Category Archives: The Wakas

The journeys of the Maori voyaging Wakas that carried people who’s descendants could have witnessed his passage.

The River Road

Kurahaupo banner

Half waka

Half of an old Maori river canoe. It is made from a single trunk.

Diary: The River Road.

It wasn’t so far from Opotaka to the start of the River Road, but from there it got harder. To get to Taumarunui, we had to cross over countless times, and it seemed that every two hundred paces there was another stream to cross.

We had been told that Taumarunui was a special place; it was the place of the last big rapids. Once there we could float on the current down to the sea.

We were careful to introduce ourselves respectfully, explaining that we were only passing through, and that as soon as we had built canoes we would be gone.

The Chief told us where we should camp, and where we might find good trees.

The men worked quickly. We soon had boats again, and were on the River Road. It was a long river that soon became very broad and smooth. It was good to be able to sit and relax as we were carried effortlessly downstream, moving as fast as a man can run.

Where we met people we repeated our respectful greeting… we were not staying, we were only passing through. We were visitors in their land, and we had no right to be there. We were careful to disturb as little as possible when we knew we were in someone else’s rohe.

At one stop we had an unexpected event.

There was a small settlement on the river side, and Tumatakokiri dutifully paid his respects to the chief. He explained that we were just passing through to the ocean and brought no trouble. Then, we listened patiently to the chief’s pepeha.

You could almost hear the gasp from us when he announced his waka as Aotea and Kurahaupo!.

He had sailed with Whatonga from Ra-aitea until they were wrecked on Rangitahua, and then he had continued to here on the Aotea. Turi and the other Aotea people still lived on the coast to the North, at a place called Patea, but he now lived up this river which he called Whanganui, after the big harbour it flowed into.

Until we arrived, he believed that the Kurahaupo had been lost, and that the other people remained there on Rangitahua.

When we left, he bade us farewell telling us to be careful at the river mouth; it is very dangerous. It only took us another day reach the sea from there.

River road route

The River Road route from Taupo to Whanganui

From Lake Rotoaire it is only 12 km across level ground to the head of the Whanganui River. In the next 30 km (as the crow flies) to Taumarunui it drops two thirds of its altitude through a series of rapids. But from Taumarunui it is navigable for the remaining 230 km to the sea.

Tumatakokiri and his people would have traveled from Taumarunui to the sea by boat, but the overland leg from Lake Taupo had to be completed on foot. Once at Taumarunui they were past the main rapids, and could take the easy ride downstream to the sea. Simple canoes were sufficient for this part of the journey.

Near the settlement now known as ‘Jerusalem’ they would have had a major surprise. There they would meet either Haupipi, or one of his his descendants.

When Tumatakokiri and his people came onto the territory of people already living in the area, there were formalities to be observed; they were uninvited visitors, and needed to explain themselves. The tangata whenua, the people already living there, would declare their rights over the land by explaining who they were, and how they had come to this place. In this ‘pepeha’ the Chief would recite who had gone before, and where they had come from. A pepeha includes a declaration of which waka their ancestors arrived on. In this speech The Ngati Tumatakokiri would have heard ‘Kurahaupo’… Whatonga’s boat.

Haupipi sailed on the Kurahaupo until it became stranded on Rangitahua, where he was one of the people that transferred to another boat, in his case, the Aotea.

The Aotea sailed on to New Zealand, first landing in the Harbour that now bears it’s name, just south of Raglan. From there the population carried on to Patea (on the coast between New Plymouth and Whanganui) and settled there.

The story is that Huapipi’s wife ran off with another man, and that Haupipi set off in chase. He caught up with her on the coast near Kapiti Island, where he cast a spell, and turned her into a rock.

After that, Haupipi didn’t return to Patea. Instead, at the harbour he’d called “Whanganui”, Big Harbour, he followed the river upstream, and finally settled there. The Whanganui river tribes are collectively known as Ngati Hau, and some traditions maintain that this name comes from Haupipi; but this is only one of several explanations of its origin.

Tumatakokiri and his people were ‘cousins’ and would have been welcomed accordingly.

Once back on the river it was only a day’s paddling to the river mouth at Whanganui. There, they most likely changed their type of transport again.

Diary. Whanganui

Here at Whanganui the men are busy building again. We came here in canoes, but soon we will be sailing once more.

They are making some bigger hulls, and lashing them to the canoes in pairs. They are nothing at all like the Kurahaupo, they are much smaller. But though they can’t individually carry very much, they are much easier to build, and much more maneuverable. We are making rope and weaving the sails.

The mouth of the river looks terrifying. At each tide we see swell the height of a man roll up the river from the ocean, often carrying with it whole trees. At these times the waves are so steep that we would not be able to pass them. But the local people seem to come and go quite easily. They tell us there is a safe way to go through on the outgoing tide, but you must choose the time, weather and the sea swell carefully.

When we leave this harbour will go to the South.

River road route

The Whanganui River mouth

There is an element of speculation in the account given above. There is no mention in the oral tradition of how the Tumatakokiri sailed from Whanganui. However, the evidence shows that the Ngati Tumatakokiri maintained the double hulled sailing boat tradition of the Polynesians, right into the seventeenth century.

When Isaac Gilsemans drew the Maori in their boats, he drew double canoes.

Abel Tasman recorded… “their boats consisted of two long narrow Proas side by side over which some Planks or other seats were laid”. Tasman’s journal also adds …” two of them hoisting a sort of tingang sails”.

The Tumatakokiri were using double hulled sailing canoes in the South Island, so we might presume that on meeting the sea, they re-fitted their river canoes similarly for coastal sailing.

In the Society Islands, James Cook noted that the common practice was to use hulls singly where this was appropriate, but to lash them together when the occasion required a more stable craft.

The most common style of coastal vessel was to have two hulls, one larger than the other. The hulls were spaced apart slightly more than the width of a hull, and secured using cross spars. The sail would have been a simple isosceles triangle, with spars on the two longer sides. The point of the sail was tied down to the front of the main hull, and the sail was lifted into position using a forked prop. The small hull acted as an outrigger, stabilising the craft, and also provided somewhere to secure the lines holding the prop and sail in position.

The land up the coast to the North was occupied by the people from the Aotea; beyond that were people from the Tokomaru, and beyond them were those from the Tainui.

After crossing the Whanganui River bar, the Ngati Tumatakokiri followed the coast south.

The Great inland sea

Kurahaupo banner


Ngati Tumatakokiri warriors drawn by Isaac Gilsemans from the deck of the Zeehaen

The history of Ngati Tumatakokiri is not well known.

Their ultimate fate was to be conquered and dispersed as a tribe around 1830. None of their senior members married into other nobility, and with their stories no longer forming part of a tribe’s history, their oral tradition was lost. Fortunately, some stories were recorded by early Europeans, and it is on these accounts, and those of the conquering tribes, that this account is based.

Diary. Moving again.

Tara went South with a lot of people. They have gone to find the great Harbor that Whatonga discovered.

We have left too; Tautoki and his people remain in Heretaunga.

We took boats as far as we could, with all our goods, but it wasn’t very far. We said our goodbye’s again, and the boats went back to Heretaunga. After that we picked up what we were tasking, and walked. It was hard work and very slow getting up the valley. The path was not clear and there were very many streams to cross.

The wind was strong in our faces as we went through the last saddle and started down. Soon we saw the great inland sea, and the plains before it.

When we got to the lake we found there were already some people there, the Ngati Hotu, we saw their fires before we met them. We moved away from their villages, following the shore around to the South and towards the great white mountain.

This was the same mountain we could see from Heretaunga.

