‘We’ve weathered the storm’: Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei launch new waka after almost 25-year wait

Te Kawau comes back onto land. Photo / Julie Zhu / RNZ

This article was first published by RNZ.

Auckland iwi Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei launched their new ceremonial waka off the shores of Okahu Bay on Sunday, after more than 20 years without one.

The waka - named Te Kawau - is 16m long, can carry 20 kaihoe (paddlers) and weighs over a tonne.

Te Kawau’s frame, tauihu (carved bow), taurapa (carved stern) and hoe (paddles) were all carved from a 40,000-year-old swamp kauri in Whangārei.

Iwi members gathered on Okahu Bay Beach before dawn, having marched hikoi from nearby Ōrākei marae to bless their new vessel.

Kaihoe - one as young as 14 - braved the early morning cold and rain to take part, having trained for months for the event.

Kaihoe as young as 14 lift Te Kawau back onto land. Photo / Julie Zhu / RNZ

Master waka carver Hemi Eruera, who led the construction of Te Kawau, said it took roughly 17 weeks to carve.

Eruera said many of the carving techniques he employed on Te Kawau he learned from his mentor - master waka carver Hekenukumai Busby.

“The line of the waka are based on everything Hector taught us when we were younger. He had refined his design to a point where we were always confident that whatever waka we built, it would go into the water and be safe, stable and perform well.

“That is Hector’s influence on our carving now.”

Master waka carver Hemi Eruera (centre) admiring Te Kawau. Photo / Julie Zhu / RNZ

Eruera said the name Te Kawau came from Ngāti Whātua chief Āpihai Te Kawau, a key figure within the tribe and in the establishment of Auckland.

Another namesake was the kawau bird - or Black Shag - which, when about to dive into the ocean, tucks its wings inward tightly to better pierce through the water.

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei’s new ceremonial waka, Te Kawau. Photo / Julie Zhu / RNZ

Te Warihi Hetaraka, a founding trustee of the Hihiaua Cultural Centre where Te Kawau was carved and tohunga whakairo for the project, said kawau were carved into tauihu of the waka.

“My son [who worked on the waka] had a dream. In his dream he saw a kawau. The moment he started work on it, there were about 14 kawau sitting along the top of our gantry.”

“When we saw that, we knew we were being guided by the wairua (spirit).”

Heteraka said it was a “sort of a shock” to find out they had named the waka Te Kawau as well, “because at that time we had no idea what they were going to name it.”

Veteran canoe paddler and Ngātokimatawhaorua captain, Joe Conrad. Photo / Tuwhenuaroa Natanahira

Also attending was Joe Conrad, a waka expert and captain of Ngātokimatawhaorua - the largest ceremonial waka in Aotearoa.

Conrad was asked in the early 2010s to assist Ngāti Whātua in the construction of another ceremonial waka.

The veteran paddler told RNZ building waka was like “weathering a storm.”

“When you build a waka, you don’t just build it and hand it over. Lots of things have to be cleared to make sure our culture has been maintained.

“The biggest part of building a canoe, or waka, is to make sure everything is sorted before it is handed to Tangaroa.

“If you know our legends, Tāne Mahuta and Tangaroa, two brothers who’ve been mortal enemies with each other. To take a child (tree) from one and give it to the other, you need to sort that out... sort all your issues on the land then we give that canoe to the ocean.”

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei board member Arekatera Maihi began organising the construction of Te Kawau in 2022. Maihi said the project was a reminder to the wider public that Ngāti Whātua is the mana whenua of the city.

“It actually puts us back out in the faces of everybody else that is here, just to remind them we’re still here - to remind them we have mana whenua status and now mana moana status.”

“It’s so important for us to have our waka out on this moana, on Te Waitematā.

“When I saw this the other day, coming along the beachfront, that is what I said to my dad... he was the time keeper on our old waka, Māhuhu ki te rangi. He said to me, ‘Yeah boy, we’re back.’”

Te Kawau takes to Te Waitematā. Photo / Julie Zhu / RNZ

By Tuwhenuaroa Natanahira of RNZ.