Simone Kaho spent time with expert waka carvers from across the Pacific, and discovered that making waka/wa’a/va’a/vaka requires more than artistic and technical skills.
Just after midday, on a cold Saturday in October, I’m parked around the corner from the Hihiaua cultural centre in Whangārei. I’m doing box breathing, the technique Navy Seals use to manage their nerves during battle.
It’s the second week of the Rātā symposium where teams of carvers from Aotearoa, Hawai’i and Tahiti have come to carve traditional waka. I’m about to meet them, and I’m nervous about how I’ll be received.
Carving is a traditionally male preserve and I know I’m walking into a male-dominated space.
I’m intensely aware, too, of how little I know about waka and its history. Just last year, I’d thought my Polynesian ancestors had paddled through the Pacific. I had no idea they’d sailed on double-hulled voyaging waka. Or that they’d developed a highly sophisticated navigational system that made it possible for them to populate the largest expanse of ocean in the world.
And all this centuries before the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had ventured around the Cape of Good Hope to India. Or before Columbus had crossed the much smaller Atlantic to the Caribbean.
My lack of knowledge is especially embarrassing, considering I’m descended, on my father’s side, from a Tongan wayfinder.
But I needn’t have worried. It doesn’t take me long to realise that waka carving comes with a particular vibe that’s anything but forbidding or aggressive. The carvers, as I soon discover, are unfailingly kind, warm, and open.
Inside the Hihiaua centre, it’s loud. Intermittent chainsaws and thudding, whining sanders. Traditional Hawaiian music grooving faintly beneath.
About 10 carvers, in orange vests, earmuffs and dust masks, are working on four waka. Right now, though, they’re still logs, more tree than waka. They have waka-esque shapes, but the wood is rough and raw.
Feathery wood shavings float in the air. I take in the layers of scents from fresh, aromatic wood.
I’m introduced to the carvers, but my eyes keep drifting back to the waka, the rough-hewn crescents.
Alika Bumatay, the leader of the Hawaiian team, notices. “You can touch it,” he says, nodding at the tōtara that he and his mates are turning into a six-crew Hawaiian fishing wa’a.
I lay my hand on it and feel my breath ease out until I’m empty and still. I’m aware of sawdust, a soft layer beneath my feet, like standing in a forest, or on a beach.
And so, I enter the carver’s world. It’s an absorbing, artistic, highly technical world, where the carvers are intermediaries, transforming children of Tāne into children of Tangaroa, with chainsaws, adzes, sanders, karakia, and continuous emotional and spiritual connection.
The Rātā symposium was a part of the controversial Tuia 250 commemorations of 2019, which marked the time since the arrival in Aotearoa of Captain James Cook and his Endeavour crew.
There’d been intense criticism from many Māori, who felt that it was wrong to commemorate an event that had led to the death and dispossession of Māori.
I couldn’t help wondering how the carvers felt about this controversy. But I pushed my questions aside as I came to realise how far removed it was from the carvers’ worlds.
What mattered to them was being able to practise their art — an art that’s been passed down through millennia. To be able to tune into the spirit of the tree in front of them and then to turn it into another life. Into a waka, or wa’a, or va’a.
Over the next few weeks, as I get to know the carvers, I see magic. I see swirls and waves of sea appear in the grain of wood. I see lumps of wood melting, becoming unerringly elegant curves. The head and tail and bellies of waka.
The waka actually seem to grow as the carvers work on them, from the harsh shapes I first see (which seem too narrow to me) to generously rounded vessels, easily wide enough (for me).
The carvers observe each other’s work, ask questions, or offer help. They have much in common — their languages, the way they manaakitanga each other, and the way they relate to the trees they’re carving.
There is respect and spiritual connection. And sadness, too, because they’ve taken a life, as Alika tells me, and must honour that life by giving it a new form.
For the carvers, waka is a lifetime dedication. They must juggle the demands of their day jobs alongside keeping their skills alive and sharing them whenever they can. For their kids, for their whānau, for their culture.
Spending time with the carvers, I come to understand that waka holds power that can only be practised in good faith.
It’s the morning of November 6, launch day in Kororāreka (Russell). This is where Hone Heke chopped down the Union Jack on Maiki hill in 1845. It was once known as the hellhole of the Pacific — now it’s a holiday destination for the affluent.
Today, the sky is still, and people are milling quietly.
The bay is dotted with moored pleasure craft.
The co-chairs of Tuia 250, Jenny Shipley, a former prime minister, and Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr, master waka navigator, look on.
James Eruera, the force behind this whole project, oversees proceedings with his usual directness.
There is karakia and waiata. James is made a tohunga tārai waka, a master waka carver.
The four waka alight on the sea, and we onlookers are offered the chance to ride in them.
Alika Bumatay and the Hawaiian team created a four-person fishing wa’a from totara. It’s called Kama, Hawaiian for child. It is a golden beauty.
Freddie Tauotaha finished the six-person Hawaiian style kauri waka started by his father 27 years ago. It’s named Puaniho Tautira Mairenui, after his father, their village, and their paddling club. It’s “the centrepiece” of Rātā, says James Eruera. He also carved a smaller freehand Tahitian waka called Tamari’i Maohi (Māori children) which embodies his artist’s heart.
Billy Harrison and the Māori team created a 2/3-person waka kōpapa called Kuaka, after the migratory godwit that flies vast distances across the Pacific. A single-hulled design, by Hector, finely finished with carvings and patterns of spiritual significance.
The waka start new lives when they are set on the water.
When the beautiful six-seater Puaniho Tautira Mairenui draws close to shore for a paddler swap, I throw down my notepad and run to the water.
For a moment, I worry Puaniho will tip, when it is beside me, in mid-thigh sea, and I’m putting my foot into the curved base, shifting my weight to it.
But Puaniho’s balance is powerful and barely rocks. My bodyweight feels just right.
I pick up a paddle and become aware of the taste of coffee and dehydration.
The water seems thick like gel, my shoulders constrict as the paddle dips into it.
When the paddle lifts, I almost expect it to be coated with sea like the back of a spoon with honey.
Puaniho glides forward effortlessly.
The woman behind me breathes: “Oh my God, we’re flying.”
Alika is at the back, calling out changes.
All I want is to be in tune with everyone else. Paddling feels natural and ergonomic, not like exercise.
In what feels like a few strokes, we’re a hundred metres from shore, then we’re at the far side of a small island covered in oysters.
I’m not winded, barely exerted. I feel physically refreshed.
I understand then, the genius of the carvers, our ancestors, and the carvers I now know — that they design for the tree, the sea, and also the human body and spirit.
Human bodies, who move forward together, as one.
The question in my mind is: How can I feel this again? How can other people feel it?
I can see why waka ama is the fastest growing sport in New Zealand.
Billy Harrison, the Māori team leader has a favourite whakataukī: He waka eke noa. Everyone on the same canoe paddling together.
That’s the core of waka, says James. “The hardest part of creating waka is getting your people to work together.” You know you’ve succeeded, he says, “when you can take the good, the bad and the ugly and still walk out of it loving each other”.
Waka offers a vision for the future, from the past. To treasure life force, in all living beings. To honour our Pacific knowledge, and to use it to help us attune with nature and with each other.
WAKA is a six-part online video series produced by Tawera Productions in collaboration with E-Tangata and the New Zealand Herald as part of Tuia 250. It was made with the support of NZ On Air. A version of this story was also published in the Herald.
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