At the south end of the lake, under the white mountains we found another lake. Here there are plenty of fish, eels and birds. We have built our huts, but it is cold here. I miss the warmth of our Island home.

To Taupo

Tumatakokiri’s journey to Lake Taupo

Tumatakokiri took a party of followers from Heretaunga to the Taupo. But we don’t know precisely the route they took.

In the Taupo district there’s a Maori saying ‘Heretaunga ara rau’… ‘Heretaunga of a hundred tracks’. There were very many ways to cross the Tarawera range to Taupo, but to go from the Heretaunga plains to Lake Taupo, and none was better than another. It was only possible to paddle a few kilometres inland before the rivers became too rapid and broken to continue. After that you journeyed in foot, following the watercourses upstream until you finally crested the range.

Once on the descent to Taupo the lake quickly comes into view, and the plains before it.

There was already a small population in the area. The Ngati Hotu occupied the land to the northern end of the lake. They were described as ‘fairy people’ because of their reddish hair and fair skin.

It was also at the north end of the lake that in 1869 the British built their redoubt. They built it where the Waikato River exits the Lake, close to a natural hot spring.

At about the same time as the Ngati Tumatakokiri arrived, so did another two groups, both original occupants from the Te Arawa canoe. One party was led by Tia, and the other, by the Te Arawa Tohunga, Ngātoroirangi. These two formed the basis of the Tūwharetoa people who would come to dominate the area. They settled on the eastern and southern shores of the lake.

Lake Rotoaire

Lake Rotoaire

It is most likely that the Ngati Tumatakokiri also settled to the south of the lake. It was an area that was essentially vacant, but with a bountiful food supply.

Lake Rotoaira, just to the South of Taupo is a natural ‘food basket’. It is an ancient settlement area, known as ‘Opotaka’, meaning either a place to camp, or a food store. The lake is teeming with fish and eels, there are water fowl in huge numbers, and the surrounding forests were rich with foods; berries, roots, and birds.


George Angas. Motu Puhi Pa and Rotoaire Lake, Tongariro in the Distance. c 1847. Auckland Art Gallery

Lake Rotoaira is particularly well known for another reason. On the lake is an Island, Motu Puhi, which used to be a Major Pa. In 1810, the chief Te Rauparaha hid there from his enemies (Te Rauparaha had a lot of enemies). On emerging from his hiding place he performed an animated Haka. This was the first place that these famous words were spoken; ‘Kama te, Kama te Ka ora, Ka ora…’, now known the world over as .

The Ngati Tumatakokiri may well have stayed at Lake Rotoaire, or they may not… we can’t be certain. We also don’t know exactly how long they stayed, or why they left, but we do know the route they took on their departure.

There is an ancient Maori walkway that leads from the South end of Lake Taupo. It passes Opotaka, and Lake Rotoaira, and then, just a few kilometres beyond, it picks up the head of the Whanganui River… ‘The River Road’ that leads to the West Coast.

To the Heretaunga plains

Kurahaupo banner

To Heretaunga Plains

From Nukutaurua to the Heretaunga Plains

At Nukutaurua, the Kurahaupo people had a reasonably comfortable life. The sea gave them plenty of fish and shellfish, and there were eels in the lagoons and estuaries, but the land was not so generous. The plants they had brought with them; Taro, Kumara, Yam, Aute, Gourd and Cabbage tree did not grow well there.

If they wanted the plants they had brought with them to yield crops, they needed to move.

In those times there were no roads, only a few tracks, and the Maori had no wheels or pack animals. When moving from one place to another the choice was simple. Either; walk and carry what you have with you, or put it in a boat and paddle.

The founding population of New Zealand was born of Polynesian seafarers; accomplished boat builders, navigators and sailors. Boats were the principle means of transport. As New Zealand was settled, it was populated first around its water margins, coast and river, and later, inland. To travel any significant distance except by water was extremely arduous in this hilly and unbroken land.

Diary. Heretaunga

“We set of for the plains with everything we could fit in the canoes. Some of the men returned for the rest later.

We rounded the Cape and saw across the Bay for the first time. It was a long way, but we could see the hills on the far shore in the distance; our new home. As we went around the bay we could see that there were other people in the area, we could see their fires. The men had already spoken to some of them. We wouldn’t go where the hearths are kept warm, we didn’t want to fight. We went to the land at the far Eastern end of the bay, close to Te Matau-a-Māui.

At Te Awanga we have a good little harbour, and river. Fishing is good out towards the Cape, and there are plenty of crabs and shellfish around the rocks. We have hills behind us and the plains at our side. The hills give us big trees, for building and for canoes. We burned the bush off the flat land next to us and turned the ash into the ground; it makes fine planting fields.

The soil here is good to work with; as it is neither too hard for the Ko to break, nor too wet for the young plants.

Our plants are thriving in the good soil and sunshine. They will never dry out here. Even if the land dries we will be able to give them water from the rivers. This year’s harvest will be good. Until then we have what sea and forests give us, as well as the fern root that we have been shown by the local people.

This is a bountiful land. Thank the spirits.”

Most of the Kurahaupo people moved on, but Popoto stayed and married Nanaia. Six generations later Rongomaiwahine, was born, famous for her beauty. Rogomaiwahine had exceptional lineage. She was descended from both Popoto, captain of the Kurahaupo and Ruawharo, Tohunga of the Takitimu. Rongomaiwahine rose to lead a tribe of that name, and those people remain on Mahia to this day.

Under the leadership of Whatonga, The Kurahaupo people left Nukutaurua for the lush plains around what is now known as Hastings, in Hawke’s Bay. It is a large and sheltered coastal plain with fertile soils. The plains are watered and drained by three large rivers that never run dry, and it is amongst the sunniest parts of the country. These days it is famous for its wines; a testament to the region’s wonderful growing conditions.

The people of the Kurahaupo settled on the plains, but they were not the only people that had found the location attractive… there were already groups there; the Te Tini a Awa, Ngati Mahu, Ngati Mamoe, and Ngati Ira. Each had their own territories.

One of the elements defining a tribe’s range was where their fire pits were located. Where they regularly lit fires was considered to be within their ‘rohe’, or territory. If you moved onto land that had recent fire pits on it, then you should expect that someone else had prior claim over it.

There were four principal means of acquiring territory.
– The land was vacant
– Your people had always been there
– The territory was gifted to your people by someone with rightful guardianship
– Your people took the land by conquest

If you trespassed on someone else’s land uninvited, then you should expect to be evicted.

The Kurahaupo people occupied the coast and land to the East of the Tukituki River.

Whatonga built himself a house he called ‘Heretaunga’ which was known for its fine carvings. ‘Heretaunga’ means; a place where you tie up the canoes, but over the course of time this name became used to represent the whole area.

On these fertile Heretaunga plains, the Kurahaupo people and their crops flourished.

Whatonga’s first son was born at Te Awanga, to his first wife, Hotuwaipara. They named him ‘Tara-Ika’. The story is that Whatonga went on a fishing trip to Cape Kidnappers where he caught a lot of fish. On his return his wife cut herself on the spines of one of the fish, and Tara-Ika, ‘fish spine’, was named after this event.

Cape kidnappers is known to the Maori as ‘Te Matau-a-Māui’, ‘the fishhook of Maui’ that pulled up the North Island..

Whatongas exploration

Whatonga’s exploration of the North Island

After Tara was born, Whatonga set out to explore some of this new land. He rounded Cape Kidnappers and followed the coast of the North Island in an anti-clockwise direction. He touched the top of the South Island, and entered Wellington Harbour which he named for his son; ‘Te Whanganui a Tara’, ‘The great harbour of Tara’.

