Ancient Polynesian knowledge of celestial navigation has come perilously close to disappearing in Aotearoa. But by the end of the 20th century, waka hourua once again sailed over the Pacific to Hawai‘i and other islands, the crew guided by traditional wayfinding techniques using stars, moon, sun, wind, wave patterns and birds.
Much of the ability to accomplish these journeys is thanks to the vision and dedication of Tā Heke-nuku-mai-ngā-iwi Busby — better known throughout his life as Hector or Hec.
Sir Hec died in 2019, but not before he realised his dream of seeing construction begin on the Kupe Waka Centre, a project designed to train the next generation of celestial navigators and waka builders.
Here, in an excerpt from the book Reawakened, author Jeff Evans recalls Sir Hec’s journey from bridge builder to master navigator.
When Hec Busby’s ancestor Tūmoana set sail from his Central Pacific homeland around 700 years ago, the words of the great Polynesian explorer Kupe were most certainly front of mind for him.
Tradition recalls that he navigated his double-hulled voyaging canoe, Tinana, at least in part by following Kupe’s instructions to align his course with the position of the setting sun. It was a route that would see his vessel intersect with the Kermadec Trench — then a teeming highway of whales migrating to and from Antarctic waters — before veering to the southwest.
Within days of changing course, Tūmoana would see the first signs that they were nearing land. Perhaps he spotted birds returning to roost after a day feeding offshore; or maybe the helmsman, his gaze fixed firmly on the horizon, picked out the fabled “long white cloud” hovering in place, signposting the land below.
Whatever the clue, after upwards of three weeks at sea, Tūmoana had successfully navigated his way to the newly discovered land now known as Aotearoa.
Few other details from the voyage remain, other than that Tūmoana’s son and daughter settled on the uninhabited lands to the south of modern day Kaitāia, and that Tūmoana eventually sailed home. Academics are, however, able to estimate that the voyage almost certainly occurred sometime between the years 1300 and 1500.
According to archaeologist Dr Louise Furey of the Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira, radiocarbon dating of archaeological sites and paleoenvironmental information drawn from coring of swamps have yet to yield any reliable evidence suggesting permanent settlement of Aotearoa before 1300.
Complementary research conducted by Atholl Anderson supports that theory. His conclusions, based on a study of genealogies, also suggest that Tūmoana’s voyage would have been made during a relatively short window of sustained migrations, spanning perhaps 200 years.
No one knows exactly when it happened, but once these migration voyages ended, the practical application of celestial navigation was quietly lost to the people who would become known as Māori.
Indeed, what little knowledge of the art that remained in the 20th century was fragmented and largely restricted to references found in oral traditions, songs and prayers, and it had probably been several centuries since anyone had tried to navigate using traditional methods.
And that is how things might have remained — an island nation lacking traditional navigators — were it not for the visit of a young Hawaiian in late 1983.
When Nainoa Thompson arrived in Aotearoa to prepare for the southern leg of the Polynesian Voyaging Society’s Voyage of Rediscovery, he was hosted by a rugged, no-nonsense bridge builder named Heke-nuku-mai-ngā-iwi Busby.
Better known as Hec, or Hector, Busby descended from a long line of influential tribal leaders that emerged during the late 18th century. He had been asked to look after Thompson in part because of the location of his rural property in the far north of the country, but also because of his long-standing interest in waka. He had grown up at the feet of his elders, listening to tales of Tūmoana and other voyaging ancestors; and his fascination with waka grew when, at his most impressionable, his school began visiting the Treaty Grounds at Waitangi.
The signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840 was commemorated 100 years later with the launch of a massive waka taua. Built from three giant kauri logs and measuring 35.7 metres (117 feet) long, Ngā Tokimatawhaorua was styled on the canoes formerly used to transport warriors to war, and was majestically carved along her length.
Busby remembers sitting with the waka taua while the other children went off to play and explore.
“I can’t put it into words but I’d stay with her for hours on end, occasionally walking along her length so that I could rub my hands over the carvings. I just wanted to be with her.”
Nainoa’s time in the north and the eventual arrival of Hōkūle`a two years later sparked a desire that would eventually lead to Busby building his own double-hulled canoe. With a gifted blueprint for the Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hawai`iloa to hand, and access to suitable heavy machinery, he set about building the waka hourua Te Aurere in 1990.
The remoteness of his land ensured that the tapu nature of constructing a canoe under Māori protocols would not be compromised, and Busby remembers the build progressing well. It was the perfect amalgamation of desire, location and resources, and his property soon became the epicentre of voyaging in this most southern of Polynesian isles.
