Waka is the Māori word for canoe. Māori ancestors were great canoe builders, navigators and sailors. Thousands of years ago, Māori ancestors left South-East Asia, moving into Oceania (Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia). It is thought they found their way to Aotearoa some time between 1250 and 1300 CE.
Double–hulled canoes (waka hourua) were developed for seafaring journeys. These canoes are very sturdy and can be very large (some Fijian canoes carried up to 250 people).
In 1973, the Polynesian Voyaging Society was formed to explore the Pacific Ocean in the manner of their forefathers – wayfinding using double-hulled canoes. This sparked a revival of canoe building in the Pacific, which was also taken up in New Zealand.
Sir Hekenukumai Busby – master waka builder
Sir Hekenukumai (Hek) Busby was born in 1932 at Pukepoto in Northland. In his youth, Hek had admired the waka taua Ngātokimatawhaorua at Waitangi and wondered if he would ever see a waka like that in the water. When Waitangi Day was changed to New Zealand Day in 1973, it was decided to launch Ngātokimatawhaorua for the 1974 celebrations. Hek was involved with its refurbishment and from there learned about waka building.
Hek met a number of people who influenced him in his decision to begin waka building, including Nainoa Thompson, a master navigator from the Polynesian Voyaging Society. In the late 1980s, an organisation was formed – Te Tai Tokerau Tarai Waka Inc. – to build and teach others the traditional art of tārai waka (waka building).
Hek’s first waka hourua Te Aurere was built in 1991–1992. It was named after the area where it was built (Aurere). Its maiden voyage to Rarotonga took place in 1992, navigated by grandmaster navigator Mau Piailug.
Hek’s second waka hourua, Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti, was named after his late wife. Te Aurere and Ngahiraka Mai Tawhiti successfully made their way to Rapanui (Easter Island) and back during 2012–2013, navigated by New Zealander Jack Thatcher.
Hek is recognised around the Pacific as being one of the leading master carvers of traditional waka and was knighted in February 2019. In his lifetime he built over 30 waka.
Sir Hekenukumai Busby passed away on the 11 May 2019.
Waka in New Zealand
The waka hourua used for making long journeys probably brought Māori to Aotearoa. Once Māori settled in Aotearoa, the waka were rarely used, except possibly a few for fishing. During the 19th century, they disappeared altogether and were not seen again until the building of Te Aurere in the early 1990s.
Commonly used waka were single-hulled, wider than they were deep and quite stable. They were used for battle (the largest waka – waka taua), fishing and transporting along rivers and the coast (waka tētē), fishing rafts (mōkihi) and fun and racing (waka tīwai). Eventually, the use of these also died away as the country became modernised.
A resurgence of interest in waka and waka building was sparked in the 1980s when double-hulled canoes began to sail the Pacific Ocean, navigating without instruments. Building of waka, including waka ama (an outrigger canoe popular in the Pacific islands), returned to New Zealand.
There are many waka – each designed for a different purpose. Read about the different types of waka and their roles.
Listen to Hek in these two Radio New Zealand interviews.
Watch the final interview with Hek in this short documentary, He Hekenga Tūhura.