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.
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.”
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.