He continued around the coast to the west and north and then went up the Manawatu River. At Aokautere (to the East of Palmerston North) he married his second wife, Reretua, and had another son, Tautoki. After a while, Whatonga moved on again, back to Heretaunga, bringing with him his new wife Reretua and infant Tautoki.

Reretua had at least two more sons, and Hotuwaipara had another son, Tumatakokiri.

Among the Polynesian immigrants it was common for the men to have multiple wives. These were often women from the ‘Tangata Whenua’, the ‘People of the Land’, that were already living there.

The Heretaunga Plain

The Heretaunga Plains

To the South-West of Napier is the township of Taradale. It’s original name is Omaranui, which means ‘place of abundant cultivation’. Overlooking it, and controlling the Tutaekuri River is a huge Pa site called Otatara. This is an ancient site that was occupied by the Ngati Ira when the Kurahaupo people arrived.

Tara took his people, and with the Ngati Mamoe mounted an unsuccessful assault on Otatara Pa. In retaliation, Te Whakumu, Chief of Te Ira, led 400 men in an attack on the Ngati Mamoe stronghold at Puketapu.

This indicates the scale of the population on the plains at that time; a single tribe could present 400 warriors when required.

Rangitanes Pa

Tanenuiarangi Pa, 1859, By Henry Bates. Alexander Turnbull Library. Reference Number: NON-ATL-0008. Object #11978

Tautoki married Waipuna, and they had a son Rangitane, (also known as Tānenuiarangi), who became the eponymous ancestor of the Rangitane tribe. Rangitane, built a Pa on the South side of the Ngaruroro River, in direct sight of Otatara, where he lived with his Grandfather, Whatonga. The Tānenuiarangi Pa was still occupied in 1859 when Europeans arrived, but is now the site of the Whakatu meat works.

Heretaunga became a springboard for growth, and inspired by Whatonga’s explorations, Tara set out to claim some of the new land he had discovered.

Kurahaupo expansion

The progress of the Kurahaupo population

Tara and his people made their way south from Heretaunga to ‘Te Whanganui a Tara’, Wellington Harbour. There they settled at Mirimar, which at that time was still an island. By the time Tara reached Mirimar they numbered over 200 people, and Tara had become the Eponymous ancestor of Ngai Tara. From Mirimar, Ngai Tara looked across Cook Strait to the South Island. In time they occupied the Marlborough Sounds and the coast around Nelson.

The Rangitane people expanded down the East coast occupying all that coast until their territory met with that of their cousin’s, now the Ngai Tara. From Palliser Bay they crossed to Wairau and the Blenheim plains.

The descendants of Whatonga, through Tara and Rangitane expanded their range, eventually occupying and controlling the whole of the North Island from Heretaunga south.

While Tara and Rangitane went South, another of Whatonga’s sons, Tumatakokiri, headed North-West… to Taupo.

The wreck of the Kurahaupo

Kurahaupo banner



If you travel to the Mahia Peninsula, cross to the North side, and follow the road to the East, you will pass many Urupa. They are all on the North side of the Peninsula.

This is a sacred place.

The tar seal stops at Nukutaurua, and a little further on the road ends. If you want to go further, then you have to walk.

And so it was for the crew of the Kurahaupo.

Incredibly, after successfully crossing 4,000 km of Pacific Ocean, the Kurahaupo finally came to grief on this benign looking shore on the Mahia Peninsula.

Diary: Nukutaurua

“When we left Te Hiku o Te Ika, we left Po and some others behind, but some Te Ngare joined us, and we had a crew again; there had been so few of us on that leg from Rangitahua.

‘The fire in the sky’ seems so far away now.

To Nukutaurua

The Kurahaupo’s course along the East coast of the North Island

As we traveled down the coast, on the East side of the Land we were amazed at just how enormous this land is. Often we passed between islands and the coast, and even these islands are big, some are bigger than any we have known before.

Sometimes on the land, we saw fires. There are people here and there. The Te Ngare had told us that there were others. Some have been here a long time, and some are new travelers like ourselves.

For the last days before we came here we saw only a few fires, and none since we came round a great Cape and the coast turned South.

The land around is high and tree covered, and the hills are deeply cut by valleys carrying big streams. There is plenty of water in this land but mostly the land stops high, and cliffs fall to the sea below.

As the coast turned again to the West Popoto said that we would go ashore where we next saw a good place.

At this place there was a flat plain in front of the beach, and behind were flat topped hills, grassy and bare. The hills were separated by valleys, and we could see that several good streams ran to the beach, a bigger one ran down through a wooded valley.

Popoto gave the instruction; we would land here.

The sail was lowered and we turned, the paddlers and steersmen now controlling our movements, directed by Popoto.

As the beach grew close, less than fifty paces, a shout went up, ‘reef!’

The beach, plain as it looked, had hidden reefs before it. The surf we had seen was not caused by the gentle uplift of a sandy beach floor, but by rows of reefs. Now we saw the lines of rocks running out from the shore, out to level with us, and beyond.

The men tried to turn us, but it was too late, we were trapped. The wind and the current pressed us onto a line of sharp rock, and one of our hulls smashed into it.

We were stuck, and one hull was sinking.

The wind and waves held us fast against the rocks, and try as they might, the men could not get us free. Now, with one hull filled with water, we were too heavy, and the reef gripped hard on our Kurahaupo.

Popoto told us to get everything ashore.

It was misfortune that put us on the hidden reef, but thankfully the water to the beach was shallow. We pulled all that there was from the waterlogged hull, and with everything on the deck we were, again, soon pushing through the surf, carrying with us all that we have.

We recovered everything, and salvaged what we could of our boat. Then we sat on the beach exhausted.

We warmed ourselves around fires and watched as the surf beat and broke the Kurahaupo. We will not sail on her again. “

nukutaurua reefs

The surf lines extending into the sea are lines of reefs. They extend far out under the surface.

After all they had endured; the crew of the Kurahaupo finally surrendered her to the ocean on a reef off the Mahia Peninsula.

It is remembered locally; that the Kurahaupo was bewitched and hit a reef close to the shore, that everyone survived, that the waka sank, and that it subsequently turned into a reef.

Cape Table

James Cook first made landfall in New Zealand at Gisborne on 9th September, 1769. He liked what he first saw of New Zealand so little that he left the bay just two days later, and headed South.

Wednesday, 11th September.

“We weighed and stood out of the Bay, which I have named Poverty Bay, because it afforded us no one thing we wanted.”

By noon the next day he had reached the eastern point of the Mahia Peninsula, next to an Island. He named them Cape Table, and Portland Island. These names are still used.

Thursday, 12th September.

“In the Afternoon, while we lay becalm’d, several Canoes came off to the Ship…”

“This point I have named Cape Table, on account of its shape and figure. It lies 7 Leagues to the Southward of Poverty Bay, in the Latitude of 39 degrees 7 minutes South, longitude 181 degrees 36 minutes West, it is of a moderate height, makes in a sharpe Angle, and appears to be quite flat at Top…

…We saw a great Number of the Natives assembled together on the Isle of Portland; we likewise saw some on the Main land, and several places that were Cultivated and laid out in square Plantations.”

The people that Cook saw were descended from the occupants of two waka’s; the Kurahaupo, and the Takitimu.

The local tribe is Te Rongomaiwahine, and have the common female ancestor of that name. She was of extremely noble lineage being descended from both Ruawharo, the Tohunga of the waka Tākitimu, and Popoto, commander of the Kurahaupo.

The full name of the Peninsula ‘Te Mahia mai Tawhiti’ was given by Ruawharo, as the land reminded him of where he had come from.

