A Waka Odyssey – a celebration of the Pacific spirit

New Zealand’s biggest arts festival launched with a spectacular on-water display of the Pacific nation and its people.

The New Zealand Festival has launched in Wellington with A Waka Odyssey, an enormous celebration of the Pacific country as a nation of voyagers, discoverers, storytellers and innovators.

Thousands of spectators turned out on Wellington's downtown waterfront to welcome five majestic waka hourua – double-hulled sailing canoes in which Polynesian seafarers crossed the oceans well before later European explorers – as they arrived into Wellington Harbour at dusk on Friday 23 February. They were joined by a fleet of paddlers on waka ama (outrigger canoes) and waka taua (war-canoes) depicting the past, present and future of Aotearoa New Zealand like nothing before.

Their entrance was accompanied by music, written for the event by renowned New Zealand musician Warren Maxwell and sung by a massive choir. A mass haka of one thousand people resounded across the waters of Te Whanganui-a-Tara, Wellington Harbour.

The spectacle, inspired by the arrival of the legendary navigator and explorer Kupe, was part of a week-long series of events named A Waka Odyssey, which formed the centrepiece of Australasia’s fifth largest international arts festival.

The project was the brainchild of TV and film director Anna Marbrook, Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr - a waka navigator, artist and environmentalist, and Polish-born performance artist and designer Kasia Pol.

“We wanted to not only create a stunning new show to launch the 2018 Festival but a series of immersive and interactive events that will connect all people to the amazing waka,” Marbrook said.

“Waka Odyssey opens the door to the stars, to the oceans, to the core of who we are as a nation. Great voyagers who dream of going beyond what we know, people who bravely forge new ways of seeing and being.”

Master navigator Barclay-Kerr led the biggest flotilla since Kupe’s ancient arrival into Wellington Harbour. He is the kaihautū or leader of Haunui, a 72-foot double-hulled ocean-going sailing canoe, similar to those the younger generation knows from the Disney movie Moana.

Barclay-Kerr has been involved in waka kaupapa (Māori waka customary practice) since a young age, and has sailed the Haunui across the Pacific in 2011 to raise awareness of Polynesian voyaging.  The waka was joined by four others from New Zealand, Samoa and the Cook Islands to celebrate the shared Pacific history.

Nothing symbolises Pacific people’s spirit as voyagers, navigators, and innovators like a waka does, Barclay Kerr says, but he’s “not just into waka because they look cool. They actually carry lots of the stories and the mindset of cultures, especially of Māori and Pacific cultures.”

His aim is also to show that traditional sailing knowledge has a solid foundation. “Part of what we’re doing in A Waka Odyssey is to revalidate traditional technology and information.”

Marbrook, who directed a series of documentaries about waka journeys, believes that the vessels perfectly symbolise a way forward for the society.

“As a nation we are still getting up to speed with the absolute brilliance of the voyaging history of the Pacific. These people were the greatest mariners in human history and they were doing it well before Cook and Magellan,” Marbrook said.

Today waka play an important role in the revitalisation of Māori culture. Many projects around the country invite rangatahi (youth) to learn the ancient art of navigating and to develop leadership skills. Waka also perfectly showcase indigenous science approaches and perspectives.

“In the Pacific, waka are core to our identity. They weave together people now as they have done throughout the voyaging history of the Pacific, just as a great leader also weaves people together.

“To harness the story of the waka as artists is to harness a spirit of adventure, of boldly travelling beyond the horizon. In the 21st century there are no more lands to discover but there will always be new ways of seeing. And this is how we have shaped a Waka Odyssey.”

Background: The story of Kupe

According to legend, Kupe was the first Polynesian to discover the islands of New Zealand. He sailed into Wellington Harbour to take a break during an epic battle with a giant wheke (octopus).

While the details of his adventures differ between iwi (tribes), it is commonly acknowledged that he used the ancient knowledge of way-finding. “He was sailing by the stars, the waves, the clouds, the sealife and the mana of Tangaroa, the god of the sea,” Leonie Hayden from web series Kaupapa On The Couch explains.

Kupe was the first of many to arrive by canoe from Hawaiki. For years it was believed that their arrival on New Zealand’s shores more than 800 years ago was accidental after becoming lost at sea. However, recent evidence shows that those early voyagers used traditional navigation skills and undertook their voyages with a spirit of exploration equal to that of any classical hero.

“The ability to do those things is as good and as heroic as any of the classical stories of voyaging and adventure that people will read through Greek or other types of literature where everybody celebrates these great heroes,” Hoturoa Barclay-Kerr says.

Some believe that up to 50 ancient waka arrived in Aotearoa, bringing explorers, settlers and supplies and then returned to Hawaiki.

After settling in Aotearoa, the knowledge of long-distance canoe waka hourua became lost among the Māori people. This knowledge was pieced together again in the 20th century with the help of other seafaring Polynesian countries. But for many Māori, the waka that their ancestors arrived on still plays a vibrant role in their whakapapa (genealogy).

However, Hayden says that a search for Hawaiki on a map won’t be successful.  The knowledge of its physical location has been lost, but it’s believed that it is a group of islands where the language and traditions are strikingly similar to those of New Zealand’s Māori.  Possibilities include the Cook Islands, Tahiti or Hawaii, but some experts believe they may have come from South East Asia or even India.

Nonetheless, Hawaiki is the spiritual home of the Māori and that’s why waka hourua mean so much to the Pacific people. They are not just boats. “I guess for me they really are part of our identity and who we are. They’re part of the first history of this land,” Barclay-Kerr says.

Background: A Waka Odyssey

A Waka Odyssey opened the New Zealand Festival on Friday 23 February and included a series of free, family-friendly events during the week.