Situated half an hour’s drive northeast of Kaitāia at Aurere, Busby’s modest three-bedroom home sits at the end of a long, unsealed gravel road, and is bordered on three sides by the winding Awapoko River and the white sands of Tokerau Beach.
Filled with homely and hard-wearing furnishings, the house has the relaxed feel of a typical Kiwi bach, complete with fading photos adorning the walls. Hanging in pride of place among them, though, are a number of framed awards, each representing an honour bestowed on Busby or on his wife, Hilda. Some have been presented by the government; others are from Māori organisations of national standing. All acknowledge the work done by one or other of them on behalf of their people.
Elsewhere, keepsakes from overseas trips and gifts from visiting groups fill every available surface. Ceremonial bowls of various descriptions share space with model canoes and Polynesian weapons, while a single dance paddle from Rapanui leans alongside a collection of carved walking sticks gathered from across the Pacific. In another corner stands a selection of canoe paddles, each fighting for room amid its neighbours.
Among their number is one of particular significance for Busby. Crafted here at Aurere, it is an object from another time, another world. To pick it up is to hold a tool perfected over many generations. It is a paddle carved by a master craftsman in the fashion of his people. Perfectly balanced, its blade is the shape of an elongated teardrop. When asked, Busby reveals that this paddle was made for him by the great Mau Piailug himself.
Piailug had first visited Busby in early 1992 when a large contingent from the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) came to witness the launch of Te Aurere, and to formally accept their place as the sixth tribe of Northland — an honour bestowed on them by Sir James Henare when Hōkūle`a arrived at Waitangi in 1985. The kaumatua reasoned that, as they had sailed to Aotearoa in a voyaging canoe, just as the ancestors of the Māori had done, they had a right to the honour.
To acknowledge their place in the north, the Hawaiians set a 2.7-metre ki`i (carved pou), representing Māui-pa-mamao in the soil at Waitangi.
Some months after this fleeting visit, Piailug returned to help ready Te Aurere for her maiden voyage. The waka had been placed in dry dock shortly after the launch to allow some of the performance issues identified during sea trials to be corrected, and when it was time to reassemble her, Piailug took control.
“He showed us how to lash the kīato to the hulls properly, how to lash the decking in place, and how to secure the mast,” recalls Busby. “That was his gift to us.”
Indeed, the majority of Piailug’s work prior to the relaunch centred on relashing the vessel, and although the final crew hadn’t yet been announced, he asked that those who were likely to be making the voyage be heavily involved in the work.
“Mau insisted that the crew carry out the work,” recalls Pwo navigator Jacko Thatcher, a rookie deckhand at the time. “He checked everyone’s work carefully, and if he found it substandard in any way he’d pull out his knife and cut it away. He wanted the crew to have total confidence in their waka, to know they had been the ones to lash it, and that he had checked every inch of their work.”
As each day passed, Busby’s dream of following in the wake of Tūmoana to the birthplace of his ancestors was becoming a reality. He remembers it as an exciting period, and one where he and Piailug formed an enduring friendship, strengthened by an appreciation of whisky and an appetite for fish.
During one of our conversations for his biography, Busby shared a small insight into Piailug’s time staying with him. “Mau loved it here, especially when we went out fishing for snapper or netting mullet. He loved to eat boiled fish heads, and I’ve never seen a guy so tidy when eating them. There wasn’t a scrap of flesh left. And afterwards, when there are usually bones all over the place, he’d have this tidy little heap of them. It was pretty to watch, really. I can still see him saying ‘Fish head number one!’ in his broken English.”
It was typical of both men to find pleasure in the most mundane of undertakings — and it perhaps offers a clue as to why they both have achieved so much during their lifetimes. They had first met when Busby sailed on Hōkūle`a from Honolulu to the small fishing village of Miloli`i before the vessel departed on the Voyage of Rediscovery. The legendary navigator, already idolised by his Hawaiian students, was also on board. “I was absolutely thrilled to meet Mau,” Hec once told me. “I had read about him in a couple of magazines, but to be in his presence was special.”
Busby later acknowledged that this trip was crucial to his long-term involvement in the revitalisation of voyaging and traditional navigation in his homeland. It was a commitment encouraged by Thompson’s father, Pinky, who, after asking Busby about his name, commented that he did not think that Hector sounded like a particularly Māori name.