It means ‘The whisper of Home’.

However, only a few people from the Kurahaupo remained in Mahia. The rest of them moved onwards, looking for a more comfortable place to live.

To the plains of Heretaunga

Diary: Nukutaurua

“The men have returned from exploring, and there was a Hui. They said that some days to the South is a great and good plain with many rivers flowing through it, and that it will make us a good home.

“Popoto says he will stay here. It was decided that the rest of us will pack up what we have, and leave in the morning.

“Whatonga will lead us now.”

The Mahia peninsula provided all that was needed for survival, but on their journey down the East Coast they had seen more hospitable land. Most of the people of the Kurahaupo moved on looking for somewhere where they could enjoy an easier life; somewhere they could lay down roots… somewhere to call ‘home’.

The Great and misty land

kurahaupo banner

Kurahaupo progress

The Kurahaupo’s progress across the Pacific Ocean

The people of the Kurahaupo had traveled 3,000 km from Raiatea. With their boat repaired, they set sail again from Rangitahua, on the final ocean leg of their voyage.

The closest land is the North Cape of New Zealand…. 1,000 km to the West-South-West. If their course was good, and the weather fair, they would make that distance in about 10 days.

Diary: The ‘Great and misty land’

”We had been on the ocean over a week when we first saw the land sign. Land was still far off, beyond the horizon, but we could see the signs. In the direction we were sailing there should be nothing… nothing that is except Kupe’s ‘Great and Misty Land’… and now, we were approaching it.”

The next afternoon we saw it… what excitement there was. Ahead and to our right we could see the green of hills… green!. As we sailed the land grew slowly higher. What we could see wasn’t a huge land, like we were expecting, but it was definitely at least a big island. We carried on until dusk, and then lowered our sail. We didn’t want to be cast ashore in the night. We were carried on now only by the current and our wind drift.

The excitement kept us from anything but fitful sleep, but soon we were all wide awake.

We weren’t sure at first, but then it came clearer. We could hear breakers!

The current had carried us far and fast towards the shore… but in the dark we couldn’t see it. Finally we could just make out the faint blur of foam on a beach, and the men jumped to their thwarts, paddles in hand. Working to Pōhurihanga’s commands they turned the prow to the beach, but the current was strong. We were carried along the beach and came to a sudden, cracking stop.

Tom Bowling Bay

Te Huka Bay, with Tom Bowling Bay in the distance. The ‘Kurahaupo Rocks’ are the low lying rocks at the end of the beach.”

We had hit rocks.

We could now see the foam of the surf, it was very close, and very loud. We were nearly in it. A couple of men jumped in the water… they could stand! Then it was all action as we rushed to unload our treasures to the shore.

In the darkness we realised that there were others with us, helping us rescue our possessions from the sea; there were unfamiliar voices among us… strangers.

We stayed there on the beach and huddled for warmth until dawn, and with the light of day we met our rescuers. They are the people of the Te Ngake, and they live here.

We owe a lot to these people who came to our aid. Their sentry above the beach at Tomokanga had raised the alarm, and the villagers had come out in the night… and they had helped us.

We had arrived uninvited and in the darkness, yet they had helped us. We had made no courtesies or introductions, yet they still came to our aid. They had every right to cut us down on the beach as we landed… but they had not.

The Te Ngake made us welcome among them, and we have learned much from them. They have been here a long time, their ancestor Ruatāmore arrived on the waka Taikoria over twenty generations ago. They call this area ‘Te Hiku o Te Ika’, and it is the very northernmost part of the land. Pōhurihanga was correct to call it ‘muriwhenua’. They tell us there is much, more land to the South.

The Kurahaupo is in pieces again, but the men say it can be repaired. The Te Ngake have helped us drag her from the rocks, and up the stream to their village here. The stream is called Waitangi. The men will work on her here.

It is hard to believe that we are here… we have made it. We have finally reached Kupe’s ‘great and misty land’. What has become of those that went on the Aotea and the Mata-atua we do not know, but the rest of us have made it here, and we are all well.

May the Gods be praised.

[ Tom Bowling Bay photograph citation: Rāwiri Taonui. ‘Canoe traditions – Canoes of the northern tide’, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 15 Nov-12 URL: ]

Kurahaupo landfall

The Kurahaupo’s landfall at Tom Bowling Bay

As the people of the Kurahaupo reached New Zealand they again met with misadventure, this time hitting rocks in the dark. But their good fortune held, in the darkness they had come ashore on a beach, missing the cliffs arrayed to their left and right. They had hit rocks, but were within wading distance of the shore, and people had come to their aid. On landing, Pōhurihanga declared that they had reached ‘muriwhenua’, ‘the end of the land’.

They were helped by the local tribe, the ‘Te Ngake’, with whom they stayed until the Kurahaupo was repaired, and they were able to move on again. There were already people living where the Kurahaupo made landfall, and these people had been there for 23 generations.

Diary: South

The men have worked well on the Kurahaupo and she can sail again. The binding are again made anew. This time we made the rope from a strong flax that we were shown, it grows in abundance near here.

The people here have been very good to us, but we must move on. We cannot continue to take their food when we can go elsewhere and find our own.

Not all of us are leaving. Pōhurihanga, and some of the others are staying; Pōhurihanga has fallen for a local girl Maieke.

>We are told that there is much, much more land to the south, and that the best way is to follow the Eastern coastline, there is no need for any more ocean passage. They say you can go down the West coast too, but it is stormy and a more dangerous shoreline. So we are going South, by the Eastern coast, to find our new home.

Popoto will lead us now that Pōhurihanga has left the boat.

Departure course

The Kurahaupo’s course from Tom Bowling Bay

When the Kurahupo left, Pōhurihanga stayed in Te Hiku o Te Ika. He married Maieke who was a chiefly duaghter, and became their chief. They had a daughter ‘Muriwhenua’ who later moved south and married Rongokako from the Tākitimu canoe.

‘Muriwhenua’ is still used as the collective name for the six tribes of the Far North: Ngāti Kurī, Ngāi Takoto, Te Pātū, Ngāti Kahu, Te Aupōuri and Te Rarawa.

When Pōhurihanga and Maieke married, and he became chief and two ancestral lines joined. Because of this, the Te Ngake history, and that of the Kurahaupo’s are both remembered. In time the Te Ngake became known as Ngati Kuri, but the account of the Kurahaupo’s arrival was not forgotten due to the link through Pōhurihanga.

The Ngati Kuri remember that the Kurahaupo was damaged at sea, and that it stopped for repairs at ‘Rangitahua’, ‘fire in the sky’. The Te Ngake obviously knew that Raoul Island was volcanic. In the Ngati Kuri account, the Kurahaupo stayed on Rangitahua for some time, and during that time some of the crew joined other vessels. Pōhurihanga fishing net and seal skins were used to repair the damage to the Kurahaupo, after which they were able to sail on.

The Kurahaupo finally made landfall at Te Huka Bay, the beach at the West end of Tom Bowling Bay, thereby completing a total ocean voyage of 4,000 km from Raiatea to New Zealand. They had achieved this without loss of life, in a vessel constructed using entirely stone tools.

Kurahaupo rocks

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The arrival and wreck of the Kurahaupo is not only remembered in the Tribal history of the Ngati Kuri… the Kurahaupo’s presence at North Cape is recorded to this day on New Zealand’s Topographic maps.


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Raoul Island

The Kermadec Islands are somewhat grandly named.

Raoul, 8 km across at its broadest point, is by far the largest in the chain; and the only one with water. It is mostly rugged and steep. It has rocky beaches facing North and South-West, but no safe anchorage. Anyone visiting in a sailing boat would not choose to linger.

