow-navigators in the panel discussion, Barclay Kerr concludes “It’s with great humility that I sit here.”

Sean Mallon, Charles Royal, Lauaki Lavatai Afifimailagi, Hoturoa Barclay Kerr, Peia Patai, Jack Thatcher at Te Papa Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

Waka Odyssey Part 2 – Oceans in Peril

Further reading:

Hokule’a waka

Okeanos Foundation

Samoa Voyaging Society

Te Toki Voyaging Trust


Recorded in partnership with the New Zealand Festival

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Photo: NZ Festival

Article by Paul Bushnell for Radio NZ – Pacific/History, 22 May 2018