Busby replied by explaining that a teacher had given him an easier-to-pronounce name at school, and that his real name was Heke-nuku-mai-ngā-iwi, which, when translated into English, means “to travel to bring people together”. Pinky Thompson immediately understood the reason for Busby’s presence in Hawai’i, and stated emphatically that he was not there by chance — an assertion that reinforced Busby’s growing realisation that he was entering a new phase in his life.
Once Te Aurere was back in the water, Piailug began sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of sailing with the crew. His priority was to show them how to get the best out of their craft, starting with an introduction on how to choose and set the most appropriate sails for any given wind condition.
“Mau showed us how to get the right tension in the sails,” Pwo captain Stanley Conrad told me, as he recalled those first days back on the water. “He was always making little adjustments and tweaks to fine-tune her performance. He taught us how to sail the waka, really — how to steer, how to set up the rigging properly, everything.”
Despite having Piailug navigating the canoe and Busby shadowing the vessel aboard the expedition’s support boat, Te Aurere’s maiden voyage to Rarotonga was not without its challenges. Just hours after they departed Aotearoa, a curious incident occurred. The captain of their escort yacht, the Nam Sang, called to say they were having trouble with the engine and that the two vessels would have to turn back to Whangaroa Harbour for repairs. It was an inauspicious beginning to what promised to be a historical voyage, but perhaps unexplained forces were at play.
Unbeknownst to those aboard Te Aurere, Whangaroa had played an important part in Kupe’s discovery of Aotearoa. Kupe had been drawn to the pristine waters outside the harbour entrance after seeing flashes of phosphorescence out at sea. A rocky outcrop, now known as Ōpounui Point but once called Te Aukānapanapa — the flashing current — marks the spot of Kupe’s arrival.
Phosphorescence appears there as streaks of light flashing just below the ocean surface, visible as far as 160 kilometres out from land. According to ethnologist S. Percy Smith, Te Aukānapanapa was “one of the places also where canoes used to take their departure from in going back to Hawaiki” — the ancestral homeland of the Māori.
As if that delay wasn’t enough, more trials were to come. The voyage, timed to coincide with the 1992 Festival of Pacific Arts, was barely seven days out from Whangaroa when the crew were forced to drop the sails as three storm fronts converged on their position. Trapped in a maelstrom of raging seas and destructive winds for the best part of a week, Busby eventually made the call to have Te Aurere towed clear of the storm.
It was a difficult decision for him to make, but one dictated by the festival’s schedule and his concern for the wellbeing of the largely rookie crew. He was relieved, he later recalled, when Te Aurere finally arrived in Rarotonga. Although he was disappointed that they had needed to tow Te Aurere out of the storm, he was inspired by the resilience of the crew and the seaworthiness of his vessel.
Several months after the voyage, with Thompson’s and Piailug’s encouragement, Busby enrolled a number of his crew in a programme designed to train a new generation of navigators. Among the small group he sent to Hawai’i to learn from Piailug and Thompson were future Pwo navigators, Jacko Thatcher and Piripi Evans.
Busby’s own introduction into the world of navigation began soon after the programme started, when he decided to accompany Thatcher and Evans on their trips.
Up until that time, he told me, he had seen himself purely as a canoe builder; but he quickly recognised that he had an affinity with Piailug’s style of wayfinding — as Thompson explains:
“Hector’s navigation is basically the same as mine, because ultimately it comes from Mau, but the main difference between us is that Hector doesn’t hesitate to rely on nature. Reading the ocean and believing in it and trusting it is a difficult skill, but Hector has always been very assured at it.
“Hector is a bridge builder, right: he builds many bridges. One of those bridges is the confidence and the belief in the ancestors, which is sometimes very difficult for me because I am so dislocated and disconnected from my own ancestors. I’d look at something and say it doesn’t make sense mathematically, so it isn’t going to work out; then I’d go into a spiral and end up not trusting the very signs I’m looking at. But Hector has no fear. He’s at peace with the ocean. He’s connected in a very deep way.”
Busby’s ability to grasp the skills required to navigate eventually allowed him to guide Te Aurere alongside Piripi Evans during her return voyage from New Caledonia in 2000, and he was formally acknowledged as a Pwo navigator by Piailug in March of 2008.
The morning before Busby’s tangi, I visited his property at Aurere — I suppose to say goodbye to a place I had come to know well over the years. The scene I encountered was eerily quiet, save for the intermittent whir of the generator’s windmill, and I was initially taken aback at how abandoned the place felt.