The next largest is Macauley Island. It is 100km to the South-South-West, just over a kilometre across, and barren. There are no trees there, and no water.

The remainder of ‘islands’ in the chain are just rocks; the largest being 100 metres across.

The people of the Kurahaupo had managed to find Rangitahua, Raoul to us, a tiny speck 2,000 km’s away from their point of departure. They had found the only piece of ground that could sustain them between Rarotonga and New Zealand.

Here they could rest, recuperate… and work out what to do next.

Diary: Rangitahua

Land. May the Gods be praised.

There was a wild scramble as we hit the shore. This island is a hard place to land, the coast is mostly cliffs, but we managed to find a broad rough beach on it’s North end.

Though the men tried hard with both sail and paddle, they had little control of the Kurahaupo; she was too heavy to turn, and mostly moved at the will of the waves. We landed roughly, but it was the best we could do. Everyone rushed to save what we could, racing in and out of the tide with load after load. Much of what we have was completely soaked, but we managed to get everything off her.

With everything we owned on the shore the Kurahaupo sat a little higher. We dragged her above the tide line, and took stock of where we were.

There is plenty of good water here. We all drank our fill and washed the sweat and salt from our bodies. It was good to be clean again after so long on the ocean.

Whilst there is water here, the land gives us little more; the birds are small, and the men have found no sign of any other animals. Inshore it is mountainous and hard. The sea however is bountiful, with plenty of shellfish, crabs, fish and seals. The island might be small, but we will not starve here… at least while we are few. However, pleasant as this island is, it cannot sustain many people.

The men have built some shelters (it’s a lot colder here than at home), and inspected the Kurahaupo. There is damage to the hulls, but they can replace the smashed parts. She also needs re-binding on all the hull pieces. At sea we couldn’t do anything about the shifting haumi, we had nothing spare to bind them with, and we still don’t. To complete the repairs we need rope. We are hoping that somewhere here we will find a source of good fibre, and then we can set about making new cord.

For the moment we are all well. But we are also stranded. Our destination lies far to the South-West, but for now, we have no means of reaching it.

The people of the Kurahaupo settled in at Raoul, ‘Rangitahua’ as they called it. The vessel seemed repairable, and they had with them the same tools and skills as they used to build her. They could make her seaworthy again but only if they could find suitable resources locally.

The critical item for them was rope. The bindings on the haumi had come loose. Perhaps they had worked loose, or had frayed, we don’t know. Either way, they needed replacing and strengthening.

When Cook was in Tahiti he noted how rope was made:

“This Island produceth 2 or 3 sorts of plants, of which they make the rope they use in rigging their Canoes, etc.; the finest sort, such as fishing lines, saine twine, etc., is made of the Bark of a Tree, and some from the Kind of Silk grass.”

Whether or not the people of the Kurahaoupo found “silk grass” or the right sort of tree to take the bark from isn’t known. Perhaps they had to improvise and use a local substitute for fibre. What is known, is that after a remarkable occurrence, the Kurahaupo was subsequently repaired, re-floated, and continued her voyage.

Diary: Visitors!.

In the last few days we have had the greatest of surprises; visitors!

Two big wakas; the Aotea and the Mataatua are sitting at anchor off the beach. They too are on their way to Kupe’s land, and have stopped here for water.

They came ashore, built altars, and made their oblations. Then we showed them what we knew of the island; where to find the best water and fish were to be had.

They understood out predicament, and have said they can take a few of our people onward with them.

We were greatly divided about who should go and who should stay.

It was finally decided.

Te Moungaroa, Akuramatapu, Tukapua, Turn and their women joined the Mataatua, and Hatonga, Haupipi and their women joined the Aotea.

“After the Aotea and the Mataatua sailed we found good fibre, and we could make rope from it. The men worked on the bindings as fast as we could weave the cord.

Repairs to the Kurahaupo went well, and the men say the she is seaworthy again… and this time the bindings will hold. We will soon be back on the ocean again; but our trepidation is now greatly diminished.

Diary: On the Ocean again.

We set out this time much reassured.

The other two boats were also on their way to Kupe’s land, and they too had come to Rangitahua on their way. We were at the right place, and on the right course. Not only were we on the right course… we had survived the most dangerous part of the voyage. We were over half way there.

The Gods, and Rangitahua, have been kind to us… may our fortune hold.”



And so they slipped away from Rangitahua, bound for New Zealand. Between them and their destination was another open expanse of ocean, 1,000 km across.

That is, it’s 1,000 km to the nearest land, and they still had to find it.

Rarotonga to Rangitahua

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Rarotonga and the Cook Islands

All boats bound for New Zealand went via Rarotonga; this was how the Polynesians negotiated their way around the Pacific. Directions to destinations were known from a small number of ‘hubs’. From these hubs it was known how to get to the individual islands.

To find your island of choice, you first went to the hub that it could be reached from.

Diary: Rarotonga

We didn’t stay long in Rarotonga, just long enough to re-stock our water and food and take the advice of their navigator tohunga. Some of us had relatives there, so there were hello’s to make, and then again more painful partings.

The people at Avura were friendly, but they wanted us to move on; they have enough of their own people to feed without having to look after us as well. They were pleased to help us, but also wanted us to be on our way. We were not the only ones who have stopped here on the way to Kupe’s land.

While in Rarotonga we needed to confirm our intended course. What we had heard was the words of Kupe, who had said “Kinsmen, I discovered a land at the setting place of the sun”. That meant south-west… but how far? The ocean is big, and land is small; we needed a better description if there was one to be had.

Our men spent a long time talking to the old tohunga, and he confirmed that our intention was correct. He had never made the journey himself, but he had learned the course from his tohunga, who in turn had learned it from his.

The old man told them there was another island on the way where we could get water. ‘Rangitahua’, was about three weeks away from here in fair conditions. From there we should follow the same course for another week or so, and we would find Kupe’s big and misty land.

The old man gave them the directions that had been given to him, and our men repeated it until it was firmly remembered; ‘lay the bows of the waka to the cloud pillar that lies to the south west. At nightfall steer towards the star Atua-tahi. Hold to the left of Mango-roa and at day break continue towards the cloud pillar’.

These were the exact words of Kupe.

Though we got little more than basic provisions, the Gods smiled on us in Rarotonga. We are now joined by another; Te Awe, a local navigator. He will be our guide to New Zealand.

So we set out on the ocean again, but this time we do so with a new emotion; trepidation.

We now know where we were going, but it is a very long way. We have never met anyone that has done this before. None of us has ever been South-West of Rarotonga… there is nothing South-West of Rarotonga unless you go really, really far.

None of us has ever been on a voyage so long, and none of the men has held ever a single course for so long.

As Rarotonga disappears into the haze, we forever leave behind all that we have ever known, and for the first time we fear for what will become of us.

May the gods be with us.”



The famous Polynesian navigator Kupe had said “Kinsmen, I discovered a land at the setting place of the sun “.

If the crew of the Kurahaupo had applied that instruction “the place of the setting sun” to their departure point, Raiatea, then the next land they would have encountered would have been very white, and very very cold. In Polynesian navigation, the point of departure was crucial.

When Kupe spoke his instructions, he was in Rarotonga, so to get to New Zealand, you sailed from Rarotonga.

Whilst nothing is remembered of the leg to Rarotonga, what happened after they left is recorded in multiple independent tribal histories.

The Kurahaupo became remembered as ‘Te Waka Pakaru ki te moana’… ‘the waka broken at sea’.

Diary: Rangitahua bound.

“We were on the sea for many days. We were still a long, long way from Kupe’s land… we couldn’t be close to that yet, but we could be close to Rangitahua… we had to be.

The Kurahaupo was in trouble, and so were we. The bindings holding the hulls together were loosening, and water was gushing in. We were bailing constantly, but the steersmen still urged us to try harder, they could barely keep her facing the right direction, and with all the extra weight of the water we were scarcely moving forward at all.

Whilst we had plenty of food; the Gods were kind, our catches were good, we had nearly no water left. We were conserving what we had, staying in the shelter out of the, and drinking as little as we could. We still had to drink something every day, but our needs were secondary. The men on the steering oars, standing out in the sun, had to have water… everything depended on them.

We didn’t talk about it, but we all knew how precarious our position had become. We had to find land (water) soon… or perish.

From dawn to dusk, but especially at dusk, we scanned the ocean and the sky looking for the land signs. Then, miraculously they were seen; bird and cloud, twig, branch and seal.

We turned, directed by the signs… and land came into sight.

May the Gods be praised.”

beyond rarotonga

Beyond Rarotonga

As the Kurahaupo was on the most hazardous stretch of their passage, they met with near disaster.

The ocean going waka’s were over twenty metres long. This meant that the hulls couldn’t be made from a single trunk.

The longest piece they could find was used as the keel and formed centre hull. To this they added ‘haumi’… extension pieces. On the Kurahaupo, the ties binding these haumi worked loose.

Ocean-going waka’s always leaked, and bailing was a continuous and normal activity, but on the Kurahaupo the water was rushing in, and the hulls flooded. This made her extremely heavy to steer, and very slow through the water, and speed was a critical factor for their survival. They could not stay on the ocean forever; they would die of thirst.

They had to reach land to find water.

The scale of their endeavour was incredible. From Rarotonga, already a thousand kilometres from home, they were sailing to New Zealand, 3,000 km away. 3,000 km is the distance from London to Rome… and back again.

Between Rarotonga and New Zealand is virtually uninterrupted ocean. The only possible respite is ‘Rangitahua’, or Raoul Island as we know it… and that is 2,000 km away.



They left Rarotonga seeking their target; a tiny island, 6km wide by 8km long… and approximately 20 sailing days distant.

Incredibly, they found it.

Under way

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In days following the launch preparations gathered pace. People began to say their goodbyes and important items for the voyage and subsequent settlement were moved towards the beach. Voyaging time, was nigh, and they would leave soon. The best time for voyaging was November to February, when the wind was most reliable and the sky was clear. A long voyage would be started at the beginning of the season.

There was a lot to take. Of course, they needed food and water for the voyage, but they also had to prepare for survival in a new land.

The men would have taken whatever tools they had; knives, adzes, hatchets, chisels, drills and hammers, and things that would help them catch food; spears, fishing lines, hooks and lures. They would use these on the journey as well as when they arrived.

They also took plants to cultivate on their arrival. We don’t know exactly what they took, we only know of the ones that succeeded in New Zealand; Gourd, Kumara, Taro, Yam, and Aute (Paper Mulberry). We know that they also brought dogs with them, as dog bones are found in archaeological excavations, and their pelts made the most valued cloaks… which still exist. It is inconceivable that they did not also bring pigs and chickens; the only large source of meat in East Polynesia. But when Cook arrived in New Zealand he noted the complete absence of domesticated animals, seeing only dogs and rats.

The men and women that would go on the voyage had been carefully chosen. In the new land they would create a new population, so they must not all come from one family, or the population would fail. The Kurahaupo carried people originating from more than one island. They were selected to include a wide range of unrelated people, and encompass all important skills and knowledge. Their personal skills, and those of their Tohunga would encompass knowledge of; the Gods and ritual, their oral history, navigation, astronomy, horticulture, fishing, sailing, hunting, healing, meteorology, wood working and stone working.

The last piece of cargo loaded prior to setting sail was their Gods. For a safe voyage, their Gods would go with them. The Kurahaupo carried ‘papa-tatau’; a sacred inscribed stone, and icons representing three deities; Ruamano, Tunuiateika and Maru.

Diary. Leaving home.

“Today was finally it… ‘the’ day.

The Kurahaupo sat on her anchor in the lagoon. We have been busy for days collecting things together; packing, and then loading. We ferried everything out in the canoes and then we sat on board… and waited.

Everyone was tense and quiet, even the animals were quiet. We’ve all been looking forward to this for a long time, but the goodbyes were awful… mothers, sisters, grandparents, friends and family. The lines of people saying their last few words moved oh, so slowly… some were inconsolable.

As we waited on the final preparations we could still hear the wailing on the beach. The reality of what we were about to do hit home hard.

At last, the Gods were brought out. Mahonga, our Tohunga, took charge of them for the voyage. We have four icons with us; Raumano, the shark will protect us on the ocean and Maru will provide us with water.

Then, when the Gods were properly secured in their positions, it was time. The men moved to their thwarts and took up the paddles. The steersmen took their places, the anchor was lifted and we moved out of the lagoon.

Past the reef we sailed around the island until the markers lined up, showing us our course for Rarotonga. There we turned. The Kurahaupo picked up speed, and the island slowly drifted away from us. The motion of the boat changed from the bouncy chop of the inshore waters to the slow roll of the ocean.

Without the chanting of the paddlers the boat fell into a reflective silence. Water sloshing past the hulls, and the occasional cluck from the chickens were the only sounds. No-one wanted to talk.

At sunset we could still just see the flat top of Mt Temehani, then as the first guiding star of the night came up over the horizon, our island slipped away into the darkness.

I don’t expect to ever see it again, or the family I have left behind.

May the Gods be kind to us…”

We don’t know exactly which island the Kurahaupo originally set out from. It is remembered as leaving from ‘Hawai-iki’, which isn’t the name of a single island; rather it means ‘homeland’. Hawai-iki could have been an Island in the French Polynesian Tahiti group, or in the Marquesa’s group; we don’t know for certain. We do know however that the Kurahaupo finally left from Rangiatea, 200 km to the west-north-west of Tahiti. From Rangiatea, the Kurahaupo sailed to Rarotonga.

Leaving Rangiatea

Leaving Rangiatea, Society Islands

Rangiatea to Rarotonga is just over 1,000 km. That’s further than the distance between London and Rome, and apart from a couple of Islands close to their destination, it is all open and featureless ocean. However, this would not have been an alarming journey for the crew of the Kurahaupo. They had been on the ocean since they were born, and they knew this route well. Even if they hadn’t personally made this journey before, they knew others that had. Certainly, some aboard the Kurahaupo would have traveled this route before.

On leaving they would pass through the reef break, then follow it around to the South until the correct course markers came into sight. These markers were two features, one behind the other, that, when lined up, indicated the precise direction that they must sail to reach Rarotonga. They would follow this line for as long as the markers remained visible. Once these markers fell out of sight they were entirely in the hands of the navigator, who would then direct their passage using only the sun and stars.

James Cook was intrigued by the Polynesians ability to sail long distances without any assistance from what he regarded as essential navigational aids. On leaving French Polynesia in 1769 he recorded this about the navigation of the people of ‘Ulietea’ (aka ‘Rangiatea’, where the Kurahaupo sailed from);

“…from all the accounts we can learn, these people sail in those Seas from Island to Island for several hundred Leagues, the Sun serving them for a Compass by day, and the Moon and Stars by night. When this comes to be proved, we shall be no longer at a loss to know how the Islands lying in those Seas came to be peopled; for if the inhabitants of Ulietea have been at Islands laying 2 or 300 Leagues to the Westward of them, it cannot be doubted but that the inhabitants of those Western Islands may have been at others as far to Westward of them, and so we may trace them from Island to Island quite to the East Indies.”