Of course, with his family already at his side at Pukepoto, there was no one there to share the loss with . . . but it felt to me as if the essence of life had already departed; the wairua of the place had left with his passing. It already seemed a far cry from the place of my memories.
As I walked among the buildings, my thoughts turned to a visit I had made several years earlier when I had walked these same steps with the great man. Already in his 80s, Busby’s time on the water was by then limited, although the advancing years hadn’t yet stopped him from performing his role as a tohunga, travelling throughout the Pacific to recite karakia tawhito over waka and crew before and after voyages.
The change in pace had frustrated him in some ways, but it had also allowed him to oversee a project he had dreamt of for decades: the construction of the Kupe Waka Centre. Designed to be a hub of excellence for all things waka, the complex includes a carving and waka-building school, a star compass and a whare wānanga where students will be schooled in traditional navigation.
During that visit, Busby led me on a leisurely tour of the site, stopping here and there to lean on his walking frame and share a story. As we made our way slowly down the slope from his home, past the whare wānanga and Te Wānanga a Kupe Mai Tawhiti carving and canoe-building school, he told me of the long bus trips his family made over dusty roads to get to this very property when he was a child, and of the glorious summer days picnicking here on what was then his grandmother’s land.
And he showed me where he had once stood under the shade of a tree and watched as an uncle rode his horse through the river shallows, spearing a feast of succulent flounder from the saddle.
After a few minutes reminiscing over fading memories, Busby led me to the open-ended half-round building that had served as his workshop when he began constructing his first waka taua in the late 1980s. The building, stacked high with timber and as yet unfinished carvings, carried the strong aroma of fresh woodchips when we entered.
Waiting inside was the then head of Te Wānanga a Kupe Mai Tawhiti and chief canoe builder Heemi Eruera. A solidly built 39-year-old, he came to Aurere in 2003 to learn about the stars and to help with the maintenance of Te Aurere and he hadn’t yet found a reason to leave.
He told me that he didn’t come to learn how to build canoes, but rather to understand navigation. “Not to become a navigator as such, just to understand it, but somehow along the way I learnt to build waka as well.”
In spite of those humble ambitions, he has since become a key figure at the Kupe Waka Centre. As well as being a talented waka maker and teacher, he is recognised as an accomplished navigator in his own right, having guided Te Aurere home from Rarotonga on the final leg of the epic Waka Tapu voyage to Rapanui in 2013.
The carving school, set up in cooperation with the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua, was central to Busby’s desire to see canoe-building skills flourish in his homeland and across the Pacific.
Having overseen the construction of 20 single-hulled canoes and two double-hulled voyaging canoes (Ngāhiraka Mai Tawhiti was launched in 2008), he was already widely considered the pre-eminent holder of traditional waka knowledge in Aotearoa. Determined to pass on all he knew to the next generation and to ensure the best possible outcome for his students, he had limited the first intake to three.
Despite its small size, Eruera told me that running the school had its challenges, including finding a supply of suitable trees to work with.
“[Navigator] Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr pointed out to us a few years back that we had to slow our waka production down because we were going to do ourselves out of a job,” he recalled. “This was when we were really churning out the waka — I think we had built six that year — and his comment really hit home. It was then that it dawned on me that if our school was going to continue for another 20 years, building even one waka a year, we would need to source 20 native rākau — and that’s a really difficult ask in this day and age.”
To preserve precious stands of native trees for future canoes, Eruera had been looking at alternative exotic tree species for his students to practise their craft on.
“Part of the process of identifying suitable trees is to look at the physical elements of various trees, to see if they have a grain strength and density similar to a kauri or tōtara,” he told me. It has been a long and frustrating search, and many potential trees have failed to meet his exacting standards: to date only two have come anywhere near to his requirements. Undeterred, his search continues.
When Busby and I left Eruera, we went through the back of the workshop and made our way over to where Te Aurere sat. Hauled out on dry land for scheduled maintenance, she looked tired and weather-beaten, her decking and masts removed and most of her lashings cut away.
Even so, she still had a presence, amplified by the impressive size of her twin kauri hulls and the knowledge that she had carried her crew safely through thousands of miles of punishing southern seas. Launched in 1992, she was — and is still — the most recognised voyaging canoe in her homeland.
As we stood in her shadow, the distant call of the ocean reached us on the breeze. We then turned seaward and began to make our way slowly back up the slope to a place where 32 intricately carved pou stand. Set out on the elevated terrain between the Awapoko River and Tokerau Beach, each pou is precisely positioned on a wide, flat stretch of ground with unrestricted views east out across Doubtless Bay to Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. Together, the pou mark the circumference of a star compass measuring some 40 metres in diameter.