[A ‘league’ is about 5 ½ km, or 3 ½ miles; 100 leagues is about 550 km, or 350 miles]

Cook showed remarkable insight; Polynesia was populated by seafarers originating from South East Asia.

The Kurahaupo sailed west, 180 leagues.

Depending on the weather it would have taken about 10 days for the Kurahaupo to reach Rarotonga. The return leg, back to Rangiatea, and into the wind, took about 30 days, but the crew of the Kurahaupo weren’t going back.

Nothing is remembered of the journey to Rarotonga, but they would most likely have stopped at either Mitiaro or Mauke, depending on how far north or south their course ran. Here they could refresh their water before continuing; an essential prudence on long voyages.

From Rarotonga they would take a route that none of them had sailed before. This route was not only new to them, it was very, very long.

Beyond Rarotonga

From Rarotonga, out into the unknown

The leg to Rarotonga was 1,000 km and familiar.

The remaining 3,000 km to New Zealand was out into the unknown.

Whakainu waka: The launching


The 9th and final Crusade to the Holy Land had failed to rescue Jerusalem from the infidels. Edward I returned to find William Wallace (‘Braveheart’) leading a Scottish rebellion against English rule.

Kublai Kahn, grandson of Genghis Kahn, ruled an empire reaching as far west as Turkey and Poland. Marco Polo reached Peking carrying papal letter for the emperor.

In South America the Mayan civilisation had been, and gone. The Aztecs were expanding and established what is now Mexico City. Further south, the Inca’s were building the world’s first suspension bridges.

The Sun moved around the Earth; to suggest otherwise would get you burned as a heretic.

Columbus would not discover America for another two hundred and fifty years.

On the boulder bar of the Wairua River, near Blenhiem, in the South Island of New Zealand, an old Polynesian man and his dog were buried.

On tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, people were building ocean-going boats, and preparing to set sail for New Zealand.

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Society Islands

Rangiatea, Society Islands

Rangiatea is in the Society Islands, 200km wnw of the largest island, Tahiti. Cook called them the ‘Society’ Islands, not because of the nature of the people he met there, but because the islands were grouped together.

The Kurahaupo may have come from somewhere before Rangiatea, but any location is not remembered in a way that allows us positively locate it.

I imagine the Kurahaupo initially coming from the Marquesa’s Island. There is no conclusive evidence to support this view, and I hold it largely as it has a particular romantic appeal… which could be entirely incorrect. I’ll explain this later, when this account of the Kurahaupo’s journey reaches Mahia.

The voyage of the Kurahaupo was a long time in the planning.

We don’t know why the people on the Kurahaupo left their island homes, it is not remembered in the oral traditions. The most common reasons were; to escape enemies made, or to escape starvation. Whatever the reason, it had to be very pressing indeed; the journey was incredibly perilous. Few had attempted it, virtually none had returned. It involved an ocean passage of about 30 days beyond the known and traveled routes, and it required a boat… a big boat, twenty something metres long, and building a boat that size demanded all the resources they had available. All ways round it was a huge undertaking.

To build a large ocean going waka was an enormously labour intensive task, and it took a long, long time to complete. After the two trees that would form the keels of the individual hulls were felled, they were trimmed into log and then fashioned into their rough end form. This was done where they fell… which meant that they only had to haul a smaller trunk from the forest down to the beach where the main assembly would take place.

There were be many people involved in felling, trimming and shaping the hulls… and these people all had to be fed. A suitable area nearby was cleared, and seeded with crops, a whole season before the trees would be felled.

Taking a big tree from the forest was not just a large and arduous task, it was surrounded in ritual. The trees did not belong to men, they were of the gods. Big trees were never destroyed frivolously for fear of offending the Gods. These particular trees would form the main parts of an ocean going waka. If they were cursed or bewitched then the vessel and its occupants would be doomed. Scrupulous adherence to due ritual was applied to these trees, and all the off-cuts, and all the chippings.

Women were largely excluded from the construction process. Most particularly, menstruating women were thought to bring misfortune onto whatever they came in contact with. However, they were not entirely excluded. It was the women that made all the ropes, and the women that wove the sail. Nevertheless, most of the womenfolk would not even see the vessel until it was finally completed, and hauled from its house.

In the days following the launch, preparations gathered pace. People began to say their goodbyes, and important items for the voyage, and subsequent settlement, were moved towards the beach, then to the boat. The best time for voyaging was November to February, when the wind was most reliable and the sky was clearest. Long voyages were best begun at the start of the voyaging season.

There was a lot to take. Of course, they needed food and water for the voyage, but they also had to prepare for survival in a new land.

They would take whatever tools they had; knives, adzes, hatchets, chisels, and hammers, and things that would help them catch food; fishing line, hooks, nets and lures. They would use these on the journey as well as when they arrived. They would also bring whatever weapons they had.

They also took plants to cultivate on their arrival. We don’t know exactly what they took, but we do know of the ones that succeeded in New Zealand. Gourd, taro, yam, and aute (paper mulberry) were all brought, they did not exist in New Zealand before the arrival of the Polynesians. Presumably they also brought other plants that did not prosper in the colder climate.

We know that they brought dogs with them, as dogs bones are commonly found in archaeological excavations, and it is inconceivable that they did not also bring pigs and chickens; the only large source of meat in East Polynesia, yet there were no pigs or chickens among the Maori when Europeans arrived. Cook made particular note that among the Maori he only saw dogs and rats.

The men and women to go on the voyage would have been carefully chosen. In the new land they would create a new population, so they could not all come from the same family… or the population would fail. So the Kurahaupo carried people originating from more than one island. They were selected to include all the important skills and knowledge to aid their survival. Their tohunga and personal skills would encompass knowledge of the Gods and ritual, history, navigation, astronomy, meteorology, gardening, fishing, sailing, hunting, healing, and wood and stone working.

Finally, the day came that the Kurahaupo was fully loaded, and they were ready to leave.

Wakas: Part 3

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Schouten waka

The vessel sighted mid-Pacific by Schouten in 1616

What do we know of the type of vessels used to first explore and settle New Zealand?

We can’t be entirely certain, but some things are well understood. We know the general size, appearance, and construction of these ocean-going vessels, but we do not know absolutely; the bow and stern shape of the hulls, or the type of sail rig.

They were large catamarans. The hulls were long and narrow and for ocean going a length of about 25 metres was preferred. The hulls were joined by spars, over which a deck was laid. The vessels could carry up to sixty people or more.

There is no written description of these vessels, and there are no contemporary pictures. By the time the European first recorded these Polynesian ocean going vessels, voyaging to new Zealand had been long ceased.

Tongan waka

The waka seen by Abel Tasman in Tonga, in 1643.

The first illustration is from Schouten’s journal, 1616. It was drawn somewhere mid-Pacific, to the North-West of the Society Islands. The next picture is from Abel Tasman’s journal, 1643, in Tonga.

From these pictures, and subsequent details recorded in the Journals of James Cook and Joseph Banks, we glean details of the Polynesian voyaging vessels that may allow us to re-construct their complete appearance.

These vessels were catamaran style (double hull) sailing boats, and they were steered from the back with two long and broad oars. A flat deck spanned the hulls for more than half of their length, and this deck protruded somewhat over the sides of the hulls. The hulls were covered to keep the water out, and the deck was constructed above these.

The larger vessels seen in the Society Islands were 30 metres or more long, but slightly shorter ones were preferred for open ocean work. Joseph Banks wasn’t specific when he described the length of the voyaging vessels, he only said “the middling sizd ones are said to be the best”. We do however, have more specific information regarding the length of the Tainui waka.

Maketu marker stones

The stone pillars marking the bow and stern of the Tainui

The Tainui waka sailed to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia, and ended up in Kawhia Harbour on the West Coast of the North Island. There it was separated into two hulls. The longer of the two (the hull named ‘Tainui’) was finally buried on a hillside at the harbour’s edge.

A marker stone was placed at the bow and stern, and they are still there today. The distance between the stones is “86 feet”, and since the Tainui lies “between” these pillars we might estimate its length to be about 22 metres.

There was some sort of shelter indicated on the deck of the voyaging boats as well as a fire. The two earliest illustrations (at the top) show thatch over a frame of bent timbers, and this appears to have been quite common. Others had timber huts on them, though this might not have been the norm. It is known that royalty had small houses on their boats. These huts would normally be used on land, but placed on the boats while the royals were travelling.

Of the shape of the hulls, we can be less certain. In the Society Islands, both Banks and Cook described vessels with very high bows. This was also shown in the measured drawing of the “War Canoe”. Yet neither of the earliest drawings of Schouten or Tasman show particularly raised ends, either bow or stern.

Maori waka seen by Tasman

A Maori double hulled boat seen by Abel Tasman, 1642

We are not much helped by the fact that there are very few eye witness accounts of double hulled vessels in New Zealand.

The settlers brought with them technical knowledge and practice as it existed in Eastern Polynesian at the time they left… about five hundred years before Cook visited the Society Islands. The only earlier illustration of Maori waka is one drawing by Isaac Gilsemans on Abel Tasman’s voyage. It is included in Tasman’s journal, and shows in close-up, a double hulled vessel. Unfortunately this waka was not equipped with sail… just paddlers.

This drawing however does not help us resolve the question of how the hulls were terminated. It clearly shows the left hand end of the boat (as we look at it) is raised higher than the other end, but this is not conclusive. There is a problem with this drawing… the steersman is facing the wrong way… When Gilsemans drew this, he showed the steersman forward of the rowers. This is incorrect, the steersmen were always on the stern. The question is, did he draw the steersman facing the wrong way, or the rowers? We can’t be certain in this drawing which is the bow, and which is the stern.

modern wakas

Waka’s assemble at Waitangi Day celebrations in Wellington

The Maori, unlike the Tahitians, raised the stern of their boats, not the prow. There are many engravings of large waka, from Cook’s visit onward, and they uniformly show the stern raised high. It remains the normal pattern to this day.

In the Maori oral tradition there is little to inform us about the precise shape of the vessels sailed by their ancestors, but there is one very clear reference. When the Tainui was being built, an old seer gave the advice “look at the new moon, and build the waka in its likeness, with a raised stern and bow”. She was recommending the shape of a thin crescent.

Maori canoe with sail

Maori waka with sail

This drawing by Miss E Richardson, a wonderful chronicler of South Sea’s boat construction, shows a waka with sail in the Marlborough Sounds. By the position of the sail (forward of the mid-point of the boat) we know that it is the stern that is raised.

There are extremely few references to sails on waka. Most of the instances of waka under sail take the form illustrated above by Miss Richardson; a single upright sail on a single hull. This type of sail has only one use on a waka; it can only aid the vessel downwind. No waka is ever depicted with an outrigger, and waka have no keel. If a sail like this were to be used on a waka in any way except directly downwind, then the boat would be overturned. This is not the type of rig, or vessel that was used to cross the Pacific.

When Cook first visited New Zealand, he recorded sighting double hulled canoes only three times. Off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, on Nov 2nd 1642, he was followed by one and noted “At 7 was close under the first Island, from whence a large double Canoe full of People came off to us. This was the first double Canoe we had seen in this Country.”

He had been on the coast of New Zealand for over three weeks, yet despite seeing canoes most days, this was the first time he had seen a double canoe.

Cook saw the same boat the next day… “The double Canoe which we saw last night follow’d us to-day under Sail, and keept abreast of the Ship near an hour talking to Tupia, but at last they began to pelt us with stones”

Unfortunately, Cook did not describe the nature of the sails. However, we learn from this account that the waka did not have a permanent mast rigged; rather that the sail arrangement could be added or removed.

Cook circumnavigated both the main islands of New Zealand, yet he saw double hulled canoes only once more here. He did not record another instance of a double canoe with sail. By the time Cook had arrived in New Zealand, there were clearly few double hulled vessels in use.

There is one account however that pre-dates Cook’s, and that was from Abel Tasman’s visit, 127 years earlier.

On December 19th 1642, after an altercation with the locals, Abel Tasman made off and was chased by a number of boats. He fired on them to discourage their pursuit. This is a line from his journal entry for that day.

“As soon as they had got this shot they returned to shore with great speed two of them hoisting a sort of tingang sails”

Sail detail from murderers bay engraving

Sail detail blow-up from the Gilsemans drawing, 19th December, 1642

Isaac Gilsemans drew a picture describing the events of that day, and in one tiny part of that drawing he showed a native boat with a sail on it.

The boat illustrated had a sail, but no mast. The sail is shown propped up by a forked spar. The journal mention of “tingang” refers to a type of small boat that Tasman was familiar with from Java.

The Maori inherited the sailing technology that was brought from Eastern Polynesia. By the time Tasman visited in 1642 they had been in New Zealand about 300 years, and had adapted their vessels and sailing techniques to suit local conditions.

There was no sighting of any very large or ocean-capable vessels during Tasman’s voyage, and only two boats were mentioned under sail. However, the type of sail they carried was the same type seen by Schouten in 1616, this detail was captured in Gilsemans’ drawing.

It is therefore suggested that the voyaging Polynesians brought this sail technology to New Zealand, not the later Tahitian style rig described by Joseph Banks.

Model Polynesian voyaging vessel

Model Polynesian voyaging vessel, styled on the Schouten engraving

We can’t know for certain exactly what those voyaging vessels looked like, but based on the information available, this model built by Alex Kennedy, is most likely representative of a smaller ocean vessel.

The Polynesian vessels used to settle New Zealand were very like this, but longer. This is a rugged vessel, able to survive the demands of ocean sailing. It carried a big sail, and would be fast in comparison to European square rigged vessels. The form of the sail and the way it is mounted allowed this vessel to sail in most directions to the wind; far outperforming European capability. The cross bar mounted on top of the deck allowed the sail and the prop to be secured firmly, and at various angles; close, wide and high. The sail could be lowered completely in bad weather, and for landing (when the vessel was maneuvered by paddle).


As pictured here, the sail is trimmed to head upwind on a starboard tack. To change to the other tack, the sail would be lowered to the deck, lifted over the hut, and re-positioned with the sail foot on the opposite hull. The prop would be used to raise the sail, and the ropes drawn tight to secure the prop and sail. To sail off the wind, the windward ropes securing the prop and boom would be eased to allow the sail to swing wider. To sail downwind, the sail would be secured in a more upright position.

From about 1250 onward, many vessels like this journeyed to New Zealand; a few made the return trip. Then, these Pacific crossings stopped.

It is most likely that the Maori simply lost the skills required to navigate safely across huge ocean expanses. In New Zealand, the maritime skills required were those of coastal navigation. Rarely was there ever a need to be out of sight of land for long. Thus, the Maori had no need for the ocean navigation skills and therefore lacked practice in them. The skills were lost, and New Zealand lay in isolation from the rest of the world until the arrival of the Europeans.

And New Zealand then remained in isolation until the arrival of the Europeans.