The star compass, or kāpehu whetū, was completed in mid-2010 by students of Te Hononga, the Centre for Māori Architecture and Appropriate Technologies at Unitec in Auckland. Designed after the star compass used by Mau Piailug and later adapted by Nainoa Thompson, each of its 32 pou represents the mid-point of a segment 11.25° wide that is called a star house.
Meticulously constructed, the star compass is designed to help navigators learn how to find direction from known points, such as the rising and setting positions of the stars, the moon and the sun, while at sea.
If a student navigator stands at the centre of the star compass during daylight hours, they will notice that the top of each pou is exactly level with its 31 neighbours, and that when they look seaward, their gaze can skim the tops of the posts to meet the plane of the distant horizon.
The student might then turn and align their view with the tops of the remaining pou so that they can judge the height of the horizon accurately, even when it is hidden behind the surrounding hills and undulating terrain. Then, having aligned themself with the direction of their intended voyage, the navigator can study the rising and setting positions of the heavenly bodies on the distant horizon. It is a simple yet ingenious tool.
What can take some adjusting to for a young navigator, however, is transferring the physical star compass to the mental construct that must be relied on when navigating at sea. As Jacko Thatcher later explained to me, “The whole thing is that when you are standing in the middle of the compass, it is an ‘imagine this’ sort of situation. You imagine that you are on a waka and that the circle of pou are the full extent of your world. Anything lying outside of that, like the hills and buildings, doesn’t exist.”
The final component of the complex is the whare wānanga — a million-dollar investment that, once completed, will take pride of place at the Kupe Waka Centre.
It includes classrooms where Pwo navigators will conduct lessons, and an accommodation area to house crews before and after voyages. Located on the banks of the Awapoko River, the building has been purposely positioned so that crews can be welcomed directly into the whare from their vessels, thus following the traditional practice of mooring waka in estuaries and rivers, away from the potential danger of a surf beach.
To get a better perspective on the underlying concepts of the building, I meet with the man who managed the project, Rau Hoskins, director of Design Tribe architects — a fit and energetic 50-year-old, dressed stylishly in jeans and a green plaid shirt.
Hoskins begins by explaining the primary driver for the building, which evolved from a conceptual design drawn up by the architecture students who were involved in constructing the star compass. “Basically it’s to support waka crews, especially during the weeks leading up to a voyage. There’s room for two crews and their support staff to sleep inside, and because you don’t have a whole lot of mod cons on board a waka, our approach was to try and keep it simple.”
The core components of the whare wānanga, Hoskins says, relate directly back to marae principles. “The wānanga building itself is akin to a wharenui; then there is a wharekai to the rear, and ablutions to the east and a kitchen to the west.”
The roof form is based on the lateen sail seen on many traditional sailing canoes across the Pacific; and the pitch of the roof and the high ceiling are designed to ensure the stars are visible from inside the building — “in other words, revealing the purpose of the wānanga”. Another feature, Hoskins tells me, is the opportunity to chart constellations on the ceiling, in much the same way that i-Kiribati people incorporate a star compass for teaching into the rafters of the maneaba, or meeting house.
There has clearly been a lot of thought put into the design, and the building will undoubtedly fulfil Busby’s needs admirably, but, as Hoskins concedes, the design allows for a little less formality than if the whare wānanga was located on a traditional marae. For instance, the inclusion of a kitchen and bathroom in such close proximity to the whare wānanga is a talking point, given the traditionally tapu nature of such schools.
“Strict observance of older — I won’t say ancient, but older wānanga protocols weren’t seen as appropriate in this situation,” Hoskins explains. “They’re trying to prepare the crew to be together with the stars and to have access to everything they would need as if they were on the water, including food.”
There is little that is obviously traditional in the design of any of the buildings within the Kupe Waka Centre, but as we walk among them, it becomes clear that they are a perfect fit — perhaps bound together thanks to the strength of Busby’s vision and drive that originated with the promise he made to a man from another time, another world: a promise to ensure that the art of navigation is not lost for a second time by the descendants of Tūmoana and his contemporaries. It is a promise that will be fulfilled.
Jeff Evans is the author of five nonfiction books on waka and voyaging. His book Reawakened: Traditional navigators of Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa also features master navigator Jack Webster Te Kapene Thatcher. Jack will present a beginner’s guide to traditional Pacific navigation at this year’s Auckland Writers Festival on Friday August 26.
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